Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Problem With Kanji

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?

Laurie Spiegelmann


Anonymous said...

Hi Laurie,

I have trouble understanding why you can't write kanji. Have you never heard of the Heisig method? It has its critics but after only a few months you should be able to write almost all the main kanji with no problem.


Anonymous said...

TYPO alert: I think you meant "ineligible Heian manuscript"

Anonymous said...

There's no typo there:

not legible; impossible or hard to read or decipher because of poor handwriting, faded print, etc.: This letter is completely illegible.

Beholdmyswarthyface said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Thank you, Anonymous!
Take that, Anonymous!
And thanks for the tip, Anonymous!

-Laurie Spiegelmann

Anonymous said...

On a similar note, I remember typing papers for my courses at Waseda and throwing in all sorts of kanji I couldn't write, then having friends poke fun at me for not being able to use the same kanji when writing notes by hand.

Beholdmyswarthyface said...


On a similar note, after studying intensively for six months last year, I got to the point where I could write nearly everything by memory. Now, after taking a couple months off from writing, I can no longer recall anything.