IWTYAL 144: Learning Japanese Kanji with Star Wars

In this episode, I speak with Kevin about his fascinating journey to learn to read and write Japanese.

Find Kevin’s blog here.

In this episode:

  • How Kevin got started with Japanese
  • Struggles in learning kanji
  • Materials that inspired him

Resources Mentioned In This Episode:

Kevin shows us how to use Wanikani:

Some photos from Kevin studying kanji with Star Wars:
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  • Andy R

    I’ve heard it’s easier to read multiple novels by the same author because they repeat a lot of vocabulary. For me, at the intermediate reading stage in Japanese–I recognize about 600 kanji–I’ve been trying out different novels, and now I think I’ll read the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series because it interests me the most. I read the first page of the first novel a year ago (when I only knew 400 kanji) and found it too difficult, so I gave up and started reading intermediate textbooks, which I now find boring. Now this novel looks slightly easier. Plus, the difficult vocabulary from the first page is largely sailing terminology (e.g. sail, deck, drift, navigation) which will repeat many times throughout the series. After a few pages of description, movie novelizations mostly describe what happened and contain lots of dialogs. They’re easier to read than high literature. So I’m going to give this another try. What I need to decide is whether my notebook will simply be a glossary of words and kanji I look up, or whether to use it as a starting point for learning the unfamiliar kanji using A.R.T.

    • I think with kanji it’s slightly different – they just have to be “learnt”, more than just the meaning of the word. I’m really enjoying using Skritter. You could make word lists of new words, learn them, then plug the kanji into skritter to learn them.

      • Andy R

        Whatever I do, I have to make sure that my kanji learning doesn’t slow down my reading process because it’s already so slow that I could lose my momentum and therefore my motivation and confidence. I must form a reading habit of this novel as my top priority. So I might wait until I’m a few chapters into the book before I start learning these kanji. Also, all of the 600 kanji I’ve learned until now have been either through reading readers and textbooks or through rote memorization. I never heard of Heisig until a week or two ago.

        With that in mind, when I do start learning kanji again, I’m going to consider everything you’ve said, Olly, in your podcast episodes 141-143 along with your YT videos about Chinese character learning.

        The way I’ll probably apply it is to start a second notebook of just radicals and other character parts, one page per radical. I’ll first invent my own association for it, look up its meaning, and then look in Heisig and other sources for other associations. I’ll write all that down in my radical notebook. (I’ll skip the many radicals/parts I already know.) Then, when I start memorizing kanji again, I can start using associations to help me remember–my own or someone else’s.

        Having said that, I still prefer to memorize individual kanji in their immediate context, which is words. (Nonetheless, when I encounter new kanji compounds, I need to briefly remind myself of each character’s meaning.)

        In my view, kanji are a lot like words in that you only learn a little bit about them in each context you find them in. So the more time I spend per month reading Japanese, the better I’ll understand each kanji and the more kanji I’ll retain.

        • Yes, what you say makes complete sense. However, in spite of the immense importance of learning in context, I wouldn’t discount the value of rote learning of characters or words – it can really speed up the process.

    • Kevin Richardson

      Does your “Pirates of the Caribbean” book have furigana? It really helped. My novelizations are aimed at teenagers, so have furigana – but I also have Star Wars comics without furigana … needless to say the comic books are much tougher in my opinion because looking up words really kills the joy like nothing else 🙂

      Specialist terminology kind of takes care of itself – for me that’s words like 帝国軍 (imperial forces) which appear so often I don’t bother making any effort to learn them. But for words like 兵士 (soldier) jump out as being words worthy of adding to memrise course (I usually add the whole sentence – as another thing I learned from Olly is the benefit of using context).

      Strangely enough, it’s quite funny the way specialist terms seem to stick in my memory than more general purpose words … it’s like I have to make an effort with those.

      I don’t know why that is, but maybe it’s something to do with the way the brain is wired that it often forms stronger connections with the unusual words … they’re probably more nourishing for the mind 🙂 Or it could be the fun by throwing them into a conversation … I still giggle about the time I blurted out 罠だ (in my best Admiral Ackbar voice) in an elevator full of salarymen when the doors closed on a guy who left it a bit late to come into the elevator!

