Of crystals and choirs: the Heisig method of learning kanji

When I took a Japanese-language class while working at Tōhoku University, my Chinese-speaking colleagues seemed to make much more rapid progress than me. Although the grammar of Chinese and Japanese are very different and the characters are pronounced differently for the most part, the meanings of most characters in the two languages are the same or similar. Even when characters are different – for example, there are differences between character forms in Simplified Chinese, Japanese and Traditional Chinese and there are certain characters that exist only in Japanese – people who have grown up learning a language that requires several thousand characters to write have already acquired the facility to assimilate characters and fit them into their ‘mental map’. Those of us who grew up learning an alphabetic language only had to learn 50-odd characters and then we were set to go – although, in the case of English, we had to spend the next years learning irregular spellings!
The aim of James W. Heisig’s method in his “Remembering the Kanji” series is to bridge the gap between people with an alphabetic-language background and those with a Chinese background by teaching the characters, each associated with an English meaning or keyword. No Japanese pronunciations, compound words or examples are included in Part 1, which instead concentrates on teaching simple kanji and elements and using these to build up more complex kanji. For example, the first chapter includes the numbers and the relatively simple kanji:

口(くち) kuchi: mouth
日(ひ) hi: day, sun
月(つき) tsuki: moon, month
田(た) ta: rice field
目(め) me: eye

(but without the pronunciations) and the second chapter introduces more complex kanji using these elements, such as the following, given with their Heisig keyword:

品: goods
明: bright
朋: companion
昌: prosperous
唱: chant
晶: sparkle

Each of these kanji is assigned a keyword in English and there is a mnemonic ‘story’ suggested to help remember how the meaning of the kanji is related to those of the component parts. In my experience, some of these stories are helpful, particularly when they relate to the etymology of the words – after all, the kanji are not arbitrary series of squiggles but were developed as symbolic representations of objects and concepts and some insight into the way of thinking in ancient China can sometimes be enough to make certain characters meaningful and memorable. However, others of the keywords and stories were much less helpful for me personally. For example, the character 九(きゅう) (kyuu, nine) is introduced with its simple meaning, but when this character is used to make up other characters, it is assigned the meaning of ‘baseball’ , something which has resonance for US readers but means very little to those of us from the non-baseball-playing part of the English-speaking world and made me constantly fight against the ‘obvious meaning’ of the character when it appeared subsequently. (Interestingly, I had fewer such problems with the use of the character ‘ten’ to mean ‘needle’.) The French version of the book (a sample chapter of which can be obtained here) has eliminated the baseball references and instead used the element to mean ‘new’, a play on neuf which actually works a lot better than the original in that the character 旭(あさひ) (asahi: morning sun) can then be remembered as a new sun rather than a sun rising over a baseball field!)

One of the results of this methodology is that the kanji are not taught in the usual order used by textbooks (e.g. the order used by the Japanese Language Proficiency Test or the Japanese school system or frequency of usage). This is not necessarily a problem since all commonly used kanji are eventually covered in Part 1 (and Part 3 introduces some rarer ones). However, it does mean that the book is not especially useful as the companion to a more standard Japanese or kanji course and is perhaps best tackled before starting such a course. (This was the exact context in which Heisig developed his method.) Of the compound kanji listed above, for example, 明 is taught in Grade 2 of Japanese schools and at JLPT level N4 (it does, however, have 13 different possible pronunciations in jisho.org – hoorah for Japanese for keeping things interesting!) , 唱 is taught in Grade 4 and at level N1 (example usage: 合唱団(がっしょうだん)gasshoudan: choir) and 晶 is taught at junior high school and at level N1 – and has only one pronunciation in jisho.org (example usage: 結晶(けっしょう)kesshou: crystal).

To avoid potential future confusion it should also be borne in mind that the keywords do not reflect the full range of meaning and nuance of the kanji, and were additionally influenced by the need to find a unique keyword for each kanji. It’s perhaps easier to think of them as a kind of hook to hang the kanji on than as “the meaning” of the kanji. If you come across this book part-way through your kanji studies, as I did, you may find these keywords conflicting with the meaning you already associate with the kanji or the associations that you have built up around it.

