Reading Strategies – Skimming and Kanji Compounds

By my third year of Japanese study, my classmates and I had gotten to the point where we could express a lot of basic ideas, but for whatever reason – probably class chemistry more than anything – we were all really quiet. Everyone was hesitant to take a chance and speak up. So the professor implemented a participation grade, probably one of the cleverest techniques any of my Japanese teachers ever used. This same teacher also emphasized storytelling (through 接続詞), relaying information (〜そうです), and skimming (速読). It was a landmark year in my study of the language. Really gave me a solid foundation.

I think the skimming exercises were especially effective. Someone (one of the higher up professors?) had done research showing that skimming was just as valuable if not more valuable than slogging through passages looking up the definition for every word. Several times a week, she would hand us a slip of paper with a Japanese newspaper article on it. First she gave us five seconds or so to look at the headline and we would take a minute to talk about the topic of the article. We made guesses about the content, and the professor asked us to explain why. Then she gave us 30 seconds to look at the first few paragraphs of the article. We would kind of desperately run our eyes over the squiggles, looking for X月XX日, X氏, and other hints. The she asked us machine-gun style the who what where when of the article. And that was it. We never went into much more depth than that. The exercise was predicated on the idea that short, fast repetitions are important to get your reading up to speed.

However, skimming is really only effective once you have a basic grasp of kanji and compounds. We must have known 750 kanji at least, maybe even closer to 1000, but knowing how the kanji work in compounds was even more important. This same teacher drilled us on the different categories of compounds. I think there were five categories. Here’s a brief rundown of the ones I can remember:

Synonyms and Antonyms – compounds in this category are two kanji with similar meaning or opposite meaning lined up together.

早速 (さっそく) – fast + fast = right away!
重複 (ちょうふく) – overlap + multiple = redundant (unsure if this isn’t in the Verb + DO category which is outlined below)
姉妹 (しまい) – older sister + younger sister = sister
兄弟 (きょうだい) – older brother + younger brother = brother
変化 (へんか) – change + change = change

上下 (じょうげ) – up + down = up and down
左右 (さゆう) – left + right = left and right
和英 (わえい) – Japanese + English = Japanese to English
英和 (えいわ) – English + Japanese = English to Japanese
売買 (ばいばい) – sell + buy = buying and selling
攻防 (こうぼう) – attack + defense = attack and defense

Prefix + Kanji – the kanji in these compounds all have prefixes that modify the other character. 非, 無, and 不 are the obvious negatives ones. There must be some positive ones…超 comes to mind, but I can’t think of any two-character compounds.

無職 (むしょく) – no + work = unemployed
無色 (むしょく) – no + color = colorless
無教 (むきょう) – no + faith = atheist
不良 (ふりょう) – un + good = bad
非常 (ひじょう) – non + normal = abnormal/unusual/emergency
超能力 (ちょうのうりょく) – extremely + ability = superpower/ESP

Adjective + Noun – in this category, the first kanji modifies the second kanji, forming a larger compound noun.

朗報 (ろうほう) – cheerful + information = good news
朝食 (ちょうしょく) – morning + food = breakfast
残金 (ざんきん) – remain + money = balance/remaining money
近所 (きんじょ) – near + place = neighborhood
笑顔 (えがお) – smile + face = smiling face

Adverb + Verb – in this category, too, the first character modifies the second, but this time it modifies the way the verb is performed.

速読 (そくどく) – fast + read = read quickly/skim
朗読 (ろうどく) – clear/cheerful + read = read out loud
悪化 (あっか) – bad + change = get worse
強化 (きょうか) – strong + change = make stronger/fortify/enhance/reinforce

Verb + Direct Object – these kanji are Chinese in origin, I think, so they come in the Chinese grammatical order, the second kanji being the direct object of the first, which is a verb.

上京 (じょうきょう) – go up + capital = go to the capital
帰国 (きこく) – return + country = return home/repatriate
送金 (そうきん) – send + money = send money
回想 (かいそう) – spin + thought = recall/flashback
消火 (しょうか) – erase + fire = extinguish
返品 (へんぴん) – give back + item = return something

Not every compound will fit into these categories, but thinking about kanji this way will often give you an advantage when you encounter a new compound made of familiar parts. So go on! Go out there and get reps! Skimming is all well and good, but the goal is to build up endurance and recognition so that you can tackle longer material.

