Do you need to write kanji?

is-it-necessary-to-write-kanjiIs it necessary to be able to write kanji? I mean, actually write it with one of those marky-sticks on the flat white stuff?

The conventional wisdom is that you have to write out each kanji by hand hundreds of times in order to actually learn them. Some people claim that with the proliferation of digital devices this is no longer necessary, while others say that without writing them you will never learn them. Which is true?

Let me start by saying that there is no way around knowing the kanji. If you don’t know them, you can neither read nor write them, even with digital devices. Actually reading them is more possible with things like Rikaichan, but your reading will be very slow and painful. Rikaichan is a good aid when needed, but it is no substitute for learning the kanji.

Writing will be next to impossible since while any decent digital device will automatically make the kanji for you, you have to know which kanji you mean. You can type K+I to get き, but did you mean 木 ,気 or 器?

The question is, can you know them without the physical act of writing them? There are arguments on both sides but let’s sum up the situation.

Writing kanji is not a magical key to knowing them. Some people complain about writing out kanji hundreds of times and still forgetting them quite quickly.

The old way of learning them, practised by Japanese schools and, following them, most Western teachers of Japanese, is simply to write them without analyzing them – pure rote- and muscle-memory. In my mind there is no doubt that this is a very bad way to learn kanji.

Also while Japanese children may not explicitly learn the parts of kanji and how they fit together, they are aware of radicals (you can’t use a kanji dictionary without being) and I cannot imagine that they are actually blind to the beauty, logic and poetry that goes into the structure of kanji.

Whether you are writing kanji by hand or not, you really must learn to identify their component radicals. Not doing so is like trying to learn the shapes of words without noticing their component letters (actually we do read both romaji words and kanji like this when we are very familiar with them, but whenever there is any uncertainty – and all the time during the learning process – we need to be able to identify the parts or we are making the job far more difficult than it needs to be).

One problem of not learning to write kanji is that you may never be fully aware of their exact structure. Confession time. Even kanji I know very well I could not, in many cases reproduce exactly. Not just because I haven’t practised writing them, but because I don’t know exactly how they look. I know them when I see them.

How bad is that? In practical terms, not very bad. Because the only time I need to know them is when I see them. I either see them in reading, or I see them on a list of possible kanji when I am typing them.

One objection to this is as follows: “Some kanji are very similar. If you only know them on a ‘facial recognition’ basis, you won’t be able to tell them apart”.

This is very true, and it is a serious objection if you are going to be taking Japanese language exams, where you will often be presented with out-of-context similar kanji side by side and asked which is which.

In real life, however, that does not happen. In real life you are either reading or writing. You have context. Even if you can’t tell the two kanji apart when you see them side by side, you actually know that “I kissed my ___” is more likely to be “mother” than “Andromeda galaxy” (no, those two things don’t actually have similar kanji. Just funnin’).

In cases where similar-looking kanji do mean similar or confusable things, the non-writing learner has to look at them together and clarify in her mind what distinguishes them. But she does not need to know the exact formation of every kanji she is familiar with – or even the confusable minority. She just needs to know enough to tell them apart in practice.

“But – you won’t be able to write. With a pen.” No, you won’t. How far is that a problem?

It depends how much you actually do write. Personally, I would say I write – actually by hand – in English maybe 200 words in a year. Truthfully I can’t even see how it would amount to 200, but I am being cautious. Other people write a lot more of course. So that depends on you.

“What about writing your name and things”. Silly. Of course you will be able to write your name. I am not suggesting anyone should not be able to write kana (though I confess that I write them so little I am a bit hesitant). You will write your name in katakana usually. If you do by some chance have kanji for your name, of course you will learn to write those kanji. If you have a Japanese address you will very likely want to learn to write the kanji for that. This is not some “never write a kanji under any circumstances” game.

