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Not Just a Mess of Strokes
To the untrained eye, a kanji might very well end up looking like a jumbled mess of random strokes. This is why having some general and yet essential knowledge about this aspect of the Japanese language might very well prove determinant.
In order to understand the underlying logic when it comes to Kanji, pay close attention to the following analogy.
Simply picture a house. If I asked you to describe this house, you would probably say, “There’s a roof, two windows, a door..." In other words, you’d end up identifying the different components that make up the house instead of describing every single stroke that composes the picture.
A Kanji follows more or less the same structure. Instead of seeing each and every Kanji as a complicated maze of strokes, one simply has to identify the different components and remember their locations.
Much like a skilled craftsman could pinpoint the different materials used in building a certain house, an experimented student of Japanese can easily identify the combinations of different components (called primitive elements) that make up every Kanji.
An actual list of the primitive elements is hard to come by on the Internet but can actually be found in the book Remembering the Kanji by James W. Heisig.
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The Method in Use
Each and every element can be associated with a certain abstract meaning to facilitate memorization. Allow me to demonstrate the structure of Kanji with an example.
Let’s take the Kanji representing risk: 冒. Now, instead of visualizing this Kanji as a combination of multiple strokes, try to examine its global structure. Of how many elements do you think it is made, and what do you think they represent individually?
This Kanji is actually made up of two distinct elements: sun and eye.
So, as you can see, there’s very little you have to memorize about this Kanji. Besides the two primitive elements, all you have to remember are their respective locations.
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A Step Further
Let’s stick to the Kanji for “risk." Now that you have understood that it is actually made of up of two actual primitive elements---the top one representing a flaring sun while the bottom one represents an eye---let us develop a bit further our memorization technique.
The key to remembering a Kanji is to link its different primitive elements into a short, meaningful story. For example, the Kanji for risk is made up of a “sun" standing on top of an “eye." All there is to be done is to try to make up a story involving the “sun" and an “eye," which are related to the meaning “risk." For example: “It’s risky to look directly into the sun."
This method can be applied to every single Kanji there is; all you need is some imagination. Don’t worry about making up stories that are really far fetched; sometimes the weirdest stories make up the easiest ones to remember.
Keep in mind, however, that Kanjis and primitive elements are not mutually exclusive. In other words, some characters can be used both as primitive elements (taking the role of building blocks) as well as Kanji (having their own intrinsic meaning). For example, 目can be used on its own as a Kanji but it can also be used as a primitive element as in 冒険.
I have prepared a short exercise to get this point across. Each of the following drawings were made by a young talented artist named Jonas Genevaz to whom I would like to express my sincere gratitude. After looking at each drawing (you may click the picture to get a larger version), try to make up your own, personal story for each Kanji. Note that I have written this exercise in the following way:
Kanji: (primitive element #1)+(primitive element #2)=meaning of the Kanji.
払: Finger+elbow=to pay.
Having a hard time figuring out your own stories? I have prepared some flashcards to get you started. They are avaible for download at Japanese Kanji Flashcards, but I have also provided them here:
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A Fun and Intuitive Way to Learn the Japanese Kanji
This series of articles provide different approaches to learning the Japanese Kanji. Those approaches provide fun and practical tips to easily learn and remember the Japanese Kanji. Also included are articles explaining the different readings of the Kanji and other useful information.