I went to my small school today and as soon as I got there I was accosted by my vice-principal who pulled me into the little counseling room next to the principals office and told me some grave news. The story starts last week on Friday. I took pictures at the Sport’s Festival which I had printed and brought in to show the staff. My original plan had been to give the students I had taken pictures of their own photos, you know, distribute as many of them as I could, and then throw the rest away. I mean, I didn’t print them out for myself, because I don’t really have any use for the prints when I have the original RAWs and JPEGs on my computer. The point is, I had printed these out for the students. Anyway, on Friday, my vice-principal told me she wanted me to make a poster the next time I came in. I had mixed feelings about the idea (mostly because I’m not very creative in that sense) but agreed to it anyway. However, this week (Wednesday) when I came in, she dropped a bomb and told me that *WE* had a situation on our hands. Why it was “we” and not her, I’m not sure. I still blame her for the whole thing, because it was clearly her fault.
What happened was, in her zeal to show off my pictures, she’d tipped off the student body (about 60 or so students at this school) about the existence of the prints. They came to look at them and loved them. They told her they themselves wanted to make a poster from the shots and she, not really thinking about it, gave them the pictures and her blessing. This is where it gets stupid. They took the shots and made an awesome poster– by cutting all the original pictures up and coming up with something really creative and unique; far more interesting than anything I would have come up with. Of course, when vice-principal realized what they had done, she told them that both she and the students might have to reimburse me for the photos because they’d cut them up without my permission. She told me that they’d be coming by today to prostrate themselves in front of me and apologize for their misdeeds. I, on the other hand, was somewhat perturbed by the whole situation since what they did is exactly what I would have wanted them to do, had I known there was interest. The poster was awesome.
So the first thing I did was to explain to her that it wasn’t their fault, since she gave them permission. She should be the one apologizing to me. But I told her she didn’t have to. No problem. I liked the poster. Put that up and let’s all get on with our lives. God knows these kids need some kind of ray of light in their life.
But no, the comedy of errors continued.
The kids apologized to me and I explained that I liked the poster. Let’s put that sucker up. But no. The vice-principal tells them to come and fix a few things at lunch to get it ready for posting. Whatever. I think she was angry because they had pasted a funny picture of her on the poster and then told her that they were poking fun at her. Well, actually I know this. That and a few other pictures were slated for removal before the poster went up in the hall.
By the time lunch time rolled around I was sweaty and in pain. I had a terrible fucking headache and no classes in the afternoon (both a blessing and a curse). The rest of the day sort of coasted on by while I studied kanji and eventually at around 4PM I started packing up. One of the kids “studies English” for 5 minutes after school so I stayed after to give him a vocabulary test and it was after that that I found out the true fate of the poster. Somehow, through a combination of both teachers who didn’t want the poster to go up because there wasn’t a picture of EVERY student in the school in it, combined with the protests of a few girls who didn’t want THEIR picture on the poster, the whole thing– everything, had collapsed. As far as I know, they’re going to throw the damn thing away so as not to hurt everyone’s feelings.
Progress and happiness are inversely proportional folks.
This same vice-principal wonders why Japan doesn’t have very many top-tier athletes in the Olympics, even when most students in Japan spend more time running and playing soccer than they do in class. Instead of putting up a great collage of shots at the expense of a few modest girls, the whole project was canned after it had been completed, all because the vice-principal decided that a doctrine of mediocrity for the sake of fairness was the way to go. I don’t blame her specifically and I’m not writing this to call anyone out. She was only doing what any other Japanese person would do in that situation. Eliminate individuality for the sake of the group.
So what then, does this have to do with studying Japanese?
Well, this is basically where my argument for the importance of Heisig’s method for studying the kanji begins and ends. See, in a typical Japanese language class at the college level, one learns words– sounds, basically, and then as the course progresses, you apply those sounds to Sino-Japanese characters forthwith known as kanji. The kanji aren’t treated any differently from anything else you learn in Japanese class. They’re just these complicated figures that are typically taught with little or no rhyme or reason, mentioned only in passing with the implication being that you need to memorize them in order to progress in the class.
In my own Japanese classes, no one ever explained the differences between on- and kun-readings, or that there even were such things. Often, kanji were introduced with only a single reading, for instance, 食べる — たべる without any mention that the kanji was functionally different as soon as you started seeing it in compounds. Stroke order was talked about. It’s important, they said. Memorize it. Only through my own personal study did I realize that most modern electronic dictionaries use stroke order to tell what kanji you’re trying to look up on the touch pad. Or that learning proper stroke order improves your handwriting and is absolutely necessary in order to correctly write some of the more complicated radicals. Nobody told me about radicals either, what role they played in the formation of any given character. I learned the SKIP method, probably the easiest way of looking up kanji in a printed dictionary, on my own. I specifically remember one instance in my college career where this lack of knowledge came to a head:
“I’m having some trouble in Japanese, Sensei. I can’t remember kanji very easily and I don’t really understand how I’m supposed to study them or anything. Like, why is it sometimes 新しい and other times 新聞. I don’t get it. How do you know when to use one reading and not the other?”