Cool Fireworks – 線香花火 (Updated)

線香花火 (せんこうはなび, literally “incense fireworks”) is a type of Japanese fireworks that usually gets translated into English as “Japanese sparklers.” They are slightly different from the usual American variety of sparklers in that you hold them facing down toward the ground rather than up toward the sky. Once lit, a small ball of what can only be described as “magical molten fire stuff” creeps up the thin thread of the sparkler, sending out random flashes of fractal-like sparkles. They are incredibly hypnotic to watch. (See photo at the Japanese Wikipedia site or in this video with music from Amano Shigeru.)

Once the ball gets to a certain point, it fizzles out quickly, which gives it the idiomatic meaning “flash in the pan” or “to fizzle out quickly.” You often see 線香花火のよう(に・な) and sometimes 線香花火的.

Belated Happy 4th of July!

Update: Commenter robert found this great video showing exactly how they sparkle. Looks like there are more videos searching under “senkou hanabi” than “線香花火”.

Ode to っ


Tokyo Damage Report has a nice post taking a look at the 小さいつ and all its different roles. Very interesting stuff. He breaks it down into four categories. I’ll switch them up a bit:

3. Contractions. Put two kanji together, and often the sound between the characters gets contracted. Uninteresting, as he notes.

4. Emphasis. Now we start to get interesting. People add an extra syllable into words like とても and よほど to emphasize them. In English we tend to draw out vowels for emphasis, but in Japanese they hover on that moment riiiiiight at the beginning of the consonant and then hit that fucker with a wicked staccato. This theory works in the next two sets.

1. Onomatopoeia/り. I’m not sure that these words sound exactly like their actions (Is it possible to “sound” like “looking very similar,” which is what そっくり means? Although, maybe it is possible. Maybe the Japanese are just hyper-aware of the sounds of different actions. I guess they do have way more noises than English. Hmm…), but they are at least more aurally interesting than your average word. They also extend on the emphasis theory. The number of superlatives in the group is impressive. One I picked up from a friend is ごっつい, which I think means “huge.” I wonder if there are any XっXり words that haven’t been taken by meanings yet. Get ’em quick before some domain-name squatter can.

2. と. I believe all of the words in this category are adverbs, whereas the words in the り category can actually be verbs themselves. I guess that proves と is a nearly universal marker of adverb-ness? Again these are used to modify verbs and make them even more extreme.

I think the best way to get used to these is to not study them on their own; they almost always work with other verbs, and you should pick one or two for each pattern. Generally they only work with a very limited range of verbs anyway. さっぱり, for example, is used almost exclusively with 忘れる or 分からない, implying a complete blankness of mind.

The other trick is to figure out which ones work on their own (ばっちりです! そっくりです!) and which ones work with する (すっきりした! ).

Great stuff. My personal favorites are ばっちり (with uncomfortably dorky thumbs up), そっくり (I am ルパン) and こっそり (eating onigiri on the train).

Cool Kanji – 牡蠣


Welcome to July, month of terrible heat and humidity. The good news is that we are halfway through the Oyster-less months. May, June, July and August, otherwise known as months without an R, are the months when raw oysters are supposed to be dangerous to eat. Which is why we should celebrate Oyster Day on September 1. I had a small celebration last year and posted about the famous tongue twister 隣の客は、よくカキ食う客だ

I have discovered one thing about oysters since last year: the カキ in the tongue twister is actually an unexciting fruit, the persimmon, and not a delicious briny mollusk, the oyster. This, to me, is an outrage. I can’t think of a more boring fruit than the persimmon. Obviously, the 隣の客 has no taste at all.

So I suggest we replace the カキ in the tongue twister and try to restore 牡蠣 (oysters) to their full glory.

Two months until Oyster Day. I plan on trying to arrange some kind of meetup. If you are interested, let me know.