Why I Love Kanji

7 commentsTokyo,Writing

Before you read this, please make sure these Japan­ese let­ters 文字化け appear. If they don’t, then let me know because in that case this sto­ry will just be gibberish.

During the cher­ry blos­som sea­son of 1998, I moved to Japan. I had received a schol­ar­ship from Mon­busho, the Japan­ese Min­istry of Edu­ca­tion, and was secure in the knowl­edge that it is the absolute best way to tap into a cul­ture that even a dozen years lat­er remains some­what imper­vi­ous to West­ern­ers. With all expens­es paid and a gen­er­ous salary to boot, all I had to wor­ry my 22 year old head with for the first six months was mak­ing friends and learn­ing the language.

Cher­ry blossom

The first task proved easy enough and even­tu­al­ly helped with the sec­ond. For while the Japan­ese peo­ple are noto­ri­ous­ly shy and weary of mak­ing mis­takes (and hence reluc­tant to speak for­eign lan­guages), they’re also extreme­ly curi­ous. And since I was (by Mon­busho’s count) one of only about 60 Lebanese in the entire coun­try, I must have seemed exot­ic (or odd) enough to young Japan­ese for them to want me as a friend. Soon enough, I was able to tell sham­poo from laun­dry deter­gent (all labels are in Japan­ese) and so by my sec­ond week my hair stopped turn­ing green and my plates stopped smelling of chamomile. And thanks to my friends, I acquired a decent com­mand of spo­ken Japan­ese in a month.

Writ­ten Japan­ese, how­ev­er, was anoth­er mat­ter alto­geth­er. You see, their gram­mar is Verb-Object-Sub­ject (which means that you would say “Love you I.” How­ev­er, it’s actu­al­ly much sim­pler than Eng­lish (or indeed Ara­bic) to pick up because there’s almost no such thing as verb con­ju­ga­tion or even tense (“Today I love you, before last month only you love me, we both would have love tomor­row.”), no plur­al (“one boy, two boy, one mil­lion boy”), and no gen­der (“boy love girl love boy same same.”) — all of which make speak­ing the lan­guage a breeze. How­ev­er, when it comes to writ­ing, there’s a major stum­bling block called: Kanji.

The Japan­ese lan­guage uses three types of letters:

  1. Hira­gana (used for sim­ple words like pro­nouns), and looks like this: あいうえお
  2. Katakana (for words and names of for­eign ori­gin like Inter­net, ham­burg­er, Oba­ma), and is a lit­tle more angu­lar: アイウエオ
  3. Kan­ji (used for the vast major­i­ty of words), and looks like (yikes!): 原宿

Now it does­n’t take much to see that kan­ji is much scari­er than the oth­er two. Well, wait till you hear this: While the first two sys­tems each con­sist of around two dozen let­ters, there are more than 10,000 kan­ji in exis­tence. Yes, that’s 10 with three zeroes after it.

Luck­i­ly, though, the Japan­ese Min­istry of Edu­ca­tion (yes Mon­busho again) has lim­it­ed the num­ber of kan­ji rec­om­mend­ed for dai­ly use (i.e. taught at schools, and used in news­pa­pers and oth­er non-spe­cial­ized pub­li­ca­tions) to around 2,000. That still is quite a steep learn­ing curve for a for­eign­er who must cov­er in a few months what Japan­ese chil­dren are taught over the span of their entire school edu­ca­tion. Since back then I was a mere 22 and very hot-head­ed, that’s where I drew the line. While my Japan­ese flu­en­cy was increas­ing almost by the hour, I stub­born­ly refused to do my kan­ji home­work. And in the kan­ji sec­tions of my exams, I’d just draw smi­leys and oth­er doo­dles in the blanks where the let­ters were sup­posed to go.

How­ev­er, all that changed when I dis­cov­ered the secret.

Our text­books (and most Japan­ese teach­ers I know) refer to kan­ji as pic­tographs: let­ters that resem­ble the objects they describe. For exam­ple, the kan­ji for tree looks like a tree: 木. Fair enough. But what they don’t tell us is that the def­i­n­i­tion only applies to the most basic kan­ji. Actu­al­ly, each of those com­plex-look­ing char­ac­ters is real­ly more than a sim­ple pic­to­graph; it is an ideogram: a nugget of mean­ing — no, no, much more than that: an entire sto­ry encap­su­lat­ed in a sin­gle let­ter. Every kan­ji con­tains with­in it a his­to­ry, an anec­dote, a fact about Japan­ese cul­ture. Once I real­ized that, I fell in love!

As you may know, cher­ry blos­som sea­son is a very brief and spe­cial time in Japan. For the three days that the flow­ers are in bloom, men and women dress up in their best clothes, leave work ear­ly and go to the park to drink and be mer­ry under the trees as they watch the pink petals blos­som and then fall off. It is a sto­ry told in a sin­gle let­ter: saku­ra 桜.


Corinne May 9, 2010 at 8:18 am

You explain this so well! I especially adore the vacation symbol and meaning=) Thx for not keeping this secret in, makes me want to go there even more! P.S "so by my second week my hair stopped turning green and my plates stopped smelling of chamomile." LMAO

Meedo May 9, 2010 at 9:29 am

I guess the sudden urge to write this at 2 a.m. means I miss Japan!

SOOLY May 9, 2010 at 10:00 am

My love for Japan and its culture began with Karate Kid and is still growing.

I have studied Japanese for a year and a half of on/off private lessons. First with a lebanese person who lived in Japan and used to work in the Japanese embassy here in Lebanon. Then by a Japanese young man who works for a japanese car company in Beirut and the Arab region. They both began with Hiragana then Katakana, and had a challenge to teach me Kanji.
My lebanese teacher was more academically skilled to give lessons. Hence I'll talk more about his lesson related to Kanji. He taught me the "tree", showed me how to write "treeS", but didn't mention "forest"! Meedo, I know that might be stupid on my behalf, maybe I should have asked about it, but I guess you are right, they do their best to keep the secret of Kanji writing.

Your blog post made me feel miss the language, well, learning it at least. And it made me adore the culture even more.

ps: Just remembered our first conversation =)

Meedo May 9, 2010 at 10:15 am

I'll never forget our historical first meeting either. I was thinking about it while writing this! Ai shiteru yo!

We should continue your Japanese education. Let's focus on that when you're done with your 20 hours of being Viktor Navorski at Atatürk Airport.

Samsam May 9, 2010 at 10:46 am

I love this! Kanji is fun to learn! It's like learning how to draw :)

I want to go to Japan!

Meedo May 9, 2010 at 10:48 am


Nado-san May 9, 2010 at 12:13 pm

Sakura... <3

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