The Role of Kanji in Minimizing Abstraction

Consider the following two words:

  1. 終わり
  2. おわり

These are actually the same word (meaning "the end"), although the first one is kanjified.

Assuming you didn't know what this word meant, which of the two versions do you think would be easier to learn? I would argue that it entirely depends on whether or not you know the meaning of the kanji 終.

If you've never seen 終 before, it'll just look like random scribbles that make things more difficult to remember. However, if you know that 終 means "end" or "finish", then your brain will naturally think of something when you see the word 終わり, whether you know it or not.

This is the important bit.

The fact that known kanji can involuntarily invoke mental imagery or emotion is perhaps the most powerful "feature" of the Japanese language.

Nouns vs. Abstractions

Consider two more words:

  1. tree
  2. acknowledge

For an English learner, which of the two do you think would be easier to learn? The answer should be fairly obvious.

tree is a noun. It refers to a very specific physical "thing", and it's really easy to associate the word with some kind of mental image of a tree.

acknowledge on the other hand is not a physical thing that could be observed. You couldn't point to something and say "that's acknowledge!" You could only patiently explain the ideas behind the word.

In the context of this article, whenever I use the word abstraction, I'm referring to words without a physical representation.

Abstract words, in my experience, are more difficult to learn than nouns. The reason is, you can use an image of a noun to act as a sort of "anchor". Whenever you read or hear that word, you can instantly think of that image and know exactly what is meant.

Abstractions don't have the benefit of a visual anchor. Instead, they rely on the invocation of some sort of emotional state. Emotional states are often enigmatic, which is why you can know what a word means without being able to explain it to someone else.

In short, nouns have very clear context, while abstract words are a bit more hazy.

Providing Context to Abstractions

This is where kanji comes in. Despite being the most dreaded aspect of Japanese, kanji is incredibly useful for two important reasons

  1. Every kanji is inherently meaningful
  2. Kanji themselves are a visual aid

This means, for every word where you can't use a concrete visualization, the kanji itself can be the visualization. Additionally, words that would normally be difficult to grasp become very simple to understand if you know the meaning of the kanji that make up the word.

Here are some examples:

柔道 This word is "judo" (the martial art). じゅう means "soft" or "gentle" and どう means "way" (as in tao). 柔道 is a soft martial art, meaning that there are no strikes, but rather the aim is to use your opponent's force against them.

牛丼 is "gyūdon", which is a dish consisting of a bowl of rice topped with beef (among other things). Here, ぎゅう means cow, and どん means "bowl of food".

地形図 is "topographic map" (elevation map). means "ground" or "earth", けい means "shape", and means map.

By relying on kanji rather than just learning the kana form of these words, they become trivial to learn.

Taking Advantage of Kanji

In my previous post, How Far Should We Take i+1?, I went over the fact that if you need to learn the meaning of a word and the reading of a word, it's not i+1. Instead, the approach that I prefer (by far), is to learn words via "groups" of kanji (2023 edit: I no longer recommend learning with groups of kanji, but the rest of the info in this article is fine).

An important thing to note here, is that I only learn kanjified words. If a word is kana-only, I delete the card (or alternatively you could kanjify it manually). The reason for this is two-fold

  1. As I mentioned above, the effort required to learn kana-only words is incredibly inefficient in my opinion
  2. The majority of my immersion is listening. Because of this, I end up picking up a lot of words without the context of kanji anyways.

Therefore, my process is simply to learn kanjified words through Anki, while kana-only words will eventually take care of themselves through immersion.

The Icing On The Cake

Something magical happens when you really focus on kanji (in particular when you focus on a small group of kanji at a time). With each word you learn, your understanding of the kanji becomes more and more refined. In fact, I'd even say that it becomes more abstract.

For example, many kanji have multiple meanings, and they'll be used in words that seem to be completely unrelated. However, it's common that you'll find that they're really not two separate meanings, but rather just nuances of the same meaning. As this continues on, you slowly stop relying on RTK keywords, and instead have an understanding filled with subtleties that is completely unique to you. This also happens with predicting the reading of kanji.

As this process happens, you'll find that the speed you learn words increases exponentially. It's incredibly simple to learn a word when you've developed a strong intuition for all of the kanji it's made up of.