What of the mnemonics? As I said before, some were helpful and some less so. The author does encourage readers to make up their own mnemonic stories as they progress through the book but there seems to be no way to change the keywords if they do not work for you, so English-speaking readers are stuck with having to develop stories based on baseball. I have also heard criticism of the stories (unfortunately I don’t remember from where) for relying too much on Judaeo-Christian cultural heritage in developing the stories. Since this is my own culture this is not a problem for me personally but I could see how this could be difficult for those who have grown up in other cultures. As with the baseball, it is not so much the idea of a foreign culture (after all, if we are learning Japanese then chances are that we are interested in getting to know other cultures) so much as of the basic associations we make in our minds. In the main, I found the mnemonics most helpful when they were derived from the etymology of the characters rather than invented stories, as I felt that I as learning something more about the characters rather than having to remember a mnemonic story in addition to the character itself, its pronunciation, etc. Presumably the mnemonics are intended as staging-posts, and the ultimate aim is that we see the character and remember its meaning and pronunciation without (conscious) recourse to a mnemonic, otherwise we are still at the equivalent stage as reading alphabetic words letter-by-letter.

Personally, I am much more able to remember bizarre and unusual words and kanji than mundane, everyday ones and I don’t believe that I am alone in this – in “Use Your Head”, Tony Buzan points out that, given a list of common words and the name “Leonardo da Vinci” to memorise, participants always recall the famous name. (In fact, until referring to it just now, I had not looked at the book “Use Your Head” for at least ten years and did not remember the book title but I still recalled the fact that there was an exercise involving memorising a list of mundane words and “Leonardo da Vinci”.) As a result, interesting kanji tend to stick in my head fairly readily, while the ones for which I really need helpful mnemonics are the somewhat more dull words – or rather, I need the mnemonics to make the seemingly dull characters interesting, and this is what Heisig is striving to provide.

In short, the Heisig approach is based on an interesting concept and does take the very important step of saying that the most effective approach for adults is to learn kanji in a systematic way rather than ‘picking them up as you go along’ and developing such a system. The difficulty for those who are already part-way along the kanji-learning journey by the time they encounter the book is that it is very much an all-or-nothing approach that is not easy to integrate with other books or approaches.

There are various websites devoted to the Heisig approach and mnemonics including Kanji Cafe.
I’d be interested in hearing about your Heisig experiences and any other links in the comments!
And finally, how about a Heisig haiku? The rules are: only the characters in the first two chapters of Heisig, plus kana, are allowed!

Japanese Culture Through Rare Books on FutureLearn

Anywone who is following this blog will probably be interested in the FutureLearn course “Japanese Culture Through Rare Books”.


For those who don’t know it, FutureLearn is a provider of free, online courses (MOOCs) that are taught by different educational institutions, in this case, Keio University (motto: Calamus gladio fortior, the pen is mightier than the sword). The courses run in real-time, enabling interaction with the course instructors and other students, but the course materials remain available (including for download) after the course has finished.

What I particularly liked about the course was the insight into how books were physically put together, as well as looking at the many beautiful illustrated books in the Keio library.

Vestiges of dreams (Narrow Road part 3)

When we read Bashō’s account of his travels, it is clear that what was important to him was to visit places that were famous from history or poetry (歌枕, utamakura), but unless we are scholars of Japanese literature and history then many, if not all, of these references are lost on us unless we have the assistance of notes. Keene, in the Kodansha bilingual edition (ISBN 4770020287) provides some notes, and there is also a comprehensive annotated translation by Prof. Dennis Kawaharada of Kapi‘olani Community College, Hawaii here (discovered since the previous post!): Summer Grasses, Autumn Wind: A Translation of Matsuo Bashō’s Oku no Hosomichi

