Looking back, it kind of amazes me that I’ve just this month truly discovered James W. Heisig’s landmark work, Remembering the Kanji. Back in 2001 and 2002, I heard Heisig’s name pop up a couple of times while I was studying Japanese at UC Boulder. I think my very first Japanese teacher may have even used some RTK-inspired methods when she taught us hiragana.

I met a couple of friends of friends who were die-hard Heisig fans, but for one reason or another, I never really took the system seriously. I think part of the reason is that our Japanese classwork included a different kanji workbook and I was already spending a fair bit of time writing kanji over and over. There was also a prevailing attitude amongst quite a few of my acquaintances that kanji didn’t really matter much anyway, especially for foreigners.

Later, I moved to Taiwan. Unfortunately, by that time I had already forgotten quite a bit of my Japanese. I ended up struggling with characters once again during my brief enrollment at the Mandarin language program at Shida. Especially considering the large number of students coming from character backgrounds, it was hard to keep up. That meant more time writing out characters again and again. By the time I finished my 9 months of study there, I could probably recognize 1000 characters and reliably write 800.

Four years of full-time English teaching in Taiwan later, my Chinese speaking skills had improved quite a bit. On the other hand, my reading had gone nowhere. My writing had deteriorated to the point at which I was almost embarrassed to use it anymore. Last month it all came to a head, and I decided I had had it with “3rd-grader literacy”. It was time to draw a line in the sand and refuse to forget any more, regardless of how busy I am with work. Around the same time, maybe because of my renewed interest, I started noticing Heisig’s name pop up on some of my friends blogs. And then I managed to get my hands on a copy of Remembering the Kanji.

Giving it a shot

As I started the book, I felt a bit dubious about it. It seemed odd trying to visualize odd, stories or made-up scenes instead of the characters themselves. I also had concerns that I would get all of the stories tangled up and that it would take more work to keep them straight than it would to just memorize how to write the characters by brute force. I set those concerns to the side and plunged in.

Before beginning, I downloaded a set of vocabulary cards designed to go along with Heisig’s system and tested myself on the first 1000. Since I wasn’t yet familiar with which keyword he related to which kanji (e.g., did “genius” indicate or ?), I counted any character correctly written with a meaning similar to one of his keywords as correct. Of the thousand, I only managed to write just under 200 correctly. There are definitely high frequency characters not in that list that I can write, but still, it was a humbling start. That was February first.

As I’ve progressed, I’ve followed Heisig’s advice and only written each character once during a given session, unless it came out particularly ugly. In other words, I’ve completely abandoned the “writing again and again” approach used in my college classes seven years ago. I’ve been using a spaced repetition review program to practice as needed. After going back to work, I’ve had less time and energy to put into learning and reviewing kanji, but they’re sticking in my memory and my motivation has never been higher. My perception of characters has already changed. The structural components are familiar to me and distinct from each other. I’ve found myself recognizing characters that I could previously only read in context within familiar compounds. Even more encouraging is that I’ve found myself able to occasionally correctly guess the meaning of compounds I come across in my phonetically annotated Taiwanese children’s stories.

My progress

Three days ago, I realized I’d gotten through eight hundred kanji this month and according to the stats on my review program, I was writing well over 90% of them correctly on the first try. Even those I made mistakes on were generally an issue of improperly arranged components rather than drawing a complete blank, which used to be my standard failure case. So, I upped it to 40 new cards a day. If this pace continues, I’ll have completed the entire book within a month of part time study. That’s far, far more quickly than I had imagined possible at the outset. I can’t say how much I wish I’d tried Remembering the Kanji sooner.

Pros

  • teaches thousands of characters quickly
  • doesn’t require writing characters over and over
  • uses your creativity to help you learn

Cons

  • some review is still necessary
  • doesn’t teach how to read characters
  • doesn’t teach any compounds
  • doesn’t fit with traditional curriculums

Rating: 5/5

Level: Absolute Beginner to Intermediate