Powertip: Join Toastmasters

Feel like you’re having the same old conversations in Japanese? Join a Japanese or bilingual Toastmaster’s club. Toastmasters is a club with chapters world-wide (at this count, there are 13,500 clubs in 116 countries) where people give prepared speeches, evaluate speeches given by other members, and assign and give impromptu speeches. Imagine doing this in Japanese. If this is scary, it’s probably good for you.

Most clubs in Tokyo meet twice a month. I have been a long-time member of Tokyo Bilingual Toastmasters, but there are other clubs in Japan, even ones that meet for breakfast. The training that I got making presentations, organizing ideas, and speaking impromptu was immediately helpful for my sales job.

Make the move from observer to participant. Change from consuming content in Japanese to producing content in Japanese. Here’s what’s great about Toastmasters:

  1. Speaking in the target language is the reason why people are there.
  2. Make bilingual friends who encouraged me to study and learn.
  3. Learn quickly to speak about a new topic: Write a speech on it, then run yourself through the gauntlet by standing up in front of people and talking about it.
  4. It’s conducive to learning by being more relaxed than the workplace, more formal than hanging out.
  5. Make it part of your weekly routine. Routine means it’s easier to keep doing it, even when you’re tired.
  6. Get into an environment where you can speak about and listen to new topics, instead of trying to avoid the same conversations at parties.
  7. Videotape yourself speaking under stress and see how to improve your accent or mannerisms.

You will find that speaking, listening, reading, and writing reinforce each other.


I have been asked “How do you stay motivated?”

You should make studying Kanji like brushing your teeth. It’s something that you do every day – the focus is on the doing, not on “getting ahead.” And you have the knowledge that if you do it consistently, you will get toward your goal, be it healthy teeth and gums or literacy in Japanese. In fact, once you have the habit in place, you don’t have to think about it much. It becomes easier to do it than not to do it, because when you don’t, you feel like you missed something.

You are the one who has to do it. There are no shortcuts. You can be shown how to brush your teeth or learn kanji, but you are the one who has to do it – one day at a time, without any stress or tension at all.

And even better than brushing teeth – you can look back at the end of the week upon your progress with satisfaction.


“I don’t have the time.”

Can you spare 15 minutes a day to learn just five Kanji? Or even scale back to three. Even at three Kanji a day, you will learn 2000 in two years, even allowing for one day of rest a week. By building up Kanji one at a time, new kanji are a natural review for previously learned old Kanji. This dramatically reduces learning time. Time is going to pass anyway. What if you passed it with a daily discipline that earned you literacy in two years?

But, when people say that they don’t have the time, it is a statement of priorities. People are very good at finding ways to get by, and they very quickly find a way to get by without literacy in Japanese. Two points to make it a bigger priority:

1)      How much time do you waste right now because you can’t read and write? How dependent are you on the people around you to accomplish the most basic things?

2)      How much more could you accomplish? What job opportunities will become open to you? How much more quickly could you react to things? With how much more ease would you be able to move through the world?

There is a learning curve – once you learn some 300 to 500 characters using the Genetic Kanji method, literacy comes like a torrent – it becomes easier to learn new Kanji because you can see them as components of simpler characters – your brain learns new cognition skills.

You can do this, if you set aside fifteen minutes of time as a daily discipline.

Don’t be surprised at how much you can get done when you make yourself less busy.

The Kanji Learning Curve

Suppose you learn purely in order of frequency (without regard to character structure). This is how elementary schoolers are taught in Japan, and they learn just over 1000 kanji by the time they graduate from elementary school.

In terms of what kids are able to read, though, by the third grade, having learned nearly 500 kanji, they will already be able to recognize some 80% of kanji (by frequency) that are encountered in a newspaper. By the end of their elementary school schooling, they will be able to recognize about 94% of kanji.

Cumulative Frequency of 1000 Most Common Kanji

Working in a logical fashion, learning simpler characters and then how to combine them to form more complex ones, I experimented with learning different numbers of characters a day. I found I could learn six with 100% retention from one day to the next. If you learn at this rate, you’ll recognize 1000 in half a year. You should experiment to find a comfortable rate for yourself.

