The kanji, the kanji


I’ve hit the wall with this wretched blistering weather.  Go back to Equador/Brazil/Kenya/Somalia/[seven more equatorial countries] where you belong!  Our beautiful breeze died, yea verily, even here on top of the hill, and I therefore had to turn the Aga off* whimper but I still feel like an old floor mop.**  I cancelled going to the abbey Saturday because driving was not happening *** and cancelled lunch with a friend Sunday because I couldn’t promise to pick her up at the train.

What day is it again?  What am I cancelling today?  Tomorrow?

It’s not really the heat however.  It’s an overdose of kanji. 

Years ago, when I was struggling with my half dozen incorrect words of Japanese for SHADOWS, I bailed almost immediately about the Japanese alphabet(s).  I was already going to fail with romanji—Japanese words written in our alphabet—no reason to make it any worse, since SHADOWS was only going to be printed in the English alphabet.  But even then—and I probably blogged about it at the time—this felt more like a failure of nerve than a practical decision.  Well, it was a failure of nerve—as well as a practical decision—but I don’t actually blame myself for it.  There are people out there who do things like teach themselves fluent, accurate Japanese all by themselves from books and CDs and the internet, including learning all the squiggles involved in reading and writing it, but I’m not one of them.  When I couldn’t find a teacher, that was that.

I’m not going to do that this time. BECAUSE I HAVE A TEACHER. If I’m going down again, which I probably still am, I’m going to go down in truly spectacular flames.  I will light up the sky!  The astronomers will say, good heavens, what ever is that?  And someone with their eye to a telescope will say, oh, it’s just some elderly fruit loop westerner exploding on contact with too much kanji.

My new teacher, whom we will call Sophia, had told me by email that we could start with a book that she would bring.  When it was laid out in front of me I thought it looked a bit familiar, especially the ‘useful phrases’ page which contains the immortal words Chotto matte kudasai which means ‘wait just a moment, please’ which is more or less the story of my life%, except that ‘just a moment’ is optimistic.  I didn’t remember anything useful, staring at my new Japanese textbook, either from six or from fifty-six years ago, but it was nice just being there, in some kind of Japanese space, and it was glorious to hear someone speaking it—someone who wasn’t me, that is, someone who could.  Sophia.

I went home with my head slightly spinning%%, climbed on the back of the sitting-room sofa and started tearing through the top shelves where I had bundled my inadequate-because-I’m-not-up-to-the-job books on Japanese, after SHADOWS.  And yes, there was a copy of the same book I’d been looking at that afternoon.%%%  So I got it down and started poring over it in the standard Robin-in-the-clutches-of-a-new-craze manner and . . . well, it has some of the squiggles.&  It’s not just nice phrases in romanji.  Although it only makes a polite bow in the direction of the kanji—which are the really scary Chinese characters—it does immediately present you with a chart of the hiragana and katakana syllabaries and the text that accompanies this is the first occasion in the last fortnight that some clueless brute with a brain resembling a computer and hard drive containing 1,000,000,000 megagigabytes tells me carelessly oh, you just learn a few squiggles&& a day.  The English alphabet has 26 letters, right?  And most of us laboured and floundered just a trifle to learn even these back in first grade?  There are something over 200—nearer 250, I think, although I admit just counting them is confusing—of these frelling squiggles in the basic syllabaries, which are really only dabbling in written Japanese, and are wholly subservient to THE KANJI.


I’m trying to learn the first few rows of hiragana.  That’s trying.  I’m working on the second ten, although the first ten is still what you might call wobbly.  TEN.  OUT OF TWO HUNDRED AND (MAYBE) FIFTY.

But after the first few days of staring hopelessly at the chart I realised that I never was going to learn it that way, whatever motor-brained clueless brutes tried to tell me, I was going to need to write the squiggles down, over and over and over and OVER AND OVER AND OVER.  Which meant I need to know how, as in, you know, stroke order, and how you get those dratted little dollops on the ends of certain lines ARRRRRRGH.  Sophia has now emailed me a lovely sheaf of practise pages which I can print out over and over and OVER AND OVER AND OVER . . . sigh.  But that’s this week.  Last week I reapplied to the shelf over the sofa.  And there to my considerable amazement is a book from fifty-six years ago—why I hung onto this when I apparently unloaded useful things like dictionaries:  I have a couple of these, but they’re from six years ago—entitled READING AND WRITING JAPANESE.  And it has the syllabaries in the back with a stroke order-and-direction chart.  Yaay.

