Category Archives: Kanji

Kanji as Character and Adventure!

Kanji as character and adventure.

A phrase you probably haven’t heard before. But you’ll be hearing it again, as it is a theme of a major new project we have in the works.

Kanji may seem like abstract, difficult old things but actually they really are characters.

ABCD and friends are called characters but they aren’t. They don’t have personalities. They don’t do anything. They just sit on a page and make noises. In fact they don’t even make noises. They just silently indicate what noises they want you to make. Lazy things.

Kanji are entirely different. They are  a whole world of living things – cute, funny, scary, majestic, silly, just the way living things are. They have adventures all the time. Once you get to know some of them, they make sense and become much easier.

As I say, expect more on this fairly soon, and in English. For now, we have a little video to introduce the idea. It is in Japanese, but the main part is a story-picture so it’s easy to follow what is happening even if your Japanese is still little.

It is called “Foreign Doll’s Kanji Adventure”.

Please enjoy it.

How to Add Sample Sentences to Anki Automatically

Having a sample Japanese sentence to back up Anki’s definition of a word is often invaluable.

But if you are making your own immersion-experience-based deck rather than using pre-made decks (and you should be), you have to add them yourself. Isn’t this a bit mendokusai (Japanese for pain in the pinky)?

Luckily there is a way to automate this part of the card-making process too. It’s a bit obscure, but once you set it up, it looks after itself.

This article assumes that you are already using Rikaisama’s Real-time Anki function to make your cards with a single keypress. If you aren’t, this article will tell you how.

When I first noticed that there  is a token for adding sentences in Rikaisama’s Real-time (direct-to-Anki) setup I was a little puzzled. Does Rikaisama contain a database of sentences as well as a dictionary and audio database? How does this work?

Click to enlarge

So I shrugged and  set it up to put the sentences into my Audio folder as shown above, (the last $t moves the focus to my last field, which is Audio – I do audio for my sentences, but that’s for a future article).

Then I typed a word and Rikai’d it (my usual way of adding a word to Anki), hit R (the one-button card-maker) and – nothing.

I had my card made in a single keypress, of course. But there was no sample sentence.

I wasn’t entirely surprised – where were these sample sentences supposed to come from anyway? I didn’t really believe there was a database of sentences, even though there is one of  native-spoken audio for nearly every word which can be added with that same keypress (and which you should be using).

So this is one of the more obscure features of Rikaisama. Actually it isn’t so obscure if you are using Rikai the way Rikai thinks you are. That is, reading something online and using Rikai to give instant furigana plus definitions if you want them.

But that isn’t how I mostly use Rikaisama, and I suspect that is true of most people using it as part of a self-immersion deck-building process. I type in the word, which may have come from a novel or an anime, (usually into an online dictionary, though I don’t actually press Enter to get the dictionary’s definition unless I need some elaboration on Rikaisama’s answer). I hover over it to get the Rikai box, hit the R key and pring! I have a new card.

What the sentence function actually does (and it really is very clever) is import the sentence you were reading into Anki and drop it into whatever field you told it to in the save format (see picture above).

So obviously this kind of breaks down if you weren’t reading a sentence online.

The answer is simple. If you want a sample sentence for your word, you need to

  1. Find the sentence you want
  2. Hover over your target word inside the sentence you just found
  3. Hit R

And that’s it. You will have a new Anki card with all the usual features plus your sample sentence wherever you specified in the format.

Here is an example of the back of an Anki card with an automatically added sentence. Of course you can have your own format (mine are a bit ugly and functional, I’m afraid), and you can have the definition in English (and an English translation of the sentence) if you want to:

click to enlarge

As you see, my setup (which is the one on the first screenshot on this page) has the kanji from the front plus the reading in hiragana, the definition and the sample sentence.

If you are getting your sentences from online reading the process is fully automatic: one keypress for everything. If you are using Rikaisama as an Anki-helper to add words you found elsewhere, you need to go find your own sample sentence. There are plenty of ways to do this. You can use DenshiJisho’s sentence function or the very extensive Weblio sentence database (both of which have English translations) or you can just Google for a sentence. And of course you can always type in the sentence from your book or anime (or copy from the subs file) if you want to use the sentence in which you originally found the word.

The advantage of this is that you can choose a sentence that you think exemplifies how the word is used or perhaps clarifies something not made clear by the definition.

