Confessions of a Militant Heisigista

[Quico warns: I don’t usually allow this blog to stray too far from its core subject – Venezuelan politics – but every so often I do indulge one of my subsidiary obsessions. Today, it’s Japanese study. If your computer doesn’t have a Japanese character set installed, much of the punchline will be garbled – sorry in advance.]

So, I made a New Year’s Resolution: this year, I will learn the meaning and writing of all 1945 “general use kanji” – the basic Chinese characters needed for high school level literacy in Japanese.

During my entire first year of Japanese study I avoided the Kanji like the plague. But I realize shooting for illiteracy is no way to learn a language, so this year I’m honkering down and working on the writing system.

Learning the Kanji is easily the scariest part about learning Japanese. For a westerner, there’s something deeply alienating about staring at a page of Kanji: a wall of senseless little squiggles that all look pretty much the same. To my eyes, their very look on the page epitomizes foreignness.

You instinctively feel it’s impossible to get to grips with kanji, and the strong temptation is to give up before you start. After all, it takes Japanese schoolchildren 9 years of grueling schoolwork to learn to write their own language: what chance could a foreigner possibly have?

Kanji – (or 漢字 – which literally means chinese () characters () – since the Japanese adopted them from China about 1350 years ago) work in a fundamentally different way than an alphabet. While each alphabetic letter represents a sound, each Kanji represents a meaning, which is why they’re sometimes referred to as “ideograms”.

So the relationship between image, sound and meaning is just sliced up in a fundamentally different way. Alphabetic writing links the image of the word on the page with a sound and leaves it up to us to memorize its (arbitrary) meaning. Ideographic writing links the image of the word on the page with a meaning and forces us to memorize an (arbitrary) sound.

The easiest way to explain this is to notice what happens when you run into an unfamiliar word. In English, when you see an archaic word you often have no idea what it means, but you have some notion of how to say it. Take a word like “sibilate”. Even if you don’t know what it means, you know more or less how it will sound just by looking at it on the page. (Actually, it means “to whistle.”)

In Japanese it’s the other way around: looking at archaic kanji, Japanese people can more or less figure out their meaning by looking at them. But more often than not, they’ll have no idea how to actually say it.

The most conspicuous feature of the Kanji, of course, is that there are a lot of them. How many, exactly? It’s surprisingly hard to get a straightforward answer to that.

Studies show that the 500 most common kanji account for 80% of the characters in a typical newspaper, but the subtler you want your writing to be, the more unusual kanji you’ll probably use. The most comprehensive dictionary in Japan lists just under 50,000, but the vast majority of those are “dead kanji”: archaic scribbles from China that fell out of usage centuries ago. A standard computer these days recognizes about 6,350 kanji, but even most of those are pretty arcane: the kanji equivalent of “sibilate”.

Now, I know everybody loves to hate gringo imperialism, but I’ll put in one good word: it was the American occupation authorities after World War II that finally brought a measure of order to the madness, drawing up a list of the most commonly used 1,945 kanji and decreeing that compulsory education would include only those. Henceforth, newspapers, official documents and the like would include only these “General Use Kanji”. This is some (but not much) consolation to that uncommonly disconsolate bunch: the poor, beleaguered western student of Japanese.

Enter our very own patron saint. His name is James W. Heisig. In 1977, Dr. Heisig pulled off a feat that, as he puts it, “raised more eyebrows than hopes” at the time: he memorized the meaning and the writing of all the General Use Kanji in less than two months.

Though dismissed as a freak with a photographic memory, Dr. Heisig insisted anybody willing to study Kanji full time could replicate his achievement. To prove it, he wrote up his method and published it as Remembering the Kanji I: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters, an instant classic in the torpid world of Japanese literacy acquisition methods.

The key, he said, is to divide and conquer. First, divide the easier task of learning the meaning of Kanji from the harder task of learning their pronunciation, and focus on the former initially. Then, divide the Kanji themselves into their parts, and learn to associate those elements through mnemonics.

Why? Because, though they typically look utterly inscrutable to the uninitiated, Dr. Heisig realized that most kanji are really just combinations of other, simpler kanji. The key, then, is to work from the simple to the complex, learning to take them apart in your mind and understanding them on the basis of the elements that make them up.

