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Remembering the Kanji I
A complete course on how not to forget the meaning and writing of Japanese characters
Author James W. Heisig
Publisher Japan Publications
SeriesRemembering the kanji
CategoryKanji learning - Joyo kanji
ISBNs0870407392 [COPAC, Webcatplus, Wikipedia]
4889960759 [COPAC, Webcatplus, Wikipedia]

Review of Remembering the Kanji I by Ben Bullock

I owned this book and found it almost completely useless. Many of the meanings, perhaps 10% or so, given by Heisig to the kanji are wrong or obscure, most of the mnemonics are not at all memorable, the indexing of the book is extremely shoddy, the ordering of the kanji makes the book useless for anyone except those who religiously follow Heisig's tedious sequential learning method, and there are many other faults.

I think this book is not useful for the following reasons:

1) The meaning of the characters in Heisig is often wrong or not useful. Many characters have a meaning that cannot be expressed in one English word. Many of the words he chooses to "explain" a character are bizarre.

2) He does not give examples of compound use of characters, which is related to criticism 1.

3) the ordering of the characters in the book is bad, in that the most heavily used characters and the more obscure ones are mixed together. Therefore some of the basic characters only appear at the end of the book, and some virtually useless ones come right at the beginning. Until you have worked from the beginning to the end of the entire book, you will not know some very basic characters.

4) I found a lot of his "mnemonics" are not useful at all. I not only had to remember the character, I had to remember the "mnemonic". I personally did not like this system. A lot of his mnemonics are actually chosen using some biblical stories. Since I am not a Christian and I have never read the bible, then relating parts of the characters to biblical stories was not useful to me.

5) Many characters have their most important role as elements of proper names. In these cases, there is virtually no point learning the "meaning" of the character, since it is clear that you should learn the pronunciation. I have found quite often that Japanese people do not know even the "meaning" of characters which form their own names.

6) the mnemonic system which he claims as his invention occurs in virtually every kanji book that I have seen, including those intended for Japanese children who are learning characters. His claim at the beginning of the book that his system is his original invention is not substantiated.

7) Even if you don't believe any of the above points, you should realise that Heisig's book, uniquely among Kanji books, will be absolutely useless to you for any other purpose than learning Heisig's "meaning" of the kanji. You will never be able to use it as a reference for the pronunciation of the kanji, or to find out how the character is actually used in written Japanese. Every other book you can buy will be more useful to you as a reference tool.

8) there are many other kanji books on the market which are more complete and useful than his book.

The one that I like is

"A guide to remembering Japanese characters" by Kenneth J. Henshall.

This book contains 2000 characters arranged in the order that they are taught to Japanese children (which roughly corresponds to the frequency of usage). It gives the exact historical origin of each character as considered by Kanji historians, a mnemonic for each character, plus the usual information about stroke counts and so forth, and some typical compounds in which the character is used (three for each character), and (most of) the pronunciations of the character. The only omission of this book that annoys me is that it does not give the order in which the strokes of the character should be written (except the general rules).

Also I think a good piece of advice is one I found in the book "Japanese in Action" by Jack Seward, which repeated the advice that he was given when he learned Japanese during the second world war (before kanjis had been standardised into the modern forms). The advice was that in order to learn Kanji, the best way to do it is to write each character out 100 times. I think that this method is foolproof, if you have got the stamina!

Anyway there are a LOT of kanji books. I think Heisig's may well be the worst that money can buy, and so I recommend you to buy anything other than Heisig. There were a lot of posts a while ago about character dictionaries, and so you might want to look at these as well since there was some discussion about kanji learning books.

☆ See all reviews by Ben Bullock.

For questions, comments, or if you would like to add your review to the above list, please email Ben Bullock <> or use the discussion group for this web site.