Samurai Mind Online is dedicated to helping people take on whatever they want to learn whether they think it’s impossible or not. Last night I almost gave myself a concussion when I realized that I hadn’t taken the opportunity to share an interview that I did with James W. Heisig in 2006. As you’ll see in the interview (it’s way longer than my typical post), Heisig came up with a system for how to remember kanji, the Chinese based system that is a key system of writing in Japan. But regardless of whether you are reading this blog because you are interested in learning Japanese, I think there are a few take aways from this interview that any one wanting to learn anything in their life could take away from this story:
- be bold and don’t be afraid to follow your own path
- always be on the look out for smart short cuts or opportunities for deliberate practice. Khatzumoto has some key questions in his article, “Practice Time, Game Time” that I think can apply to any field: What don’t I know well? What doesn’t work? What needs fixing? What can be improved? (Talent is Overrated is a great book to think about this whole idea of deliberate practice.) Heisig realized that understanding kanji would really propel his Japanese fluency and invented a whole system around it.
- don’t depend on others to tell you what is impossible or not
- have fun. Happy feelings bring happy learnings. Heisig hightailed it from the language school as soon as he could and went to the mountains of Nagano and said he learned a lot of Japanese by playing with children and reading comic books.
Give yourself the edge. Be bold and independent but also look at all the resources that are available and be persistent about evaluating them. And above all have fun and enjoy the journey.
This interview originally appeared in kanjiclinic.com, a great resource for learning more about kanji.
“Adventures in Kanji-Land: James W. Heisig and the Birth of Remembering the Kanji”
Based on an Interview with James W. Heisig
By Juan W. Rivera
Free download of the first 125 pages of Remembering the Kanji I.
Every now and then, someone confronts their own personal challenge, systematically overcomes it, and then shares that system with the world. This not only opens up their world, but also opens up the world for generations of people to come. James W. Heisig, author of the sometimes controversial book Remembering the Kanji I: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters, is definitely one of those people. Many people refer to his approach to learning to write the complex Japanese characters as “revolutionary,” making Japanese and kanji study accessible to their lives and opening up a whole world of learning and possibilities for them. I conducted a telephone interview with Prof. Heisig from his office at the Nanzan University Institute for Religion and Culture in Nagoya, Japan.
Heisig’s kanji journey began while he was living in a commune of poets and artists identified as the “spiritual” side of the Sandanista revolution that would soon overthrow the Somoza government. Because of his familiarity with research centers, he was invited by Nanzan University to consult on the establishment of an academic institute devoted to dialogue among religions and philosophies East and West. Shortly after the consultation he was invited back to assist in the project, on condition that he would remain for five years and first attain fluency in spoken and written Japanese at an academic level.
A world-hopper who had spent time in areas as distant as Bangladesh to the Basque country, Heisig explained to the head of the language school at Kamakura where he was sent to learn Japanese that he was not interested in taking language classes, that this was not the way he had learned languages in the past. Classes had already begun, so the head of the school conceded and let Heisig stay and pay tuition while studying on his own.
Heisig began by reading and examining the Alfonso Japanese language series, an audio-lingual approach that emphasizes spoken language before concentrating on the written language. Heisig wanted to get “the idea of the grammar” as he began his language study, but not necessarily to get bogged down in remembering all the rules.
Very early on, Heisig realized that he would have to tackle the written language first if he was going to be able to be a successful independent learner of Japanese. Everyone around him told him that it was not possible. When it came to learning kanji, even teachers of Japanese “expected you to learn a few hundred and then forget it. It took the Japanese nine years to get the basics of kanji and they still forget them, people around me explained.”
There were other discouraging signs. At the school library, he pulled out all the books on learning Japanese characters. “I noticed the first 50 or 60 pages were heavily thumbed. Then after that the pages could have been European books that you have to cut the edges on. Those pages remained untouched.” Many learners of Japanese had come here before him and hit a kanji wall.
Heisig remained determined. His breakthrough came when he discovered Wieger’s book on Chinese character etymology. “I read through the 800 pages and understood about 20% of it, but what I discovered was that Chinese characters could be broken up into basic elements. I think he had a list of 220 elements and the characters were made of those pieces.” So Heisig took this approach to learning how to read and write Japanese. Heisig broke down Japanese into the basic elements, and decided to give English readings to the kanji instead of getting bogged down in the different Japanese pronunciations of the same kanji.
“I broke the kanji up into pieces. I began with the simplest pieces, went through the entire list, saw what I could make with it, add another piece, and then go through the entire list of kanji once again. I kept a little diary of what I was doing, and exactly 30 days after I started I had finished writing all the characters, I had learned them all. Then the word got out at school.”
Soon, Heisig was summoned by the teaching staff of the school. Some staff were perplexed that there was someone at their school who wasn’t actually taking classes.
“They called me in at 3 o’clock, at tea time. There were these six teachers standing there.’We’ve heard that you’ve learned the characters and we want to see if you can really write these things.'” Heisig agreed and they put him in front of a blackboard. They told him to write “inu” (dog), and Heisig explained that he did not know what “inu” meant.
“You mean you have been here for two months and you don’t know the Japanese word for dog?” The Japanese teachers started to mutter among themselves, and Heisig asked the one teacher who spoke English what they were talking about.
“They’re saying you should really come to class. This is inexcusable.”
“No, just give me English words.”
This is the lynchpin of Heisig’s system. Heisig insists that you must learn the characters in your own language first before you start getting tripped up by the different pronunciations of different kanji.
“They said dog, and I wrote dog. They said cat and I wrote cat. Then they started to murmur amongst themselves and explained you’re not supposed to know that one. It’s not on the list.”
