Life in Japan: Learning Kanji

There are three writing systems in Japan: hiragana (ひらがな), which is the main phonetic set of characters; katakana (カタカナ), which is the phonetic characters used mainly for foreign words; kanji (漢字), which is used throughout Japanese, and is taken from Chinese. It’s this last one that gives a lot of people trouble. It’s extremely important to know how to at least read kanji to be able to read a newspaper or book in Japanese.  This week’s question comes from Ellen Hawley.

I had friends who lived in Japan, and even after years reading Japanese (not the phonetic alphabets but the characters) remained a problem. Have you been able to learn enough to manage well? If not, how does that affect you?

Chinese_characters_logoI’ll begin by saying that I love kanji. It’s fascinating to me, but the biggest problem with it is that I often forget how to write them. But that’s a common problem for Japanese people, as well, since most people now use computers or cell phones to do all their writing.

I know around 400 to 500 kanji right now, and that’s helped me immensely. I often look around and recognise a lot of kanji, and I can understand what signs are saying most of the time. I’d say I understand a lot of the most commonly used kanji.

It’s a constant struggle to learn them, though. They can easily be forgotten, and there are many that look similar to others. I often get confused. I may know the meaning, but I might not know how it’s pronounced. Most kanji have more than one pronunciation, which can get confusing.

Although I’m not proficient in kanji, it doesn’t affect me very much. I get by fairly easily, as I know how to do pretty much everything, and a lot of my communication is spoken, rather than written. There are times when I’m at a disadvantage, such as with forms in banks or instructions on machines that are in Japanese only. I can figure out the cooking instructions on a package most of the time, but not always. I wouldn’t want to make a mistake!

Although I’ll only be in Japan for another 10 months, I’m redoubling my efforts to study Japanese and kanji. I won’t have the exposure in Canada like I do in Japan, so I don’t want to forget. And besides, my daughter speaks mostly Japanese. I need to make sure I understand her, at least until she begins speaking more English.

Thank you for the question, Ellen.

If you have any questions about living in Japan, please see the original post and leave your questions in the comments.

3 thoughts on “Life in Japan: Learning Kanji”

  1. Reblogged this on Jay Dee in Japan and commented:

    After 10 years in Japan, you’d think I’d know the 2000 main kanji, right? Well, I only know about a quarter of that. But is it really important to know kanji in Japan? How has knowing only 500 kanji affected me? Here’s my answer.

  2. Thanks for the answer. I’ll add one more story: Another friend, who’s Japanese-American and speaks fluent Japanese but doesn’t read it, told this story about visiting Japan: He was in a train station and couldn’t read the board that listed which tracks the trains left from, so he stopped someone to ask about his train. The man pointed at the board and said, “They’re listed there.” Ditto the second person. The third time, he stopped someone and said, “Excuse me, but I left my glasses at home….” That worked.

    1. There’s often an expectation here that if you look Japanese, you must speak and read Japanese. If you don’t look Japanese, you must not know one bit of Japanese. There are non-Asian foreigners who are fluent in Japanese that will get frustrated at restaurants because the servers won’t seem to respond to them in Japanese, even though they are fluently speaking it. I’ve heard about one white guy who ordered food in Japanese, and the waitress turned to the only Asian guy at the table and asked him what the white guy wanted. But the thing is, the Asian guy was American, and not even Japanese. He couldn’t speak any Japanese at all.

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