This just in from reader Laurie Spiegelmann, originally of Kansas, currently a foreign researcher in Tokyo:
It is with great regret that I inform you, Sir, that my application for grad school at a certain university in Tokyo has been denied. The reason: I can’t write the kanji.
I took the exam several months ago, answering each question entirely in hiragana. They said that it looked like some illegible Heian manuscript, and that I should return home if I wished to further my education.
I’d be fine with all this, except for the fact that I know all the kanji— for years now I’ve known them all already, known them all. I regard each as a friend, just as you, Beholdmyswarthyface, regard Sally Suzuki, Josh Landers, Jarvis32, Cniva Albinus, Dr. Nabil al-Tasnimi, Mabel Callahan, and Ian Hogarth as friends.
As with friends, kanji are each associated with particular experiences or memories, and like a friend a kanji can be either simple or complex.
上, for instance, is both visually and conceptually simple. 麗, by contrast, is visually complex but conceptually simple. Then there are others which are both visually and conceptually complex, such as 鑽, which means to make fire by rubbing sticks together. (A fairly involved exercise, if you ask me.) Still others are visually simple yet conceptually complex, like the less common 咼, which can mean, if memory serves, any of the following: a distorted face; to slant; to hollow something out; or a form of execution in which the victim’s innards are slowly gauged out.
Yet despite my intimacy with each of the two to three thousand commonly used kanji, I am unable to write them from memory. It’s like the faces of those you know: you always recognize them when you see them, but if asked to draw them, you wouldn't know where to begin.
Unless, of course, you’re an artist— which is the problem, I’m not. In fact, I’m entirely incapable of recreating on paper even the most basic and familiar objects of my visual world. Even squares and rectangles I struggle with. And because of this, I am forever barred from entering a kokubungaku program in Japan. Seems a bit silly, wouldn’t you say?