Some people are “tactile learners” and writing may really be the right way for them. However I suspect a lot of the people who say “you can’t know them without learning to write them by hand” are somewhat (and understandably) protective of the countless hours they themselves have invested in doing it.

If you are taking written exams you have to learn to write kanji.  If you are taking exams with tricky kanji-recognition elements, the best way of learning kanji that exactly may well be to learn to write them with the correct stroke-order. If you are a tactile learner, writing may be the right path for you.

If your main use of kanji is real-life usage (whether running a company or reading manga), you probably don’t need to write them. You do need to know them.

I find that knowing and making friends with kanji is vital to seeing how Japanese words fit together and why they mean what they mean. I love kanji. I gaze at them in admiration. I love the fact that the kanji of 枯れる (kareru, to wilt or wither) is “tree” plus “old”. I adore fun things like the fact that 望遠鏡 (telescope) means hope/view+distant+mirror – actually the mirror can, I think, be a speculum or seer’s crystal which makes it all the more mysterious and lovely.

But even with regular words I am very often thinking of them in terms of their kanji. “あぁ, 審査 ー 審判の審、調査の査ですね。”

But I blush to say I don’t write them. I only blush a little though. I don’t write English either.

How to learn kanji organically as part of Japanese self-immersion→

6 thoughts on “Do you need to write kanji?

  1. Frankly, I’m a little scared to start writing kanji while learning at home without a sensei to judge my work. I want to learn them, but I don’t want to build up bad habits that I’d just have to break later! Do you think that’s likely to happen? I wish there was a way to learn 習字 here.

  2. If you need to learn to write them for school purposes, I would say that if you follow the stroke order carefully and keep them nicely in a square (use paper with squares each divided into four for practice, you will be doing as well as most students.

    If you don’t need to my tendency would be not to. I too would like to continue 習字 with a Japanese sensei as I did for a short time in Japan.

  3. I have a subscription at skritter.com which teaches Japanese by forcing you to write Kanji (it doesn’t support kana yet, but will apparently). It’s approach is flash card based kinda, and with the typical spaced repetition to help you remember (much like Anki and others), only that the cards very often are to write the Kanji (works very well on a smartphone for example, but mouse is also possible since the recognition is lenient enough). There are also remember the Japanese reading and remember the English translation cards.

    The idea and the claim is that by writing the Kanji, you are learning both them and the words behind them much faster (many of the cards require more than one Kanji character). The stats you get back seems to also back that claim, and at least for me, this works very well. Also, for most of the cards, there are links to radicals and so on, something that at least helps me when learning Japanese. They also provide a huge plethora of lists that words will be added from as you learn, for example most of the learn Japanese books (like Genki) have ready made lists.

    I also feel that this setup makes it progressively easier to learn new Kanji, as it is much easier to memorize them when you have a feeling for the elements (whether it is a full Kanji or a radical).

    It is not free though.

    1. Thank you for your input, Igesund-san. The system you describe sounds interesting and could be a good way to learn. I don’t discount writing kanji (especially if one is a tactile learner) and combining it with SRS would seem to be a lot better than the traditional method – writing it a LOT of times and then maybe not getting back to it for ages – people definitely forget them that way.

      I certainly agree about making it progressively easier to learn new kanji as you get a feeling for the elements and the kanji themselves. This, however, is quite independent of whether you write them or not. If you are learning intelligently, you will be aware of the radicals within a kanji and as you encounter them in one context after another you start to make friends with them. This is fundamental both to learning kanji and (at least in my view) to understanding Japanese vocabulary. But then my natural approach to words is etymological. Kanji are interesting in that they actually depict a word’s etymology.

      For example in English it is not clear just from seeing the word whether the “homo” in homosexual is Latin homo = “man” or Greek homo = “same” (it is the latter). With kanji similar ambiguities don’t arise. We know whether a word-element is, say, 上 jou or 情 jou just by looking at it.

      That is why I always say kanji are fundamental to learning Japanese. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to write them.

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