Kanji, experiencing illiteracy as an adult.

Learning Japanese Jan 04, 2020

Did you know that technically - you need to learn to read Chinese in order to read Japanese? I certainly didn't. It sounds crazy, but let me explain.

I can recall being four years old and deeply frustrated with the fact that I couldn't read the massive Stephen King book on the coffee table.

Christmas was approaching, and I was doing my best to enjoy my favorite holiday cartoon, Frosty the Snowman. As a result of donning his magical hat, Frosty had just come to life, and was proudly demonstrating all of his newly realized abilities.

I sat there, watching the smug snowman as he attempted to impress the children with his foolish juggling, dancing, and counting to five.

I fixated on the number five.

Five, yes, five was the answer. I would soon be five, and and in my mind that meant being able to decipher the mysterious glyphs inside all 823 pages of that monolithic tome that rest in clear view of my play area.

I had expressed my frustrations to my father in the months prior. He must have told me something along the lines of "when you're a little bit older." And I must have interpreted his words to have been much more literal, because I was convinced that as soon as I turned five, all the secrets of the written word would simply be bestowed upon me. I truly believed that I needn't do anything other than sit back and wait.

And on the morning of my fifth birthday, I nervously - but confidently, approached the coffee table. I was Arthur, about to remove the sword from its stone.

I threw the front cover open and gazed down upon the forbidden manuscript, but instead of a flash of brilliance and inspiration - I was greeted only by a cold embrace with which I would soon become intimately familiar.

A sense of confusion, a feeling of betrayal, and a disappointment that no matter how many times you experience it, never becomes easier to tolerate.

I closed the book and gazed out the window. Spring would be here soon enough. We would see how well a snowman could count when his fingers started melting.

25 years later, I was again standing like an idiot, in front of a text that I had anticipated being able to read.

This time it was here, at Funabashi Station.

Funabashi Station via WikiMedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

In high school, I had practiced reading and writing Japanese, or so I had thought.

I had learned the 46 base characters of the Japanese Hiragana alphabet, I knew that Funabashi was spelled "ふなばし", and I knew that the word for station was "えき." So why did Funabashi Station suddenly read as "船橋駅"?

That's because Hiragana is actually only one of three writing systems that you will need to achieve Japanese literacy.

In addition to 46 Hiragana, and 48 Katakana, there are several thousands of characters adopted from logographic Chinese that one would need to memorize in order to get through a single page of your favorite Japanese manga.

These my friends, are Kanji.

And there are essentially as many Kanji, as there are words for which they stand. Take a look at the first 100 or so that you would need to barely function. Notice that depending on the situation, they aren't even always pronounced the same way.

Kanji Onyomi Kunyomi Meaning
AN yasu(i) peace, cheap, safety
ICHI, ITSU hito(tsu), hito- one
IN no(mu) to drink
U, YUU migi right
U ame rain
EKI station
EN maru(i) circle, Yen, round
KA hi fire
KA hana flower, blossom
KA, GE shimo, sa(geru), o(rosu), ku(daru) below, down
KA nani what, how many, which
KAI, E a(u) to meet, to come together, society
GAI, GE soto, hoka, hazu(reru), hazu(su) outside, other, disconnect
GAKU mana(bu) school, science, learning
KAN, KEN aida time, time span
KI, KE soul, spirit
KYUU, KU kokono(tsu), kokono- nine
KYUU yasu(mu) to rest
GYO sakana, uo fish
KIN, KON kane gold, metal, money
KUU sora, a(keru), kara sky, to become free, empty
GETSU, GATSU tsuki month, moon
KEN mi(ru), mi(eru), mi(seru) to see, to be visible, to show
GEN, GON i(u) word, to talk
KO furu(i) old, used
GO itsu(tsu), itsu- five
GO, KOU ato, oku(reru), nochi after, later, back, to stay behind
GO noon
GO kata(ru), kata(rau) word, to talk
KOU school
KOU, KU kuchi mouth
KOU i(ku), yu(ku), okona(u) to walk. to go, to do, to carry out
KOU taka(i), taka(maru), taka(meru) high, expensive, increase, quantity
KOKU kuni country
KON, KIN ima now
SA hidari left
SAN mit(tsu), mi- three
SAN yama mountain
SHI yo(ttsu), yu(tsu), yo-, yon- four
SHI, SU ko child
JI mimi ear
JI toki time, hour
SHICHI nana(tsu), nana-, nano- seven
SHA kuruma car, wheel
SHA yashiro shinto shrine, society
SHU te hand
SHUU week
JUU, JI too, to- ten, cross
SHUTSU da(su), de(ru) to leave, to get out. to take out
SHO ka(ku) to write
JO, NYO onna, me woman, female
SHOU chii(sai), ko-, o- small
SHOU suko(shi), suku(nai) a little
SHOU, JOU ue, kami, a(geru), a(garu) above, upper
SHOKU ta(beru), ku(ru), ku(rau) to eat
SHIN atara(shii), ara(ta), nii- new
JIN, NIN hito person
SUI mizu water
SEI, SHOU i(kiru), u(mu), ha(yasu), nama, ki to live, to grow, to be born, raw
西 SEI, SAI nishi west
SEN kawa river
SEN chi thousand
SEN saki before, in future
ZEN mae before
SOKU ashi, ta(riru), ta(su) foot, to be sufficient, to add
TA oo(i) many
DAI, TAI ou(kii), oo(i) big, a lot
DAN, NAN otoko man, male
CHUU naka inner, center, between
CHOU naga(i) long, leader
TEN ame, ama sky
TEN mise shop
DEN electricity
DO, TO tsuchi earth, ground
TOU higashi east
DOU michi street, path
DOKU yo(mu) to read
NAN minami south
NI futa(tsu), futa- two
NICHI, JITSU hi, -ka day, sun
NYUU hai(ru), i(ru), i(reru) to enter, to insert
NEN toshi year
BAI ka(u) to buy
HAKU, BYAKU shiro(i), shiro white
HACHI yat(tsu), ya(tsu), ya-, you- eight
HAN naka(ba) half, middle, semi-
HYAKU hundred
FU chichi father
BUN, BU, FUN wa(keru), wa(kareru), wa(karu) part, minute, to divide, to understand
BUN, MON ki(ku), ki(koeru) to hear, to listen, to ask
BO haha mother
HOKU kita north
BOKU, MOKU ki, ko tree, wood
HON moto book, source, main-
MAI each, every
MAN, BAN ten thousand, all, many
MEI, MYOU na name, reputation
MOKU me eye
YUU tomo friend
RAI ku(ru), kita(ru), kita(su) to come
RITSU ta(tsu), ta(teru) to stand, to establish
ROKU mutt(su), mu(tsu), mu, mui six
WA hanashi, hana(su) speech, to talk, story, conversation

At first it seemed far too menacing. For several weeks I delayed any serious attempt at starting to learn them.

So before I could begin to use Kanji, I would first have to overcome my fear of Kanji.

In my case, it happened without me realizing it. This is because one is unable to hide from the Kanji. After several weeks of following signs in stations and on streets, sending and receiving simple text messages, and navigating food menus, by the time I finally sat down to review a proper table of Kanji, I realized that I had already seen a surprising amount of them, even if I wasn't completely sure what exactly they meant.

So today, I look forward to expanding my Kanji vocabulary, instead of worrying about it. There is a great sense of accomplishment that comes along with it.

But perhaps most satisfying of all, will be the knowledge that your friend's tattoos don't say anything close to what they think they do.

Keep on keeping on.

Cover Photo by Cherry Lin on Unsplash

Joseph Trubenstein

Software developer, English teacher, and aspiring Enka singer