Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Kanji lesson from a complete Japanese novice

I'm really impatient with learning grammar and have a much better memory for vocab, so with my ample down time (students are taking exams now and don't need my foreign clown services) I've been studying kanji. I enjoy this for a few reasons: it feels sort of like art, albeit within very strict parameters, and therefore something even a simple drawing-impaired person like me can do. Basically just like cooking--if you can follow recipe instructions, you can make something regardless of how uncreative you are in the kitchen. I've also been meeting with the calligraphy teacher here and doing a lesson exchange (she teaches me calligraphy and tries not to laugh, I teach her English and try not to laugh) and learning kanji in a very "JAPANESE CULTURE" sort of way.
Another study incentive is that I am tickled by seeing how Japanese words are built with kanji. Sometimes it seems really simplistic and silly, as in:

大人 (otona) -- This means adult, and has the kanji for big (大) and the kanji for person (人). So, adult = big person.

火山 (kazan) -- This means volcano, and comprises the kanji for fire (火) and mountain (山).

But then sometimes words are made of kanji combinations that I find quite poetic, as in:

空想 (kuusou) -- Daydream; fantasy. 空 means sky and 想 means idea.

里心 (satogokoro) -- Homesick. 里 means village or one's parents' home; 心 is heart.

赤道 (sekidou) -- Equator. 赤 is red and 道 is road.

It makes me wish I could somehow read Japanese novels or poems in the original, to see how having metaphor built right into the very words of the language impacts the authors' choices. I've noticed in the few translated Japanese books I've read that the writing seems straightforward to the point of being almost stiff, but I wonder if that's just a failure of rendering already-descriptive and evocative kanji words into English. You know what I mean? Maybe Japanese writers feel less compelled than, say, your average American MFA student to aim for particularly brilliant lyricism in their sentences because it's already right there in each word (sky idea, red road, etc.) Maybe someone who actually knows Japanese and isn't a total poser like myself can enlighten us.

I leave you with my (so far) favorite poetic kanji compound: 無口 (mukuchi) which means laconic and is made up of the kanji 無 for un- or without, and the kanji 口 for mouth.

I am definitely with mouth, though.


  1. I like this post a lot.

    Although kanji is my weakest point in Japanese I also like seeing how characters are combined to create abstract ideas.

    It gets even deeper and more abstract (arguable insignificant) when you consider that most kanji, on an individual level, are made up of radicals--small kanji building blocks, each with basic individual meanings. A lot of the time the radical is scrunched up on the side or the top of the kanji, but it can help you guess the meaning of a character you have never encountered before, just like knowing Latin and Greek roots can help you guess the meaning of an English word you don't know.

    It is all quite poetic. It really is a form of art.

  2. Dude you know way more about kanji than i do. Keep it up!

  3. So interesting, Alanna! Thank you for this brief intro to the art form. Learn enough to make yourself dangerous . . . and to be a big hit at family gatherings where everyone will beg you to write their names in kanji. You could write any visually lovely set of characters, ("Yes, Harold, this is your name"), only to have them mean something like "woman dress odd", or "boy horse lazy". Or other random constellations of meaning known only to you. I'm just sayin' you could have fun with this Stateside . . .

  4. Mike--Yeah, so far I am like, "Oh, there's a kokoro in this kanji!" but that doesn't always get me too far... I've been studying them a lot though, because I do find it a really fascinating system, and also because I'm lazy about learning grammar.

    Maggie--I hope to get to the point where I can make fun of white people's kanji tattoos that don't say "strength" or "spirit" but really "horse's ass" or some such thing.