Why the kanji are so hard to read.

General and high profile video game topics.
Posts: 758
Joined: December 31st, 1969, 7:00 pm

Why the kanji are so hard to read.

Postby Anayo1 » December 21st, 2009, 6:59 pm

 An American's Explanation of What the Japanese Kanji are Like

As a homeschooler, I insisted to my parents that I wanted to take Japanese as my high school foreign language. I did this cause I love wacky Japanese game shows, Studio Ghibli, and Japanese video games. I’ve never been to Japan; I guess I sorta imagined I’d stay at home and enjoy importing Japanese stuff to my house with the hard earned perk of being able to actually understand it. Persisting after high school as a weird and obsessive hobbyist, today I know about 584 kanji and can sorta read elementary school Japanese books. The reason I wrote this thing you're reading now is to explain to westerners like myself what makes the kanji so difficult to read.

When I first began kanji in 2007 I knew a few facts: there are about 5000 kanji total. To read decently, one needs to know 2000 kanji. I had some Japanese speaking westerners tell me it was possible to kinda slide by with 900-1000, but you'll have a hard time reading everything. As an American who uses the 23 Roman letters, I thought, “OK. That just means I need to memorize 2000 units of information.”

I was wrong. Gravely, gravely wrong. Let's take a moment to look at a kanji.

This guy means “picture”. Let’s look at some uses of this kanji.

画面 Ga-men (picture + surface) = display screen

映画 Ei-ga (reflect + picture) = a film/ movie

漫画 Man-ga (cartoon + picture) = a comic book

木炭画 Moku-tan-ga (tree + charcoal + picture) = a charcoal drawing

Now can you try to predict the meaning and pronunciation of this next word?

計画 Kei-??? (measure + picture)

If you’re like me, you probably think this is pronounced “kei-ga” and means “measure picture”. Maybe that means like a measuring tape or something. Actually, it’s pronounced “kei-kaku” and means “a plan/schedule.” Do not ask me how “ga” suddenly turned into “kaku”, or how “measure + picture” means “a schedule.” Welcome to two rules of kanji hell:

Rule 1 of kanji hell: The pronunciation of kanji can change for no reason whatsoever.

Rule 2 of kanji hell: A combination of 2 or more kanji can result in a word that makes no sense.

There are many more rules to kanji hell. Rule 3 is that a kanji can mean more than one thing without warning.  For instance,   脱 means  “escape” or “take your clothes off”. 長 means “long” or “someone in charge.” Sometimes there are two separate kanji that redundantly mean the same thing: like 身 and 体 both mean “body”, 者 and 人 both mean “person”, 青 and 緑 both mean “green.” The nuances between them do not make sense to the English speaking mind.

Rule 4 of kanji hell is that the strokes composing a kanji aren’t obligated to look like what the kanji means. Like 線, which means “line”, 円 which means “circle”, or 正方形 which means “square”.  My personal favorite is 簡単, which means “simple and easy.”

Imagine a system of meaning based characters with as many as a dozen strokes each with erratic readings, meanings, no pictoral correlation to the word they represent, and compound words that are abstract and arbitrary. Remember the “2000 units of information” figure I came up with? Imagine more like 2000 times 2000, cause there’s so many little case by case rules and exceptions and irregular readings that need to be memorized on a per case basis, each one of them arranged into every single possible combination. That is how the kanji work.


Although arduous, the kanji are not impossible to learn. They are just really, really, really time consuming; I mean five years or more of just studying every day. I've been at it for maybe two. I would not recommend undertaking kanji to anyone who doesn’t simply enjoy learning it. Personally I am the kind of guy who got A’s in writing and grammar English classes and invented my own fantasy language, so kanji are fun for me.

The kanji have some advantages. You know how English has root words derived from Greek and Latin? For instance, “trans”, which means “across”: transport, translate, transaction, etc. Well, imagine that instead of spelling it t-r-a-n-s, we used a special symbol just for it. That’s the way the kanji work; they’re these little root words combined to make compounds, like our Greek and Latin roots. This actually makes it easier for me to learn Japanese, cause when I only knew hiragana and katakana I felt like I was memorizing random sounds, but now that I can break them down into word units it’s more meaningful to me. Interestingly enough I can also halfway understand Chinese; I have no idea what the sounds are supposed to be, but I recognize words sometimes. I guess it’s kind of like knowing English and reading a Spanish label that says “instrucciones de uso”, where I think, “Uh.. Instructions of use?” By the same token I can see a language option on a website that says 中文 I think “middle sentence” and know what it means.

The greatest disadvantage I have in learning kanji and Japanese is that I have never been to the country and have yet to run into any Japanese patient enough to coach me. If you want to learn any language to fluency, you NEED native speakers to hang out with, otherwise it will just be a cerebral hobby that takes up your time, which is discouraging if you're like me and what to be able to play Shining Force 3 scenarios 2 and 3 and Policenauts in their original language.

Posts: 2088
Joined: December 31st, 1969, 7:00 pm

Why the kanji are so hard to read.

Postby Adamant1 » December 21st, 2009, 7:54 pm

And this is why God invented furigana.

Posts: 2726
Joined: December 31st, 1969, 7:00 pm

Why the kanji are so hard to read.

Postby ActRaiser1 » December 21st, 2009, 11:14 pm

Thanks for posting.  I had no idea learning kanji was so hard.  This was a very well written and informative post.  Goodluck!


Why the kanji are so hard to read.

Postby Thebawwradar » December 21st, 2009, 11:34 pm

[QUOTE=Adamant]And this is why God invented furigana.[/QUOTE]

At least give us a link to a Wikipedia article for that...

Funkmaster V

Why the kanji are so hard to read.

Postby Funkmaster V » December 22nd, 2009, 9:21 am


Posts: 903
Joined: December 31st, 1969, 7:00 pm

Why the kanji are so hard to read.

Postby Pixelcade1 » December 22nd, 2009, 10:22 am

When I went to Japan for a 2 week design seminar I didn't speak or read a lick of the language. It was in the city of Nagoya and I managed to survive (get food from markets, find bathrooms, and not get mugged probably because I was a good foot or 2 taller than most) I did it all with basic body language and hand gestures. And people there WANTED me to speak English for some reason they wanted to communicate even though their English was about as good as your current study of Japanese. WONDERFUL language and culture. I'm very impressed with what you've posted and admire your ability to stick with it. I hope to go back with my family when my son gets older.

Posts: 251
Joined: December 31st, 1969, 7:00 pm

Why the kanji are so hard to read.

Postby James1 » December 22nd, 2009, 10:59 am

[QUOTE=Anayo]  As an American who uses the 23 Roman letters

There are 26 buddy

Return to “Video Games General”