The Heisig Method In Use
Let’s look at a common Kanji. The general meaning of this Kanji is “village." Some people will try to remember it by repeatedly writing down this same character. The problem with this technique is that they will not be using the Kanji anytime soon so, there is a good chance they will forget both the meaning and how it is written.
So what to do then? Use flashcards? That can work as well, through repetition. What if there was an easier to way to remember this Kanji, though, without going through the hassle of flashing the same card hundreds of times or writing the same character over and over again? This is when the Heisig method comes into play.
The idea is to use your imaginative memory instead of your visual memory.
In Heisig’s own words:
“[…]if we could discover a limited number of basic elements in the characters and make a sort of alphabet out of them, assigning to each its own image, fusing them together to form other images, and so building up complex tableaux in imagination, the impasse created by purely visual memory might be overcome."
(Remembering the Kanji, p.3)
Let us return to our example of 町. Instead of seeing the character as jumbled mess of strokes and shapes, let’s deconstruct them, as in reverse engineering. Split the character right in the middle and we will get two distinct parts:
Suppose the square shaped symbol (#1) represents a field in your imaginative memory. Picture a rice field in your mind, flooded with water with green sprouts scattered here and there. That is half of your kanji already vivid in your memory.
Now look at the “T" shaped character on the right. With little to no effort, one can see a certain resemblance to a sign, such as a street sign. Imagine a sign, wooden and weathered.
Now that we have depicted both “elements" of our deconstructed Kanji in our mind, it is time to, as Heisig puts it, fuse them together in a third and final mental recollection. The idea here is to put both visual memories in a third one, which represents the general meaning of the Kanji that is to be learned, in this case “village."
In other words, all is left to do is to imagine a field at the entrance of a village in the distance with a sign next to it, indicating the name of the village and how far it is. Of course, there is not a single story for everyone and it is best if you come up with you are a story of your own that is going to be the most vivid in your mind.