Kanji Isn’t So Hard Afterall!

A while back on the Japan Times, a Japanese newspaper for foreign readers, there was a tribute to a writer named Mary Sisk Noguchi who wrote for 30 years in the Japan times. Sadly, she died in 2012 from cancer at the age of 56. She was the author of a website called the Kanji Clinic which helped foreign readers learn Kanji while having fun.

Mary’s story is interesting:

Although Mary spoke very fluent Japanese, she wasn’t yet able to write well. “It wasn’t as if she hadn’t tried to learn kanji, but she found it hard going,” her husband says. “Then one day, an older Japanese colleague cited her inability as proof of the commonly held view that only Japanese and Chinese could master kanji. In other words, that it was too hard for foreigners raised in the West.”

Mary was really hurt by this comment, but later she found Professor Heisig’s book Remembering the Kanji. The same book I’ve been using. She found the method more effective than the traditional method, and she became an expert on the subject.

But this belief that foreigners (particularly non-Asians) can’t learn Kanji is still a persistent myth. The idea is that if you don’t spend your youth learning kanji, or exposed to it constantly, you’ll never really learn it. It’s the same kind of myth that says you can’t learn a language as an adult. Sometimes this myth is also used to somehow explain that Asian “minds” are “different” than Western minds, etc.

But really, all of this is nonsense. The problem is not the people, but the method of teaching and learning. If you use the right method, kanji can be learned easily. After using the Heisig method for 1 year (while raising 2 kids), I know more than 800 kanji, and can confidently write them without having to use a dictionary. I had to follow the method strictly, but it definitely worked. Plus, I already knew how to read many more kanji because I read Japanese manga so much and learned them by convergence.

So, if you’re learning Chinese or Japanese, don’t feel discouraged because you’re not the right ethnicity. Just experiment with different methods until you find something that’s effective and sustainable.

Similarly, if you’re learning English, and the grammar rules and spellings drive you crazy, don’t give up. Instead, try different methods until you find something that works. Millions of people of different ethnic backgrounds speak fluent English, so there’s nothing to stop you from becoming fluent too.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

2 thoughts on “Kanji Isn’t So Hard Afterall!”

  1. Great post! It took me quite a while (many years) to learn to read most common kanji, but that might have been because I didn’t follow any specific program. I learned the first few hundred using flashcards I made myself, but the rest I learned by just looking up words I didn’t know which I came across during reading.

    One thing I focused on that I think helped alot in the beginning is learning the meanings of all the common radicals.

    My biggest weak point with Kanji is that I can’t write that many characters. I’ve tried to learn, but because there are no few times when writing Kanji is really needed I always slack off. For now I’m happy enough with my kanji writing ability… with a keyboard.


    1. Hello,

      I too learned a lot of kanji through reading and through a kind of “convergence” of words I encountered but I still couldn’t write them. I found that the Heisig really helps fill in that gap nicely and can reliably write about 850 kanji or so. It doesn’t help with readings that much but helps a ton with the writing aspect.

      Being able to comfortably write kanji in birthday cards and letters does feel kind of liberating. Kanji seem mysterious until you know them and then they seem perfectly normal. :-p


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