Language Learning Tool Reviews: Remembering the Kanji book

Hiroshima-ken JET Jonathan Fisher, based in Kure, reviews various tools for learning Japanese, including books, websites, flashcards, podcasts and more. Tools are rated on a scale of 1 to 5 stars, with 5 being the best.

By Jonathan Fisher

JonathanFisherKanji2Remembering the Kanji Vol. I: a complete course on how not to forget the meaning and writing of Japanese characters, by James W. Heisig [xrr rating=4/4]

Learning kanji is one of the most challenging aspects of gaining fluency in Japanese because a certain amount of kanji learning must be achieved through rote memorization. It is only through extended, focused contact with the kanji that they will become an intelligible, useful, and interesting part of your life in Japan. Indeed, once kanji are mastered to a certain extent, they can enlighten your study of other aspects of Japanese, especially vocabulary.

It is with such an understanding of the central importance of kanji to Japanese language learning that James Heisig set out to craft a succinct method for memorizing the meaning and writing of all of the kanji. Volume 1 deals exclusively with those kanji known as joyo, or general-use kanji. Heisig’s method is more than impressive, it’s elegant. And it works. The author claims that in a month of dedicated, full-time study, a student using his method could learn the meaning and writing of each of the nearly 2000 general-use kanji. I have no reason to doubt the truth of that statement. I only wish I had the six to eight hours of daily study time that such a project would require!

The crux of Heisig’s method is what he terms “imaginative memory.” This is the type of memory that is engaged when we hear a friend tell an exciting story. Imaginative memory is full of sensory imagery — smells, tastes, bold sights, loud sounds, textures, and emotions. These are the memories we retain most readily, and these are the types of memories that Heisig requires his students to attach to each of the Kanji. In simpler terms, for each of the hundreds of joyo kanji, you tell yourself a story. But because the kanji can be broken down into identical elements, these imaginative stories are all interrelated. Remembering the Kanji is essentially a collection of bizarre fictions built around the meanings of Chinese characters.

When used mindfully, this book is fascinating, and adds an important dimension to the study of kanji and thus to the study of Japanese language generally. And yet, it has one major limitation. Strictly speaking, you will not learn any Japanese words by studying kanji through Heisig’s method. You will certainly learn what a variety of Chinese characters, which are important building blocks of Japanese, look like, and how those characters are written and what they mean. But there is no information about pronunciation in Heisig’s book whatsoever. He is very candid about this in the introduction. And it’s certainly not a cruel trick or a joke he’s playing. Anyone who has lived in Japan for any length of time knows that it can be useful to be able to recognize certain kanji without being able to pronounce them (男 and 女 come immediately to mind). Ingenious as Heisig’s method is for its stated purpose, it falls short of being a comprehensive language learning tool for someone interested in learning the kanji.

Never fear! Next month I will reveal the kanji learning resource, which, when combined with Heisig’s method, completes the meaning-writing-pronunciation puzzle.