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Archive for the ' Kanji' Category


Final thoughts on remembering the kanji

In my first post about Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji (RTK), I invited people to convince me that the book can teach you to “write kanji like a native” as claimed in the book’s introduction. As it turns out, it all depends on how you define, “write kanji like a native” and the introduction needed some reading between the lines. (Only being able to write the kanji without knowing the reading or any words that use the kanji doesn’t count as “writing like a native” to me.) But in the end, my challenge was a bit unfair because no single book can really teach you how to write kanji like a native without turning into a dictionary, and in this age of computers, it’s debatable whether even many natives can write kanji like natives.

Though it’s obvious that the book alone is not enough to truly master kanji, many of you gave excellent comments on how it helped you retain the kanji that you’ve learned and at least got you on the path to mastery. Reading through the comments I think I have a better idea of who the book is for and I’d like to share my thoughts in this last post about RTK.

I stress that my opinion is only one of many and if you are considering buying this book, I recommend reading through the comments to form your own impressions of whether this method will work for you. You can find them here and here and maybe even on this post later on. Thanks to everybody’s comments, I think those posts have become a great source of discussion and information for those considering the Heisig method. Also, there’s no harm in trying out the first half of the book which is available for free.

How I learned Kanji

Before I talk about the book, I think it’s worthwhile to discuss how I learned kanji in order to have an alternative method to compare against. I may have mentioned this before but I never studied kanji; I studied the words that are made from kanji. For instance, I learned 「力」 as 「ちから」 but never as 「リョク」 or 「リキ」. I only learned the other on-yomi when I learned words like 「努力」 and 「怪力」. The key to learning these words is, of course, reading. Therefore, it’s very important to find reading material that is interesting and appropriate for your level, something that is a lot harder than it should be.

The advantage of this method is that you end up creating many associations with real words without having to waste time on individual kanji. The first association is, of course, the context of the text from which the word came from. The second comes gradually as you build up a library of words that share the same kanji. Once you get the hang of kun vs on reading and how the voicing changes based on the sounds preceding it, the readings become really easy to memorize as they are shared across different words.

For example, when I see 「試」, I think of words like 「試験」、「試作品」、「試す」 and even other similar kanji like 「式」 and 「武」. As I learn new kanji, I also reflect back and review not only words that share the same kanji but also other kanji that look similar. In this manner, I noticed that 「剣」、「険」、「験」、and 「検」 all have the same reading. It took a while but I finally remembered that the one with “horse” means “testing” based on words like 「試験」 and 「経験」 while the one with “tree” means to “examine” based on words like 「検査」 or 「検索」. Learning radicals, which are simpler kanji such as 「馬」 and 「木」 is also very important because they form parts of many other kanji. By learning radicals you can start to see little mnemonic patterns such as realizing that 「忘」 consists of a dying heart (心 and 亡).

There are mainly two ways to strengthen your memory, either by strengthening the path to a memory with repetition or by creating many paths with different associations to the same memory. With the method above, you can create associations with words that share the same kanji or radicals that form the kanji. You can also reinforce the memory with repetition by reviewing them every time you run into a new word that share the same kanji. Also, the benefit of reading is that by seeing the same words used in different contexts, you get both repetition and new associations. Basically, reading does make you smarter just like they always said! (Or at least teach you more vocabulary.)

Why you might need RTK

Now let’s get into problems with my method and how RTK might help.

The first problem I’ve learned from reading your comments is that the method completely fails if your brain isn’t wired to see these connections as you go. For instance, if you learned 「試験」 and later ran into 「経験」 in your studies, the assumption is that you’ll be able to recall 「試験」 and make the connection that they both use 「験」. If this does not happen, you don’t get the association which means you’ll have a really difficult time learning the kanji or the words that use them.

Now, I’ve had times when I couldn’t remember exactly which word I learned used the same kanji, I just knew that it looked awfully familiar. One trick I would do is look up just the kanji in WWWJDIC and scroll through all the words that use the kanji until I recognize the old word I learned before. Even with this trick, if all or most of these associations don’t come naturally to you, RTK might be just the thing to help you.