You don’t need a sentence for every word. You can use your own judgment to decide which words would benefit from having an example sentence.

For most of us using Anki as an immersion assistant, this is more like semi-automation than the full automation of the rest of the Rikaisama-to-Anki card-making process, but it still streamlines the procedure and makes adding sample sentences a lot quicker  and easier – and therefore makes one rather likelier to do it!

And it is worth doing because when a sample sentence is needed, it can be a huge help in understanding the word.

Part of the Anki for self-immersionists Master-Class series

PPAP and Kanji Learning!

PPAP kanjiAs you may know, PPAP is sweeping Japan like a forest fire right now. You can hardly see a CM (TV commercial) without the ubiquitous Piko Taro sticking pens into non-existent apples and pineapples.

If you don’t know what I am talking about just Google it and you’ll get more information than you probably wanted.

Curiously enough, the basic concept of PPAP is ideallly suited to showing how kanji fit together. While this tiny video (under a minute) may only be useful to beginners in seeing how kanji are constructed, I think it’s fun for everyone! In fact if you’re anything like me you’ll probably end up watching it over and over!

Don’t worry – like PPAP itself, this video is mostly English (or something like it).

分かる vs 解る vs 判る – the Three Wakarus

As part of our ongoing series of “what’s the difference” kanji close-ups we look at the three ways of writing wakaru, which is usually – but very misleadingly – translated as “understand”.

Please don’t panic. Even at upper beginner level you don’t need to “learn” these. But you can get a lot from reading about them and gaining  a deeper understanding of the word wakaru – which is actually one of those “trap words” that makes Japanese less understandable overall if you – ahem – misunderstand it – that is, if you believe the textbooks that tell you it means “understand”.

So what does it mean? It has several shades of meaning, but let’s start off with the root-meaning, which is to “become clear”. The fundamental  wakaru kanji – 分 – shows a sword dividing something in half. Literally wakaru means that something becomes clearly distinguished from other things* – i.e., understood.

Sanseido dictionary’s first and most basic definition of the word is:

明白になる
Meihaku ni naru
Become clear

Not “understand”. Become clear – which includes “be clear” or “be understood”. In other words (most of the time) the thing being understood is the real subject of the sentence  (not the person doing the understanding as English prefers and the textbooks imply). Therefore the thing being understood is what takes the subject-marker ga-particle

(私は)日本語が分かる
(watashi wa) nihongo ga wakaru
“(in relation to me) Japanese is understandable”

Of course in English we say “I understand Japanese” and that is a valid “loose translation”. But it matters that we know what is really being said because if we don’t we will become very confused about what the ga and wa particles are really doing in this sentence and about the structure of Japanese as a whole.

This is explained more fully in Unlocking Japanese, which shows you how clear and regular the language really is, as opposed to the rather complicated and confusing way the standard Western grammar texts teach it.

All right. So what about the three ways of writing it? They are all pronounced the same and all get the same dictionary definition, regardless of which kanji is used. So does it matter which kanji is used?

Japanese texts that try to give English equivalents say

「分かる」=know.「解る」=understand.「判る」=prove or judge.

However, they are following the Western translations and giving rise to the same misunderstandings. So let’s go a little deeper and see what Japanese texts independent of English tell us.

The first thing wrong with the above definitions is what I have already told you. It is important to realize that they should have said “be known”, “be understood”, “be judged or proved (to be)”.

The second problem is that it is misleading to suggest that 分かる has a separate meaning. You will see 分かる used in all three senses a lot of the time. That is why I don’t advise people who are not intermediate to try learning them. You probably won’t encounter the other two in simpler texts.

What happens – as with the different kanji for kiku (hear) and many others – is that the less common kanji are used in writing to hone the word down to a more exact meaning. Also, if you see either or both of the others used in a text, you can assume that when 分かる is chosen, it is chosen advisedly to give its particular implications. Otherwise, it very often isn’t.

So let’s look at them from the Japanese perspective.

The implication of 判る

判る easy to remember because it is really just 分かる with the sword and the halving arranged horizontally rather than vertically.

This is the kanji used in 判明 hanmei “(with suru) establish or prove”, 判断 handan “judgment” etc.

In a phrase like

犯人がわかる
han’nin ga wakaru
“It has become known (to us) who the criminal is” (in English this might be “We now know who the criminal is”).