Interspersed with passages that talk about the pleasures of travelling (enjoyable time spent with fellow poets) and its inconveniences (illness, tiredness and sharing sleeping quarters with lice, fleas and a urinating horse!) are sections that speak of the pathos of war and the way in which time erases the traces of past glories:


natsukusa ya tsuwamonodomo ga yume no ato

summer grasses: all that’s left of warriors’ dreams (trans.: Dennis Kawaharada)

summer grass –
that’s all that remains
of brave warriors’ dreams (trans.: Gabi Greve)

The summer grasses –
Of brave soldiers’ dreams
The aftermath (trans.: Donald Keene)


muzan ya na kabuto no shita no kirigirisu

heartless: beneath the helmet, a cricket (Trans: Dennis Kawaharada)

how tragic and pitiful …
a grashopper under
his helmet (Trans: Gabi Greve)

Alas for mortality!
Underneath the helmet
A grasshopper. (Trans: Donald Keene)

The former of these two poems was written at Hiraizumi (平泉) which was once the northern capital of the aristocratic Fujiwara family and a town with golden temples to rival those of Kyoto, but fell into disrepair and obscurity after the fourth lord, Fujiwara no Yasuhira, was attacked and defeated by the shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo for sheltering Yoritomo’s outlaw half-brother Yoshitsune. Yoshitsune had previously distinguished himself in battle fighting alongside Yoritomo during the war between the rival Minamoto and Taira clans (the Genpei war) but relations between the two brothers later deteriorated to the extent that Yoshitsune fled and took refuge in Hiraizumi with his faithful, and giant, companion Benkei (a Japanese analogue to Little John).


“Yoshitsune and Benkei Viewing Cherry Blossoms” by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi – note that in samurai culture, manliness and love of flowers were certainly not considered to be mutually exclusive!

Hiraizumi can still be visited today, although only a few of the temples remain. The golden hall (金色堂 Konjikidō) of Chūson-ji (中尊寺), which today is protected by glass and concrete, is thought to be one of the ‘palaces’ made of gold that Marco Polo describes (Excursion in Zipangu, the Land of Gold) and that later prompted explorers such as Columbus to go off in search of golden lands in the Orient.


Lotus flowers at Hiraizumi – photo by author

A compilation of “Oku no hosomichi” links:

Summer Grasses, Autumn Wind: A Translation of Matsuo Bashō’s Oku no Hosomichi

Accompanying map by Dennis Kawaharada

Narrow Road cycle trip by a modern-day Sora

World Kigo Database Matsuo Basho archive

Narrow Road (Part 2): 旅は道連れ

One of my first impressions on reading Bashō’s text was its conciseness. As the haiku form distils a thought or impression into seventeen syllables, so the poet’s account of his journey is often condensed into only a few lines of text for each staging-post of his journey; this is not an author who likes to indulge in pages of purple prose! Sometimes the text is so compressed and contains so many layers of allusions that it is difficult for us, separated as we are by language, culture and over three hundred years, to understand its meaning. A typical example of this is the very first haiku of the book, written by Bashō to mark the selling of his house as he sets off on his journey (this example is discussed by Keene in the introduction to his translation):


kusa no to mo
sumikawaru yo zo
hina no ie

A literal translation would be something like:

Grass door, too
change/take over dwelling
dolls’ house

which would leave the average Western reader bemused and, if they are susceptible to the power of stereotypes, muttering something to themselves about the ‘inscrutable Japanese’! The first character represents grass or any of a number of other plants (c.f. “the grass of the field”, Matt 6:30) and the third character, in addition to meaning ‘door’, is used to represent ‘house’ (“next door”), so in this line Bashō is talking about his simple home. One of the difficulties in translating from Japanese to English is that in Japanese, any parts of a sentence that are not necessary for understanding the meaning because they can be inferred by context – including the subject of the sentence – can be omitted. The second line in the poem above does not specify who is changing his dwelling, but this does not matter; most changes of dwelling involve one person or family moving out and another moving in, and the line allows us to see this from both perspectives simultaneously. The final line implies that, unlike the bachelor Bashō, the new owner has at least one daughter, who is celebrated by putting out dolls on Hinamatsuri/Girls’ Day (celebrated on 3rd March in the modern calendar).

