The Curse of Kanji

The Curse of the Kanji 

As I look down at the table, pen at the ready my hand slightly shaking, I realize that most of what lays before me seems to resemble a random toss in the children's game “Pick-up-Sticks.” Some of these images cut sharp, bold lines and clean angles as simple as the slats on a venetian blind. Others twist and curve like branches and vines resembling a forest so dense that even light can’t escape. But some give pause, delicate patterns mirroring the motifs of needlepoint lace. I can appreciate its history. I can appreciate its beauty. But to learn kanji or Chinese characters, appreciation is not enough.



Even in modern,contemporary Japan, kanji lurks everywhere and without understanding it daily life is a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle with a couple of pieces missing. A simple container of shampoo is scary as you worry if it will give your hair more body … or less. And spray to keep mosquitoes away suddenly looks threatening with all that kanji on the THAT all it does? ??  Those yummy chocolate cookies might contain sugar, but perhaps it's a bit of asbestos can never tell with kanji. The directions on the box of laxatives might say “take once a day, every day, for four days,” or perhaps it reads “take once an hour, every day for ten days.” Food packages, laundry detergent, mouthwash, cleaning products ...even toilet paper, are all silly with kanji. Even the ladies room becomes a frightening and confusing place with state-of-the-art toilets and slick control panels – often all in kanji. Trying to figure out which button to press for flush quickly turns a minor pause in a busy schedule into a major event.

So here I am after 20 plus long years in Japan and basically illiterate, and all because of kanji. Wow illiterate! So then the question is what happened? Why am I not further along here? Well, first I would like to engage in a little finger pointing as I feel it isn't entirely my fault. I'm not sure who it was, but somebody, somewhere, decided that the Japanese language needed three writing systems! Yes, that's right: hiragana, for all Japanese words, katakana for all borrowed foreign words like computer, television, and of course kanji just to make things interesting. Three seems like a bit of overkill to me. Nevertheless, I decided early on in my Japanese life, I should at least try. So, I started with the hiragana and the katakana and somehow over the years I tripped and tumbled my way through them both to some success. With these two I could decipher some store signs and a few advertisements and a children's book or two. It was a good start, but not quite enough. I could read around the kanji and guess, but the comfort level for my daily life still wasn't there. I needed kanji. So, I decided to give it a try. 

When my daughter entered elementary school, I thought it might be great to learn kanji along with her. Night after night she filled her little notebook with lines and squiggles, and I sort of filled mine. I plodded diligently through the exercises for about a year so, scribbling with feverish attempt only to have my daughter outperform me at every turn – not that it was a competition, but it was a bit deflating to have your six-year old get better grades than you. My enthusiasm further eroded into lackluster desire when my husband, trying to toss encouragement my way, told me I only had to learn about two thousand of these little puzzles to read a newspaper. Was he kidding?!! (He wasn’t). Two thousand! Needless to say, as life got busy and busier, kanji, took a backseat. Soon it was riding in a locked trunk and the key was nowhere to be found. And that brings us up to today.

Life without kanji certainly has its disadvantages, but I found tensions and frustration over this lack of control got me nowhere. Instead, I learned to relax into the idea that it was OK if I didn't understand everything. And I also learn to cope in other ways. I swallowed my pride and asked the sales lady for help when I couldn't read the shampoo. When I bought a new digital recorder, I searched the internet to find instructions for something similar online. I became an expert at bugging, pestering, and probably thoroughly annoying anyone (particularly my husband and daughter) who might read the pamphlet on the new alarm clock or the directions on the aspirin bottle or the warnings label on the fancy electric fan. And as Japan has looked more and more outside its borders, I have seen English appearing here and there on products for everyday life.  That helps.  And somehow this has all worked, and I am doing OK.

I look back at the page, my paper, my book, my pencil.  But I put the pencil back down. Sigh. I still might get back to kanji study... one the future…. maybe….after I catch my breath a bit. But until then, I won't hesitate to use any coping skill I can. In fact, I have had pretty good luck with the “tekitou” method.  Here’s an example:  when I bought a new washing machine and I needed to do a wash and hubby or dear daughter was not around to explain all the buttons. So I coped. I made do the best way I could, and I did it tekitou-ni – which roughly translated means I closed my eyes and pressed....and thankfully, it worked!  

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About the Author

About Us | Couple Photo | Alfan SelectHi from Japan everyone! I'm Karen and I have been living and traveling, (yes, often by bullet train :) for Alfan Select, fun and adventure for over 20 years! You can read more of my personal stories in Japan here.  As a cute couple, one of our new shared stories is about ferreting out the amazing contemporary examples of fine craftsmanship here in Japan.  And these craft artists have amazing stories, too! So, if you like, browse around our site and enjoy reading some.  Cheers! Karen

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  • Sista J on

    Loved your blog ! And the photos from Alfan Select are inspiring. Lots and lots of diligence and hard work by all involved. The artistry is evident. Transcendence through artful craft. It’s a new therapy. JEL

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