Clearly the “judgment” element is present. The “correct” – or better, the precise – form is 判る.

Equally with

身元がわかる
mimoto ga wakaru
“His background has become known (to me/us/them)” (in English probably “I/we/they now know his background”).

The implication is of having been able to form a judgment on something previously unknown – or to put it closer to the Japanese, if somewhat more awkwardly in English – something having become the subject of an accurate judgment or investigation.

Note that the “understander” is not the grammatical subject and is not even visibly present in these statements as she is in English equivalents. We will know who the understander is from an explicit or implicit wa-statement drawn from context. This may sound complicated but it really isn’t at all once you understand it. Japanese six-year-olds use it with ease. Find out how you can too in Unlocking Japanese.

 

The implication of 解る

If you are intermediate you certainly know this kanji from words like 解く which all have to do with unraveling or untangling. If not, you can remember it as a 牛cow in the 角corner having her matted hair untangled with a 刀sword. Note that the sword-element is common to all three wakarus.

解 appears in words like 解釈 kaishaku “explanation” and 理解 rikai “understand” (this is the word you want when you really want to say “understand”, not wakaru).

So when you say

日本語がわかる
Nihongo ga wakaru
“Japanese is understandable (to me)”

解 is the most exact kanji, though more often than not it will in fact be written 分かる.

 

Implication of 分かる

As you see, you can’t really judge the special implications of 分かる much of the time, but it does have the implication of “be(come) known” which is not appropriate to either of the others.

To give a simple example of how these kanji can sometimes be useful: if someone asks “what is the oldest a turtle has ever lived?” in Japanese and you answer “わからない wakaranai” there could be a confusion over whether you mean “I don’t know how long a turtle has lived” or “I don’t understand the question”. If you could specifically say 解らない wakaranai it would be clear that you meant the latter.

If you said 判らない the implication would be “that is not something on which (I am) able to form a judgment” and if 分からない were taken in its exclusive sense it would mean “I do not have that information” – which is probably the most likely interpretation of the spoken phrase unless there were reasons to suppose one of the others (such as being a foreigner, which might lead the questioner to be unsure that you had understood).

To sum up – you can always use 分かる in any of the senses on this page. You will never be wrong. If you use one of the others, be careful to use it correctly


* It isn’t a coincidence that the two words wakareru both mean separating.


https://www.amazon.com/Unlocking-Japanese-Making-simple-really/dp/1539485501/

湿る vs 濡れる Shimeru vs Nureru – the wet kanji

What is the difference between 湿る shimeru and  濡れる nureru?

The answer here is very simple. (Become) damp vs wet.

湿る shimeru shows ⺡– “water” falling on the ground and being sucked up by the 日– “sun”. The kanji is often used for atmospheric moisture, but it can refer to anything damp or somewhat wet, as opposed to really soaked.

The main on-reading of 湿る shimeru  is shitsu. You want to know this as it appears in a lot of compounds like 湿度 shitsudo – “humidity level” and 湿気 shikke – “humidity, dampness”.

Note that in 湿気 shikke  the つtsu of しつshitsu is replaced by っsmall-tsu to become しっけ shikke. This is absolutely regular and happens almost all the time when a つtsu is followed by an unvoiced consonant in making a compound word.

So remember that damp things shimmer. And you can think of damp sheets shimmering on the washing line for both kun and on readings.

濡れる means wet. Like soaking. You see there is both ⺡– “water” and 雨 – “rain” and also a 而 – “rake”. Why a rake? Well, it is that kind of wet that if you just raked the ground the grooves turn into little rivers.

If you need a mnemonic, just remember to keep new rare things out of the rain, or they will get soaked and ruined.

What about the on reading(s)? Well, unlike 湿, 濡 does not have many on-compounds that are much used. Most compound words use the kun-reading. So I really wouldn’t bother about the on-readings at the learning-the-word stage*. This is one of the reasons why blindly learning on-readings from lists is inefficient and wastes a lot of time.

Note that both 湿るshimeru and 濡れるnureru have transitive すsu-versions: 湿すshimesu and 濡らすnurasu. If you know the First Law of Japanese Transitivity, you will find this entirely predictable and know exactly what they mean!


