“Think again, Dylan,” Kanji said, locking his gaze. “I’m the best goddamned friend you’ve ever had.”

Note: Dylan represents you in this scenario.

Japanese learners rejoice–for you have a friend. A friend in kanji. Yes, I daresay that kanji is the best–goddamned, mind you–friend a Japanese learner can have. Not convinced? SIT DOWN BEFORE I THROTTLE YOU FROM BEYOND THE CYBERNET. LISTEN.

Kanji. They are many, but they are FAIR. Mostly fair. Now before you get nauseous, I’ll slow it down; dim the lights; explain where I’m coming from, and I ain’t talking about DeWitt Hospital, although that is technically where I came from.

Kanji. People come up to me on the street or at kanji conventions and they say “Hey Gret! I mean Greg! How come you learn Japanese so good?! Ain’t them kanji a disconcerting state of affairs, nnhyah?!”

“Well,” I say to those people, “whether it’s true or not that I ‘learn Japanese good’, the fact of the matter is, kanji is probably the sole reason I’ve stuck with it for so long. Do you know that when I started Japanese, I didn’t even know the difference between sushi and General Tsao’s chicken?! Any dimwitted schmo can deal with kanji. Hell, every Japanese and Chinese person enrolled in school deals with it, and my experience dictates that all schools are full of dimwitted schmoes.”

If the person is still listening after all that, I go into my “Kanji is good” spiel, which is the one where I say that even in English we have kanji, except that instead of kanji they’re Latin and Greek word roots. And instead of being hard as balls to write and remember, they’re hard as balls to spell and remember. And instead of looking awesome and sweet, they look totally bland and bogus. They are also less standardized since English’s roots are numerous and indistinguishable to the untrained word-spewer. Or speweress.

Take the word archipelago. Wait, don’t go anywhere with it, just set it down. Yeah, there is fine. I WILL CUT YOU. Yes, archipelago. This is the same example Tony Laszlo used in his excellent essay on kanji in the excellent essay collection, “Inside Darling’s Mind”.

One might look at the word archipelago for the first time and say, “I don’t know what that means.”

“Guess,” another one might say.

“Uhh, I don’t know. Some kind of arched taco?”

“All tacos are arched.”

“Not soft tacos.”

“Get off my property.”

Now to be fair, that’s only one likely scenario. Another scenario might have you dealing with Professor Ed M. Ology of the Etymology department, who would proceed to explain that the word comes from the Italian word arcipelago, meaning “the Aegean Sea”, which in turn comes from the Greek roots arkhi-, meaning “chief”, and pelagos, meaning “sea”. The Aegean Sea, it turns out, is peppered with little islands. Over time, people came to use the word to express any sea containing a smattering of islands, and by association, the smattering of islands itself. Modernly, Hawaii is an archipelago. So is Japan. Maybe there’s an archipelago in your soup, which is itself also an archipelago in that case. If you’re a cereal eater, perhaps you’ve seen your fair share of archipelagO’s.

But wait, because it gets even more complicated. According to etymonline dot com, where I’ve spent a disconcerting amount of time over the past year, some etymologists claim that the word arkhipelagos has never been found in ancient or Medieval Greek texts, suggesting that its use in modern Greek comes from the Italian, which is in itself likely to be an evolution of the wrongly interpreted Greek phrase Aigaion pelagos (meaning Aegean Sea). The irony is so thick you could smear it on a Ganguro gal and she’d be ready for a night out. Heh, somebody write that down.

By comparison, the Japanese word for archipelago is 列島 (rettô). It is composed of two simple, familiar kanji: 「列」(retsu), meaning “line”, “row”, or “series”; and 「島」(tô), meaning “island”. Any Japanese third-grader knows these two kanji, and even supposing they don’t know the word rettô (although they do live in one), they could deduce its meaning at a quick glance, in the same way that an American child would likely be able to deduce the meaning of the phrase “island chain”. Kanji is simply a standardized set of word roots with a more visual presentation to ensure that every single one has a mnemonic attached. And as long as all words in any language are built on roots, shouldn’t we all be streamlining the learning process?

Yes, I said every single one has a mnemonic attached. In a few lucky cases, kanji even resemble what they mean to express. 森林 means “woodland” and is composed of the kanji for “forest” (森) and “grove” (林). You can probably guess what the kanji for “tree” is. Yeah, it’s (木). The kanji for “indentation” is 凹 and its antonym is 凸.

Granted, things can’t always be that simple, because you just can’t come up with one standard depiction for things like “dignity” or “sex appeal”. But fear not, comrade, for kanji has it under control. To cope with the vast richness of language, kanji are divided into several categories. A precious handful like those shown above are ideographic, and resemble the original pictograms carved into Chinese oracle bones in ancient times. Though not directly related to Egyptian hieroglyphics, they are conceptually alike. The bulk of kanji, however, are formed of two parts: a radical to indicate the general category of its meaning, and a radical or radicals to indicate its pronunciation. Kanji with the left radical 月 (“meat”/”flesh”, not to be mistaken with “moon”, which looks identical) generally have something to do with anatomy.

腸 (intestines)
臓 (organ)
肝 (liver)
胸 (chest)
脂 (fat)
脈 (blood vessel, pulse)
脚 (leg)

You get the idea. All of these have the “meat” radical on the left, indicating they are related to the body. The right side hints at the pronunciation, though unfortunately this is based on the original Chinese pronunciation and doesn’t always help much for Japanese. To be clear, though, this is Japan’s fault. The sad truth is that, fundamentally, Japanese is not particularly compatible with kanji. Koreans, who also used to use kanji, realized this long ago about their own language and have since developed a much simpler, even more awesome writing system. But that’s another post for another time. Still, in a language with as few sounds as Japanese, these hints offered by kanji are simply vital in memorizing vocabulary.

Here’s what I mean. Take the word archipelago again. The definition may not spring to mind if you’ve never seen it before, but it at least has a unique, memorable sound. It’s kinda fun, really. Archipelago. You could surf on that word. Once you’ve learned the word, you probably won’t forget it. In Japanese, though, they’ve only got a handful of sounds, so nearly everything is a homophone for something. Without some kind of visual symbol with which to associate them, few words will stick in your mind.

“I want you to remember the word chuushô,” your teacher or Japanese art history instructor might say.

“Uh, well, there’s about five hundred kanjis pronounced ‘chuu’ and another five hundred pronounced shô and about two thousand words pronounced chuushô, so how’s about narrowing it down for me, douche box?” you will respond.

“Well, just think the ‘chuu’ from ‘chuusen’ (‘raffle’) and the ‘shô’ from shôchô (‘symbol’).”

Voila. Now these pallid, generic-sounding syllables have a context. Welcome to flavor country. Even supposing you don’t know one of those two kanji, you can just have your friend explain the radicals of which they are composed. Kind of like asking how something is spelled. Kanji is a contextualizer. Similar to corporate logos, they are the reason Japanese-learners are able to memorize tens of thousands of words that all sound kind of the same. Embrace them, my pets. Embrace the contextualizing power of the kanji and rejoice–for they will never leave you alone in your time of need, Dylan.

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