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Remembering the Kanji Part 1


Remembering the Kanji (RTK) is a three volume set by James Heisig meant for learning to easily recognize and write kanji. While most every RTK user that is midway to finished will talk of RTK in hushed revered voices, or loud excitable ones, you wont find many who hate the RTK way. Most users have a hard time describing just why they love Heisig’s way to learning kanji. Some claim its even impossible for the beginner to understand until they get to about 500+ kanji, but well, I’m going to give it a try.

RTK isn’t a means to an end. RTK is simply a nice way to get the ball rolling so you can steam roll written Japanese. RTK isn’t even a method to learning to use Japanese fluently, which is why its here in the tools section. Heisig’s method is really simple when you get down to it, which is why it can be used successfully by so many different types of learners out there. Heisig also isn’t for everyone, but its defiantly worth a try.

When starting out looking at kanji, beginners tend to sweat. They think, “what the heck is all these pictures and how can I possibly even begin to understand them! They all look so alike!” I hear that a lot, I also hear “I can communicate in kana, its just so much easier for me, why should I even bother learning kanji!” Kanji’s a vital part of Japanese, and you wont get by without it. Kanji actually makes Japanese so much easier. But often people try to tackle kanji by not even familiarizing themselves with the shapes that are common in a lot of kanji. Lets give some examples how Heisig tries to make shapes easier to recognize in kanji.

Heisig teaches you how to write and recognize a simple kanji like 月 by assigning it a keyword that generally is a decent definition or feeling of the kanji, in this case month. He will also sometimes use it as an element because it will appear in other kanji. The element 月  is called moon. You come up with a story to help you remember it. So you’d get something like “the moon is full once a month”.

He then will teach you another kanji like 日 which means day. Its element is also sun, or wagging tongue. So you could use the story “the sun wag’s it tongue at us every day making it so hot!”

Seems silly huh? but it really helps make these shapes familiar, so that when it shows up in the kanji 明 you already feel familiar with it because it has the two kanji elements you’ve already learned. 明 means Bright, and the story most people come up with is something like “The sun and the moon are the brightest things in the sky” or “the sun’s light is so bright it can even reflect off the moon”. All the sudden its a lot easier to recognize kanji. Here are some more that use 月 and 日: 昍 朋 晶 晿 That’s 4 more just using the shapes you just now learned for a total of 7 right there. See how easy that is? Of course some are a bit more trickier, but you’re never presented something until you’ve learned how its made.

So the biggest thing Heisig is trying to help you overcome is your ability to welcome in shapes of kanji. The second I would say is the ability to write kanji! The biggest plus is that writing kanji becomes second nature, which then leads to looking them up being a sinch. You know exactly what the strokes are, you know exactly the feel of the kanji and can write it out for recognition software even.

People claim the downside to Heisig is you spend a lot of time on a keyword that doesn’t always portray the kanji well, that is in English, and doesn’t teach sounds, and takes to long, and is boring. So lets talk about these “negatives”.

Keyword that doesn’t always fit. This is obvious, in fact, kanji can sometimes cover two seemingly different feelings, but be the same kanji. English has only so many words anyways, and kanji can have similar meanings to it too. But you’re going to be dropping all English as you go anyways, so you shouldn’t have spent time trying to ingrain the keyword in your head to begin with. This is probably a mistake by newbies who are specifically perfectionists.

As for sounds, RTK 2 does address this, however most of us don’t like it. Not because Heisig does bad with it, but simply a lot of the people I know learn Kanji’s sounds in context only, not separate like so many do. I personally think any other way is akin to banging ones head into a brick wall. Heisig can be made into a lot of fun if you make your stories hilarious, sexual, or deviant. I’m constantly chuckling at my stories, and these stories are always easier to remember too. Heisig challenges you to make your stories silly, zany, and memorable, which can change your pace from boring to fun. Also, SRS Heisig up and make it a mini game. This takes out a lot of the boredom!

As for the length, and it actually to me is the most valid argument about RTK. Some people will spend roughly 3 years going through RTK. This doesn’t make them bad, at all, however 10 a day will take about a year, and that is the average. In the same respect I’ve heard of some people doing it in a month. Insane!

The claim is that within that yearish time frame, said people could have been actively learning kanji in other means and would teach sounds at the same time too. Everyone learns differently, and because of that, I certainly don’t want you to do Heisig if another way is faster. All I can do here is explain my reasoning behind choosing Heisig.

I started trying to learn kanji flat out by doing the core 2k for smart.fm. The first week was okay. I learned a lot of phrases and words but I noticed that I began to get sluggish and the kanji was starting to run together. I also couldn’t look them up easily because I didn’t know what stroke order they were, and quite frankly it was a little overwhelmingly boring because I felt like my brain mushed up on me. If you’re unfamiliar with the core2k, here is an example:

それはとってもいい話だ。” not only was I trying to remember the sounds for the kanji, はなし, but I was trying to remember the word I was suppose to be learning, “それ” and its definition, as well as the sentences meaning. And remember the shape of the kanji. That’s roughly 5 times for just this sentence. Imagine if there were several kanji in the sentence. While you can get away not paying attention to anything but the “それ” in this one and its definition technically, the next sentence isn’t so: “私は絵を見るのが好きです。” It’s vocab word has a kanji!, so at the barest I was trying to remember at least 3 things. If the vocab contained more kanji, then up and up!

Now, since I realized then I didn’t want my brain mushing up kanji all together, as some of them to me felt too alike at the time, I decided maybe I should focus on them alone. There are a lot of tools out there, but Heisig caught my eye. While I’ve been doing Heisig, I’ve studied a lot of other ways too, building up to where now, that first sentence, I don’t have to actually learn anything. I learned it all through immersion, save for the kanji’s sound. So its from 5 to 1. Second 12 to 4. That second sentence has 4 kanji, so only 4 sounds! And technically if sticking to just the way smart.fm grades: I don’t need to know anything for the first, and only the sound of one kanji for the second sentence. Because of that, I can now go through the core2k millions of times faster than when I was just trying to mush it all in at once.

In the end, could I have still been where I’m at, if I just stuck with it? Maybe? Perhaps, however my confidence dealing with kanji is so much higher going in, that it alone gives me so much motivation. Not to mention, I got tons and tons and tons of hours and hours of immersion around me. I hear Japanese like its English. I never confuse the sounds and I even know how to mimic them making fun of people, or being gangsters and what not. I can even hear the Japanese people pretending to have French or American accents to the Japanese now, or detect non natives who’ve not honed their skills. I know countless phrases and body language I can use now because I was wise in the time I spent alongside of RTK. Yes, RTK has been roughly a year and a half endearment that I could have done a lot faster, but I actually have enjoyed all the immersion, and its making a huge differences now that I’m going to the next phase of my studying.

RTK is just a tool. Don’t let it define you as a language learner, just use and abuse it till your done and toss it by the wayside! Don’t focus to hard on perfect recollection of keywords, but rather embrace the kanji’s looks, feelings, and writing.

Now that we’ve discussed what and why, next Part will cover the hows. It still amazes me that a lot of people don’t even do Heisig’s method correctly and then wonders why they’re having such troubles with it. So if you’re one of those people struggling, check out Part 2 of RTK!

Mikoto Neko

The Ring leader of multiple projects who is studying japanese and raising a family! Who needs time for sleep?

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