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Remembering the Kanji: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters

Title: Remembering the Kanji: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters

Author: James W. Heisig
Format: Paperback
List Price: $42.00
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Remembering the Kanji: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters

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Product Details
  • Paperback: 516 pages
  • Publisher: Japan Publications Trading Company; 4th edition (August, 2001)
  • ISBN: 4889960759
  • Product Dimensions: 8.7 x 5.9 x 1.2 inches
  • Average Customer Review: based on 37 reviews.

Spotlight Reviews

59 of 75 people found the following review helpful:

Slow way to reading comprehension, May 9, 2003

Reviewer: J. C. Kern "A dabbler in Japanese" (Austin, TX United States)

Before you consider using this book, you need to think about why you are learning kanji in the first place. If you're like most learners, you eventually want to learn to read Japanese. The kanji themselves are not useful, they are merely a tool that you will use to read the Japanese words. In my mind, the major failing of this series is an overemphasis on individual kanji and underemphasis on compounds and reading practice.

If someone wanted to learn English, would you give them a list of the 2000 most common words and tell them to memorize each one starting from 1 until you hit 2000? I don't think so, yet that is exactly what Heisig wants you to do with this book. You cannot even begin to try reading any Japanese until you finish the entire 1st book and much of the 2nd. You must wade through a number of obscure kanji to find the common ones.

Another cornerstone of his system is that you must learn 2000 kanji before any of them are of use (he says this explicitly in his introduction). Frequency counts show that the 500 most common kanji account for 80% of the kanji appearing in newspapers, and 94% can be covered by 1000. These numbers do not hold true for all Japanese writing, but they do show Heisig's claim to be suspect. However, to put this into practice it's not enough to simply know the readings of the kanji and how to write it by hand. You must also know the words that are formed from those kanji. In volume 2, Heisig introduces 1-2 compounds per kanji, as opposed to other books like Kanji in Context which introduce sometimes as many as 15 compounds for one kanji. Anyone who has reached an intermediate or advanced level of Japanese knows that you can make a good attempt at reading actual Japanese even with only 800-1000 kanji, provided you know many compounds for those words and have a good grammatical background.

His idea of breaking down the kanji into component parts is a good one, but you do not need his book to do that -- you can break the kanji down yourself.

Also, the goal of this book (learning to write the kanji by hand) is questionable. As Heisig himself says in the introduction, many native Japanese speakers cannot write all the kanji by hand. Why should a beginning learner spend a lot of time learning to do something that even educated Japanese are unable to do? With the advent of word processors, the ability to write kanji by hand is not as useful as it once was.

My advice is to only use this book as a last resort -- if you are absolutely unable to learn kanji by any other method. Too many people, however, spend their time flipping through kanji flash cards and then lament that they are unable to learn the characters. What you need to try is a book that integrates reading practice with learning the kanji -- something like Basic Kanji Book, Kanji in Context, or Japanese: The Written Language.


43 of 45 people found the following review helpful:

"When Westerners Want to Get Serious about Literacy", February 12, 2004

Reviewer: Lani 'Lorenzo' Wiig (Portland, OR, USA)

I am a European-American who holds an M.A. from a Japanese national university (Hiroshima University) and a Professional Diploma in Foreign Language Education (Japanese) from the University of Hawaii - Manoa. I have lived for some 11 years in Japan as an adult and have taught Japanese at the secondary level in Hawaii and Oregon. Between 2001 and 2003, I assisted Mary Sisk Noguchi, author of the "Kanji Clinic" column in THE JAPAN TIMES, edit, rewrite and check facts in her columns. (The columns may be viewed at www.kanjiclinic.com.) I mention these credentials in order to give potential consumers of Jim Heisig's REMEMBERING THE KANJI, Volume I (aka 'RTK1'), a more informed basis for their impending purchase.

Amazon's customer reviews for RTK1 cover a broad spectrum ranging from near-total rejection to devoted acceptance. This is NOT a book that seems to attract many 3-star reviews. As you, the potential consumer of RTK1, debate whether to buy the book or not, I hope my little review will help push you over the edge into the "buy" mentality.

I have given this remarkable book a 5-star rating. RTK1 helps level the "kanji playing field." (Incidentally, you can easily discover if this is "THE KANJI BOOK FOR YOU" by going to google.com and inputting "heisig remembering kanji." Dr. Heisig has convenietly made available his well-reasoned, indeed, history-making introduction as well as downloadable stories for the first 250-or-so kanji that he teaches in his system. If you are 'turned on' by his introduction and his first 100 or so stories, then RTK1 is a good tool for you. You will need the book to build a strong memory foundation for the remaining 1750-or-so kanji used in standard written Japanese.)

Good luck. This book gives a solid foundation to serious students of written Japanese, and I dare say Chinese, too.

Oh, yes, almost forgot. The book is also available in French and Spanish.

