Japanese Lesson – Learning Kanji 001

Hello Everyone,

This lesson is the first lesson in our Learning Kanji series.  Let’s make your first step on the path to this long and fabulous journey!

Note: The kanji series of articles assumes that you already know both hiragana and katakana. If you don’t have a clue of what they are, or your memory is not that fresh on the subject, I suggest you have a look here: Introduction to hiragana and katakana

Introduction

I already introduced kanji in our article on the Japanese writing system, and therefore I will only state here elements of importance for learning Kanji.

Learning kana, as we have seen, consists in learning 3 things:

  • The shape in order to be able to recognize the character when we see it,
  • The sound in order to be able to recognize the character when we hear it, and pronounce it ourselves,
  • And the stroke order so that we can reproduce the character.

Learning kanji, well… takes this to another level:

  • The principles related to the shape and stroke order will get a tad more complex as many kanji have between 6 and 16 strokes, and quite a few go beyond (but some do also stay below).
  • Where it gets really tricky is for the sound/reading. Where a kana represents a single letter or a syllable, one kanji can have multiple pronunciations, ranging from a simple letter or syllable to a full word. And some of these pronunciatons are shared between multiple kanji which can make it sometimes challenging to identify which kanji to use for a word. To be exhaustive, there can exist up to  four types of reading for a kanji:
    • onyomi: use of kanji Chinese pronunciation to build Japanese words,
    • kunyomi: use of kanji for its meaning, with a Japanese pronunciation,
    • jukujikun: a special reading of a word, neither based on the onyomi or kunyomi. You will soon have some examples.
    • nanori: special reading of a kanji in first or last names… These will make the object of specific articles and will not be addressed here.
  • And last but not least, kanji comes with a new element: meaning. A kanji can represent one or multiple concepts (object, fact, sentiment…). I stress here the word concept, because you have to be aware that your native language and the Japanese language may have evolved separately for hundreds or thousands year, and the translations which are given to kanji are generally attempts to match some word you know with the idea brought by a foreign word, and if it may sometimes match perfectly, most of the times it will be an approximation. Looking at the concept behind a kanji will greatly help you in approaching its true meaning and understanding the Japanese mindset.

Learning kanji

Now, with all these points in mind, what is the best approach to learning kanji? Well, all will be depending on you (yes, that may ,not be the answer you were waiting for ^^).

Some of you may like to have a scholar approach, taking the characters one by one, and repeateadly writing down the character, its different pronunciations and meaning.

Others may prefer to lear it in context, learning the different pronunciations and meanings as they appear along your readings.

With the first option, you may spend time learning a lot of details which you may never use for some of them. With the second one you will have to lookup for the readings and meaning of the kanji everytime you encounter a new word.

My guess is that the best approach should be a mix of both approaches. Spend some time learning the readings and meanings of a kanji, and others experiencing the kanji in your different readings.

 

Now, all this may seem fuzzy, so let’s get right into the matter with our first kanji (and by far the most simple you will ever find…

Yes, here it is, your first kanji, a single stroke ^^

It looks pretty simple but it is a really good representation of what most kanji are. Take a little moment and have a carefull look at it, what do you see and what does it bring to your mind…

 



OK, here are the details:

(Click on the kanji to view stroke animation)

  • Stroke(s): 1
  • Reading(s):
    • onyomi:
      • イチ
      • イツ
    • kunyomi:
      • ひと-
      • ひと.つ
    • jukujikun:
      • 一日: ついたち
      • 一人: ひとり
  • Meaning(s):
    • one, one radical (no.1)

Yes, that many information for just one character. Now, let’s have a closer look at what we have:

  • For the shape and stroke order, it is pretty basic; one single stroke, drawn horizontally  from left to right.
  • For the sound/reading part, here it suddenly becomes more complicated: 2 onyomi readings, 2 kunyomi readings, and 2 jukujikun readings…
    • Notes:
      • the ツ at the end of イツ will become a half width ッ when used at the beginning or in the middle of a word. 一 in 一緒 (together) is pronounced いっ.しょ and not いつ.しょ
      • 一人, when meaning / one person // single // alone //, is always read ひとり. But it can be read いち.にん in some compound words like 一人前 [いち.にん.まえ] / one serving – what is in front of one person, fully… /…
      • The same for 一日 which shall (or I should say can in this specific case) be read ついたち when speaking of the first day of the month. Otherwise 一日 is read いち.にち meaning / one day /.
  • And finally for the meaning: we have here the concept of one, first. Did you guess it earlier on?

