Read Japanese Today by Walsh

8 / 10
talks you through simplified stories of how 400 kanji characters developed; gives stand-alone and compound pronunciation for each kanji; makes visual associations with old-to-new characters and real-world concepts behind them; good introduction covers history and composition of kanji; characters printed large but in line with rest of text paragraphs; links between old characters and modern forms great for budding etymologists; if you enjoy it, your only complaint will be that you wish it covered more kanji!

novel-like format presents so many kanji one after another (memory overload?); presents no good way to pace yourself through the text; index includes no traditional way to look up kanji; presents extra info which may be burdensome rather than helpful to some students (but keeps this minimal)

Kanji, kanji, kanji. If you’re like many of us learning to read & write Japanese, your mind is full of them. (If not, it will be!)

Read Japanese Today: The Easy Way to Learn 400 Practical Kanji wants to provide you with a unique way to learn 400 “basic” or “common” characters. And I don’t mean supposedly unique – I, as a reviewer, found it a distinct and potentially effective way to tackle your early characters.

What makes it unique? Before we get to that – the main focus of the book – let’s look at the introduction. This book begins with a helpful 23 page intro to how Japanese kanji writing works, how characters are built, their Chinese origin, their pronunciation and how to write them. It’s mostly in words, but you’ll find large-print kanji in line with the text in most paragraphs.

The sections (chapters) keep this format of paragraphs with kanji characters interspersed in line with the text (so they flow naturally along with the reading, not separated in some box or picture). The real focus here is a mental association between form and meaning. The author will tell you in a paragraph that such and such a character, originally drawn like this __, depicted such and such a thing. Because of that, it means… and is now written ___.

It’s best understood by example. “To form the kanji for a sword the Chinese drew a sword as __ then squared it off to ?… The Chinese started with the sword ? then, onto the blade, added a mark \ to emphasize the meaning blade. They wrote the new kanji in final form like this ?, meaning blade” (p. 43). Note: if boxes or ? marks appear on this site, they are kanji characters in the book.

In other words, Walsh talks you through the basic history of 400 kanji, focusing on their derivations in a way that makes them memorable and recognizable. This is especially great for visual and auditory/explanation-based learners who can grasp these kinds of associations.

The book ends with kana tables, and index of kanji by order of presentation in the text, an alphabetical index of kanji by English meaning. There’s nothing like a radical or stroke index, so you’ll have to know what a kanji means to look it up.

In the end, learning kanji will require lots of rote memorization and practice. You might have to get over crutches like this some time, but Read Japanese Today is a helpful treat at this point that will ease some of the pain. Furthermore, it’s mainly historically accurate and relevant, unlike the memory associations encouraged by resources like Kanji Pict-O-Graphix.

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