By systematically going through each kanji and assigning a story (basically a mnemonic), RTK can provide you with the glue to jumpstart your associations. For example, let’s say you’ve gone through the whole book and memorized every story for each kanji. Now suppose you see the word 「省略」. Now you’ll recognize 「省」 as “focus” from story 124 (page 61) as, “…picking up a few things and holding them before one’s eye in order to focus on them better”. So when you learn another word such as 「省電力」, even if you couldn’t make the association with 「省略」, you have the story to serve as the glue to link the kanji together.

Now I would argue that it’s better to think of 「省」 as a combination of 「少ない」 and 「目」 instead. In addition, I think memorizing 「省く」, which means “omit” is a better use of your time than memorizing “focus”. However, all that assumes that you can make those connection on the fly as you are learning these words. RTK creates the associations systematically for you and provides the glue to help you link kanji together by having the single story to link them.

Of course, no one could claim that this “bootstraping” could magically teach you how to write all the vocabulary that contains kanji, which is why I was so critical of the book and it’s claim to teach you to “write kanji like a native”. Nevertheless, my personal dislike for the wording in the introduction has no bearing on the value of this resource. If you need it, RTK can help you start creating associations and get you started in seeing the patterns that are not obvious when you’re just starting out.

Finally, based on your comments, there seems to be a great deal of psychological benefit to tackling a text full of kanji that you at least recognize instead of a page full of crazy Chinese symbols. But that issue stems from a larger problem of the difficulty in finding adequate reading materials.

The root problem

The main problem with my method is that you can’t just start reading a novel to learn kanji without becoming frustrated at every other word containing a completely new kanji. A big part of my method is actually enjoy yourself while comprehending what you’re reading, something you can’t do if you need to look up every kanji for every word. Plus, there’s no way you’re going to be able to create associations when every kanji you see is completely new. It’s like telling a beginner skier to start on an expert slope. The slope will look really scary, you’ll fall every second, you won’t have any fun, and you might even hurt yourself in the process.

Fortunately, one of the first books that I got my hands on was one of those anime/manga based books geared for younger readers. But it was still insanely hard, painful, and frustrating to go through all the unfamiliar kanji. It took about a week to read a single page. Not an enjoyable experience.

The problem with today’s Japanese language education is that most classes never go beyond the textbook and textbook reading material is both boring and laughable in terms of depth and scope. What we need is a guided reading curriculum that can gently get us started in learning vocabulary and kanji without killing ourselves. Remember reading “Hardy Boys”, “Nancy Drew”, “The Chronicles of Narnia”, “Where the red fern grows”, etc. for English class or for fun as a kid? We need the Japanese equivalents to be part of our Japanese language education. You’d think some Association or Committee of Japanese teachers would draw up a recommended reading list of books of different levels adapted for adults. If there is such a list, please send it to me. But in the meantime, RTK might be just the book to help ease you into the exciting world of kanji.


I don’t think RTK is for everybody but I’ve learned that it can be really helpful for certain types of learners. I think it depends greatly on your learning style and personality. For those of us who are comfortable taking shortcuts by jumping straight into the Japanese and creating associations as we go, I would suggest continue what you’re doing. Why take the time to memorize key words and stories in English when you are learning the kanji with real Japanese words? Though I wouldn’t suggest it for beginners, some people on my forum even switched to a Japanese-only dictionary to immerse themselves even further.

However, if you are the type who prefers a more systematic method or if you find yourself having difficulty remembering the kanji and coming up with your own patterns and mnemonics, certainly give RTK a try. It could be the “glue” you need to piece together the kanji to make sense of all this craziness.

Or you could even try a mixture of both: jumping into Japanese and using the stories to help you remember how to write the more difficult kanji. Whatever method you choose, I hope this post and the various comments gave you a good idea on how you want to learn kanji and what approach to take.


