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Reading Japanese

First off, learn the kanji, but understand that isn't all of learning to read Japanese. Remember that Japanese is a language, and a different one than you have ever encountered. Give equal attention to learning how Japanese sentences are structured. Japanese is a language, not a set of symbols for you to decode. Without learning Japanese as a language, all the kanji in the world won't help you understand what a sentence means. Critical to this undestanding is verb forms and their meanings, and particle usages. Get really good at that.

How I Learned Lot of Kanji

One night got to wondering why some kanji stuck like glue after a few times of seeing it, while others just seemed to bounce off my brain no matter what I did. What it came down to is that the ones that stuck stood for words that I used many times a day. They were frequent parts of the way I commonly express myself. The other kanji stood for words I know, of course, but seldom use. That's the difference.

So I put a few difficult (for me) characters into an English sentence or phrase that left no doubt as to what English word the character represents. Here are a few examples.

See how this works? You're surrounding the character with words and phrases you know intimately which give you an English context (the language you know) for the one Japanese symbol you're trying to learn.

This worked MUCH BETTER for me than the Heisig method of making stories for each character, and here's why. The Heisig method requires you to make up an arbitrary sentence, remember it, and remember what the character looks like. That's two things, and BOTH of them are new to you.

In my method, you relate the character to a phrase or sentence THAT YOU ALREADY KNOW. That makes all the difference. The English environment is one that is part of your personal store of English expressions and sayings, your cultural references, the words you commonly use, everything that goes into your personal way of using English to explain the world, experience it, and remember it.

Now I'm not going to publish a list of all 2,136 jōyō kanji with sample sentences. Many of the sentences I made up are quite personal. Like this one:

Ray 貴, band leader

My father grew up in the Big Band era, played their music when i was growing up, and I knew the names of all the band leaders. This sentence translates as:

Ray Noble, band leader.

That's my solution to this difficult kanji, but most people wouldn't get it. You have something in your head that is "noble." Tap into it. These have to be your sentences.

So you're going to have to make up your own sentences. Three hints:
1. Sometimes this method just won't work. One of the core meanings of 統 is "interconnected system." Good luck with that.
2. Sex sells. We all know that. The more salacious you make your sentences, the easier they are to remember. Just sayin', and you don't have to share. 3. Make sure your sentences/phrases are obvious, that is, the substitution is unambiguous. Here's a bad example:

He has a full head of 汽.

That could mean, He has a full head of steam, or He has a full head of hair.

For "steam", I used, "汽 Heat", a sultry song. Works for me.

If you're stuck, you can look up the word in a search engine along with idioms and phrases, such as "[word] idioms phrases." That should give you some ideas.

Even though this method makes learning kanji easier, there are still over 2,000 of them, so you have a lot of work and memorization ahead of you. Good luck.

How do you decide which characters to learn? I would start with Chaplin and Martin's A Manual of Japanese Writing. This goes through the 881 characters Japanese children learn in grades 1-6 (there are now 1,006). While you're learning kanji in this book, you're learning, through many sample sentences, Japanese as a written LANGUGE to be understood, not as a set of SYMBOLS to be decoded. There are 35 lessons with about 25 kanji per lesson.

As for the rest of the kanji, you can learn them as you go along when you dig into any number of Japanese readers that you can find.

The Rest of It

You might want to get Beginning Japanese, parts 1 and 2 , by Eleanor Harz Jorden, and go through all the lessons. This will give you an understanding of how the language is put together: basic grammar and syntax.

Now get a copy of Strategies for Reading Japanese , by Setsuko Aihara. This is the ONLY book out there that walks you through the structure of a sentence so you can figure out how the parts relate to each other to express the intended meaning. You can't skip this step.

Once you've assimilated that book's content, find a dual-language book in Japanese and English and make your own translation. You'll have an English version to compare to your own, and to help you when you get hopelessly stuck, which will happen from time to time.

These are a few rules I find helpful in organizing making sense of a sentence:

Three reference books that you need are:
Jack Halpern's NTC's New Japanese-English Character Dictionary
Nelson's Character Dictionary, and
Yoko McClain's Handbook of Modern Japanese Grammar.

Halpern gives you basic information about each character. Nelson has many thousands of compounds and over 5,000 kanji. McClain shows you how to make sense of the kana in between the kanji.

Jim Breen's Online Japanese Dictionary is an invaluable supplement to all these reference works.

If you really want to get it right, and you are deadly serious about learning to read Japanese, buy a copy of the Green Goddess - Kenkyusha New J-E Dictionary, 5th Edition. It will cost you about $225 including shipping. Worth every penny. There is an on-line version available for a similar price.