Customer Reviews
Avg. Customer Review:

Will give back what you're willing to put in, January 13, 2005
Reviewer: P. Fisher (USA)

I'm 18 years old, and I've graduated slightly earlier due to homeschooling. This evening I finished this book, the first in a series of three books designed to make me literate in the 2,000+ symbols used everyday in Japanese society. After seeing the results of the first book, I truly feel that I am on my way to Japanese literacy.

If you've read one of the many reviews, you probably understand that this book doesn't teach you a single pronunciation of a Japanese character, but rather you tag an English keyword on to all of the Japanese symbols treated in this book, leaving the pronunciation for later.

Why do this? If you aren't noticing quick results in your Japanese abilities, what's the point in learning it? It's true that every single word I've learned will be of no immediate benefit to me if I try to pick up a Japanese newspaper, article, etc. and try to read it. Many have the misconception that in order to "master" the Japanese written language, one must study and "master" the characters individually, and over a period of time, accumulate lots of characters in one's lexicon, therefore allowing the student to read lots of stuff (Makes sense, right?). But our minds don't think like that. (Assuming everybody reading this review is a native to a Roman character based alphabet, or something pretty close to this) We are not used to recognizing little squiggly lines, let alone understanding a concept and multiple pronunciations simply by looking at them. Yet each and every Japanese textbook you'll find on the market supports the idea of mastering each character individually, a method that might seem to be the ONLY method to bring immediate benefits, but requires lots of work and constant drilling of a character. This method is deemed (By the author) to be ineffective and a waste of time.

So what does this book do for our situation? Rather than assuming that we can make the connection between a jumble of lines and the meaning of a character (Which every text book somehow assumes we can do), the kanji are broken down into smaller fragments, and each are tagged with a word that represents an idea, concept, thing, etc., that we are familiar with, such as a hill, the sun, or a baseball bat. Adding these various building blocks together, you form new concepts, and in turn, new characters. True, most these probably don't have a relationship whatsoever with the root meanings of the kanji, but this isn't the point. The point is to take something you aren't familiar with (Lots of lines), and to make them familiar to you (An image, a picture in your mind). No, you will not be able to pronounce any of them when you're finished with this book. But you will be able to identify and tell the difference between even the smallest of nuances. You will look at kanji in a completely different way.

I can't speak for others, but progressing through this course to it's completion was perhaps one of the toughest tests of self-discipline and concentration that I've done in my life. You don't simply "hop along for the ride" to understanding kanji. You will tread through this sea of characters until you've used up every bit of strength your imagination can muster. The only people I've talked to in real life (Not via e-mail) that have attempted this course have either not yet completed it, or have given up with it altogether. This isn't a "learn Japanese kanji in 4 minutes a day" sort-of course. This is a massive undertaking, and must be treated as such, lest the student fizzle out, like so many seem to have done. This is not a book for someone that wants to "get their feet wet" in the sea of kanji. Rather, it is for the serious student, one that is willing to make a commitment (And a big one, at that) towards literacy in Japanese. If this isn't your goal, then I suggest you find another book.

Before you stands a course that requires great stamina, determination and willpower to accomplish. The benefits might not sound like much, but by the time you've finished this course, you'll be on a new plateau of kanji understanding, one that can lead you to literacy. If you "Google" the words "James Heisig Kanji," you'll be able to find a "demo" of the first couple hundred kanji covered in the book. Give it a try. And depending on how much you're willing to work at it, you've either found for yourself a precious gem or another useless rock.

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:

Amazing system, but depends on what you want to learn, December 29, 2004

Reviewer: Sitting in Seattle

I've been using Heisig's book for about 7 weeks, and have "learned" 310 kanji during that time. I wanted to share some of my experiences and thoughts to add to the other thoughtful reviews.

First, by way of background, I experienced the "traditional" method of learning kanji when I studied Chinese a number of years ago. As Heisig notes in his introduction, that method involves learning characters in order according to how fundamental they are in language, and one learns the written character, pronunciation, grammatical details, and so forth simultaneously. The characters are learned purely by rote, and the pictorial aspects are not tied to anything systematic. My experience agreed with Heisig's notes: with nothing to anchor one's memory, it is nearly impossible to remember how to write the characters. I spent many hours a day practicing the characters to little avail and much frustration, and ultimately abandoned learning Chinese because I could not find the time to persist in that method.

When I decided to learn Japanese, the fear of chinese characters returned. How could I learn kanji when Chinese characters were an insurmountable obstacle in the past? Luckily, Heisig's book has been part of the answer. The key is that, instead of merely learning random markings, he lays out a system in which one uses imaginative associations. And, yes, it really works (at least for me). It is not difficult to "learn" 20-30 kanji per day, given an available hour or two of time.