- Tell a friend

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Ruby tags considered harmful

For those of you unfamiliar with the ruby tag, it is an html tag that adds tiny readings over kanji. 「ルビ」 traditionally is used in print for archaic kanji or when the author wants to indicate a non-standard reading for the kanji. However, on the net, ruby tags are being abused everywhere I see them. Here’s a simple benchmark (with a neat acronym to make it “official”) for determining whether you’re abusing the ruby tag.

Ruby Abuse Benchmark (RAB)

1. Do you use ruby tags for every kanji?

2. Do you use ruby tags for any kanji that most Japanese people can read?

3. Do you use ruby tags?

If you answered “Yes” to any of the questions above, you are abusing the ruby tag.

This abuse happens most often on sites that are intended for people learning Japanese. For example, this site about the JLPT or Japanese language blogs like the one you’re reading now. I don’t use ruby tags though. Even sites for kids stay away from ruby and just use Hiragana instead. Here’s why you should stay away from them too.

The Technical Reason

Ruby is only included in the XHTML 1.1 specification, which has been around forever and still hasn’t gained much traction. The HTML 4.01 and XHTML 1.0 Transitional DTDs are still being used in the majority of website that care about standards. This means that if you want to use a schema that the majority of the web is using, <ruby> won’t validate.

Plus, the markup is terribly hard to read and write. Take a look at these markup examples. Imagine doing that for every kanji. Your Japanese text will be indecipherable and an incredible pain to edit.

The Practical Reason

Because XHTML 1.1 hasn’t gained much traction, a majority of browsers don’t support ruby. The only one I’m aware of that does is IE and in today’s world where up to 30% of your visitors might not be using IE, IE-only is not practical.

People without Ruby support will see this.

田中(たなか): はい、元気(げんき)です。早坂(はやさか)さんは?

Terrible, just terrible. It’s totally unreadable. Plus, even if you DID have Ruby support, the text is far too small. It’s a lose-lose situation. The correct use of ruby is to show the readings of a few archaic words that the author assumes will not readable by his audience or when he wants to expand on the word. It is NOT intended to be used for every kanji. The print is too small for people who need them and distracting for the people who don’t need them. Also, it can become a crutch allowing people to never actually read and learn the kanji.

So, even if you can install something such as an extension to make ruby tags work, it’s just not a good idea.


1. CSS mouse-over popups: It’s one simple span tag and it works in all major browsers. It’s also more versatile because you can add more information such as English definitions, etc.

Html: <span title=”たべる – to eat” class=”popup”>食べる</span>
Appears as: 食べる

I suggest adding a visual highlight so that the reader can easily see which part of the text applies for the popup or whether there is a popup at all (not supported by some older browsers). You can easily do this by adding some CSS like the following to your stylesheet.

span.popup:hover {
color: rgb(159,20,26);

Plus, you can easily see the readings for only the words you need, removing the distracting ruby text and preventing the furigana from becoming a crutch.

Here’s a recent convert and look at all the positive comments he’s gotten.

2. Make a list of the vocabulary at the beginning or end of the page so that the reader has something to refer to.

3. Suggest additional tools such as WWWJDIC, 理解.com, moji, and rikaichan so that people can learn to teach themselves. (You know, the whole teach a man to fish thing.)


I think the first method is good for static resources like my guide to Japanese grammar but when you don’t have the time to add readings and definitions manually all the time (like this blog), you can’t beat the third method. Plus, it helps your readers read any online Japanese text instead of just your own. In the end, whatever method you use, it certainly beats the hell out of writing this for every word that uses kanji.


Ah!!! My eyes!!


- Tell a friend


Begin the journey to mastering your 気

「気」 is a kind of energy embodied by your mind and spirit… or so they say. Personally, I really don’t believe in all that mumbo-jumbo but we still have to deal with it because it’s often used in everyday Japanese to describe your mind-set or feelings. In fact, the characters for your emotional feelings 「気持ち」 means 「気」 that is held” and your physical feelings 「気分」 also contains the same 「気」 character.