But the rest of this not-terribly-large, demure-looking book is the first eight hundred and eighty—and you’re going to have to get up to NEARLY THREE THOUSAND KANJI CHARACTERS YOU KNOW&&&—of the frelling kanji, page after blinding page of them, in neat little boxes with definitions and instructions for writing them and examples of their use in combining forms.  I took the book in with me for my second lesson this week to check that nothing too dramatic has changed in the syllabaries since 1959, which is its copyright date, and Sophia said, no, that’s fine, you can certainly use this . . . in fact this book is very like the one I started with.$  And she sounded positively wistful as she turned it over in her hands, leafed through a few of the kanji pages, and said, I used to just read it. . . .

I looked at her as if one of us was from some other galaxy.  And came home feeling even older and stupider than ever.$$  But you know . . . after frying my small mushy brain on the first two/four rows of hiragana, I decided to read the introduction to the rest of the book and just glance at some of the kanji.  I want to kind of get used to the idea, you know?  See:  spectacular flames.  And while at least these bozos—you can find more of them on line—who are freely assuming that you’ve sucked up the entire syllabaries in a week or two—do admit that the entirety of kanji is a bit daunting—which is a bit like saying oh hey that tsunami is going to get us a bit wet—they seem to think there are ways to make learning it at least possible.  One of the ways is to learn where the squiggles came from—they started life as pictures, you know?  And a lot of them tell stories.  And I’m a sucker for a story.

It’s still hopeless, you know.  Spectacular flames.  But I’ve been reading my flipping kanji book.  And I do kind of see what Sophia is talking about . . .

* * *

* Which is a saga in itself.  She’s my dish-drainer, for example—I have a dish-drainer, but have I mentioned in the last twenty minutes or so that this is a VERY SMALL KITCHEN?  So I have a very small dish-drainer.  Anything bigger than a side plate goes on the Aga, and certainly all the pots and pans do.  So I’m all, Why isn’t anything getting dry?^  Socks that got soaked because one of my watering cans is an old plastic one that I think furthermore was sat on by a hellterror or a panther^^ and its top is so cracked and bits-broken-off that it waters me as much as it waters the plants—socks do not get dry in time for the next adventure in wetness, hung over the Aga rail.^^^  I CAN’T KEEP MY TEA HOT.  I DON’T CARE ABOUT THE WEATHER, I WANT MY TEA HOT.  I do not have an immediately available, already turned on oven.  In fact, I don’t have an oven at all, since the Lodge oven is not to be thought of unless you want to roast a gorilla.  You don’t want to roast a gorilla, although you might be tempted to roast a poacher, of gorillas or elephant ivory or rhinoceros horns or tiger pelts, or what-have-you, but even to support global justice I don’t want to do it in this weather. 

Therefore today’s EXCITEMENT, in my limp and gasping way, has been finding and ordering a little electric plug-in oven to keep my little one-burner plug-in hob company in these dark times.  The problem is that the freller cost about half what my potential hot bin would cost, which puts the hot bin off for the moment, barring storks flying down my chimney carrying bouncing fat rolls of money.  And yes, in response to some commenter who already has one, I’m aware that I need to put my future bin somewhere I can—ahem!—unload the compost, and my garden doesn’t exactly specialise in clear flat spaces, so delaying that particular gnarly decision is no hardship.

^ I don’t believe in, you know, tea towels, except for decorative value.  Mottisfont roses.  Keep calm and drink tea.  The Big Apple.  One Prosecco, two Prosecco, three Prosecco, floor.  The last from a previous life, sigh, but it’s a very nice lavender tea towel and I’m certainly not going to give up using it.  Decoratively.+

+ And, you know, letting things air-dry is much more hygienic.   Unless you want to devote your life to doing laundry.  And washing your hands before you hang it up.#

# Long-time readers, somewhat over acquainted with my domestic arrangements, will know that I have an air dryer.  It hangs from the bathroom ceiling, and you hoick it up and down like a flag.  And it doesn’t work as well with the Aga off either, because the Aga heat shoots upstairs and embraces the wet laundry hanging from the airer rails.  Meteorological heat is just a thug.  It doesn’t dry things nearly as well, it’s too busy twirling its moustaches and oppressing you.

^^ These are, of course, very similar creatures, in terms of likely damage on impact with mild-mannered domestic implements.

^^^ Yes.  Socks.  I hate the feeling of muddy feet in sandals so I put shoes on when I water, when it’s too hot for wellies, and the very idea of wellies in this weather risks dangerous prostration.

** And look rather like one too.  I was scrabbling dry rose petals out of my hair-facsimile the other night after a watering exploit, encountered resistance and thought, frelling frelling, when’s the last time I brushed my hair?, and realised I wasn’t pulling out knots, these were curls.  Trying to learn new hair at my age is very challenging.

