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Read Japanese Today: The Easy Way to Learn 400 Practical Kanji

Read Japanese Today: The Easy Way to Learn 400 Practical Kanji

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Read Japanese Today: The Easy Way to Learn 400 Practical Kanji

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Lançado em:
Nov 15, 2008


This is the quickest way to learn written Japanese effectively.

Japanese characters, called kanji, often intimidate potential students of the language with their complex and mysterious appearance. Read Japanese Today is a comprehensible and story–like approach to an often difficult language. This book will teach you to recognize and read the 400 most commonly used Japanese kanji characters. Completely revised and expanded and featuring 25 percent more kanji than previous editions, Read Japanese Today is a fun way to demystify the beautiful Japanese language.

Far from being complex and mysterious, Japanese kanji are actually a simple and fascinating pictographic system, easily understood and readily mastered. With the approach used in this easy–to–read, entertaining book, you'll soon be able to recognize and read more than 400 kanji, whether or not you have any knowledge of Japanese grammar or the spoken language. The kanji characters stick in your mind thanks to an engaging text and illustrations that show how each character developed and what it represents. The description for each kanji explains its origin, its modern meaning, and how it is pronounced. Many examples of everyday usage are included. Read Japanese Today also includes:
  • A brief history of the Japanese writing system.
  • Explanations for how the parts of each kanji are related to the whole.
  • Guidelines for writing Kanji and pronouncing words using them.
  • An introduction to the Japanese hiragana and katakana syllabaries.
  • A complete index to English meanings and a summary table for all of the kanji that are introduced in the book.
Lançado em:
Nov 15, 2008

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Read Japanese Today - Len Walsh


I am indebted to Professors Takahashi Makoto, Uehara Akira, and Liu Kang-Shih for their assistance in preparing this manuscript, and to Boye De Mente and Frank Hudachek for their invaluable editorial suggestions. I also wish to thank the Asia House for the research grant that made this book possible.

Torrance, CA 2008

The Tuttle Story: Books to Span the East and West

Most people are surprised to learn that the world’s largest publisher of books on Asia had its humble beginnings in the tiny American state of Vermont. The company’s founder, Charles E. Tuttle, belonged to a New England family steeped in publishing. And his first love was naturally books—especially old and rare editions.

Immediately after WW II, serving in Tokyo under General Douglas MacArthur, Tuttle was tasked with reviving the Japanese publishing industry. He later founded the Charles E. Tuttle Publishing Company, which thrives today as one of the world’s leading independent publishers.

Though a westerner, Tuttle was hugely instrumental in bringing a knowledge of Japan and Asia to a world hungry for information about the East. By the time of his death in 1993, Tuttle had published over 6,000 books on Asian culture, history and art—a legacy honored by the Japanese emperor with the Order of the Sacred Treasure, the highest tribute Japan can bestow upon a non-Japanese.

With a backlist of 1,500 titles, Tuttle Publishing is more active today than at any time in its past—inspired by Charles Tuttle’s core mission to publish fine books to span the East and West and provide a greater understanding of each.

Published by Tuttle Publishing, an imprint of Periplus Editions (HK) Ltd.


Copyright © 2009 by Len Walsh

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior written permission from the publisher.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Walsh, Len.

   Read Japanese today: the easy way to learn 400 practical kanji/by Len Walsh.

       p. cm.

   Includes index.

   ISBN-13: 978-4-8053-0981-0 (pbk.)

   ISBN-10: 4-8053-0981-4

1. Chinese characters—Japan. 2. Japanese language—Readers. 3. Japanese language—Study and teaching—Foreign speakers. I. Title.

   PL537.W32 2009



ISBN 978-4-8053-0981-0

ISBN 978-1-4629-1592-7 (ebook)

Distributed by

First edition

16 15 14 13 12 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 1301MP

Printed in Singapore

TUTTLE PUBLISHING® is a registered trademark of Tuttle Publishing, a division of Periplus Editions (HK) Ltd.




What is Japanese writing?