*Note: It isn’t necessary or recommended to learn on-readings when learning kanji organically as words, but these articles are primarily intended for tying together and clarifying the main points of words/kanji you already know. Of course if you learn them for the first time here – ♪bing-bong-BONUS

The warm kanji: 温かい vs 暖かい. What’s the difference?

As you probably know, the word あたたかい atatakai (warm) can be written in two different ways: 温かい or 暖かい. Is there a difference between them?

Yes there is, and actually it is a fairly obvious one, but I think it is a little less well known to learners than similar differences in other temperature-words.

Of course you know, unless you are a very early beginner, that there are two words for cold: 寒い samui, which means cold weather or ambient temperature, and 冷たい tsumetai, which means a cold object, cold hands, a cold drink etc.

You probably also know that there are two forms of あつい atsui (hot), which correspond directly to the two words for cold: 暑い (atsui with a double dose of sun) is hot weather or ambient temperature, 熱い (atsui with a fire under it) is a hot object.

So it isn’t too surprising to learn that atatakai does the same thing – though not quite as absolutely.

tsume-chan暖かい usually means warm weather or ambient temperature.  I see this one as 爪 tsumechan lifting her 友 friend into the warm 日 sunshine.

Oh – you haven’t met tsume-chan yet, have you? Some day I would like to do a book introducing my personal kanji-element characters.  Tsume-chan is the 爪 element – a happy UFO-catcher claw who rescues her friends from all kinds of danger. For example, she helps 子 childrenfloat when they fall in the 氵water.

ufo-catcherShe looks like a UFO because she works in a UFO Catcher when she isn’t out on rescue missions.

Anyway, enough of that. I do love my characters!

The only other thing to remember about 暖 is that its usual on-reading is dan, as in 暖房 danbou (interior heating) and 暖炉 danro (hearth fire).

温かい is more prone to mean a warm object, warm water etc. From the kanji, warm water might seem to be a primary meaning. It is easy to remember that the 日 sun warms water in a 皿 dish .

The on reading of 温 is on. Easy to remember if you think of 温泉 onsen (a warm-water spring or spa).

The two atatakai forms are not as absolutely distinguished as samui and tsumetai, and there is some crossover between them. 暖 especially seems to cross over into the area of things that warm the body, like a warm coat or a hot (i.e., warming) drink. It also seems much less used than 温 for metaphorical warmth (warm-heartedness etc), just as a cold-hearted person would be described as tsumetai, not samui.

While the two are not absolutely distinguished, if you bear in mind their general tendencies it will help you to use them in a natural-sounding way (for your own use you can treat them as equivalent to samui and tsumetai on the warm end of the scale) and to catch the nuance when you see them used.

Note that both forms of atata(kai) are used to make the two verbs atatamaru and atatameru. This is a regular maru-meru transitivity pair, so if you know the Honorary Fourth Law of Japanese Transitivity, you will know exactly what the words mean!

Kanji Distinctions – 初 vs 始 : Cloak ‘n’ Dagger vs the Lady on the Pedestal

kanjiThere are a number of words in Japanese that have the same pronunciation and roughly the same meaning but can be written with two or more different kanji.

In some cases the two are interchangeable, but often they have a subtle difference in implication and sometimes a distinctly different (though related) meaning.

I am going to be covering some of these over the next little while. So let’s begin at the beginning!

Hajimeru means “begin”. But it can be written in two ways:

始める

and

初める

Does it matter which one we use?

In this case, there is a distinct difference between the two. They both mean “begin”, but they mean it in different senses. Let’s look at them.

 

kanji初 – Cloak ‘n’ Dagger at the Beginning of Time

This one I call “cloak ‘n’ dagger” since it is made up of the kanji elements for clothes and sword.

It means begining in the time sense. The first time something is done or the beginning of something (in a time sense), for example:

初めは怖かった
hajime wa kowakatta
(it was) scary at first / (I was) scared at first

It is often used in the form hajimete, meaning “for the first time”. For example:

日本は初めてですか
nihon wa, hajimete desu ka?
Is this (your) first (visit to) Japan?

The construction actually makes more sense if we render it according to the system in Unlocking Japanese:

“Speaking of Japan, is this (your) first time?”

unlocking-japanese-ad3

 

Cloak ‘n’ Dagger sounds like an old show, doesn’t it? Useful to remember, because the on-reading of 初 is regularly sho, unlike 始, whose on-reading is regularly shi.

