Into the benkyō-ness: Let us now praise difficult kanji

kanji practice

I have an article in the Japan Times today: “Complicated characters: Let us now praise difficult kanji.”

This column was inspired by two of my biggest Japanese-related realizations of all time:

1. Katakana are not inherently more difficult than hiragana.

2. Kanji are not more difficult than English words.

I think everyone comes to understand these at some point, if they study long enough, but it’s always useful to review them.

I wrote more in depth about the first a few years ago (jeez, five years ago). Students of Japanese usually start with hiragana, then go on to katakana and kanji. They learn the pronunciation of all the individual katakana, but because there are comparatively fewer katakana words, they don’t get enough reps with any to really let them sink in. Whenever they do encounter them, they end up sounding out the syllables one at a time, wondering why the script is so difficult.

By contrast, they see 勉強 so much in the first few months, that it turns into what it should be: A gestalt larger than the individual parts. The kanji are still there, if you look closely enough (and within the kanji, the strokes), but dial back your focus, and they disappear into the benkyō-ness.

My recommendation to new students of the language: Don’t learn the hiragana or katakana individually. Just start memorizing whole words. I mean, I guess you need to do them individually at some point in order to learn how to write them, but I would recommend adding large katakana words to your flashcards or SRS software immediately. カレー, ラーメン, パソコン, all of these will be far more useful than the individual katakana.

The second realization may still be up for debate. I think Japanese and foreigners who study the language both enjoy contributing to the myth that Japanese is “the most difficult language in the world.” A good portion of this myth is supported by the sheer numbers: Japanese has THREE written “languages” and there are TWO THOUSAND kanji. Saying something like English has TWENTY-SIX letters just doesn’t feel as hefty in comparison. The fact that kanji are pictographs also contributes: My god, man, they look so damn complicated! How do you even deal with a language that isn’t phonetic?

But this assumes two things:

1. Two thousand characters allow for more combinations (and more difficult combinations) than twenty-six letters.

2. Being able to pronounce a word is equivalent to knowing what it means.

1 may seem true at first, but when you consider the fact that most kanji compounds only have two characters (and the longer ones can be broken down into sets of two), whereas the average English word is 5.1 letters, the playing field levels a bit. (Based on this website which gives Japanese an average word length of over 34…clearly mistaken since it acknowledges at the top that its calculation is based on languages with spaces.)

Japanese words look like this: __ __, with roughly two thousand possibilities for each space.

English words look like this: __ __ __ __ __, with twenty-six possibilities for each space.

2000 x 2000 = 2,000,000

26 to the power of 5 = 11,881,376

Obviously, there aren’t that many words in either language, but this is just a quick calculation that can hopefully put things in perspective: English words are equally complex as kanji.

And they are also equally simple. Take, for example, antidisestablishmentarianism. When I was in 3rd Grade, this was the word to know, for whatever reason. I guess when you’re ten years old, it’s really cool to know long words that seem complicated.

At the time, it seemed like one massive thing, but when I look at it now, it looks like kanji to me. Rather than being a gestalt or a string of individual letters, I see little packets of information: anti-, dis-, establishment, -arian, -ism.

Theoretically, you don’t even need to know how to pronounce these to know their meaning. They provide a visual way to break down the word, to a certain extent (if you are familiar with them). Which is another advantage to kanji: Because the pieces contain more information in and of themselves—is it safe to say that 義 holds more information on its own than -ism?—you have an additional method to gain information from the pieces, independent of their pronunciation.

Just because we English speakers don’t spend time in school learning these packets in the same way that Japanese students tackle kanji (lots of repetition required to master the ability to write the individual units) doesn’t mean that English is easier. They just require different strategies.

That’s all well and good, you might say, but give us something prescriptive, Morales! Well, the best I can do is these two pieces of advice:

1. Start reading in context as soon as you can. This will force you to look at kanji as compounds rather than individual characters.

2. When you are practicing your kanji composition, practice writing compounds or short phrases rather than individual kanji. This will hopefully serve to embed the idea that the whole is more important than the parts. For an example of this, see the image at the top of the post: These are my notebooks from study for the JLPT Level 1 test.

And if you haven’t yet, you must read “Kanji as Argo,” over at No-Sword, an amazing take on studying kanji that emphasizes number 1. The money quote:

…if you were learning French, you wouldn’t refuse to look at a French book at all until you’d memorized all possible verb conjugation patterns. (If that was the standard approach, no-one would ever read any French books at all—not even the French.)

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki Review Round-up

My review of Philip Gabriel’s translation of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is online over at the Japan Times: “Haruki Murakami’s new book peels back the layers of friendship.”

But others have written smarter things than I have. Notably, Patti Smith in the New York Times:

The feel is uneven, the dialogue somewhat stilted, either by design or flawed in translation. Yet there are moments of epiphany gracefully expressed, especially in regard to how people affect one another. “One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone,” Tsukuru comes to understand. “They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss.” The book reveals another side of Murakami, one not so easy to pin down. Incurably restive, ambiguous and valiantly struggling toward a new level of maturation. A shedding of Murakami skin. It is not “Blonde on Blonde,” it is “Blood on the Tracks.”

Her note about the dialogue is true, and that feels very strange since I’m finding the dialogue in “Yesterday” from the New Yorker pretty cleverly translated. (I’m still in the middle of that story and may write something about it soon.)

And I think she’s also right on about Murakami’s main message with the book, which is something I hit on last year in my review of the Japanese version at Neojaponisme: Are we only ever “talking on the phone”?