I’m going to go over some of the most useful and basic ways to use your 「気」 and I don’t mean fireballs and kung-fu skills here. Rather, I’ve compiled a list of common expressions that you can use to describe your 「気」. Though making a list of expressions is not usually not my kind of thing, they are so useful and simple (and for some reason often neglected in the classroom) that I feel it’s worth the time to list and describe them. Also, these kinds of expressions are very hard to find in the dictionary unless you almost already know what you’re looking for.

「気」 with verbs so basic, your grandma can use it

Putting aside the image of your grandma firing off hadokens, here is a list of 「気」 expressions with the most simple and basic verbs. I’ve tried to interpret some of the literal meanings as a aid in memorizing what all these kinds of 「気」 means.

  1. 気にする – Means to worry about something. It is almost always used in the negative to say, “Don’t worry about it”. The meaning is similar to 「心配しないで」 except 「心配」 involves actual worry and anxiety. 「気にしない」 means don’t even bother paying attention to it or wasting your 「気」.

    1) 気にしないで – Don’t worry about it.

  2. 気になる – Similar to 「気にする」 except instead of bothering about something, it’s becoming a bother. In other words, it’s something that is niggling your subconscious and making you wonder about something.

    1) 彼女の歳が気になる。 – I wonder what her age is. (lit: Her age has been bothering me.)

  3. 気がする – Your 「気」 is acting up and alerting your senses. As a result, you have a feeling of whatever you attach 「気がする」 to.

    1) もう終わった気がする。- I have a feeling that [it] already ended.

  4. 気がつく (気づく) – Your 「気」 attaches to you making you regain consciousness in the literal sense or in a figurative sense of just waking up and smelling the coffee.

    1) 気がついたら、もう9時になっていた。 – When I came to my senses, it had become 9:00 already.
    2) 彼は全然気づいていない。 – He doesn’t realize (or hasn’t noticed) it at all.

  5. 気をつける – Attach your 「気」 and always keep your wits about you. In other words, be careful.

    1) 気をつけて! – Be careful!/Take care!

  6. 気をつかう – Use your 「気」 to pay attention to or attend somebody. A good host always uses her 「気」 for her guests and their needs.

    1) 気をつかってくれて、ありがとう! – Thanks for caring about me!


I’ve tried to keep my list short and simple to prevent this becoming a monster list with too much information. However, if you’re in the mood, you can scroll through a huge list by going to WWWJDIC, search for 「気」 and set the checkmark for “Starting Kanji”. You’ll get all sorts of useful expressions like 「気が強い」、「気が向く」、「気が散る」、etc., etc. Someday, you can become a master of at least talking about your 「気」 without even having to work out!


- Tell a friend


“Overflowing with leftover goodness…”

I love to write about parts of Japanese that are almost always left out of the standard Japanese language curriculum. This usually applies to vocabulary that can be considered “inappropriate” for the classroom. I also like to talk about topics where the explanation is usually glossed over or oversimplified because the concepts are too difficult to explain in English. I say “bah humbug!” to all that, which is why you can come here after class to get the full, unadulterated version.

So when I thought back to Japanese 101 and the time the teacher told us to only use the negative with 「あまり」 I thought, “Hey, wait a minute!” I now know that you can use 「あまり」 with the positive, the only difference is that you get the opposite meaning of the negative version. Makes perfect sense, right? Of course things aren’t actually that simple, so read on if you want to get the full scoop on 「あまり」.

Sorry, we’re all out of whatever it is you’re looking for

「あまり」 is a pseudo adverb/adjective version of the verb 「あまる」(余る), which means for something to be left over. So, when you use 「あまり」 with the negative, you are essentially saying there is nothing left over. For example, 「あまりよくない」 literally means there is no “goodness” left over. Ok, so that doesn’t make much sense. A more natural definition would be the one we all learned in Japanese 101, “not very” or “not that much”. However, it is useful to know where 「あまり」 originally came from to see how the meaning changes if we don’t use the negative tense.

Those leftovers are excessive, man!

