Monday, August 4, 2008

Ordering of kanji, is it that important?

Until now, the assumption behind how Remembering the Kanji worked was in the order the kanji were presented. By systematically learning the very simple kanji that make up the complex kanji, one could make everything easier to remember.

"It will soon become apparent that the most critical factor is the order of learning the kanji. The actual method is simplicity itself. Once more basic characters have been learned, their use as primitive elements for other kanji can save a great deal of effort and enable one to review known characters at the same time as one is learning new ones." Introduction to James Heisig's Remembering the Kanji

I do not want to belittle the effectiveness of the order he presents, but the true brilliance of his book was the systematic deconstruction of the kanji. Being able to see any visual component of the character and immediately recognize it as something familiar. I myself can attest to this, having memorized kanji in an order that was of no benefit and sometimes even contrary to my efforts, since using this method requires learning kanji in groups of onyomi (learn all the kanji pronounced KAI as a group, for example).

The process to learning kanji out of order is a simple one, but requires preparation. The student must learn the visual components and assign them meanings before beginning any study of the kanji. The components to memorize are the basic and simple shapes that cannot be composed of other kanji, of which I have counted 209 so far. Memorizing these is an easy task, because the average Japanese student will be familiar with quite a few shapes already, and because the student can choose the meanings to suit their needs. I have a list of these components, and will gladly share it if I am able to find a place to host it.

Because the Movie Method places emphasis on locations to place images, instead of stories, it becomes a simple trick to learn kanji out of order. Combinations of kanji that appear together will earn an essential image that is reused in every kanji that it appears again. For example, in the kanji
for 'morning' [朝] there are four components (vs. Heisig, which would only give two). When I first saw this kanji, I had never seen the specific combination of components on the left before. But by breaking it down and creating mnemonic images based on groups of primitives, I created an essential image (for me, it's a stereotyped sun as a pillow with two large syringes sticking out of it) that I can reuse in other kanji. By doing this I may have four components, but it becomes moot because I only need to work with two essential images. It becomes apparent that the reason this works is precisely the same as why Heisig's order works. We both recognize common combinations of components, but we recognize them at different times. Heisig acknowledges his primitives by assigning them concrete meanings beforehand, I acknowledge them by assigning them concrete images in an informal way as I go along.

Here is a more complete example using Heisig's assigned meanings for the basic primitives. In the movie Ocean's Thirteen (my location for KAN) there is a scene where a character is packing his things in his car to leave a hotel. When he opens the trunk [幹], he has to use one hand because is syringed sun pillow is under his arm (his luggage, I suppose). Inside the trunk of his car however, there is an opened umbrella with potatoes pouring out onto the street. [I have learned that 'potatoe' is actually 'dry' as one of Heisig's primitives and as the kanji meaning. Memorizing all the components before knowing the kanji can be a little weird when explaining things.]

This entire scene is played out in my mind in only a fraction of a second that I created in mere moments. I only present it here as a logical story for understanding, because when I create stories I only think of how I can incorporate the component images into the scene that's already set up to play out. When I use scenes in my head to remember kanji, I need only add my kanji components to the scene that's already playing out, even if it's totally illogical.

Need some concrete examples?
Sample movie - Pulp Fiction.


  1. For the record, that's Tree-Trunk (by Heisig naming), and it's not potato, it's dry.

    Interesting idea in general, though.

  2. Sorry, I'm really not trying to harp on this at all since it's really beside the point, it's just that I don't want you to misunderstand. It's not that the primitive you mentioned is called dry, it's that they're two separate primitives (or at least written differently). The 'potato' primitive (used in the kanji for potato and eaves and etc)has a leftward hook at the end. The 'dry' primitive (used in the kanji for dry and flat and etc) doesn't. The one used in tree-trunk is 'potato'. So if you weren't already taking the hook into account (and just considering them the same primitive, like with 'silver' and such that sometimes omit the last stroke), then I wanted to let you know so you didn't end up writing them incorrectly.

  3. Err, the one used in tree-trunk is dry. Now I'm getting mixed up :o

  4. For 'dry' I use potatoe and learned the very few exceptions with the hook. When I saw the combination that Heisig calls 'scale', I break it down to a "dripping potatoe" and remember that it always has a hook.

    This is because I was trying to reduce the amount of primitives to memorize before hand as much as possible.

    But I do appreciate you pointing this out, since people should probably be aware of the little nuances.

  5. Let me see if I get you right. You have a story about every kanji which, by it's plot, gives you the components of the kanji (I have very similar stories already thru RTK). You visualize that story occuring within the context of a movie that you're familiar with (similar to Kanjitown, except that it's not a made up location--some work is saved by not having to create the town from's populated with people and objects and what not already). The name of the movie (or something else about the movie) keys into one of the sounds the kanji can make, and the connection to the particular scene in the movie has to do with the meaning of the kanji.

    Did I get that right?

    So, the sequence of study is: 1st learn the 200+ radicals or primitives or whatever you want to call the components. Next pick a sound. Then pick a movie that makes sense to you for the sound. Then, taking a list of the kanji with that sound, connect them into the plot of the movie. As you find a place for them in the movie, then you develop the visual elements (like you described for "trunk") that connect the components to the kanji.

    It seems to have quite a bit in common with Heisig's method. The order of learning is different, based on the learning all the primitives first. The next difference is that the stories themselves, rather than being independently linked to a list of keywords, they're in an (arbitrary) order coincidental to the sequence of the scenes in the plot of a familiar movie.

    Interesting, if I get you right.

    I'm not familiar with Oceans. So, it's not obvious to me why the movie would connect to KAN. Can you explain that to me? Just curious. . .

  6. Yes that's correct. But I feel the order of kanji, my method or Heisig's, is not important, it's only for ease.

    I also don't stick to the radical list. I omitted quite a few radicals that could be composed of simpler ones, and added a lot of components that were not radicals themselves.

    Ocean's movies are movies about thieves and con men.


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