A smooth two weeks, studying kanji and building literacy

Peeking in at the fall colors
Peeking in at the fall colors

In my last post I mentioned that this is my favorite time of year in Japan, and over the past couple of weeks, I have enjoyed the sites around Saiki. Last weekend I took a long bike ride and stopped by several shrines (Shinto) to see children all dressed up for 七五三 (3-5-7 Festival).

Mother and child waling towards the shrine...check out the crocs
Mother and child walking towards the shrine...check out the crocs

Families take their children (boys: 3 & 7 year olds; girls: 5 year olds) to the shrine to give thanks and to pray for their children’s health and happy future. I saw someone’s beautiful photos on flickr, but I wasn’t really comfortable taking photographs of children I don’t know. I did get some nice shots at the shrine and also of families from a distance.  Eventually I’ll scan the photos of Kai and Nina when we took them to the shrine for 7-5-3 and post them.

Comparing the children in photos from Tokyo with the children I saw here, I am once again reminded of the economic differences and the different level of sophistication between the large urban centers and the more provincial regions of Japan. I feel a much bigger gap between the Japan I experience in this area everyday and the Japan I see on TV and in the news than I did 20 years ago. Around here the population is much older and the smaller towns and villages have experienced serious population declines. Many of the schools have less than 30 children now. It seems that there are fewer people under 30 farming and fishing, so it is hard to imagine what these areas will look like in another 10 years.

torii gate and shrine
torii gate and shrine

That weekend my friends Y and R came from Portland and we drove out along the coast to the easternmost point of Kyushu. It was a really beautiful day and the views were amazing.

Tsurimisaki- looking southeast towards the Pacific Ocean
Tsurumisaki- looking southeast towards the Pacific Ocean

We also saw lots of drying fish and squid, most were covered with nets to keep the birds and bugs away. When we stopped to take pictures of these squid, the fisherman who these belonged to ran up and sooed the flies away so the squid would look better. He said the tonbi (black kites) are not much of a problem, but the karasu (crows) actually pull out the skewers and steal the fish!

Squid drying in tsurimisaki
Squid drying in tsurumisaki

This week Ba-chan turned 80! I picked up sushi and cake and we had a tiny celebration with the two of us. She seems to be feeling a bit better and has completely recovered from her fall a couple of weeks ago. Only 11 more days until Jiro gets back!

Harajiri Waterfall
Harajiri Waterfall

Yesterday I went for a drive with Jiro’s cousin to go have a tofu lunch. Unfortunately I didn’t take a picture of the 12 dish meal which included salad, soup, steamed, simmered, and fried dishes and dessert. I will surely go again. There was a waterfall that we also checked out while we there.

One of my biggest regrets after I left Japan 20 years ago was that I never really studied enough to be able to read well in Japanese. So when we decided to move back here, I set a personal goal to teach myself enough kanji to be able to read contemporary literature and newspaper articles and maybe even work in a library here. So far, I have been making progress towards reaching that goal-which means learning about 2000 characters. I am trying a technique that I read about in the Kanji Clinic column of the Japan Times. I am using Heisig’s book Remembering the Kanji in combination with the site Reviewing the Kanji that supplements the book. I looked at this book several years ago and passed on it because I really did not relate to the mnemonics and thought that that I needed to be learning the readings (pronunciation) of the kanji in tandem with writing and reading. I know from experience that I have no trouble reading and recognizing kanji that I know how to write, but I haven’t been able to push through to the next level to learn more “complicated” characters and build my vocabulary and literacy.

torii gate and gingko tree
torii gate and gingko tree

So I picked up this book and have been plowing through it since late summer. I now confidently “know” how to write about 600 kanji and am amazed to find myself reading more headlines and also recognizing more vocabulary based on the kanji that I know the meanings of. I think it helps that I already have a strong Japanese language base so once I know the meaning I can assign the correct pronunciation because the vocabulary is already part of my spoken language. I guess it is similar to learning to read as a child because I am acquiring the written language for a language I already speak fairly well. It’s interesting to me that the I wasn’t able to really improve my literacy using the method that is used in the Japanese education system to teach children here. I think it is because the focus for young children is to learn simple kanji that may not always be high frequency kanji. So even though I had learned the kanji taught in grades 1-3 or 4, I had lost motivation because I really felt that real literacy was too much work.  In Remembering the Kanji, Heisig orders the kanji by elements that he calls primitives and then introduces several characters that are built on the same primitive. For adult learners, especially those with a working knowledge of Japanese, this makes much more sense than traditional techniques.  I still don’t like the imagery he uses in a lot of his stories that accompany each character, but the supplementary website mentioned above offers many alternative stories from the site’s subscribers. This site also has a forum and I’ve picked up a lot of helpful advice while reviewing the kanji.

looking down our street
Ryougoji Temple: looking down our street

In addition to the text and the website, I also purchased flashcards from White Rabbit Press (source of really great Jpn language learning books and tools.) These cards have the readings and also list several compounds for each character. After I study 20 or 30 new kanji, I then pull those character flashcards from the set and carry them around all week and pull them out when I have a few minutes. Because the cards have the readings, I find that I am learning the readings without any extra work. At the end of the week I add them to the flashcards of the kanji I’ve already learned. Since 600 cards are too many to manage well, I’ve pulled out the ones that I have 100% confidence and just review those once a month. I realize this may be a boring post to read, but I want to chronicle this technique for myself. The best thing about this method is that I don’t have to write the same character 25 times to remember it, the mnemonics are strong enough for me to recall the elements, the relative position of the elements AND the stroke order.

One more thing that is really helpful is that most television broadcasts are close-captioned, so I read as I listen and that seems to help my reading proficiency, too. I am pretty excited to already have made so much progress.

Well It’s been a relaxing day off (Labor Day) here and I’m going to make squash flan for dessert tonight. I only have a toaster oven…it’s an experiment…trust the low tech alternatives.

2 thoughts on “A smooth two weeks, studying kanji and building literacy

  1. nonob55 November 25, 2008 / 4:09 am

    Man talk about lifelong learning! (ha ha ha) But really Kate I am impressed by how much you are teaching yourself. Learning a language as an adult is never easy and taking the time to learn all those characters is really impressive.

  2. Margaret December 2, 2008 / 9:08 pm

    This was a fascinating post, Kate. It’s interesting to see how your particular skills, background and experiences are shaping what you need to learn the kanji.

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