“The Jōyō kanji are the 1,947 most essential kanji in the Japanese language as designated by the Ministry of Education. I hand-wrote them all. This is what I learned…”
In an effort to improve my Japanese writing finesse and satisfy my nearly insatiable interest in Chinese characters I undertook the daunting task of hand-writing every single one of the 1,947 Jōyō kanji as included in this book. I literally went through every single one of the kanji included in this reference book and wrote and rewrote them until I had gone through all of them. The focus was on repetition and muscle memory, and maintaining the correct stroke order was pivotal to the entire exercise.
To set the record straight, I really enjoy studying kanji…really enjoy. What to many is boring and impossible, I find meditative and relaxing, insightful and enlightening. Within each kanji there is a story and a reason for its construction. Every kanji is based in a history that is long and clouded and originates in ancient China making them living artifacts, speech relics that are as good today as they were one-thousand years ago. Each stroke is carefully planned and, when performed in the correct order, smooth and natural to your hand.
Every character was written at least 10 times; many were written 20 times
or more. In addition to simple repetition, each kanji was also written several times in compound words. For example, the kanji for pure, 純、was written 20 times in a row: 純純純純純純純純純純純純純純純純純純純．After being written twenty times consecutively (for stroke order practice and muscle memory) it was written several times again in words that included it as a part of their construction. Words such as 単純, for example, would be perfect examples that were used–again, repetitively–in order to memorize ON-KUN (Chinese & Japanese) readings and continue to commit to memory the correct stroke order.
Doing the math, this means that over the last ten months now (this entire process began last summer in June) I have hand-written roughly 38,000 Japanese kanji characters. Even as I look at this number I am in disbelief. It wasn’t until I was well into my practice that I decided to save the papers that I was writing on, but eventually it dawned on me that very few Westerners have done what I have just done and that saving the papers as proof may help my case. Regardless, there are dozens and dozens of pages on my desk with kanji written all over them. (picture to come soon)
10 Things I Learned
After writing this many kanji I have realized several truths:
1) Westerners are just at a general disadvantage when it comes to writing Chinese characters. Even after having written well over 40,000 kanji in my studies of Japanese, my characters still have a tendency to appear clumsy and awkward, childish and unnatural. Even after being praised by several Japanese, Korean, and even Chinese for my pleasant writing, I cannot help but feel that it is all just nice talk, impressed simply because I know Chinese characters, period.
2) The writing utensil matters. I have tried pencils and several pens before settling on one amazing ballpoint that really does it for me. Writing kanji must be a careful and beautiful process that is functionable–that is, not so time-consuming that it is unpractical–while still maintaining its legibility (and I say more than just legibility but rather that each character is written honorably and reverently as recognition of its larger role in history) Every language ought to be approached and executed in a similar fashion, I say: Hand-writing should be always pleasing to the eye.
I wanted to finish writing all 1,947 kanji before I went out to purchase a paintbrush and inkblock and I’m glad I did. I have waited long and now am finally ready to move on to the ultimate expression of written language: devotion to the perfect and superb rendering of a single character (be it Eastern or Western). In the mean time, I discovered that the single best pen to practice writing your characters is the Signo 207 Uni-Ball (ultrafine) because of the wonderful fluidity of the black ink, the feel of the pen in your hand, and the curious likeness that the end-product shares to a character written by brush. Heck, even Goldman Sachs hands this one out at job fairs but of course, to each his own.
3) The most useful kanji are the first 1,500. Once you push past that threshold (or thereabouts) your studies take you into the realm of kanji that you will encounter but at an ever-decreasing rate. 伯母さん お婆さん 御祖母さん etc, you get the idea. After a while, it’s just easier to stick to the hiragana. Still, ever-impressive are those who can write these characters, let alone read them. They show up in newspapers, magazines (though not as much), and in novels as well (though oftentimes with accompanying furigana)
4) Kanji is my meditation. Careful and solemn repetition of sound alongside physical movement went from being tedious to–at very special times–relaxing.
5) The final product, the look of the kanji, does depend on your mood, posture, state of mind, and a few other things as well. Writing under stress is immediately visible in the ink and flow of your writing! Kanji written while relaxed and confident, however, are markedly different and much more appealing to the eye: They are smooth, the fluidity of your hand is recognizable in the ink and all the points of the kanji seem to appear as one from some ancient text. Most memorably, every once in a while it seemed that all positive energy lined up in my writing and truly amazing kanji would emerge; I would often circle such kanji, stopping to admire them for a moment before continuing on. Narcissistic? To be honest, such moments only came along once every 2 or 3,000 kanji. (^-^)
6) It is true what is said: Kanji are a necessary evil in a spaceless world. Written Japanese has no spaces in between words, writing in only hiragana makes reading darn near impossible, ergo the use of kanji, making Japanese quickly and easily comprehensible to the everyday reader. That being said, Kanji are–in a sense–evil. They are enormous consumers of time and energy! Where the kanji 慰 could simply be written as い (in hiragana) thereby eliminating all but two strokes of the pen and a few precious seconds of writing, we must–and still to this day–continue to use the kanji. Kanji are so important to everyday life in the written world of Japanese life that you can not even begin to hope to survive in Japanese without knowledge of them…no matter how much you tire of their pomp.
7) I am still unsure/my-hand-does-not-know how to masterfully execute these kanji or kanji that contain these as radicals:
巨、粛、侮、費、瓶、奔、曹、as well as several others…but these are the most recent.
8 ) My favorite kanji is 慈, meaning tenderness, loving, and caring. I like it because it can be coupled with other similar kanji (such as 愛 “ai” or 恋 “koi”), it contains the radical for “heart” which is clearly absolutely essential to such emotions (because it is included in the other tow kanji as well), also, as opposed to the two more well-known kanji for love, this kanji tends to connote “tenderness” …which I find very valuable and essential in life. Finally, I am fond of this kanji because it is the rarest of all kanji for love and affection, making it especially meaningful and uniquely special. Oh, and I find that my hand has no difficultly drawing this character nor does my mind have any trouble remembering its reading.
9) An intensive study of kanji will inevitably require a refresher course in adjectives and verbs in order to put all that kanji knowledge to the test. I am at that point now where I can feel it in my bones that all other aspects of the Japanese language that need to be studied (grammar and vocabulary) have been sorely neglected as this task was being completed. A renewed study of the other face of the language is needed and needed fast. Yet, I was very pleasantly surprised when I found that my newly acquired knowledge of kanji was massively helpful in this sector. Without ever having heard the word before in my life, I was able to guess (correctly) the meaning simply through the recognition of the kanji parts of the vocabulary. It was invigorating!
10) Kanji is hands-down the most powerful tool you can possibly have in your study of the Japanese language. Study Kanji and you study vocabulary. Study kanji and you study history. Study kanji and you study meditation. Study kanji and your brain is able to make language connections throughout ALL of east Asia. It is a language, an art form, and a reflection of your being–insomuch that your very mood is reflected in the flow of the ink on the page. Study kanji. Study kanji. Study kanji. Make your studies positive and meaningful rather than tedious and time-consuming because this is the only way that you can be successful in this area. In the beginning, nothing in language is easy. In the end, everything in language is connected.
Naturally, the Ministry of Education is planning to add (sometime soon) 196 kanji to the jōyō list. Great, I’ll get started on those today! Check out the buzz on this kanji by clicking here or at Kanji Clinic.
Please feel free to comment! I look forward to hearing your own opinions on kanji and the Japanese language. What is your favorite kanji?