Learning Kanji

In the Japanese language, there are three primary “alphabets”. The writing system consists of kanji, which are Chinese characters (over 50,000 different characters), and kana, which consists of hiragana and katakana, each of which contain 46 characters. Today I write about my journey in trying to learn kanji.

In my first year of university, they offered a beginner Japanese language module, where they teach you the basics of the Japanese language, including useful phrases such as introducing yourself, phrases for purchasing items in a shop and talking about daily activities and navigation through a city. In the course, they teach the hiragana and katakana writing scripts and overall, I felt confident knowing those two scripts.

The university also offered a summer course in Hiroshima, Japan to further study the Japanese language and culture. Fantastic I thought. Even though I don’t know much kanji, I know enough hiragana and katakana to get by … right?. Wrong. Upon arriving to Japan, there was kanji scripts used EVERYWHERE. In the airport terminal, in the signs for different shops, in the advertisements, you name it, there was kanji everywhere the eye could see. Of all of the signs and written text I could see, ice cream was the only thing I could understand from an ice cream vending machine.

After settling into the accommodation which was offered for the course in Hiroshima, I am greeted with a placement test to determine which level Japanese class I should be placed in. This can’t be that difficult, I know the language pretty well - I’m sure they’ll have just kana questions and no kanji, right? There are three questions (out of five) which are entirely kanji reading comprehension questions. Due to this, I get placed in the very bottom class - beginner’s Japanese. Fair enough, makes sense. I don’t understand kanji yet, might as well learn it in the beginner’s class!

Since the beginner’s class includes quite a range of Japanese proficiency levels (from knowing basically no Japanese to knowing some Japanese), our teacher allows us to drive our lessons (within reason) to suit the targets which we want to achieve for the summer course. For me, that means asking every kanji for every new word we come across. In our lesson today, I come across the word しゅみ (shumi), meaning hobby. As with every other word, I ask the teacher for the kanji representation of this word. The teacher grabs her pen and draws the following symbols on the whiteboard: 趣味. 趣 meaning elegance/grace and 味 meaning flavour/taste. My mind completely blows up! How on EARTH am I supposed to write 趣 in a small 1cm x 1cm space?! There’s so many different parts of it! There’s 走, which means run and 取, which means take/fetch. And then that can be split up into 耳 which means ear and 又 which means again/furthermore!

Overall, kanji is the most complicated thing I’ve ever attempted to learn! Not only are the actual scripts really complicated, they each have different meanings and different pronunciations based on the context of the sentence. For example, 趣, when combined with 味 creates the sound “shu”, however when 趣 is on its own, it creates the sound “omomuki”. And that is probably why they never taught kanji in the first year at my university.

Written on July 7, 2018