Learn Pronunciations Through Other Kanji

I saw some kids on a bus doing this – for homework, they had to come up with a certain number of other kanji that they already knew that were pronounced the same as a certain new character that they were learning. I have since been doing this for learning new characters in Cantonese, and I find it makes sense, for the following reasons:

  1. It keeps you inside the kanji system – your brain processes kanji and kana differently. Rather than trying to make the cognitive switch, this lets you stay inside the system.
  2. It helps you with your listening comprehension. After you learn a certain number of kanji, you’ll find that you start decoding new words that you hear into their component kanji, with the help of context. By training your brain to supply possible kanji to a sound cue, you are actually practicing this skill.
  3. Often, same-sounding kanji have similar structure like this: 講溝構. Not only will the characters serve as a memory queue, but you’ll also get practice identifying similar looking characters by looking at their radical.

Kanji: Better than the Alphabet

Kanji are often criticized as being too hard to learn, but the fact is that at the time of the French Revolution in the 19th century, France had a 15% overall literacy rate, while Japan had a nearly 60% overall literacy rate, and in some areas as high as 89%, owing to the well-established system of public education in Japan at the time.

Up until “reforms” instituted in the last century, for fifteen centuries Kanji were the original international writing system of Asia. Although writing in the vernacular was possible, the medium of Kanbun 漢文, despite widely varying spoken pronunciations, people in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam had a common language for religion, diplomacy, poetry, literature, and scientific endeavor.

Kanji are the original literacy power-tool. The average guy in Japan, without having gone to medical, law, or engineering school, can read and understand technical jargon because of the meaning of the Kanji used to write it. In fact a third-grader can read the Japanese equivalent of periodontitis (歯周炎) and know that it means swollen gums.

Knowing Kanji, I can pick up the 11th-century classic Genji Monogatari and read it, in spite of shifts in Japanese pronunciation and verb conjugation since that time. Shifts in pronunciation in English before spelling was stabilized make it impossible for me to read 14-century Chaucer. The Genji Monogatari was written in the vernacular at the time, but things don’t stop there. Go to a Japanese bookstore, and you’ll find the 3rd century BC Art of War in the original Kanbun. Has it ever gone out of print?

There is nothing new under the sun. We are born into this world, make substantially the same struggles and mistakes as our ancestors, learn a little bit, and die. If we are to end up any smarter than our forbears, we must explore the learning of the past in order to gain perspective on the present. Kanji are a living thread that allow the dead to speak to us.

On the Advantages of Ideographic Writing

“… a Japanese, without knowing a word of spoken Chinese, can read out Chinese script in Japanese, just as he could read a row of numerals written by an Englishman. And the Chinese can still read their classics, although the spoken language must have changed as much as French has changed from Latin.

“The advantage of writing over speech is its greater permanence, which enables it to be a means of communication between different places and different times. But since the spoken language changes from place to place and from time to time, the characteristic advantage of writing is more fully attained by a script which does not aim at representing spoken sounds than by one which does.”

– Russell, Bertrand. The Problem of China. 1922.


Aozora-bunko Vertical (with Furigana) Texts on Amazon Kindle


If you’re like me, with a Kindle Paperwhite linked to a non-Japanese account, you will need to side-load Aozora Bunko documents to your Kindle to read them. Here’s how to do it with vertical text and the ruby characters (ふりがな) correctly formatted. The resulting document will be searchable, and access to the internal dictionary available by pressing and holding a word.

