When do you know a Kanji?

This is yet another one of my quirks.

I keep seeing people saying they know 1548 Kanji. And it confuses me. I mean ok, the fact that people keep track of how many words or kanji they know confuses me as well, but how do you KNOW a kanji? I mean, seriously. In my head it’s like this.

Recognition. Ok, you recognize a Kanji. This takes practice and Heisig is great for it. You might even know a meaning or two for it, but for now let’s focus on recognizing. Usually recognition is one of those things built in time, where rather than study the important thing is to get used to them. And then sometimes you THINK you recognize them when in fact it’s something just very similar. I mean sure, it’s easy to recognize a kanji when surrounded by other different ones, but maybe you won’t if it’s surrounded by similar ones. Also, some Kanjis are just too goddamn similar for my own good. I have a hard time telling a 土 from a 士, for example。 And then you have the various fonts and suddenly nothing is recognizable anymore.

Meanings. Ok, you’ve learnt to associate a Kanji with a meaning. Maybe 2-3 meanings. What about the ones with 5+ stand-alone meanings? What happens when it gets into a compound and it loses its original meaning? I remember when during one of my first Japanese exams I came out very confused and started asking my colleagues “wtf does highschool school long mean?”(highschool principal). It’s because I remembered 長い but not -長 as a suffix for a leading position. And that’s a pretty obvious one. I was also confused by 生け花 during the same exam.

Readings. Ok, sure. You look at 上 and you can read it. It’s うえ, right? Sure. Stand-alones are ok. Some stand-alones have more than one reading but you can manage that thanks to the helpful okurigana. I know 上.No prob. And then you randomly open the dictionary an realize it has like 20 alternate readings. Sure, the beginner book in which you learned it says it has 1-5(depends on the textbook), but that’s cause it’s all you need for a basic understanding. Then things get more complicated and new readings should be known. It would be weird to teach someome all the possible readings during their first month of Japanese, after all.

Readings 2. I never remember which is the 訓読み and which is the 音読み. I think it matters. Does knowing all the alternate readings and which is kun and which is on add to important aspects of knowing a kanji?

Okurigana. This one time during the N5 we had to select the proper okurigana for 小さい. No one saw something as simple as that coming, and afterwards we were all confused. I think we all got it wrong. This goes well with readings, but you can’t really know a Kanji without being able to pair it with the proper okurigana for the situation.

Writing. Another biggie. Sure, for the most part it’s only difficult when you’re a beginner, since after a while you know how to write most radicals and how to follow the general rules, but every now and then some weird-looking fella shows up, like nothing you’ve encountered before. And let’s face it, since writing can be hard/boring/timeconsuming/whatever to practice, it is also easily forgotten(I’m very bad at writing, for the record). Sure, I can recognize a 歳 a mile away, but when writing it I will probably forget something important.

So when do you KNOW a kanji? When you can do all of these? Because if it’s like that then I don’t know too many. Or maybe I’m just not good at getting this.

BTW, there are a few user-friendly kanjis, don’t get me wrong. I love 電. I really do. It’s insta-recognizeable, easy to write whilst having a high enough stroke number to make you feel special(some people care about that, I hear), only one reading regardless of what you combine it with, and -best of all- as soon as you see it in a compound you know what that word is about. I can safely say that I know 電 and….maybe 10 other Kanjis? Though let’s face it, I only recently found out that 一 can be used for 一男(kazuo). Even 電 might be keeping things from me.


One thought on “When do you know a Kanji?

  1. To know the secrete to KNOWING the kanji! It is a secrete, by the way. It is simply this: being able to write down all (well, it doesn’t have to be ALL, just a “significant” sized list) the kanji without looking at a book. Just being able to go over a list, a very long list. I would write this this down. I remember working on this list FOR EVER in the Aurora Library in Corolardo (I think it helped me get over leaving Boston)…a sort of depressing place…but I would be entranced. I loved writing them down. And it really help my visualization (my visualization was terrible). I was sort of like, “I’m I really visualizing the kanji right?” But now it comes naturally. Like it was forced….I had a system. Have a system. I’ve shown it to several people, but they don’t “get it”. It’s all visual so I DON’T quite understand. Anyways, I actually used it to get sleep at night. I would walk through this list and somewhere I would fall asleep. I discovered, actually, that sometimes I would be walking and sleeping at the same time. Figuratively walking. I wanted to get this list real smooth, but it became clunky by about the 600th kanji. That was years ago. And I dropped the whole thing. But still using it to get sleep. And I was satisfied. And I actually felt as if I KNEW the kanji despite not knowing ANYTHING about some. It was a really good feeling. I had a location. I knew them, I knew where they were in my mind. I’d ask them their “name” some day. Actually, I really wanted to know their friends since they would give me a better idea of the essence of the kanji I was visiting.
    For whatever reason it was boom or bust for me. I didn’t finish since I found it hard to get around the fact that they were clunky after a certain point. But, recently I thought, hey, even though nobody seems to “get it” and “what’s the point” I know it works….
    *****Oh, I used Heisig’s method for about a whole frEEKing year. It is the a bad idea made worse by Heisig. At least my old book of his. He might of changed it. But his stories were sometimes elaborate and sometimes not. The characters were not STRICTLY FIXED like they should be.
    (Sorry about the length here.)
    The brain is really amazing. It has a lot of potential, but it needs strict rules. I wish it wasn’t so strict to being dogmatic about it. But give it a very set boundary and then set it free. Plus, the brain is really bad when left to it’s own devices. I mean, sometimes you in a serious mood, or a “happy mood”, sometimes a flippant mood and ALOT of times a perverted mood. How the heck is your brain going to access these stories when your in some blah mood…or really any mood. It’s silly. I remember after a year of studying I happened upon a kanji that was too simple to make a story out of. And also one that you could make a story out of. Wheat and Elbow. The simple I (watashi). I do like BOKU kanji for I better thought and there is even an ORE…but that might be considered too humble or something..
    But. that’s when I dropped Heisig.
    There really are so many other flaws. It’s interesting. I do like “TAKES” in general and he has a defiante take. It’s just up to us to think and go – that’s not right and ever dangerous. It really should have a warning label, since, if you drop it, which you no doubt will, it has just gained you exactly nothing! And then you keep referring to radicals as “primatives”. It is Frreeeking annoying!

    Which takes me to my debunking of the importance of primat—-I mean radicals. Just kidding….I’ve written a short story I think….but I sort of have this idea still, but don’t have a good sounding board. It really does work. E-mail me if you are interesting in being a sounding board. I see that you are actually very good at reading kana. Amazing!

    Thanks For READING!!! P Arjuna.

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