If the negative tense means there’s no leftovers, the opposite would obviously mean that there are leftovers. In other words, something is so excessive that there are leftovers you can’t deal with. As opposed to 「あまりよくない」、 「あまりにいい」 means that something is so good that the goodness is just overflowing with leftovers. For example, 「あまりにいい天気」 means “weather that is excessively good”. This is slightly different from 「天気がよすぎる」 meaning that the weather is too good, which has a negative connotation. 「あまりにいい天気」 just means that the weather is really, really good. It’s so good that the goodness is just overflowing and the leftover goodness is just strewn about all over the floor.

1) 天気があまりよくないので、散歩するのをやめた。
- The weather wasn’t very good so I quit going for a walk.

2) あまりにいい天気だったので、1時間も散歩をしました。
- The weather was so good that I took a walk for a whole hour.

You may have noticed the positive version uses the 「に」 target particle as in 「あまりいい」. This is normal because you need to use the target particle in order to make adjectives into adverbs such as 「上手に」 or 「簡単に」. The irregularity instead comes from the lack of any particles for the negative case. I first described 「あまり」 as a pseudo adverb/adjective because you don’t need to use any particles when using it with the negative tense. It is very similar to 「同じ」, which also doesn’t require any particles to use as an adverb/adjective. Words like 「あまり」 and 「同じ」 are difficult to categorize for this reason. However, with 「あまり」, when you are using it for the non-negative tense, the normal rules apply and you do need attach the 「に」 particle in order to use it as an adverb.

A) 日本語はあまり難しいよ。
- Japanese is so difficult, you know. (grammatic error)

B) 日本語はあまり難しい。
- Japanese is so difficult.

A) ほら、難しいでしょ!
- See, it is hard!

More fun with 「あまり」

Since we’re having so much fun, I thought I’d mention a couple other things related to 「あまり」. First, because the Japanese are always trying to come up with easier way to say things, we have the casual equivalents: 「あんまり」 and 「あんま」. I would say 「あんまり」 is used even more than 「あまり」 in conversational Japanese while 「あんま」 sounds a bit masculine due to it’s short length.

1) 時間があんまりないんだよね。
-Hmm… there’s not much time.

2) 時間があんまないんだよな。
-Hmm… there’s not much time.

As for using this slang for the non-negative case, while googling for 「あんまりに」 did yield a sizable number of results, 「あんまに」 didn’t turn up much so I suggest using 「あんま」 only for the negative tense.

Finally, 「余」, the kanji for 「あまり」 is also used in a some very useful words like 「余裕」 and 「余計」. 「余計」, in particular, is a word you’ll see all the time once you learn it. It’s very useful for when somebody says or does too much. Essentially, you can use it to tell people that it’s none of their business.

1) 余計なお世話だよ!
- None of your business! (lit: You’re unnecessarily taking care of me!)

2) 余計なことを言うんじゃいよ。
- Don’t say things that are none of your business. (lit: You don’t say unnecessary things, you know.)


As we have seen, there is a lot more to the word 「あまり」 than what is normally taught to beginning Japanese students. I suspect this is the case because 「あまり」 is most often used with the negative tense and covering any more would confuse the poor students. Apparently, Japanese students are very easily confused and should not be exposed to the scary parts of the language so that they can stay in their safe and comfortable cocoon of polite, “proper” Japanese (whatever that means) .


- Tell a friend


Lessons learned from 「本当」

Hi, it’s me again with (hopefully) another great post breaking down the intricacies of the hardest language on the planet (pats myself on back). This time we are going to take a deeper look at a word that probably every hard-core anime fan is already familiar with: 「本当」.

本当?!That’s 超 Awesome!! ← (Don’t ever talk like this)

Calm down. This is not a Japanese anime lesson like, for instance “Reiko-chan’s site“, a site so cool it makes me want to cry. Instead, I’m going to look at how the individuals characters 「本」 and 「当」 are used in ways you may not be aware of. You’ll see that these characters are used quite often in Japanese that is slightly more mature than Sailor Moon.

