2,136 kanji in 97 days

There are 2,136 “regular use” Chinese characters in Japan and they are commonly called joyo kanji. This is not actually a comprehensive list of all the kanji used regularly in Japan, but it is a literary baseline for compulsory education and does compromise all the permitted characters for use in official government documents. 1,006 of these are taught in primary school and the remaining 1,130 are taught in secondary school.As of this moment I probably know a grand total of between 3- and 400 kanji. That means my current Japanese literacy is roughly in line with a Japanese elementary third grader.


I have never really been good at self-study. I think it comes down to having a lot of trouble motivating myself to keep putting one foot in front of the other without someone breathing down my neck and checking my work every step of the way like I had all through school. Getting some grit and resilience is just something I have to work on.

I believe kanji are beautiful. Frankly, each one is a piece of art. That’s why I thought that writing them over and over again would be a fun and relatively easy way to memorize them. It only took a little while to realize that doing that really didn’t help me. Although the stroke orders make sense to me, the way the kanji is written combined with its meanings and the different sounds they make feel straight up arbitrary. I would spend a ton of time writing something repeatedly while chanting all its parts out loud, and then a couple days later it’s as though none of it ever happened.

It can feel defeating to work so hard and not get any results. I started getting pretty salty and avoiding studying altogether. I can’t tell you how guilty I feel for having wasted so much time in Japan without actively learning and practicing Japanese in a disciplined way. That’s why I decided that it’s time for me to sit down and find a way to make sense of all these damned kanji.

I hit the internet and found loads of different study techniques. One article in particular got my attention though. The title read Hacking the Kanji: 2,200 Kanji in 97 Days. Pffffffft yeah right – there’s no way! But it had peaked my interest. Before I knew it I was well into a very detailed and long step-by-step breakdown of how to learn all the joyo kanji in less than four months. I won’t go into all the details, but Niko at Nihongo Shark basically whittles it all down to systematically using a set of tools in a set process every day until all the kanji are finished. The tools are:

  1. Anki flashcards (to keep us from forgetting what we learn)
  2. Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji (to break the kanji into parts)
  3. Using mnemonics, mainly memory palaces (to solidify the kanji and all their parts into our brains)
  4. Reviewing the Kanji (to get inspiration for when we have trouble making our own mnemonics)

A lot about Niko’s process really drew me in. I love how he explains practically every detail of it, from the why’s to the how’s. He doesn’t sugarcoat. He says it’ll be hard and frustrating at times, but could it really be more frustrating than all the wasted hours I’ve put in already? But what really got me was the really thorough explanation and application of mnemonics and memory palaces.

For any of you who’ve watched Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch, I am sure you’ve got a general idea as to what a memory or mind palace is. While watching Sherlock I didn’t get the sense that anyone aside from some sort of autistic genius or savant could actually create a working memory palace but watching Joshua Foer talk about memory and the history of mnemonics in this TED Talk convinced me otherwise.

I am a highly visual person, and I love telling stories, especially ridiculous ones. This is when I realize that Niko’s method just might work with me. Of course, I have been making short stories about each kanji to help me remember them, but the problem is that each story stands completely alone. They aren’t tied together in any way, much less tethered to a real place that I can conjure in my mind’s eye. And I am a real sucker for a highly planned out and regulated system. Why not combine my silly imagination with a strict learning regimen and really give this a shot?

The biggest hole in Niko’s method for me is how he focuses 100% on memorizing the meanings of the kanji only without any time spent on how to actually say them in Japanese. According to both him and Heisig, once you can see and recognize the meanings of the kanji, the way they are read and how they are used in vocabulary comes like second nature. I am still a bit suspicious of this. But at this point, any progress at all is good progress, not to mention this is the first time in a long time I’ve actually felt excited to study kanji. That has to count for something!

So here starts my journey deep into the recesses of my mind and the joyo kanji. I plan on writing out and posting the memory palaces I make and the kanji they are linked to in the hopes that the more often I think about and jot them down the better I will remember them. I have no clue how this will really turn out so…. Wish me luck!


review: the people in the trees

My husband and I were shopping online for new books to read the other night. Evan is about to finish his current book and was talking about what he’d like to read next, but never mentioned the book sitting between us on the coffee table. So I asked him, “Aren’t you going to read The People in the Trees?” To which he replied, “I wasn’t sure if I should since you don’t seem all that crazy about it.” I wouldn’t say that’s exactly true, but while reading The People in the Trees I admit I haven’t given Evan my usual occassional feedback or even mentioned it at all. But now that I have finished it as of this morning, I am ready to weigh in. ows_137599217788653

I had been sitting on the last hundred pages or so of The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara and somewhat dreading picking them back up again after my winter vacation abroad. It’s not because I didn’t like the book… sort of. It’s more because the ending and major plot points, all horrible and tragic, are made very clear right from the beginning, and so as the reader you are tasked with going through every page knowing exactly what’s to come. The only “surprises” are the exact details of how said events unfold, the precise depth of some characters’ self-delusion, and how terrible things could really get. This isn’t always an easy task.

I’m not the type of person to shy away from gruesome details, dark plotlines or questionable characters. In fact, it really bothers me when people say they hate this book or that movie because So-and-so in it wasn’t likeable. For the first time though, a protagonist of a book made me pause, drove me away from his own story, and made me hesitate not only to finish reading it but also to even talk about it. That’s how much I dislike Doctor Norton Perina. He actually makes it hard for me to profess liking the novel at all, something I don’t think has ever really happened to me before.

This leads me to my praise of Yanagihara. Her debut novel is as engrossing as it is unsettling, and as powerful as it is provocative. At the core of The People in the Trees are huge discussions on science, moral relativism, society’s fascination with the allure of youth, and so much more. And at the forefront is the voice of Doctor Perina, its unreliable narrator. It is a testament to Yanagihara’s writing that Perina’s world and story once read cannot be easily shaken off or forgotten, at least not by me.

Although this book is certainly not for the faint of heart, I do recommend it to anyone who is willing and able to step into highly uncomfortable, incredibly flawed shoes and come face to face with the well-known but hard to swallow fact that the world is far from black and white.

I look forward to reading Yanagihara’s other highly-esteemed novel A Little Life in the future soon (but not until after a long hot shower and a re-read of Anne of Green Gables or something).