 

kanji始 – The Lady on the Pedestal, Starting to Act

始is made up of the elements 女 (female) and 台 (platform or pedestal).

This 始める refers to action rather than time. It doesn’t mean “the first time I did something” but “beginning to do something”, sometimes a subtle distinction, but quite definite. In

仕事を始めよう
Shigoto wo hajimeyou
Let’s start work

we are taking action. Work isn’t just “starting” at a particular time. We are actively starting to work.

Sometimes the two kanji can be used in similar circumstances, but 初 is always stressing the first time or beginning period of something. 始 is stressing taking action.

So when you see the lady mount the stage or pedestal, you know that she is always about to do something. And shi is also the regular on-reading for this kanji.

It doesn’t always have to be a person acting. It can be a thing. For example:

夜が明け始めた
yoru ga akehajimeta
Dawn began to break

Note that ga. As explained in Unlocking Japanese, it always marks the actor, the subject. Literally, the sentence means “night began to clear”, and night, the actor, is doing something. It is becoming light/clear. Thus the pedestal lady is the correct kanji.

Hajimemashite

So does it matter which one we use for hajimemashite? In my early days I used to write this one in kana because I could never quite remember.

Hajimemashite, sometimes vaguely translated as “pleased to meet you”, actually means “this is the beginning (of our acquaintanceship)”, so the correct kanji is 初 (cloak ‘n’ dagger, the time-beginner).

Armed with this knowledge you will have a clearer idea of the meaning of words using these kanji as well as a nearly-always-correct idea how to pronounce them in two-kanji on-reading words.

始 is very consistently shi, but remember that 初, while mostly sho, is sometimes hatsu, as in 初恋 hatsukoi (first love). People with cloaks and daggers often have hats pulled down over their eyes too!

unlocking-japanese-ad3

The Key to Kanji Learning

There aren’t many shortcuts to learning Japanese. But there is at least one, and we want to share it with you!

People say that there is no Golden Key to the kanji. You just have to learn them. Preferably as words, bit by bit, organically.

But while there is no Golden Key, there is a Silver Key that can help enormously.

You can get it right here. The cost is – free, ’cause Dolly loves you!

It can help you to recognize kanji you only half-know. It can help you to guess the pronunciation of kanji you don’t know at all. It can help you with words where you know the sound but are very vague on the appearance of the kanji, and conversely it can help you with words where you know the kanji but don’t remember the pronunciation.

number-one-kanji-hackYou can get it right here. The cost is – free, ’cause Dolly loves you!

It can help you learn the kanji in the first place, and it can help tie together the triplicity of sound, meaning and appearance. It even talks to you (audio on every card).

The secret of this kanji hack is that there are a number – something under 100 – of kanji elements that pretty regularly indicate the on-reading of a kanji (the one usually used in two-or-more-kanji words, which make up the majority of Japanese words). I introduced an important selection of them in my Sound-Sisters article. I have now made a Complete Sound Sisters Anki deck with all the main Sound Sisters (including many not in the article).

I am not a fan of learning kanji in the abstract. I am especially not a fan of trying to learn kanji readings in the abstract. However, the leverage involved in learning the full Sound Sister set is so huge that (pragmatist as I am) I make an exception in this case.

For the investment of mastering a very small set of kanji elements and their sounds (the main part of it will take a week or so at a few minutes a day), one has in one’s hand a key that will make kanji much, much easier. It affects many thousands of words and a substantial proportion of all the Joyo kanji.

key-to-learning-kanjiYou can get it right here. The cost is – free, ’cause Dolly loves you!

This deck includes the fundamental 90 most common and regular Sound-Sisters elements, main examples of the kanji they appear in, audio and mnemonics for each of them, and other notes where appropriate.

Using the Deck

The deck is designed to be used in conjunction with the Sound Sisters article, which groups together similar sounds with mnemonic narrative. It helps you to learn the elements there and a large number of others.

Download the deck, unzip it (your computer will likely do that for you automatically) and add it to your Anki.

Pro tips:

Use the deck in conjunction with the Sound Sisters page. Remember that you will only need the mnemonics for a short time.

Remember that sounds may sometimes appear as their voiced variants – ひょう as びょう, さい as ざい etc.