It’s the real stuff

「本」 is so useful that it’s probably one of the first characters everybody learns. You probably already know that it means, “book” by itself and is also part of the word for “Japan” (日本). You may even know that it’s a counter for bottles, something you’ll need to know if you’re a drunkard salaryman like me.

But did you know that 「本」 also means, “the real thing”? In fact, the word 「本物」 means exactly that as it uses 「本」 with 「物」, the character for object. Other examples include words such as: 本日、本人、本来、本場、本番、本音、本格的、本気、本名. The 「本」 in all these words act like a prefix indicating that it’s the genuine thing.

Let’s take a closer look at 「本日」 and 「本人」 and the role 「本」 plays in each word.


「本日」(ほんじつ) essentially means “today”, but why have another word for “today” when you already have 「今日」? The only difference, as you can see, is the use of 「本」 instead of 「今」. In other words, as opposed to the present day, 「本日」 means, “the real day” (the only “real day” being the current one).

- Thanks for coming today.

- I would like to thank everybody for coming today.

The only real, practical difference between 「今日」 and 「本日」 is that 「本日」 sounds more official, similar to the difference between saying, “at this point in time” versus saying just “now”. While the practical difference is a bit unrelated, knowing the precise difference between the kanji will help you get a feel for where this difference comes from.


「本人」(ほんにん) is a very useful word mainly because Japanese doesn’t have any pronouns. While you can say 「自分」 for oneself, you don’t have the equivalent for himself or herself. So if you wanted to say, “Talk to the man, himself”, 「本人」 is a handy way to easily refer to the real person in question. Here’s a quick example.

- When is Tanaka-san getting married?

- How about asking the actual person, himself?

In addition, expect to see this word used often in applications such as for visas or passports that need to describe what the applicant, herself, must do.

- When getting the passport, the applicant, herself, must come to the window.

This meaning of “genuine” is related to the original meaning of “root” (hence the tree character (木) with a line across the bottom of the tree). Also derived from the same meaning, 「本」 can be used to mean “main”. Examples of this usage include words like: 本体、本館、本社、本州、本文.

It’s the stuff in question

The second character 「当」 is just as useful as 「本」 and almost as common. The character by itself describes when something hits its target. For instance, the verb 「当たる」 is used to describe winning a raffle because you were successfully targeted from the random selection. The 「当」 character is similarly used in a variety of kanji compounds to describe the targeted time or location. This is very useful for talking about the time or location in question by using words such as: 当月、当日、当時、当社、当店、該当. Here’s a simple example.

-This ticket is only valid on the day of purchase.

In the example above, you could have simply described the day that the ticket was bought by saying something like 「買った日」 but it’s not as concise or as professional-sounding as 「発売当日」.

This type of usage is very useful because no matter what the actual time is, it refers only to the time in question. That means that if it’s understood by the context, you don’t have to go through the pain of describing exactly which time that is. Here’s another example.

-At that time, I didn’t have a driver’s license so I couldn’t go anywhere.

Here’s another example using a location instead of time.

-We do not handle products that are sold with hidden names at our stores.

「この店」 would also make sense in this sentence but since there may be more than one store and you’re not specifying a store at a specific location, 「当店」 is used to refer vaguely to the store in question.


We took at look at the kanji making up 「本当」, their real meanings, and how they are used in a variety of words. I hope this will help you easily understand a whole slew of new words that use the same kanji. Getting a true sense of what each individual kanji means in this fashion often gives you important clues and mnemonics for learning new words, which is one of the great benefits of using kanji.


- Tell a friend


Wait, so it’s the same word but… not? When does the madness end??

When I was a naive little student earnestly learning kanji with glee, I remember thinking, “Yeah, now that I learned 「見る」, I now know the kanji for 「みる」!” Ha ha, if Japanese was that easy, I would have spend all that extra time not studying on training to become a professional StarCraft player instead like all the cool Koreans.

Actually, what you learn later on is that some words may have more than one kanji with slight differences in meaning such as, “This kanji means that you are feeling blue but this kanji is used when you are feeling blue and you want to sneeze but it just won’t come out. It also implies that your right index finger itches.”

