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Friday, July 27, 2001

Tips on how to make your kanji garden grow


TO: Diane Grace Shimizu RE: Your Kanji Dream

It was a pleasure to meet you recently at my kanji-learning workshop. You told me you've been living in Japan for three years, ever since landing a job at a major international electronics company in Tokyo. Your grandparents, emigrants to California from Wakayama, are thrilled that one of their grandchildren is learning to speak and read their native language.

Over the past three years, you have become familiar with approximately 500 kanji in the Japanese classes your company offers its foreign employees. Your goal for the next couple of years is to be able to identify a grand total of 1,000 (kyoiku kanji), which will allow you to "graduate" from the highest-level class.

Then, assuming you are interested in reading books written for Japanese elementary school students, you will not have to suffer a frustrating, time-consuming dependence on kanji dictionaries in order to do so. As for adult-level materials, while you will be able to start making sense of them, it will be slow going.

Consider this: The Education Ministry requires young Japanese, even those who elect not to attend high school after completing their compulsory nine years, to study all the 1,945 general-use characters. Why should you, an educated, Japanese-speaking foreigner who will likely spend much of your adult life working in Japan, expect to make do with less?

Learning kanji at the rate of only several hundred per year, Diane, puts you on a train to kanji purgatory; your train never gathers enough momentum to transport you to true literacy. It should not take an intelligent and motivated adult like you five years to learn 1,000, or even 1,945, characters.

Why hasn't your teacher encouraged you to set your kanji sights a lot higher and to aim straight for the bull's-eye (i.e., all 1,945)? To find out, please ask him if he truly believes that an American who never stepped foot on Japanese soil until her 20s can master 1,945 kanji. Ask him if he has ever taught a student from a nonkanji background who has, in fact, achieved this goal. His answers may help you confront the shockingly low expectations of both kanji teachers and learners, even in the kanji-rich environment of Japan.

Yes, kanji are everywhere around us: The kanji "soil" for learners in Japan is incredibly fertile and is just waiting for you to drop your packet of seeds into it. The "seeds" are the particular self-instructional learning system you have carefully selected and committed yourself to mastering, with the conviction that it will lead you to true literacy in Japanese. It must be a system you find interesting, challenging and pleasurable.

If you want to harvest a bounty of, say, ripe, red, delicious kanji tomatoes in the late summer, however, planting kanji seeds is not enough. The "water" and "fertilizer" of your kanji-learning "garden" are the hours and hours of concentrated study you devote to your chosen learning system. Thank goodness you look forward to this practically every day, or you might be tempted to simply let your kanji crop wither on the vine for lack of nurture. The doubts that occasionally torment you about whether all this kanji gardening is really worth it are "weeds"; you have to pluck them out with a vengeance.

So what is missing? There is one more thing that your kanji seeds desperately need: the sunshine of your personal kanji dream, a scenario involving literacy in adult-level Japanese.

In over 15 years in Japan, I have never known a foreigner who developed fluency in reading and/or writing Japanese without possessing such a customized dream. Personally, the dream that enabled me to harvest a crop of 1,945 characters (and improve my marriage) was this: I was sitting at my university office desk, quickly reading through the mountain of written communication stuffed into my mailbox every single day.

In the dream, I no longer carried these documents home every night for my beleaguered Japanese husband to read, and he praised my newfound reading ability profusely.

Do you have a vivid kanji dream, Diane? In Tokyo, you have been surprised and dismayed to see virtually no foreigners reading Japanese newspapers. Can you dream of reading the local newspapers? Let's explore that next time.

Mary Sisk Noguchi is an associate professor at Meijo University. She enjoys kanji gardening and is raising two small sons. Send e-mail to Mary at kanjiclinic@petmail.net


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