Review: Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji

High level review of Remembering the Kanji

It’s a decent book if you’re brand new to kanji, but if you’ve spent more than a year studying kanji, it’s a bit regressive. He tries to mold your thinking to his imaginative stories, but ultimately you could make this up yourself. The first fifth of the book is useful to get you started, but you won’t know if this method works for you until you’ve honed in on your own learning style. This would be fine, but for nearly $30, you’re not getting good bang for your buck. Bottom line: read a few articles online about the method, but give the book a pass.

Book background

The author of Remembering the Kanji (full title: Remembering the Kanji 1: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters), Dr. James Heisig actually didn’t start out with the intention of making his name synonymous with kanji learning – at least not as far as I can tell. In fact, he is a Senior Research Fellow at the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture in the field of East Asian religion and spirituality. For the uninitiated, that’s pretty dense, academic stuff. He has been in the field for more than 20 years, and he certainly knows his way around study and research in a professional capacity.

Somewhere along the way, it seems he took to language learning as well, and found a particularly clever way of remembering kanji, which tends to be a huge barrier for non-Asian-language learners of Japanese. The premise is that if you remove yourself from the academic world of kanji study, you’ll notice that some characters kind of look like what they mean and you can make memorable stories about them.

Dr. Heisig’s reputation in the Japanese learning world is strong, and his work has fostered entire communities devoted to continuing and improving on the stories in his book, with varying degrees of success in terms of actually mastering the kanji. If someone claims that they “finally finished RTK! Now they know all the kanji!” I would take it with a grain of salt. This review lays out why.

How does Remembering the Kanji work?

Remembering the Kanji promises that you can start memorizing the meaning of kanji with far less effort than you would require to memorize them the academic way. For reference, the academic method (especially if you’re going to school in Japan) is simply rote memorization. Repetition and testing, repetition and testing. Eventually, your mind gives in and has no choice but to memorize these damn kanji, or else the mental beating will continue.

Our savior here, Dr. Heisig, says that there is a better, gentler, and *choke* more engaging way of getting these scribbly characters into your head. People love being told that they don’t have to take the big nasty pill or reality, so this promise is enticing. Who wouldn’t want to just have fun and master a skill that takes native Japanese speakers years of their lives to do in a fully Japanese school system?

Ok, so picture this: Kanji have shapes. These shapes (sometimes) look like something relatable, and if you squint really hard, you can see what ancient Chinese nobility had in mind when they first started creating the first formalized hanzi that would eventually become modern-day kanji.

Dr. Heisig argues that this imaginative process is different from (but related to) the radicals that make up kanji, and there is some overlap in instances. The easiest example to visualize is perhaps 木 (ki, tree) which kind of looks like a tree if you believe hard enough. Then you take 人 (hito, person) and mash it up against ki to get 休 (yasumi/kyuu, rest) because “the person is leaning up against the tree.”

Oh my god. Did we just learn a kanji? Three, in fact? Kind of.

Where it begins to fall apart

In our above example, we get 1) lucky that the radicals align with the story and the final compound character ties in perfectly and 2) no information about memorizing the pronunciation.

Understanding kanji at a glance is super useful, I will admit, even when you don’t know the exact reading. I am 100% guilty of skimming through documents and newspaper with imperfect reading comprehension, because I mostly understand the uncommon kanji enough to know what is being said without slowing down and trying to remember the pronunciation.

However, this subconscious recognition comes from the study and understanding of actual radicals. Certain radicals even have the benefit of often sharing the same or similar readings. In Remembering the Kanji’s world, though, you are left with a couple thousand stories that don’t give you the same context unfortunately.

Pronunciation is so integral to remembering kanji, that I went out and actually made a whole product around it. If you get through Remembering the Kanji and walk out into the real world, you are basically illiterate, after spending potentially hundreds of hours staring at and memorizing kanji with “The Heisig Method”. I’m sorry. You are.

The unfortunate truth is that you will be at a level where you can’t read an article, read kanji out loud to someone, or ask questions about signs you see to people in the street. Kanji without readings is just… not worth it.

Should you buy Remembering the Kanji?

By all means, go for it – if you have an extra $30 kicking around and you want to see what all the fuss is about, it’s not a bad read. As a said, Dr. Heisig is a really intelligent fellow, and his method has worked for him (and apparently many others).

I can’t pretend to be the only person in the world to have memorized kanji, and his method may well work for you in terms of getting you started. I must admit, I was pretty stoked back in the day when I picked up my copy from Amazon. I kept with it for a couple weeks until I realized the stories were getting repetitive and confusing.

Final Verdict

Pros

  • Gets you started
    If you're a habitual procrastinator, this book gives you an easy way to start studying.
  • Great online community
    Love the book or hate it, everyone out there has an opinion on it, including what. it could do better. Maybe this ends up being how you find the method that works for you.
  • Gives you a different way of thinking
    Instead of just accepting that there is only one way of learning kanji, Dr. Heisig opens you up to looking at different perspectives. That's pretty cool.

Cons

  • Long, rambling "stories"
    If you're determined to make RTK your method, be prepared for stories that are confusing and may make you drowsy the more you read them.
  • No readings? No thanks
    Without learning the readings alongside the kanji, you're not very far ahead of the game when you finish the book.
  • Pricy for info you can get for free
    This book has been out for a long time now, and if you check with Google Sensei, you'll likely find the premise laid out quite clearly for free without needing to invest in this book.

Conclusion:

Personally, I recommend you give it a pass and invest your kanji learning dollars elsewhere. If you stick with Japanese learning long enough and eventually come back to see the contents of Remembering the Kanji, you’ll see what I mean. Straying from the actual radicals and ignoring the readings just causes more grief than it’s worth.

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