*** To Chaos’ great disgust.  If I can’t do something about the weather I could at least put him in Wolfgang and drive us out of town into some countryside where the quality of the heat is superior.

% It must appear in SHADOWS somewhere, but I don’t remember.  Maggie is another disorganised non-maths person but I think she’s probably more together than I am.  Most people are.

%% But that could be the frelling weather

%%% Sophia apparently believes in the softly, softly approach and emailed me politely that if I wanted to do some homework, the details of the book we were using were blah blah blah.  I’m giggling slightly helplessly and thinking, what kind of students are you used to, ma’am?  The kind that can LEARN ANYTHING in an hour a week?  That would not be me.

& Speaking of old crazes—and the probably forlorn hope that Japanese might be the last new one, if I want to get anywhere with ANY of the rather too many I am already engaged with—I have found myself standing up, staring into the middle distance and somewhat frantically knitting a row of some current dead-easy plain knitting project when the squiggles start rising off the page and gibbering at me.

&& For some reason these overbearing gits never seem to employ the extremely useful term ‘squiggle’.

&&& And that’s still only the beginning, since EVERY FRELLING CHARACTER has at least TWO READINGS.  And . . . and I may be getting this wrong because I’m still in the early dumb you’ve-got-to-be-kidding phase and am balking at taking in the full horror . . . but depending on the reading, which you somehow have to recognise by context?!, I have no idea, your disastrously complex rune has a different pronunciation, and it will furthermore have a different pronunciation—I think—as a single word/syllable than it has as a combination—also, I think, dependent on the original reading.  WHAT?!??!?  ::wild weeping and throwing of self on ground and rolling around in agonies of despair::  What was I saying about spectacular flames?

$ No she’s not Japanese.  I can’t decide if it’s a good thing that she knows about having to learn it from a basis of some other language or a bad thing because she must therefore have the computer brain with the hard drive and in a few months will despise me.  I hope she’s already taught a lot of old people with saggy brains.








15 thoughts on “The kanji, the kanji”

  1. May one inquire what the book is from which you are learning Japanese? I am also attempting to learn Japanese. I confort myself on the hiragana/katakana that there are “only” about 46 of each, the thing that makes it seem there are more are the combination characters, and the little marks that change the pronunciation, and those are at least more consistently sensible than some things in English. That said, it’s a slog for me as well.

  2. Oh, dear. I do sympathise! ‘Chotto matte kudasai’ was one of the more useful phrases in my first job (post-being-kicked-out-of-university), working for the London Office of NHK, which sounds posh but was basically two rooms and a cubbyhole for the teleprinter, as their ‘Girl Friday’. Useful when someone phoned up and started babbling in Japanese at me, when I could deploy it and go and get one of the correspondents to answer their phones.

    …Did I mention I did 2 years of Japanese at the School of Oriental and African Studies, 1972-74? Got kicked out for failing 2nd year exams. I still have my two large Japanese dictionaries, ‘Teach Yourself Japanese’, and a mini-dictionary, and a book for learning stroke order and readings of kana and kanji. *Occasionally* they get consulted so I can look something up – as when I needed to double-check that what I’ve been calling my ‘Vulcan chopsticks’ actually did say ‘long life and prosperity’ in stamped-on kanji, before said kanji faded from over-use.

  3. I did three years of HS Japanese too many decades ago and I remember a handful of characters. But when I moved to Indonesia I said ‘I’m sorry I don’t understand’ in perfect Japanese to a very confused Javanese driver. Weird how that happens.
    I loved Shadows and my kids all consumed anime so it seemed apropos. Animated algebra books for the win♥

  4. I can help with the two sound thing!!! Hiragana can have 2 sounds, BUT they are similar – so ka goes to ga, ta goes to da etc….and you tell which one it is by the “funny looking inverted comma things” which turn up in the top right hand corner.
    I did Japanese for 3 years, and struggled with it. Duo lingo has really good flash cards if you want to go that way….

  5. I majored in Chinese and spent several summers in China and then a year in Taiwan at intensive language schools. I know it seems daunting now, but I can’t help but feel jealous of the journey you’re beginning with Chinese characters! I remember studying into the wee hours of the morning my freshman year of college, painstakingly filling pages and pages with the simplest characters. Stroke order and direction will become second nature to you in no time, though! Enjoy!

  6. We learned our alphabet by singing the alphabet song way back when. Imagine an alphabet song for the kanji characters… Good thing you took singing lessons!

    As far as the runes having different pronunciations — well, so do the different English letters! Of course, we only have to deal with 26 of those…

    Yes, it does sound frightfully hard. Japanese is one of the big languages to learn if you’re in tech stuff. Japanese, Chinese, German, Russian are all big ones. I wouldn’t even consider trying one without English type letters. I admire your tenacity.