After the chalkboard was filled with characters, the teachers buzzed amongst themselves and asked Heisig to come back at 5 o’clock.
“So I went away, thinking it all very strange. I came back. The teachers had determined that I had a photographic memory and that it would only be short term for the characters and that I should come to school and give up studying on my own.”
“I told them that my memory was just like everyone else’s but it’s extremely easy to learn it if you learn it in the right order.”
Heisig tried to convince them as much as he could. In the end they concluded that he should start classes, and not talk to the other students about the method since they did not have the same photographic memory. Heisig considered leaving the school and avoiding causing any problems, but the other students started coming to him and asking for his notes. Some of Heisig’s system was written down in notebooks and scraps of paper, but most of it wasn’t written down at all.
As word of Heisig’s accomplishment leaked out more and more students became interested in discussing his system. Most students took the sides of his teachers and repeated the arguments that still come from Heisig’s critics to this day. In short, students explained that this wasn’t the way to study. You don’t learn the character if you just learn how to write it without learning the Japanese pronunciation.
“I told them to look at the Chinese and Korean students at the school. They don’t know any of the pronunciations but they come in with a big advantage and jump ahead of you. Chinese grammar is completely different from Japanese, but Chinese students know the meanings of characters. I want to give myself the same edge as the Chinese have.”
One day Heisig was summoned to Nanzan University to speak to the President. “You know we went through a lot of trouble to get you into Japan, to set up the institute. A lot of money was invested in getting you over here. We understand that you are not going to class and that you are not studying Japanese. If you aren’t serious maybe it’s time for you to go home. Heisig paused and asked, “What exactly have you heard?”
“Well, we heard these rumors that you supposedly learned the characters.”
“Well, I did.”
The president stood up and explained. “Look. I’ve been in Japan for sixteen years. I’m president of a Japanese university. I don’t know any foreigner who can write all of these characters, and you expect me to believe that you did it in a month?”
“I thought you would be stubborn about this.”
Heisig explained that they wheeled in a blackboard and brought in three or four teachers from the Japanese Literature department to test him. They tested his knowledge of how to write Japanese characters. After Heisig demonstrated his kanji knowledge for an hour, the president sent the Japanese teachers away.
“He got up from his huge oak desk, and sat down in a seat beside me. ‘How did you do this?'”
Heisig explained once again how he broke down the kanji into its basic elements and created a system for remembering the meanings of the kanji.
“I want you to go back and write all of this down in a book.”
Heisig protested. “I don’t know how to speak yet. I don’t have a vocabulary of more than 200 words. I’ve got so much more to study.”
“No, no, no…. I want you to do this right away. Give up everything and write this.”
Heisig headed back to the language school. He gathered his notes and had to track down the various index cards that he had passed out to students. When he had assembled all his notes and cut and pasted all the kanji together, he was finally ready with his first incarnation of Remembering the Kanji , which was entitled Adventures in Kanji-land. Getting the book published was its own series of adventures. Though Nanzan University published the first 600 copies, distributing and selling them was another issue.
Heisig approached Iwamoto Keiko of Tuttle Publishing. Heisig was again put to the test. “Can you make the characters for my name?” Heisig obliged, though he had some misses–perfectly written kanji that had similar meanings to “kei” in English. Ms. Iwamoto, nevertheless, was sufficiently impressed. “We’ll buy all the copies from you.” A couple of months later they were sold out.
In the meantime, Heisig left the language school in Kamakura. He had the deepest respect for the teachers but wanted to keep going with his own independent methods. “I agree with Dante who said that the only languages that should be learned in school are dead languages.”
He went to live in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture, where he “played with the children there and learned how to speak.” During this time, he completed a second book which helps those who’ve conquered the first book learn in a more efficient way how the kanji are pronounced in Japanese.
In the midst of travels, lectures, and other professional obligations the old manuscript for the first book languished in storage. In the 1980’s, with the advent of computers and printers that could print and set Japanese type, Heisig rescued his work from the dust and set out to print it again. He took his book to Japan Publications, which was at first was hesitant to publish and market it.
“I said, ‘I’ll pay for the printing of the whole thing. If it sells within a year, you pay me for the cost of printing plus 20% of the profits.” The first run sold out within a couple of months and thus began an on-going and fruitful relationship with Japan Publications.
It’s a good thing that Heisig believed in and resurrected his manuscript, because his work continues to touch and affect people in ways that he never could have predicted. One woman, Thelma Fayle, bought Remembering the Kanji when she was on an exchange program in Japan. Several years later, in Canada, a young neighbor boy with dyslexia became interested in the book. They worked through it and the young boy learned over 1,000 characters. The confidence and the skill that he gained through learning such a seemingly insurmountable set of skills helped him overcome his dyslexia and become more successful in school.
In Remembering the Kanji, the kanji for “humility” is made up of the elements “state of mind” and “truth.” Prof. Heisig remains humble about his work. He explains, “I’m not a language teacher. I just kind of slipped into this because the President of my university insisted on it, and pushed me to write the books.” But fortunately Heisig possessed the state of mind to stick to the truth he discovered with his system.
His kanji work has been translated and adapted to German, Spanish, and Brazilian Portuguese. He once even received a marriage proposal from a woman in India who had fallen in love with kanji study.
Though Heisig’s time is taken up with his responsibilities at the Nanzan University Institute for Religion and Culture, his books on kanji continue to open up Japan and its treasures to a growing number of people worldwide, and through them the adventures in kanji-land live on.
Copyright 2006 by Juan Rivera