All right! Still alive? Now, your second kanji!

Examples:

  • 一 (いち) as a number: one
    • 、に、さん、よん…
    • / one / two / three / four /
    • ばん です よ。
    • / number one, first place / to be / {affirmation} /
    • / I am the best! /
  • 一 (いっ-) as one, at the beginning or in the middle of a word
    • ぷん まって ください。[いっぷん]
    • / one minute / wait / do for me, please /
    • / Please wait one minute. /
  • 一 (-いつ) as one, at the end of a word
    • ドイツ とう
    • / Germany / unity, consolidation /
    • / Unification of Germany /
  • 一 (ひと-) as one, a single
    • ライオン は ウサギ を くち で たべた。
    • / lion / {topic} / rabbit / {object} / one bite / {means} / ate /
    • / The lion ate the rabbit in one bite. /
  • 一つ (ひとつ) as one (when no specific counter is used):
    • もう つ ください。
    • / again / one / do for me, please /
    • / One more, please. /

  • Strokes: 2
  • Reading(s):
    • onyomi:
      • ジン
      • ニン
    • kunyomi:
      • ひと
    • jukujikun:
      • 一人(ひとり)/ one person // alone /
      • 二人(ふたり)/ two persons /
      • 大人(おとな)/ grown up,  adult /
      • 玄人(くろうと)/ expert, professional, master /
      • 素人(しろうと)/ amateur, novive, ordinary person /
      • 仲人(なこうど)/ matchmaker, intermediary /
      • 若人(わこうど)/ young person /
  • Meaning(s):
    • person(s), counter for persons

Examples:

  • 人 (じん) after the name of a country: / person from // inhabitant /
    • にほん / Japanese /
    • アメリカ / American /
  • 人 (にん) after なん (what, how many) or a number (but beware 一人 and 二人): counter for persons,
    • なん います か。
    • / how many persons / to exist / {question} /
    • / How many persons are there? /
    • さん じゅう 一 です。
    • / 31 persons / to be /
    • / There are 31 persons. /
    • Note:
      • here, 一 and 人 are in two separate words, therefore 一 shall be pronounced いち
  • 人 (ひと) as a standalone word: person(s), people
    • この 人 は わたし の ともだち です。
    • / this / person / {topic} / me / {relation} / friend / to be /
    • / This person is my friend. /
    • せかい の 人々 (⬄ 人人) [ひとと]
    • / the world / {relation} / people (as a multitude) /
    • / People from all over the world /
    • Notes:
      • 々 (iteration mark) is used to mean the repetition of a kanji.
      • the change from ひと to びと for the pronunciation of the second 人 is called rendaku (sequential voicing) and leads to a syllable shifting from its normal pronunciation to the one with the dakuten (゛) or handakuten (゜). You will see that this is quite frequent in Japanese.
  • Other readings:
    • に じゅう 一さい です が,  まだ 大人 じゃ ない。(いっさい … おとな)
    • / 21 years / to be / but / yet / adult / not to be /
    • / He is 21 but he isn’t yet an adult. /

All right. this may have been a bit harsh, but you have to be aware that this is what it takes to learn kanji. Two kanji for a first lesson may seem a little amount, but you will quickly see after a few weeks that 20 to 30 kanji start to represent a fair amount of information, and there is more than 2000 kanjis needed to be at ease with everyday Japanese. Therefore take your time, find your pace and the approach that suits you the best, and enjoy yourself. In between lessons you can have a look at articles in japanese and try to spot the kanji you have learnt, as well as their reading.

Do not hesitate to provide me with some feedback on the lesson. What did you like, or wish I improve or add.

またね!

Stéphane

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