  7. Reading this post (and then going off to google kanji) makes one truly appreciate the invention of alphabets. 🙂

    Thinking about your strokes and dollops–in the absence of a brush, would a calligraphy pen such as people use to emulate medieval and renaissance hands produce the right effect?

  8. *is smiling so much at reading this that my face is starting to ache !! 😀 * spectacular flames eh? why not?!
    Your teacher sounds nice and helpful – plus you were already on the right track with the books you own , so now you have the teacher and the books and plenty of yarn to knit your way through the times when the squiggles get too much .
    I don’t know any Japanese at all so you already know more than me 🙂 but I know about those characters that the squiggles if pronounced wrong can have a very different meaning. I used to learn traditional Chinese with the zillion characters with multi-meanings and 9 different tones …. and yes you have to change tones … so if you want to say “father” for example but you say it wrong you could be saying “Tiger” instead. The worst one I encountered was” Psalms” (as in Bible book of) …. if you said *that* one wrong you could be saying “dirty diapers” (polite version of that meaning BTW ) instead! 😛 but hey it can be.. you know.. fun!
    If you mess up then have a laugh instead . Humour helps .
    It will sink in eventually 😉
    PS – if you ever do want to get rid of the Lavender coloured tea towel that says “one Prosecco , two Prosecco , 3 Prosecco , floor” throw it in my direction!! my grabby hands are waiting!!

    1. When I was learning Mandarin we were working on a unit about allergies and medicine and the like. In the course of an exercise I attempted to say “his eyes are red and itchy” but I mispronounced eyes and instead said that a VERY different bit of male anatomy was suffering. ? My teacher sputtered and told me not to say that, but it took my classmates and me two hours and interrogating two different teachers to figure out which word I had so badly butchered!

  9. I so admire you taking on Japanese and all those squiggles. Our oldest son put a toe into that particular bit of pond some years ago. He admits he had little success with it. Just enough to help him from getting hopelessly lost when he goes to Japan for work. (He plays and reviews video games. Yes boys and girls, you too can be a world traveler while playing video games for a living.) He is now more likely to be attempting to speak Vietnamese when with his wife’s family. I hope you don’t go down in spectacular flames.

    Sorry your heat hasn’t broken. We had a bit of a let up, butI am so thankful we added central AC when we brought our house back from the brink of being left to itself after a foreclosure. Why in heavens name when foreclosed on the bank didn’t turn off the water and drain the pipes before a harsh Michigan winter I will never understand. I know I grew up here, but now have a hard time fathoming how anyone can survive without the AC.

    You have no idea how delighted I was with your keeping a book from 56 years ago while purging other books – like dictionaries. I am not the only one who runs across this type thing. Although to be honest, I have a hard time purging ANY books. Just ask my family.

  10. “wild weeping and throwing of self on the ground and rolling around in agonies of despair”
    Cue two squashed and rolled-on hell-critters? 🙂

    I cannot imagine trying to learn pictograms now, so you have my total sympathy. I have enough trouble learning bee.

  11. Long-time reader here – first comment. I’m sorry I haven’t spoken up earlier. But can I tell you that one thing I appreciate about your blog is the response you get? Some of the comments are almost as long as the post itself, and they’re so interesting! I feel like I’m sitting curled up next to a hellhound in your hot kitchen having a chat with you and all these friends, sweating a little and enjoying the company – which is why it’s shameful I haven’t spoken up sooner.

    At the moment I’m teaching myself piano. I’m 30. I can relate to the fervor and the frustration.

    Just wondering – is anything going to happen with KES? I just pitched it to a friend who wanted to know more – and that’s when I learned that KES has vanished but that she has 12 reviews and 49 ratings on GoodReads ( I’d love to hear more about her…

  12. Alas alack this heat. It’s been hitting 95 degrees in Missouri, and you might as well just set the tea outside in the sun to keep it hot.

    Roses are also not happy with this weather. Also the Japanese beetles eat them. The jerks.

  13. I’m not alone! I too am struggling with learning the Japanese language. Rather a lot. I can remember some characters,& even remember what they mean, but as to reading a word or more? eh…no.

    But then I am teaching myself from a book. Its called Japanese From Zero. Its pretty friendly…

    I knew right away that the written language is going to be hardest. And thats just the Hiragana. I do firmly believe that kanji is beyond me but perhaps not hiragana & katakana. Its just going to take years of dedicated work & effort while holding down a full time job…

    Can anyone else recommend another good book that;s not too expensive? I am at the mercy of my local library.

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