You will “finish” the deck quite shortly as it is a small deck by Anki standards. After that, either keep it in your deck-list and run through it when reviews appear, or merge it with your main deck (but don’t do that until the reviews have dropped off to zero or very few most days).

Apply what you’ve learned. Use it to help you learn kanji as words. Also do some Sister-spotting while reviewing words, even with kanji you already know. This gets you used to the Sisters and helps to cement the whole process. You will also be using it to firm up still-learning words where you are a bit shaky on the appearance and/or pronunciation.

You can get it right here. The cost is – free, ’cause Dolly loves you!

Half-Sisters

Another importance of knowing the Sound Sisters is that working with them helps one to be more aware of the many other sound-connections in kanji.

There are a lot of Sound Half-Sisters: that is, sound relationships that are not regular enough to be included in the deck, but certainly very useful. Rather than learning them in the abstract it is best to become aware of them in an organic manner. But the use of the regular Sound Sisters is excellent training for spotting and using the Half-Sisters.

For example, the hyou/byou of 平等 byoudou is found in 評価 hyouka and 評判 hyouban and we will find it in other places too. 忍 and 認 are nin most of the time (the nin of 忍者 ninja).

Such examples are either not regular enough or do not govern enough kanji to be full Sound Sisters, but once we become attuned to these links by using the main Sound Sisters we will find this sort of thing quite often and it is very useful.

斉, sei on her own, is sai/zai often enough (剤, 済, 斎) that I almost included her as a full Sound Sister*. I may do so in a future edition of the deck (of course subscribers will receive any updates as they come along).

This really shows how fluid the situation is, and how getting a feel for the sound-associations of kanji elements can help so enormously.

Some of this really has to work organically, by reading, making friends with kanji, and getting used to Japanese.

But with a set of nearly 100 reasonably regular Sound Sisters that are easily assimilated, we can give the organic process a huge kick-start.

You can get it right here. The cost is – free, ’cause Dolly loves you!

___
* We did eventually includein the deck.

Avoid Kanji Overload! And write Japanese like a native

kanji-overloadOne thing that immediately marks a Japanese language novice may surprise you.

In many cases they use too many kanji.

Yes, I know. Learning kanji is a big challenge in Japanese. Surely it is good to know as many as possible? Yes it is. And it is good to know when to use them and when not to as well.

Writing 有難う for ありがとう, 晩御飯 for 晩ご飯, 居る for いる etc. tends to look strange, stiff or over-formal, or in the case of someone who is clearly a learner, just as if she doesn’t know how Japanese is normally written.

This isn’t to say that no Japanese person ever uses these kanji, but they do so at particular times and for particular reasons and usually wouldn’t use all these in one sentence.

For example, I knew a sensei who wrote 有難う. This was because her correspondence was extra-formal and polite. Sometimes people will write, say, 居る to distinguish it from 要る, though in most cases they write いる for both.

They may also write a more-often-kana word in kanji when a sentence seems a bit too over-kana-ized. Most Japanese people find a long sentence that is nearly all kana and one that is a wall of kanji about equally awkward and prefer a balance.

You may have heard of 中二病 chuunibyou, literally “second year of junior-high disease”. Symptoms are: being overly self-conscious, believing that one has special powers, and, among other things, using far too many kanji. That last symptom is not surprising, as in junior high school Japanese children learn the second thousand joyo kanji. In other words they learn as many kanji in three years as they learned in the previous six years.

They are being crammed with kanji and they kind of want to show them off. Interestingly they are in a somewhat similar position to Western learners who started with Heisig. If you follow the Heisig method rigorously, you know nearly all regular-use kanji before you know any Japanese at all. And of course you want to use them.

In the case of chuunibyou, kanji over-use is deliberate. But of course Heisig users have less choice in the matter since they know the kanji but have very little experience of how Japanese is normally written. As you probably know, I favor learning kanji more organically along with the language itself. However, Heisig works well for some people and I would never decry it. But if one uses that approach one should be sure to use one’s shiny new kanji with caution.

There are no words that are absolutely never written in kanji (assuming they have kanji) but there are many that are almost always written in kana unless there is a very particular reason for using the kanji. There are others that are written in kana most of the time but the kanji is used between, say, 5% and 40% of the time depending on the word.

