On Kanji 2

Choate Rosemary Hall Bulletin:
Review of Crazy for Kanji

Reviewed by Katharine H. Jewett in the summer 2009 issue. Jewett is a French teacher and head of Choate’s languages department. In 2008 she returned to Choate after living with her family in Japan for two years.

When I told friends I was moving to Japan in 2006, two who had previously lived in the Land of the Rising Sun had some advice about the Japanese language. The first assured me, “Oh, Japanese is easy—you’ll pick it up quickly” and the second said only “Japanese is a frustratingly imprecise language.” I have often been thankful that I did not know more before I went because after only a few Japanese lessons, I was hobbling my way through short, mistake-filled Japanese “conversations” that boosted my confidence. As it turned out, my two friends had been only half right. When applied to spoken Japanese, what each of them had said was quite true. But with regard to the written language, neither could have been more wrong. Reading Japanese, including kanji, the characters that make up the most complicated of the three Japanese scripts, was much more difficult than speaking the language. The imprecision my second friend alluded to stems in part from the homonyms that abound in spoken Japanese. In writing, however, subtle differences between thousands of kanji create precision and nuances that often make English seem like Tarzan-speak. A year into my stay in Japan, I realized that I had hit a wall—the kanji wall. To even begin to know this difficult language, I was going to have to learn some of these characters. How I wish I had had Eve Kushner’s brilliant Crazy for Kanji to begin my journey.

Instead I did what most people do and bought a workbook that offered page after page of countless empty boxes in which diligent learners were expected to rewrite again and again character after character. These books made learning kanji feel more like after-school detention than the revealing, entertaining challenge that it is. Kushner, however, sets a refreshingly different tone for her reader: “I hope this book invites you to stop counting the trees and instead to lose yourself happily in the vast forest of kanji.” Crazy for Kanji presents a map and a history of this forest, with directions to mental fitness challenges along the way. Fun pervades this book the way an amusement park rings with laughter. Indeed Kushner packs a wide variety of attractions between the covers of her book—from stories of what these characters say about Japan, to how kanji compare to their Chinese counterparts, to the fonts used to express them, to kanji Sudoku and crossword puzzles—all elucidated with generous amounts of humor. Venturing through the book’s offerings is to reach Kushner’s own conclusion that “Kanji is an ongoing discovery, an endless game.” Indeed, Crazy for Kanji is an educational fitness regime for your brain—whether you’re headed to Japan or not!