Kanji are images. Kanji are accessed by visual memory.
In the course of Japanese education, Western learners continually labor under the mistaken perception that kanji are words as the Western mind perceives them. More to the point, they labor under the perception that kanji are words as the Western mind remembers them; it is here that the problem resides.
A system like Rosetta Stone will present an image of a dog and associate a written word with it: dog, chien, inu. As far as that goes, that is fine. However, a kanji is already an image; how to proceed?
A system like Remembering the Kanji decides that no one can be expected to associate a dog with the kanji for dog. Therefore, this system works to create a story in your mind to associate the English word “dog” with the Japanese kanji for “dog” (or “inu,” rather); a cute puppy and the kanji for “dog” are never directly associated with each other. Besides, a puppy is not “inu” in Japanese; it is “koinu”.
At this point, your brain is trying to process “koinu.” Why “koinu”? What does the “ko” mean? It’s obviously a prefix, but there must be some written meaning, some word in English, that can adequately explain, yes? Actually, no. I can only explain this by showing you.
What I can say to you, via writing or spoken words, is that the “ko” can actually be read in three different ways, using three different kanji pairs, all meaning “puppy.” Does that help? I doubt very much that it helps. But, fear not! My explanation lies below:
And so we see that the “ko” in “koinu” can mean “offspring,” “child,” or “small.” All mean “puppy,” but in distinctly different ways that can only be explained by showing you the difference. This is why kanji must be learned in such a way that trains the visual memory.
Once kanji are understood in terms of visual memory, a person can read the kanji for “dog” above and think “inu”; he can read any of the three pairs shown and think “koinu.” This being done, he may write either in hiragana, katakana, or romaji (Roman alphabet i.e. what you are reading right now), or simply use the English word, “dog.” The kanji becomes a visual signpost leading to not only these things, but to the mental concept of “dog,” man’s proverbial best friend.
Thus, even though kanji may be difficult to learn, he who has learned them can read the Japanese language with far greater ease. Indeed, if Japanese natives had to read Japanese without the ability to use kanji, they would react with undiluted horror and promptly adopt a different language system before losing their collective sanity. Kanji exist to make reading easier, not harder.
However, if the student is learning kanji using the wrong kind of memory, he puts himself at perpetual risk of having the human equivalent of a 404 error: this data has been moved or deleted. Actually, the data was never there to begin with; the “written word” memory is trying to bypass normal methods of memorization to force a shortcut to the “visual” memory because that is where the data for kanji is stored. When the human mind searches the “written word” memory to find kanji, human mind 404 errors erupt.
Certainly, it is true that a person can create a large number of shortcuts to move from the written word memory to the visual memory. However, what if you’re not accessing “dog” exactly? What if you’re accessing “puppy”? The shortcut only corresponds to one kanji. Will you be able to access the other kanji from the shortcut? No, you will not. Instead, you will have to a) pray that you have created a different shortcut to “puppy” specifically, b) have some sort of shortcut in mind for the “ko” part and select the kanji pair that you believe your teacher expects to see in class, thus getting by on a quiz, never thinking of the two other kanji pairs.
What do I see in that image? I see the kanji for dog; I know it is not the kanji for cat, nor the kanji for “big,” which is superficially similar except for the little “dog ear” on the top right. I separately know the kanji for “small” and “child”; I can associate the images with “dog”, and I know that both can be spelled “ko,” so the compound being “koinu” makes perfect sense to me. I actually didn’t recall that there was that kanji for “offspring” until checking the dictionary for this article, but the “offspring” kanji has the “child” kanji as one of its components; therefore, it’s easy to understand that offspring is related to child, and vice versa. I’ll probably remember the “offspring” kanji pair from now on.
The moral of the story is, I recognized the differences between the kanji pairs by sight. When there is a difference in kanji, I know it when I see it. If you learn kanji the right way, so will you. It’s just a matter of training the proper part of the brain over time.
Incidentally, the kanji for “dog,” “small,” and “child,” are all taught in first grade in Japan. A child can therefore write not only “dog,” but two kanji compounds for “puppy” by the time he or she enters the second grade. You can learn three kanji and already be writing “real Japanese.” Don’t tell me it can’t be done.