『せき口上水端はせを庵椿やま』 (Basho’s Hermitage and Camellia Hill on the Kanda Aqueduct at Sekiguchi) by Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川広重) (1797–1858)

A second impression is that Bashō’s lack of flowery descriptions is not the result of a lack of emotion or an attempt at a ‘stiff upper lip’. He describes his desire to travel in emotional and romantic terms:

… I too for years have been stirred by the sight of a solitary cloud drifting with the wind to ceaseless thoughts of roaming. (trans.: Keene)

but when he does set off on his journey, he is overcome with emotion at the thought of leaving his friends:

I stood at the crossways of parting in this dreamlike existence and wept tears of farewell. (trans.: Keene)

Throughout his account, Bashō describes the legends associated with the places he visits and quotes old poems; he appears to have a romantic, nostalgic attraction to the journey, even, at one point, talking of ‘men of old [who] died on the road’ as if this were a romantic and desirable thing. He is constantly aware of his frailty and appears not to be a particularly physically strong man, talking of his ‘scrawny shoulders’ and sometimes describing how he suffered on the road. The purpose of his journey does not seem to have been to demonstrate is capability of performing the physical feat, but instead seems to have been romantic or spiritual. He clearly believed, however, that there was something to be gained by physically being in a place, rather than simply reading about it from the comfort of his grass-roofed house.

The practical details of travel in the Japan of three hundred years ago are also interesting. Bashō describes his preparations for the journey, which involve patching his trousers, putting a new cord onto his hat and having Moxibustion performed on his legs to strengthen them. The contents of his pack consisted of his raincoat, pen and ink, yukata and ‘a set of paper clothes to protect me from the cold of night’. In common with everyone else who has travelled around Japan, he was in addition given parting gifts. He comments that ‘… I could not very well refuse or throw [them] away. They were a bother on the journey, but there was nothing I could do about them.’ (trans.: Keene)

There is a Japanese saying, now well known from having been quoted in Murakami Haruki’s “Kafka on the Shore”:

旅は道連れ世は情け(たびはみちづれよはなさけ) (tabi wa michizure yo wa nasake, on a journey, a travelling companion, in life, compassion)

Bashō, who seems to have cultivated compassion in his life, took as his travelling companion Kawai Sora, who lived nearby and helped him ‘with firewood and water for my kitchen’. There are many useful companions for any modern-day person wishing to retrace Bashō’s steps, either physically or on the page. Those that I have found I have included below.

National Geographic article on Bashō

Support material for Oku no hosomichi (multimedia, commentary, maps)

Blog entry on Oku no Hosomichi

Haiku on Matsushima

Another article on haiku on Matsushima

Wikitravel article on Bashō’s route

Another useful ‘companion’ is Lesley Downer’s travel book “On the Narrow Road to the Deep North: Journey into a Lost Japan” (ISBN 0-224-02473-6). Downer traces Bashō’s route and includes a map and useful background information on Bashō and the places he visits. Reading her book in conjunction with Bashō’s is highly recommended!


ようこそ – Welcome!

Welcome to this new blog on Japanese literature, travelogues on Japan and learning the Japanese language! The name of the blog comes from one of the famous ‘untranslatable words’ that have been doing the rounds on the internet – tsundoku (積読(つんどく)) meaning ‘books that you buy (or let pile up) but don’t read’. The word is a portmanteau of 積む(つむ) (tsumu, to pile or stack things up) or 積んでおく(つんでおく) (tsunde oku, to pile things up and leave them) and 読書(どくしょ) (dokusho, reading) – see the comprehensive article on ‘tsundoku’ on the Tofugu website to learn more. Please join me in reading through my tsundoku bookcase!