Now, a few things have to be said. First, in his system, to "learn" a kanji means simply to learn two things: (1) how to write it; (2) a single key meaning. There are many other things that one does not learn (in volume 1 of his system): (3) pronunciation (that's in volume 2); (4) alternative meanings, which are multiple for most kanji; (5) compounds with other kanji; (6) anything about usage or grammar. That is by design, as Heisig notes that learning to write the kanji is the most important barrier for westerners. He specifically designed the system to lower that hurdle as low as it can be, and that meant that the other aspects of kanji are postponed.

The value of this system depends on one's goals, schedule, and related activity. First, Heisig notes that his system should be completely separated from any other simultaneous activity to learn kanji. It is NOT intended to be a supplement to a second or third year Japanese course, for instance. Further, it is not designed to progress from common to less-common, like many kanji books. Rather, it bunches kanji together solely on the basis of how easy they are to learn together. This implies that the course must be completed -- or very nearly completed -- to get most of the benefit. That implies a certain schedule, namely, to persist until one is done.

In terms of goals, the system works well for some goals: (a) learning to write the basic kanji in a short amount of time, so one can devote study to grammar and other matters; (b) rapidly developing an extremely rudimentary reading ability, where "reading" means "occasionally figuring out a few words, but mostly just being able to have some visual memory for kanji when confronted by them"; (c) laying a foundation for other study of Japanese when one has an enforced break of at least a few months; (d) learning the kanji because they're fun, as a supplement to kana-based Japanese classes (i.e., prior to starting kanji formally); (e) breaking the language down into parts that are more suitable for self-study. Those are my goals, and I suspect the goals of many other adult western learners of Japanese.

There are other goals that I believe are not well-suited to this system: (f) supplementing an intermediate or advanced Japanese language course where you're learning kanji otherwise (Heisig's book could, however, fill in a break in such instruction); (g) rapidly developing basic reading fluency, i.e., in relation to word frrequency or importance; (h) serving as a text for classroom; (i) reviewing or learning grammar.

One thing that I would highly recommend: get the flash cards in addition to this book. Yes, it is possible to make your own, but as other reviewers have noted, that is an unpleasant exercise. In addition, it is error-prone: if you don't know how to write the kanji well, the flash cards are likely to drill poor representations of the kanji. I would also note that Heisig's cards have other valuable information. First, they have cross-references to some common kanji dictionaries for westerners, so it is easy to look up a kanji in those when the key word meaning or stroke order is unclear. Second, they have pronunciation information to complement volume 2 of his system.

Finally, it should be obvious but I'll state it anyway: no book can do the hard work of learning a language for you. Heisig's system has given me what I needed to get over the very high hurdle of learning to write kanji, but it still takes a great deal of patience every day. You have to sit down and practice and review the flash cards, and his book, over and over. For me, it requires at least a few hours per week, in 30 minute pieces here and there -- but mostly it requires patience and diligence. Good luck!

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:

Good system, November 28, 2004

Reviewer: Michael John Eagle "Vice" (Charlotte, NC USA)

Reading this book will change how you see Kanji.
Large complex kanji will become simple in your eyes.
I have worked about 800 kanji into this book, and have enjoyed it.

It is true you will not learn the on-yomi or kun-yomi, but you will learn the more important part, the meaning. Moreover, have no problem writing these kanji from memory.

This book system is not designed to be used alone, after finishing this book; start studying other ways. The second book is not as ground breaking as this first, but is still rather handy. The first time I used this book, I devoured 100 kanji. Still to this day, I can draw those 100 kanji from memory.

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:

Don't read a review, see it for yourself, November 16, 2004

Reviewer: Miguel Lescano Cornejo "mlescano" (Ecuador)

Tired of reading reviews and still not being decided? Well, you're lucky, because Dr. Heisig is a permanent fellow of the Nanzan Institute, and Nanzan's website hosts a PDF file containing the first part of the book, that is, the guide to learn 276 characters. Just search in Google for "Heisig kanji" and in the first or second page of results you'll get a link to the Nanzan institute. There are also a couple of "errata" files that you must download in order to bypass the typos. These erratas also allow you to have a peek to how the course develops in later lessons. By the way, there are also an Spanish and a French version of the book.

About flashcards, you don't need to create thousands of them for reviewing; you can use a program such as KanjiGold, Stackz! or VTrain. These programs can be set to make you review only when you need to. That is, they follow theories about the gradual fading of memory. One of them even includes Heisig's list of kanjis.

And for those concerned about the lacking of pronunciations and rules of coumpound-making: Those are taught in book II of this series of three books (Book III guides you to other useful 1000 characters and their pronunciations, and with those, you sum up about 3000 characters, equal to most educated native speakers), and, in fact, it is a lot better to focus on one task at a time.

It is true that some of the mnemonic stories might not make sense for you, but you can always make up your own, and in fact, you're encouraged to do that gradually!

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