written language employs four kinds of script: the two phonetic syllabaries,
hiragana and katakana; rōmaji, or the Latin alphabet;
and kanji, or Chinese characters. In 1981 the Tōyō ("Temporary
Use") Kanji were replaced by the Jōyō ("General Use", "Permanent
Use") Kanji. The new system is not ideal: the list does not
include many characters common in personal and place names, for it was
devised as a printers guide, and it was expected that these names
would be handwritten. Like all such lists, it is subjective and
open to question. It does not include the saka in saka,
even though this kanji is frequently encountered, and some of the characters
that it does include are extremely rare. Furthermore, I do not
understand why "ue" and "shita" ("up/above", "down/below"),
and "migi" and "hidari" (right and left) have been
separated, for learning through antonymic pairings is one of the basic
methods of vocabulary acquisition.
For the foreigner
who will live in Japan for two years or so, and who wishes to understand
the characters he encounters on the street, in shops, at the bank, and
so on, the 500 Kanji in the 2 Volumes of the University of Tōkyō's
250 Essential Kanji for Everyday Use (Rutland, Vermont; Tōkyō,
Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1998) will provide considerable assistance.
It is an ideal introduction. For those who wish to study the Japanese
language and culture in greater depth, a command of the 2,000 or so
basic kanji is essential. I see no reason not to learn them in
the order that the Japanese do; imperfect though the present system
may be, it is the best available. Moreover, the documents that
the student will find presented at this website take the learner of
Japanese in Japan into account, for the vocabulary items in each entry
are ordered on a scale of diminishing frequency, based on personal experience
of Japanese life.
It is difficult
to memorise Kanji. Most of them are compounds, and the element
which gives the character its meaning was often borrowed for its sound.
There is no immediate relationship between the visual appearance of
the character and its signification. In order to commit them to
memory, understanding and familiarity are of the greatest importance.
To that end, my lists include etymologies, cross-references, and the
occasional literal translation. They etymologies are often brief
and suggestive, my aims being to provoke thought, to facilitate the
mnemonynic process, and to illustrate the vast distance that lies between
the system of thoughts which created and developed Chinese characters
on the one hand and Western concepts on the other. These etymologies
have been abstracted from Kenneth G. Henshall's A Guide to Remembering
Japanese Characters (Boston; Rutland, Vermont; Tōkyō: Charles
E. Tuttle Co., 1998), which is the best book of its kind, and are given
here with the kind permission of the author and Tuttle Publishing.
For greater depth and more detailed explanations, as well as information
on the structure and history of kanji, the reader is referred to Professor
For every compound
to appear in the vocabulary list under an entry, the number of the other
kanji in the list is given, so that the reader can either look forward
and prepare for the intake of another character, or look backwards and
consolidate his learning. Literal translations are given when
they help the learner to memorise the word (often with a little lateral
thinking), when they are suggestive or poetic (for example, "baishun"
or "sell-spring" captures perfectly the tragedy of prostitution,
especially in past ages when the prostitute saw no summer), or when
they illustrate a feature of the language, such as duplication.
is advised to concentrate on the individual kanji first, then work his
way through the first three or four items of vocabulary in each entry,
and finally to peruse the whole document, using the cross-references
as often as possible. Kanji seem difficult at first because they
are entirely different to the writing systems to which we have become
accustomed, but the mystique vanishes with time and application.
The more often we see a kanji, the more easily we can commit it to memory.
It is a long and hard haul, but it is highly rewarding: per ardua
are divided into three columns. The first column gives the reader
the number of the kanji in the Jōyō list and its stroke count; the
second the kanji itself; and the third follows standard practice by
giving the onyomi (Chinese reading) in block capitals, while
the kunyomi (Japanese reading) is italicised. The reader
will encounter the following symbols:
* denotes an irregular reading
-- denotes an NGU (Non-General Use) kanji
oo (in the first column) This means that the long o (ō) is written in
(oo), not (ou)