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Learning Kanji
through Plot Mnemonics

Home > Articles > Learning Kanji...
Learning Kanji
through Plot Mnemonics
Home > Articles > Learning Kanji...
Daily Yomiuri,
February 6, 1995
The following is a contribution from
reader Vadim Smolensky about his
method of studying Japanese kanji.

The usual answer to those afraid of the complexity and large quantity of Japanese characters is: "Sure, it is an obstacle, but not so formidable. You can overcome it if you study hard." The authors of various mnemonic systems available on the textbook market add: "If you follow our recommendations."

It occurs to nobody that kanji when treated as the basic elements of Japanese are not an obstacle at all. Quite the contrary, they can become an invaluable aid, an essential and powerful accelerator of Japanese studies.

Perhaps people do not realize this simple truth because of two mistakes: they always deal with single characters and learn them step by step, according to their utility. This common practice looks natural and expedient but actually it does not provide good results. In particular, remembering Chinese reading (onyomi) is a great problem, whatever system you follow. Therefore, the conventional way is learning a compound word (jukugo) by rote and splitting it into syllables when you need to recollect the readings of its components. Thus, there is a gap between learning kanji and learning words.

I suggest another way. The essence of my method is gathering together all the kanji that have the same Chinese reading (onyomi) and constructing a story that involves them all. The story should be vivid. Cold logical associations do not provide durable memorization. So the crazier the better. For better vividness, I even insert esoteric characters into my stories, ignoring only extremely rare ones. The example below is devoted to onyomi "DON."

1.  "musaboru" - to covet; to indulge in

2.  "udon"   - noodles

3.  "nomu" - to swallow; to gulp down

4.  "niburu" - to grow dull

"nibui" - dull

"noroi" - stupid; sluggish

"noroma" - blockhead; dunce 

5.  "kumoru" - to become cloudy; to become dim

"kumori" - cloudiness; cloudy weather; shadow

The story: A certain Don Musa (half-Spanish, half-Tatar) is covetous of noodles. Once he managed to borrow a good pan of noodles picking it up by a hook and swallowed it in one gulp. Due to such gluttony his nib grew dull and he became stupid and sluggish.

"I know I'm a loiterer, - he thought, - but Lord! Why did you give a life to such a dunce? I'm neither a Protestant nor a Roman, I'm a blockhead!"

On top of that it had become cloudy, Don Musa's mind became completely dim and a shadow fell on his face.

Not serious? Right. Not so artistic? Maybe. But the goal is achieved. This schizophrenic plot has tied up everything in a chain. Note that within the story we can find new possibilities for associations that disappear when we consider an isolated kanji or word.

In the character , it is easy to see the hero of the story (the hat, the left eye, the open mouth, the three-storeyed paunch and the short legs running toward the next portion of noodles). The right part of is the hook of special construction that was used to pick up the pan. In , Don Musa, with the pan in his hands, is looking aside to be sure that no one will see him swallowing the noodles. The right part of is not a hook any more - it is Don Musa again sitting on the ground and appealing to Heaven. I assume that the basic "bushues" such as "food", "metal" or "rain" are already known. So, it is also not hard to memorize the last kanji, . Its lower part is the hero's frowned face with hidden eyes and dropped nose. A similar plot mnemonics is used here for the Japanese readings (Musa, borrow - "musaboru"; nib - "nibui"; know, loiterer - "noroi", nor, Roman - "noroma"). The prefix "Don" joins the chain with the onyomi.

Having imagined and memorized this plot once (and perhaps having repeated it several times later), you will never be confused by seeing any of these characters. The story of Don Musa will instantly come to mind and you will easily recollect the reading and meaning of the kanji. This is especially important for Chinese readings that are short and often similar to each other (long and short syllables, interchange of consonants, etc.); using the chain method simplifies their recollection cardinally. There are about 300 different onyomi in Japanese, so about 300 different chains of various length are to be constructed to cover all the stock of kanji and lay an excellent foundation for further language studying.