I think Sean O’Hagan at The Guardian sees Tsukuru Tazaki within Murakami’s overall oeuvre more clearly than Smith:

Essentially, Murakami writes two kinds of novels: the deftly delineated personal odyssey of self-discovery narrative – Norwegian Wood, South of the Border, West of the Sun (both 2000) – and the more ambitiously plotted, often supernaturally shaded, epic shaggy dog story – A Wild Sheep Chase (1989), Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1991), The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997). The latter approach, which incorporates elements of magic realism, science fiction and Japanese mythology, reached an apogee of sorts with his most recent novel, the three-volume 1Q84, which by turns mesmerised and baffled with its bewildering and, in places, disturbing plot. It involved a female character who wandered off a freeway into a parallel universe and a darkly mystical cult led by a self-styled prophet who indulged in creepy sex with the young female assassin hired by a mysterious dowager to kill him.

Colorless Tsukuru, perhaps as a reaction to the excesses of IQ84, falls into the first category, its relatively straightforward narrative centring on an archetypal Murakami character: a lonely young Japanese man whose life has been dislocated by a traumatic event he cannot make sense of.

I agree that this book is a reaction to 1Q84. This is true not only in scope but in technique. Rather than boring the reader with endless repetition of activities (reading Proust, exercising, etc.), Murakami bores in Tsukuru Tazaki with narrative summary. I don’t think I noticed this so much when reading in Japanese, but it felt interesting and new for him at first in translation.

For example, between Chapter 9 and 10, when Tsukuru decides to go on his pilgrimage to meet his old friends, he is very decisive, which is not usual of Murakami protagonists. Throughout his past novels and as recently as Tengo in 1Q84, the characters drink and sink themselves into routine in order to escape pain and confusion, but Tsukuru needs only an hour watching trains to obtain a temporary sense of release and then he’s on to the next spot. Murakami needed thousands of pages to cover six months in 1Q84. In Tsukuru Tazaki he only needed a few hundred to cover sixteen years.

But Murakami gets so wrapped up in this technique that he forgets to include certain details, which he is forced to add in (again as narrative summary) later in the book. The two I’m thinking of in particular are Shiro’s piano lessons, which would have been much more helpful to the reader as a scene earlier in the novel, and the time when Tsukuru sits and watches trains in Finland, which again would have made more sense given in chronological order (although it would have ruined his concision a bit).

Perhaps Murakami is attempting to mirror Tsukuru’s thought process, so these things come and go as they do in his mind. But it could just be a lack of revision, which Sgt. Tanuki covers in his blog post (which I’m glad I didn’t see until just recently…so that it didn’t color (get it?) my own review):

I enjoyed parts of it a great deal, and overall I think it’s more successful than 1Q84 (although if 1Q84 had ended at Part II it would have been better than this). But I think it suffers from some of the flaws of that book, and I think they both could have been remedied if Murakami was the type of author to rewrite and revise, but it seems he’s not; he sits down to write and writes until he’s done, and then he’s done, is the way I hear it, and so in this book we get character arcs that are unnaturally truncated, character development coming as he thinks of it, not as it’s needed, subplots and subtexts coming and going seemingly at random; and we get passages of flabby prose, where he’s clearly riffing, trying to find the melody that will carry him to the next plot point or epiphany. The last fifty pages of the book were positively maddening in this respect: anticlimactic, repetitive, aimless, but including passages of great insight and beauty that, if they’d been placed elsewhere in the book, would have made a great deal of sense.

The most damning criticism I’ve seen so far comes from O’Hagan:

What I learned is that, like other Murakami characters before him, Tsukuru seems to have grown older without really growing up. His discontents are essentially adolescent and one cannot help harbouring the suspicion that the majority of Murakami’s vast global fanbase either recognise and share those discontents or are themselves adolescents.

Ouch. That hits close to home.

Phillip Gabriel’s translation seems very well done for the most part, but he does seem to miss a minor callback to a 1980 Murakami short story (one of his earliest), “A ‘Poor Aunt’ Story.” (Which you can find at Osakabe Yoshio’s site if you don’t have a New Yorker subscription.)

In the story, the narrator finds a “poor aunt” stuck on his back: “I first realized she was there in the middle of August. Not that anything in particular happened to alert me to her presence. I simply felt it one day: I had a poor aunt there on my back.”

In Tsukuru Tazaki, Sara offers to find his friends for Tsukuru:

“So tell me those four names. After that, you decide. Once I find out more about them, if you feel you don’t want to see them, then you don’t have to go ahead with it. That’s entirely up to you. But apart from that, personally, I’m curious about them. I want to find out more about these people who are still weighing you down.”

Here is the Japanese and my own translation:


Tell me their names. You can decide what happens after that. If, after certain things become clear, you still don’t want to see them, then you don’t have to. Because it’s your problem. But despite that, I just happen to be interested in them. I want to know more about them. About the people that are still, even now, imprinted on your back.

I don’t think Gabriel’s translation is an egregious change, but it does alter the character of the line a little.

I think Tsukuru Tazaki shares a lot with the story. In both, the protagonist suffers from a deep, unshakeable psychological condition, and in both, the condition has physical manifestations; the story has more fun with the magical realism, but in the novel, Tsukuru loses weight and looks like a totally different person afterward.

Overall, I thought the translation was okay. It didn’t keep me reading, although that might be because I already knew what was going to happen.

I did, however, enjoy the tension between Tsukuru and Sara, and at the end of the book, I found myself really sucked in, wanting to know how she felt, what she thought, what she was going to say. It was just a blip, the briefest moment, but there was a little magic there. Because you never know exactly how someone is taking in the world around you, even though it seems so definite and objective.

I’ll be curious to see what Murakami does next. His latest book of stories is only okay. I’d say he bats .250, which is pretty good for a baseball player, but not so hot for a short story writer. I know he’ll keep on swinging, though. Maybe he’s got a few more hits in him, but sadly I don’t think there are any home runs left.