“Oh no, more to learn!”, you may say. Well, fortunately it isn’t that difficult. The real solution is massive input. Lots of reading. You will soon get the feel for when and when not to use a kanji. Massive input is necessary anyway if you are ever going to pick up real Japanese, and fortunately for us all, it makes a lot of the dry study unnecessary. So solving the kanji problem is just icing on the cake.

The super-simple solution to the kanji-overload problem

However, there is a quick-and-cheap answer to this question too, which is invaluable while you are still inexperienced..

Whenever you are in doubt, use Denshi Jisho or Rikaisama (or Rikaichan -kun -tan). All of them flag some words with “uk” or “usually written in kana alone”. If you aren’t sure where to use kanji, simply make sure to write these words in kana.

It isn’t a perfect solution, but it will make your writing look 90% more natural than just using every kanji you know.

The perfect solution comes from immersion, and you will have it in time. Immersion cures everything! Except possibly the common cold.

I will end with a few notes that you may find helpful. Please feel free to add to these in the comments below.

こと/事 is written as kanji in compounds like 出来事, but when used as a nominalizer is almost always written in kana.

Similarly, while 言う as a word is more often written in kanji, という in nominalizing and similar uses is usually written in kana.

These uses are probably somewhat related to the fact that common verbs attached to other verbs are very often written in kana. So 来る is common but it is nearly always やってくる, not やって来る;持っていくrather than 持って行く.

It is worth remembering that small, basic words when concrete, like 日, 人, 小さい, 大きい etc. are usually written with kanji. But when abstract and grammatical, like また, など, ある etc. they are usually written in kana. Again the Rikai and dictionaries flag the latter group with “uk”, so you are safer if you follow that.

Few of these rules are absolute. Japanese is quite free about when and when not to use kanji. However Japanese people make the decision on a number of grounds and on the basis of what effect they want to produce at a given time. At an early stage this is not possible to a learner and simply using kanji everywhere possible produces very unnatural-looking Japanese.

So the best advice is to begin by following the “uk” guidelines in Rikai or whatever you use and grow into a fuller understanding of kanji usage with massive input.

You are growing up in Japanese. Like a child you learn day by day, and like a child there is no short-cut to full knowledge. But luckily these little tricks can help you to write Japanese in a much more natural-looking way.

Ojousama: the Aristocratic Young Lady and Her Kanji

Ojousama: a complex character but fine when you get to know her
Ojousama: a complex character but fine when you get to know her

A lot of people consider Ojousama to be a complicated character, and if you look at her portrait to the right you can see why.

The central part of お嬢さま ojousama is 嬢 jou (the rest is simply honorific o and sama, of course).

It is one of the more complicated kanji. Its right-hand section consists of 六 six, 井 well and the regular truncated form of 衣 clothes.

(If you want to know why a well looks like 井 you may want to go to this post on the forums.)

The right section together means “soft” and is a bit obscure. So we are going to associate it with ojousama herself:

ojousama-by-the-wellOjousama is a young 女 lady in beautiful 衣 clothing who comes upon 六 six 井 wells.

If we remember this little story we can remember Ojousama and we can use her to remember the other kanji in which her right-hand element appears. The most important of these is 譲 which we find in 譲る yuzuru which means to hand over or yield.

譲 is the Ojousama kanji with a word 言 as its left, type-defining radical, instead of a 女 girl. When Ojousama 言 speaks in her gentle voice, people hand over anything she wants. It is love, not usury (sound-mnemonic).

Another word with the Ojousama kanji is 醸 which means “brew” both literally (brewing wine or beer) and figuratively, (to cause or bring about, as in English “brew trouble”). This is the Ojousama right hand with 酒 sake, alcohol (without its own left liquid-definer) its left, type-defining, radical.

In the old days, brewing wasn’t done in factories but was a woman’s job. Ojousama is a fine lady and one of her activities is brewing fine sake.

There are other kanji with Ojousama’s right-hand side. We don’t need to learn them all now. In fact we don’t need to learn any of them now unless we want to. We can just learn Ojousama, and pick up the others as we come to them (譲る yuzuru is a particularly useful one).

This is a good example of how using the organic method of learning kanji, we often take the first or most striking or picturesque word that we come across using a particular kanji sub-section and then use that to remember other words with the same sub-section.


Six wells? Don’t magical things come in sevens? Actually Ojousama herself is the seventh 井 well, because she is so well-衣 dressed.