Take a typical, initially terrifying kanji:


Now, how the heck are you supposed to remember that that means “inscription”!? At first sight, it looks like one big jumble…just weird lines jutting this way and that with no rhyme or reason.

But look at it closely. Notice how the big jumble is actually made up of smaller, simpler jumbles? As it turns out, each of those sub-jumbles has its own meaning:

= “gold”

名 = “name”

Suddenly, the big jumble becomes that much less inscrutable…. After all, what’s an inscription if it isn’t a name written on gold?!

This same process of decomposition works for each of those two elements as well, though you need a bit more of an active imagination to take them apart. Start with the character for gold. Nothing about it immediately suggests “gold”, but what if you knew this:

王 = “king”

Suddenly, you can imagine a “king” with two bars of “gold” in his pockets (below his belt) sitting underneath an umbrella. Of course, there’s no particular reason why a king should keep his gold in his pockets and sit underneath an umbrella, but the very arbitrariness of the image is what makes it effective as a mnemonic: it “shocks the memory” into recognition, as Dr. Heisig puts it.

Similarly, “name” (名) is really just made up of two simpler kanji:


Here, the leap of imagination needed is more challenging still. Why would evening + mouth = name? Dr. Heisig encourages us to think of the customs of the Dinka tribe in Sudan. In order to “name” their children, Dinka fathers sneak into their newborn babies’ huts in the middle of the night and whisper their names into their ears. By using their “mouths” in the “evening”, they give their babies a “name.”

It’s a fairly convoluted explanation, granted…but that, Dr. Heisig insists, is its strength rather than its weakness. After all, I guarantee that, having read this, you’ll never forget how the Dinka name their babies. And that’s the miracle of mnemonics: out of seeming senselessness, a clever mnemonic can establish connections between disparate signs that become actually very difficult to forget.

The Heisig method is all about extending this logic to cover all of Japan’s General Use Kanji. Starting from a limited number of simple primitive elements like “mouth”, “evening” and “king”, it creates silly little stories that build up into Kanji. By the end of the book, initially terrifying monsters like:


…completely lose their ability to intimidate you. You just take one glance at ’em and identify the primitives, in this case: “awe” and “team of horses”. Then you make up a story to link them, like, “people watch in awe as a team of horses is skillfully driven by Stevie Wonder . Wonder how he does it?’ they say.” With minimal effort, the story and the image are linked indissoluble in memory.

After a while, this way of thinking comes to seem perfectly natural. Flower + bound up + rice? Must mean “chrysantemum” (菊). Soil + reclining + mouth + dish? That’s “salt” (塩), of course.

For me, Dr. Heisig is a genius. He makes learning the kanji not just approachable but actually quite fun. His method engages the imagination in a way that renders the whole task more like a game than a chore. Personally, for the last few weeks, I’ve been “hooked on Heisig” kind of the way I was once “hooked on Tetris”. You can spend hours and hours, pencil in hand, going through these little stories and scribbling kanji…there’s just something addictively entertaining about it. And, unlike with Tetris, at the end of the session you’re left with solid knowledge of how to write a new batch of kanji, instead of that vaguely guilty feeling of the tetris addict.

It’s only been four weeks since I’ve started, and I’m already on Kanji #327. That still leaves lots of kanji to go, but at this pace it should take less than six months to memorize them all.

Of course, learning the “meaning and writing” of Kanji is not the same thing as learning to read and write Japanese. At the moment, what I’m doing is closer to memorizing the letters of a very, very long alphabet. Letters duly memorized, I still face the much tougher task of remembering how to pronounce all these little beasties, to say nothing of learning how they go together to make up words, sentences, paragraphs, etc.

But Rome was not built in a day. Like learning the language itself, Japanese literacy is a long term proposition. It’s unlikely I’ll be able to read even children’s books before the turn of the decade…but hey, the future is long.

[One last note: anyone who stumbles on this write-up as they consider whether to give Heisig a try really must check out Reviewing the Kanji. It’s a beaaaautifully designed, free companion website to the book. In fact, though inspired by the Heisig method, Reviewing the Kanji is arguably better than the book…and did I mention it’s free?]