If your kindle is linked to a Japanese account, you can get the Aozora books for free from Amazon.co.jp

About Aozora Bunko

Out-of-copyright Japanese classic books (and a few translations of foreign classics) are available on www.aozora.gr.jp

Aside: Sometimes criticized even by natives for being too local, this is still a good source for reading the Japanese Literary Canon, and good background for understanding Japanese culture. Do I like Japanese culture? Most of the time. I’ve lived here for almost ten years. Does it get on my nerves? Sometimes. But mostly what gets on my nerves is a wimpy wishy-washy modern metropolis variant of Japanese culture. Get a refreshing change of pace with the stern frugality inspired by the Journal of the Square Room or the militant independence of Yoshikawa’s Miyamoto Musashi. People will start calling you “More Japanese than a Japanese.”

You will need this software:

Extract AozoraEpub3 and Kindlegen. Place the Kindlegen executable in the same folder as AozoraEpub3. Double click on AozoraEpub3.jar to open the AozoraEpub3 program. If the program won’t start, you’ll need to install Sun Java.


  1. Obtain the .zip file of the text you wish to place on your Kindle.
  2. Drag and drop the file into the AozoraEpub3 program window. The default settings will give you an epub formatted with vertical text, and if you put Kindlegen in the same folder, it will automatically generate a mobi file for your kindle.
  3. Find the mobi file in the same folder where the zip file existed.
  4. Transfer the mobi file as a personal document to your kindle, by USB or using the send-to-kindle service. Details here, from Amazon.com

The Way of Kanji

Obsessed. Five characters a day. Feel that feeling you get when you can mentally write five more characters today than yesterday. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself thinking that kanji are beautiful. Don’t blame me if you have to hold yourself back from practicing more than five a day. The daily practice marks your steady growth. If you can do this one thing well, you will apply the same discipline to other areas of your life.

Disciplined. As effortless as the habit of brushing your teeth at morning and at night. Effortless discipline that leads to progress in a long march, visible whenever you look back on the week gone by.  It is your rock in the rapids, your few minutes of peace in the day to anchor your thoughts. Other people may get swept away by the currents of time. You can shelter and protect your attention for just fifteen minutes a day.

Monumental. Great works in the world have been accomplished by organizing small steps. The pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the aqueducts and roads of ancient Rome – all were built with the organized labor of thousands. The labor of every man was a small part of the general endeavor, but each brick baked or cut was essential to the completed structure. So, too is your labor of each day just a small step toward literacy, but every day’s work is indispensable to the final result. You are learning and training responses that will all be called upon every single time you read and write. The Romans must have felt grateful for the aqueducts every time they took a sip of water or went to the baths. So, too, can the knowledge of the written symbols be like aqueducts letting you sip from or bathe in knowledge. I don’t know if you’ll be reading a note from a friend, composing an email to a customer, reading from a menu, or reserving a discount hotel online, but you can find yourself so naturally, even unthinkingly, using the fruits of your organized labor with ease.

Your literacy in Japanese is a monument to and a reminder of your perseverance.

Throw Your Kanji Dictionary Out

Each Kanji represents what linguists call a morpheme – a basic unit of meaning. Morphemes can be combined into new concepts. A typical Japanese adult’s vocabulary consisting of some 50,000 words, and these being covered by some 2-3,000 kanji, there will come a point that you will be able to figure out new words without referring to the dictionary.

Consider the word “utopia,” rendered in Japanese as “ideal village” (理想郷 ), or “euthanasia,” rendered as “peaceful death” (安楽死), or “metamorphosis,” rendered as “shape-change” (変態). These and countless other words can be understood on the first encounter, without a dictionary, through knowledge of the kanji that compose them. In English, the root words are obscure, coming from Greek.

After you know few hundred Kanji, you can even pick up new words in conversation by using the context and guessing what Kanji they would be written with. Once a friend commented on my manner of dress, saying that it was “ラフ,” to which I at first assigned the Kanji 裸婦, or “naked woman.”  He had meant that my manner of dress was “rough,” but we had a good laugh about this. The effect is usually more useful.

When you see that Kanji are intrinsically a mnemonic aid, you’ll notice that it’s much easier to learn new words. It’s like building a knowledge infrastructure – high up-front investment enabling substantial future gains.

It might take a few months to build momentum. Hang in there. Learn five or so Kanji a day, and you’ll be working daily toward literacy.