Ok, ok, now I’m just trying to be funny… or am I? (Waggles eyebrows) Let’s see by taking a look at some alternative kanji for some common words and when to use them. Hint: It’s when you want to look “cool” and “smart”. (Emphasis on the quotation marks)
For example, let’s look at alternatives for 「見る」 (to see) and 「聞く」 (to hear/to ask).

You can see it, my child, yes, but can you see it?

While 「見る」 is fine for just regular “seeing” (whatever that means), you might see 「観る」 instead for when you are watching things such as movies and plays. I have no idea what the exact distinction is but I can tell you that 「観る」 uses the same kanji as the one for 「観光」, which means “sightseeing”. A coincidence? I think not.

Actually, I can’t complain about this too much because it’s easier than trying to explain the difference between the words, “to watch” and “to see”. Why don’t we try?

No, you can’t “see television”, you can only watch it. Yes, you can “see a movie”. Huh? Why, you ask? Hmm… I think it’s because native English speakers hate you. Yes, that sounds about right.

Moving on, if a doctor is examining you, you use 「診る」 instead, which uses the same kanji from 「診断」 meaning “diagnosis”.

Ask, hear, eh, what’s the difference?

In Japanese, 「聞く」 can mean either “to ask” or “to hear”. (After all, they are so totally related.) But if you want to be specific, you can use 「訊く」, which only means “to ask” or more accurately, “to inquire”. Also, when you are listening to music, you might use 「聴く」 instead. 「効く」 is also another alternative to mean that something is “taking effect”. It is often used in the context of taking medicine (or rather “drinking” in Japanese).

How do I figure out this madness??

So how do you figure this stuff out? Well, your best bet are Japanese-Japanese dictionaries such as 広辞苑 or 大辞泉. For instance, here is the definition for 「聴く」 .

2 (聴く)注意して耳にとめる。耳を傾ける。「名曲を―・く」「有権者の声を―・く」

Or better yet, if you use the Windows IME, the kanji selection menu will have explanations of the differences… in Japanese.

IME Screenshot
IME, the only Microsoft software
I know of that doesn’t suck
(until they build a vacuum).

For bonus points, see if you can figure out the difference between:

1. 速い vs 早い

2. 取る vs 撮る vs 盗る

3. 飛ぶ vs 跳ぶ

4. 熱い vs 暑い

5. 彫る vs 掘る

6. 閉める vs 締める vs 占める

7. “Japanese” vs “A tongue invented by the devil to prevent the spread of Christianity”.

8. 止まる vs 停まる vs 泊まる


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The subtler points of 「以」

」 (not to be confused with 「」)is a very useful character used in all sorts of words that compare time, space, or objects such as 以来、以降、以上、以下、以外、以内、以後、and 以前 . In all these words, the 「以」 essentially means “besides” and the second character indicates what to compare.

For instance, 「以外」(いがい) uses the 「外」 character for outside so it is describing anything outside of the thing we are comparing to.

- Is there person going, outside of Tanaka-san? (Is anybody going besides Tanaka-san?)

Notice how there is no particle between 「田中さん」 and 「以外」. While it is possible to insert 「の」 in between, in practice, it is more natural to directly attach the word to the end of the noun that is being compared. This applies to all the 「以」 words given above.

「以」 is an inclusive comparator

I think it’s important to mention that 「以」 means “besides [x]” and therefore, the thing that is being compared to ([x] in this case) is included in the comparison. For example, if we say 「三つ以上」, this means “three or more” and not “more than three”. Or when we say, 「明日以降」 this means “tomorrow or afterwards” not “after tomorrow”.

- Please select 2 or more cards.

In English, words for comparisons such as “more” and “less” implicitly exclude the thing that is being compared. People who are used to the English way of doing things need to make sure whether they need to do a little adding or subtracting before using any of the words covered here. For instance, if I wanted to say, “less than three”, I might change this to 「二つ以下」 or use some other expression.

Here are other ways you might want to say “more than” and “less than“. Unfortunately, I already see a mistake in the English translation for 「以上」.