How the characters were constructed

How Japan borrowed characters from China

Japanese pronunciation

How to write the kanji

How to use this book

Section 1

Section 2

Section 3

Section 4

Section 5

Section 6

Section 7

Section 8

Section 9

Section 10


Appendix A The Kana Syllabaries

Appendix B Kanji Summary Table

Appendix C Index to English Meanings


What Is Japanese Writing?

The Japanese write their language with ideograms they borrowed from China nearly two thousand years ago. Some two thousand years before that, the ancient Chinese had formed these ideograms, sometimes called pictographs or characters, and known in Japanese as kanji 漢字 (literally translated as Chinese letters), from pictures of objects and actions they observed around them.

, so this became their written word for sunand finally to 日, to give it balance and an idealized shape, and to make it easier to read and write. This is still the way the word sun is written in both China and Japan today.

and finally to 木, which became the written word for tree.

To form the word for root or originto emphasize that portion of the picture. Over time, they squared and simplified this pictograph to 本, which is still today the written word for root or origin.

When the characters, the kanji, for sun 日 and for origin 本 are used together in a compound word, that is, a word made up of more than one kanji, they form the word 日本, which is how you write the word Japan in Japanese.

When the individual pictograph for sun 日 and the one for tree 木 are combined to make one new composite kanji 東, it shows the sun at sunrise rising up behind a tree, and becomes the pictograph for east.

and finally 京, which is now the written word for capital. These two kanji, 東 and 京, put together into a compound word 東京, form the written word Tokyo, eastern-capital, the capital of Japan.

Kanji may look mysterious and impenetrable at first approach, but as these examples show, they are not difficult at all to decode and understand. The kanji characters are not just random strokes: each one is a picture or a composite of several pictures and has a meaning based on the content of the pictures.

The Japanese written language contains a number of kanji, but not as many as Westerners often assume. To graduate from grammar school a student must know about 1,000 characters. At this point the student is considered literate. A high school graduate should know about 2,000 kanji, which is about the number used in daily newspapers. To read college textbooks, a student will need to know about 3,000. In a good dictionary, there may be about 6,000 characters.

These thousands of kanji, however, are all built up from less than 300 separate elements, or pictographs, many of which are seldom used. Once you learn the most frequently used elements you will know not only a number of the common kanji (some of the elements stand alone as kanji themselves), but you also will be able to learn hundreds of other kanji simply by combining the elements in different ways.

For example, you already know the kanji for tree 木. The kanji for a person is a pictograph of a person standing up 人. When the element for person is combined with other elements to make a new kanji, it is often squared off to , for better balance and aesthetic appearance in the new pictograph. When you combine the element for tree and the element for person you form a new kanji 休, a pictograph of a person resting against a tree. The meaning of this new kanji is to rest.

The Chinese also combined the element for person 亻 with the element for root 本 into a new composite kanji, a pictograph showing the root of a human. The meaning of this new kanji 体 is the human body.

Another example is the kanji meaning old 古. It is formed by combining the element 十, which by itself is a separate kanji meaning ten having ten fingers), and the element 口, which also is a separate kanji by itself, meaning mouth (obviously a pictograph of a mouth). The new kanji 古, literally ten mouths, figuratively ten generations, means old.

In kanji that are formed from combinations of elements, of which some are themselves stand-alone kanji and some are not, there are generally two to four elements, occasionally five or more. When combining elements, the Chinese placed each separate element either at the left, right, top, bottom or center of the kanji square in which the characters are written, wherever it looked the best.

For example, the kanji for tree around the kanji square. The kanji 困, meaning to be in trouble, is an example of the element for tree 木 being circumscribed by a frame 口.

Naturally, some kanji are used with greater frequency than others. The objective of this book is to teach you to recognize and understand the basic meaning of more than 400 of the most common and useful characters after only a few hours study. Through associations with Japanese proper names like Ginza, Tokyo, Osaka, Honda, Nissan, Hitachi, and Mr. Yamamoto, and with Japanese words you already know, like kimono, geisha, and typhoon, you will also be able to remember the pronunciations of many of these 400 characters with very little effort.