      I find just circling a word that I consider worth making an effort to learn is enough. From time to time, I go back and add the whole sentence into my Memrise course – that’s another reason why having the furigana really helps speed up the process … Google Translate is pretty terrible at translating entire sentences … but individual words, it’s “good enough” to be useful.

      Anyway, above all else – reading something like Pirates of the Caribbean sounds much more fun than working with textbooks.

      • Andy R

        Hi, Kevin. This book has furigana for all kanji except the 240 characters taught in the first two years of Japanese elementary school. I’ve studied the first 3 years’ kanji (and more), so I have no trouble here. However, I need both my reading glasses (which are only +1 magnification) and my magnifying glass together to read the tiny print furigana on my first reading pass.

        One of the reasons I love reading Japanese is because the kanji create their own associations for learning vocabulary. The hardest words for me to remember are the ones written entirely in hiragana.

        • Kevin Richardson

          Hi Andy. Yeah, I’m totally in agreement with you on the joy of discovering the associations between the kanji and vocabulary 🙂 And also, yeah … trying to read entirely hiragana text is really hard.

          I hear you with regards reading the tiny furigana – my eyesight is pretty good, but I sometimes find myself straining to read them.

          Maybe give Heisig’s “Remembering the Kanji” a go? It sounds like you’ve got a pretty base of kanji to get you some of the way – but if you tried using Heisig’s book, I reckon you’d be like myself and be able to look at the kanji and grasp a rough idea of the meaning a lot quicker than trying to learn all the readings? The main thing about Heisig’s method isn’t that it teaches you to read kanji – more that it quickly teaches you to remember the characters. I did try learning the more traditional way once – but I was forgetting the characters almost as quickly as I was “supposedly learning” them. It’s a bit like that old saying, “less haste, more speed”.

          When I began reading my first Star Wars book, I knew near enough zero readings. I had dabbled with Heisig’s book, so whenever I recognized a character, I’d feel like I had a gist of what the text said rather than be able to pronounce what it was saying. Thing is, rather than slowing myself down by trying to understand the detail – just allowing the story to reinforce my rough understanding of what the character represented … was good enough.

          Once I was about halfway through Heisig’s RTK book, I started reading my second Star Wars novel. Same again, I didn’t know many readings, but now I had a better feel for what kanji represented. I started using Wanikani about that time too … and that’s where the magic really started to happen. I reckon my passive vocabulary in Japanese might be around a couple of thousand words. As I learned the reading of a kanji character, I’d quickly be able to see how that kanji connected with another character to make a reading of a vocabulary word I might already know. As you say, it’s brilliant making those associations 🙂 I’m learning the readings through Wanikani and Star Wars – one source helps the other. People complain that Wanikani is too slow … but by my reckoning, it unlocks the levels at a pretty reasonable pace … I always remember how long it takes native’s to become literate and figure if I can do in a third of the time … that’s amazing!

          I’m also using Memory Palaces with Wanikani – that seems to have helped me quite a lot too. If I’d learned about Memory Palaces before I did Heisig’s book, I think I’d have benefited … but I can vouch for them allowing me to remember a lot more readings than I’d have been capable of before.

          Like I say, I don’t think there’s any one right way to go about this fascinating adventure … but the more we read (without really worry about trying to remember everything), we’re just getting more exposure to the language … and that seems to be the biggest benefit in all aspects of learning this language … we just start noticing more and more connections … and the game becomes ever more intriguing.

  • Andy R

    By the way, I want to share something else because I think it’s funny: When I first read this podcast title, I imagined that someone had invented an association for each radical based on an idea from Star Wars. For example, the sword radical is a light saber, the speech radical is something witty said by Obi Wan, etc.

    • Now that would be awesome!

    • Kevin Richardson

      Loving the idea … Heisig 2.0 … there’s probably a Star Wars related association for every one of the 214 …. hmmm

      口 Chewbacca’s Mouth when he goes “grrrrrr”
      木 The Tree where you only find what you take in.
      手 Hand that get cut off by light saber.

      When the kanji can be written in different ways …

      刀 : Jedi’s lightsaber /刂 Sith lightsaber

      Hmmmmm … the force is strong with this one 🙂