My professor got up and fished an relatively new Japanese newspaper out of his trash bin; crumpled as it was, he pointed to an advertisement on the front page and said, “You know both these kanji, right?”
“That one is new… and the other one is car.”
“So read it.”
I stared at it for a minute and shook my head. “I don’t have any idea.”
“Aww, come on! Shin… Right? It’s the shin in “shinbun” and this one is…”
“I don’t know? Shinkuruma?”
“No, shinsha. And it means?”
“New car. Easy.”
I remember it so well because it wasn’t easy. And I didn’t understand it. In retrospect, that compound is so stupidly simple that I feel like an ogre talking about it, but the fact of the matter was, back then, I didn’t understand it. I had no guidance. Kanji were just another thing to learn in the classroom. The weren’t any more important than learning combinations of hiragana that made up kanji compounds that weren’t yet taught with kanji.
Before I get to my final point, I have one more story to talk about. I’ll just summerize this one, as its less important than the others and is really only relevant because it sort of changed the way I thought about Japanese in general and I feel that, in the context of this entry, that sort of revelation might be useful.
I’ve heard it a lot since I’ve come here: “This reading has so many meanings. How the hell is anyone supposed to keep track of all of them?” かける for instance. There’s 書ける to be able to write, 描ける to be able to draw pictures, 掛ける to sit down (as in 腰掛け) or lock a door (カギをかける), etc. etc. etc. Now, the last time I heard this, I was somewhere at the 1600 mark in Heisig (able to write and identify the meanings of, but not read that many kanji) working on my reviews at the Board of Education on a non-school workday. Something clicked in my mind then and I realized (well, perhaps hypothesized) that a lot of Japanese learners, like myself, learn the sounds first and the kanji later. So when it comes time to integrate all this information into actual knowledge, learners use sounds as the building blocks for their morphemes in Japanese rather than starting out with the associated kanji. Yes, かける is a phoneme– it has meaning; but at the same time, I postulate here that those phonemes are first derived (in subconscious processes in native speakers) from their respective graphemes (kanji). Have you ever seen Japanese television? A lot of it has subtitles! Have you ever been in a conversation with a native speaker where they write out kanji on their hand to aid in understanding? It happens often enough to not be a fluke.
More importantly though, learning the kanji for any given Japanese homonym strengthens the meaning in my own mind tenfold. I never could quite understand the word 受ける until I learned the meaning of the corresponding kanji. As soon as I dedicated it to memory, I realized that I could use the word 受ける correctly in conversation, because whenever I thought of trying to say, “take a test,” the kanji would pop into my mind and I’d instantly remember the appropriate phoneme to go along with it.
Ultimately, as I said before, happiness and progress are inversely proportional. To tell university professors that every student needs to leave their classes with intimate knowledge of the general-use characters is tantamount to claiming that Japanese is impossible to learn. It is all but impossible to teach the general use characters in a classroom setting to students in 4 years who are also learning grammar and other pure Japanese vocabulary from scratch. But it’s what needs to be done. And yes, if you’re learning Japanese, you need to learn the joyo kanji. Learn them before anything else. Do it with Heisig. Leave the readings for later and just study the meaning and writing. You’ll learn the readings over time as you begin to read and converse in the language– that much is inevitable. Ignoring the Joyo kanji to persue, say, a specific level of the JLPT or grammar or whatever– that’s the biggest mistake you can make, aside from brute-forcing 2000 characters with little or no guidance.
At the end of the whole poster debacle, which may, even now, still be raging, I told my vice-principal that the only way kids grow up is to face a little hardship. Your tired-running-face on a poster full of your peers doing the same thing is not going to ruin your social life at school. The world isn’t going to end if you aren’t on the poster. I mean, at the end of the day, the fact of the matter was that I didn’t even take pictures of every student at the school anyway. Kids had been left out from the beginning and there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it. Instead of embracing that, they decided to toss the baby out with the bath water and start over, resulting in no pictures for anyone and no poster.
With Japanese, it’s the same damn thing. You have to treat kanji with the importance they deserve, despite the fact that they’re confusing and numerous. Single them out and learn them. I suggest Heisig, but I know of at least one person who’s brute-forced it. (Don’t do what he did, because he’s a genius and I doubt you’ll experience the same sort of results.) With Heisig, you learn the grapheme first and later integrate phonemes into that existing framework. You pour in a foundation and then start to work on your house. You can’t treat Japanese like every other language written in the roman alphabet and just brute-force a bunch of sounds and hope that your memory is good enough that synonyms and whatnot can be pulled up quickly and without error. However, when you have a full catalog of 2000 different concepts, applying sounds to those concepts is easy as hell. Trust me, I’m doing it right now.
Everyday that one of my (fellow ALT) co-workers calls me crazy for studying the general-use characters like I do, claiming that its farcical to learn the kanji that every adult Japanese person should have learned in school, acting as though I’m going above and beyond what is necessary, I say, “No. I want to learn Japanese. What, exactly, are you studying?”