For full comprehension of the Japanese language, spoken or written, knowledge of grammar is of course absolutely necessary. There are already many excellent textbooks on Japanese grammar and other aspects of the Japanese language available to anyone who has the time and desire to learn Japanese. This book is limited therefore to teaching only how to read and understand the Japanese kanji and how the kanji are used in Japanese.

In the 1960s, when the first edition of this book was issued, kanji were taught through rote memory, whether to Japanese school children in their own school systems or to foreigners interested in the language. The number of strokes in each kanji, the order in which the strokes were written, and penmanship were stressed. Students were required to write each new kanji enough times so that its shape stuck in their memory.

There was no attempt, except in scholarly research papers, to show how the kanji were first formed as pictures by the Chinese and then developed into ideographs, or how to explain the structure of each kanji is built up from a few parts, each part with its own distinctive meaning.

Now, there are several books in English which teach kanji through mnemonic systems based on the meaning of the pictographs and symbols that the Chinese drew when they invented kanji. There are now also many books written in Japanese for Japanese primary-school children suggesting to the children that they learn kanji the easy way, through the mnemonic of the pictographs on which the Chinese based the kanji, although the traditional rote-memory method is still preferred in the Japanese school system.

One Japanese scholar, for example, wrote in the preface to his recently-published Primary School Pictograph Kanji Dictionary: There are many children who do not like the study of kanji. There are also many children who say the only way to pass the kanji tests is by rote memory. Haven’t you all had the experience of being able to memorize the kanji only by writing each character over and over again? This naturally turns you away from the kanji. But there are many kanji that look like pictures and many parts of kanji repeated in different characters. Looking at kanji this way will make the study of kanji much more friendly. This dictionary clearly and simply explains how kanji were developed and how they were constructed, and will make your study of kanji much easier.

It is possible, of course, to learn the kanji through rote memory, but at great expense in time and effort. The shortcut is to learn the meanings of the interchangeable parts rather than simply try to memorize a square full of lines. The character for the word listen 聞 becomes much less formidable when you see that 門 is a picture of a gate , and that 耳 is a picture of an ear eavesdropping at the gate.

READ JAPANESE TODAY uses this time-saver—the principle that each kanji is composed of interchangeable parts and that if you remember the meaning of the parts it will help you remember the meaning of the whole. Each part was originally a picture drawn by the Chinese to represent an actual object or action, just as in western culture the Egyptians did the same to draw their hieroglyphics. To memorize the kanji all you need to do is look behind the pictographs and see what the Chinese used as models.

Looking behind the pictographs into antiquity to see what scenes the Chinese actually drew at first, and how these pictographs evolved over the centuries, is often very difficult. Chinese, Japanese, and Western scholars have been successful in tracing the history of many kanji, but for other kanji there are still differences of opinion on what the original pictograph was, what its original meaning was, and how both pictograph and meaning evolved.

This book is not a history, and my objective is just to show you the easiest way to understand and memorize the kanji and their meanings. Where there are disputes between the scholars on the origin or evolution of a kanji, I have selected the version which best helped me remember the kanji. If you, the reader, can discover a better mnemonic, by all means use it.

How The Characters Were Constructed

The earliest writing in both the East and the West was done with pictographs. To write the word for cow or mountain or eye, both the Chinese and those in early western cultures drew a picture of a cow, a mountain, or an eye.

To write words which stood for ideas or actions or feelings—words that pictures of single objects or actions could not express—the Chinese combined several pictographs to depict a scene which acted out the meaning of the word. They combined, as we saw above, pictures of the sun 日 and a tree 木 in a scene to show the sun rising up behind the tree 東. They used this scene to stand for the word east —the direction you face when you see the sun rising up behind a tree.

In other examples, two pictographs of trees were put side by side 林 to stand for the word woods, and three pictographs of trees were put together 森 to stand for

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