Kanji, how does it make sense?

A page of kanji practice

When I first started learning Japanese, I was very intimidated by the concept of learning so many Kanji. A basic knowledge is about 2000 characters, but there are loads more!!! I am reading a book about learning Japanese, which is written by a man whose father was a newspaper editor. He believes his father’s repertoire of Kanji was around 20,000. Wow….. how could you remember so many.  46 Hiragana, 46 Katakana and thousands of Kanji…. it is a little overwhelming. I am still somewhat intimidated by the characters, but am, slowly but surely, starting to remember them.

Japanese children learn 1006 Kanji in primary school, and another 1,130 by the 9th grade. This is considered the level of fluency required to read a newspaper. Of course learning Kanji continues throughout school and into university.

Kanji are Chinese characters. The Japanese borrowed the characters from Chinese as they had no written language until the 5th century AD. During the Heian Period (794-1185) the Japanese developed their own script, which when used with the characters, enable Japanese grammar rules to be followed. Because of the way it was developed most Kanji have two readings (at least) a Chinese reading, called on’yomi and a Japanese reading, called kun’yomi. The Chinese reading is usually pictorial in meaning and is used for singular Kanji. The Japanese reading is more likely when you find two or more Kanji together.

Some Kanji have many strokes, 18 or more (I found one which has 29) and there is a definite order you must follow in order  to form the characters correctly.It is very awkward and difficult at first, as it feels so very different from writing English, but over time and with increased confidence, writing Kanji becomes quite satisfying. I love forming the characters. I find them beautiful.

My first time in Japan I started recognising commonly used Kanji, such as 川(kawa- river) and 空 (sora- sky). I then started noticing these Kanji everywhere. The Kanji for sky also means empty or vacant, and is used on taxis and car park signs. So, even when I couldn’t read the characters, I was able to deduce some of the meaning. This is where I find Kanji really makes sense. The Kanji used for now- 今(ima) also makes up today- 今日 (kyou, the Kanji for now and day) and this year -今年 (kotoshi- the Kanji for now and year). So even if I didn’t know the readings I would still understand the meaning. While initially daunting, I find this makes so much logical sense, especially from the perspective of teaching children to read. It is an excellent challenge and one I hope I will eventually master, to some degree.

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