Hand-Writing All 1,947 Jōyō Kanji: Ten Things I Learned.

“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…”

Waves of Kanji

Waves of Kanji

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

Write Them, then Rewrite Them.

Write Them, then Rewrite Them.

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.

5,400 Kanji on my desk...

5,400 Kanji on my desk...

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:

12-year-old Japanese Kids Laugh at Me.

12-year-old Japanese Kids Laugh at Me.

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.

Signo Uni-Ball 207

Signo Uni-Ball 207

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.

Your Mood is Reflected in Your Writing!

Your Mood is Reflected in Your Writing!

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.

慈善 慈しむ

じ or 「いつく」しむ 慈 

じ or 「いつく」しむ 慈 

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?

Japanese Symbols: Kanji.  Engulf Me Entirely.

Japanese Symbols: Kanji. Engulf Me Entirely.


10 thoughts on “Hand-Writing All 1,947 Jōyō Kanji: Ten Things I Learned.

  1. Loved your post and your idea. I’ll try to write many kanji many times this Summer, maybe I can learn them faster like that. I find them beautiful and useful but they’re so many…

    • Glad to hear this!

      Apologies that my reply to your input has taken so long.
      I was heartily pleased to read both of your comments.

      By the way, did you ever get around to writing those kanji like you said you might?



  2. Pingback: Random Weekend Ramblings | My Korean Corner

  3. Re-reading this entry somehow refreshed me of the days in my elementary and high school days when I had to write out the kanji for my Chinese lessons. In fact, the Chinese call it 习字 (which literally means learning words). I seriously practising to write out the kanji countless of times is the best way to learn kanji.

    I have to say that I really admire you for making the effort to write them out. I still practise writing them out whenever I see a character that I’m unfamiliar with. In fact, I did the same thing too when I was studying for JLPT and I forsee that I will continue to do that.

    My characters still look as clumsy and my mum always says that my kanji looks like what an elementary school student would write (and that really depresses me LOADS… even though I’m way beyond elementary school).

    My favourite kanji are 真心. I guess the reason for liking these kanji is due to the combined meaning of these two kanji.

  4. I can’t believe someone enjoys wiritng Kanji. There is something cool about it though. I remember when I wrote them in mass, it was around 200-300 per Kanji, and I guess you can wonder why I didn’t like it after those four hours spent on around 10. I can recognise around 330ish Kanji, with my favourites having to be either 儚 or 靈. The last one might seem complex, with 23ish strokes, but to me it’s just rain over three mouths over 巫女.

    I found a method that works for me, that doesn’t involve much writing, so the Kanji I learn to recognise, with radicals I do not, are very poor in my already poor handwriting.
    経望 I could do pretty well, but the bottom half of 壊 leaves me at a, how do I write this?

    I’ve thought that Japanese is Kanji, vocab, and grammar. If you can recognise all 2000 or so Kanji, the vocab will come much easier. And if you know all the words you need to, then the grammar will come much easier. It still doesn’t hurt to touch on the other two while focusing on one.

  5. Wow… That’s a great job really impressive… I like to read that, it gets my a lot of energy and I want to effort even more, by now I’m studying it using the Heiseg method, rtk… And helping with Anki and writing using the best of both world, imaginative memory and writing… Nothing better for that than the genkouyoushi (kanji practice sheet, like the one the kids use to practice kanji at school), with that you can know the balance for each kanji and writing the best way… Keep going, Japanese its not easy but it worth the effort, as for me I really love this language and the history behind this kanji and all that they mean… Greetings from Venezuela.

    • Fantastic to hear that you too are in love with this unique, challenging, and absolutely rewarding language. I apologize that my reply to your wonderful comment has taken so long, but it has not fallen on deaf ears. I am delighted to share more of my thoughts on Japanese,Spanish, and English with you, if you are interested.

  6. so while writing them, were you just teaching yourself the order, or the readings as well? I am slightly overwhelmed at the thought of remembering which has what reading, as well as which reading to use with each kanji set if you will.

    • Linda,

      Apologies for taking so long to reply. I was becoming familiar with the patterns that are associated with writing kanji. I am used to writing a,b,and c but my penmanship with Chinese characters was lacking to say the least. Among many other goals of my writing, this was one of them. A separate goal was to familiarize myself with radicals. Radicals often lend themselves both to the meaning and pronunciation (おん and/or くん reading) and that proved to be an especially useful realization. Good luck with your studying!

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