Sometimes, it might not be necessary to be that picky, but you should be aware of the difference for the times when it really does matter.

Finally, to prove I’m not lying, here is a similar page that explains the difference from a Japanese point of view.


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The hardest kanji I know

This is a short post just for fun. Here are some of the hardest kanji I’ve run into over my years studying Japanese. If you learn these words, you can be confident in the knowledge that you’ve already tackled the hardest kanji (that I can think of).

躊躇(ちゅう・ちょ) – hesitation

朦朧(もう・ろう) – dim, hazy

憂鬱(ゆう・うつ) – depression

瀟洒(しょう・しゃ) – elegant; trim

The most difficult kanji is 「鬱」 with a total of 29 strokes. With a sufficiently small font size, it just looks like a black scribbly thing.

And here is my vote for the sneakiest kanji ever.

曰く(いわ・く) – to say

Fun stuff.

Posted by Tae Kim in Advanced, Kanji | 11 Comments »


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Kanji with different readings

There are a number of words that have more than one reading in Japanese. Sometimes, as shown by this webpage, it’s a matter of the reading changing over time. For example, I read somewhere that 「世論」 is supposed to be read as 「よろん」 but so many people misread it as 「せろん」 that it eventually emerged as an alternative reading. For words like this, choosing a reading is merely a matter of preference and depends on the popularity of the reading since the meaning is the same. However, some words have different readings and different meanings to go with them. We’ll look at two that I can think of right now (「頭」 and 「家」) and how you would identify the correct reading.

-I want to go home because my head hurts.

-In his house, there are 3 children, 14 being the oldest.

In the first sentence, 「頭」 is talking about the speaker’s head (the thing on your neck) and so we should read it as 「あたま」. However, in the second sentence, we are talking about the 14 year-old being at the head of the rest of the children. When we are using 「頭」 to mean “head” as in “chief”, or “the first”, we read it as 「かしら」. Amazingly, the English word for “head” also contains both meanings (though we don’t change the reading).

Finally, 「家」 can have two readings depending on whether the speaker is talking about his or her home or just a generic house owned by anybody. Your own home is read as 「うち」 which probably has something to do with 「内」(うち) meaning inside. The reading for a generic house is 「いえ」 (not to be confused with 「いいえ」).

So in order to figure out when to use which reading, 1) learn the difference in meaning, and then 2) look at the context of the sentence. So can you identify the correct readings for 「家」 in the examples sentences?

Posted by Tae Kim in Intermediate, Kanji | No Comments »


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Katakana words with kanji

A small number of katakana words have kanji associated with them despite the fact that they come from a language that has never used Chinese characters. This use of kanji is called 当て字 where the reading or meaning of kanji is forced onto a word that originally didn’t have any. These words hark back to the days before katakana become the common script for foreign words and some of them come directly from Chinese like 「珈琲」. You can still see many of these 当て字 being used today such as street signs so learning them is not a waste of time.

Examples of 当て字
English Katakana Kanji
Cigarettes タバコ 煙草
Club クラブ 倶楽部
Page ページ
Coffee コーヒー 珈琲

You can see more examples of foreign words in kanji at this page.

Kanji for Countries
Many country names also have 当て字 associated with them that are rarely used. However, in newspaper headlines, the first character of the 当て字 is often used in an effort to conserve space. For instance, newspapers use words like 「訪米(ほうべい)」 for visiting the United States or 「日韓(にっかん)」 for news related to Japan and Korea. Here is a short list of the most common
country abbreviations and their full kanji versions.

Country Abbreviations
Katakana Kanji Abbreviation
n/a 日本 日(にち)
n/a 中国 中(ちゅう)
n/a 韓国 韓(かん)
n/a 北朝鮮 朝(ちょう)
アメリカ 亜米利加 米(べい)
イギリス 英吉利 英(えい)
イタリア 伊太利亜 伊(い)
ドイツ 独逸 独(どく)
スペイン 西班牙 西(せい)

Posted by Tae Kim in Advanced, Kanji | 7 Comments »


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