The purpose of Mastering Japanese Kanji, by Glen Nolan Grant, is to provide a basic knowledge of 200 beginning kanji. Students often gravitate towards the kanji learning aspect of Japanese language learning, so a beginner’s book focused towards this endeavor is not a bad idea; however sugar alone does not a cake make, and in the same way the learning of kanji does not equate to the learning of Japanese. As part of a holistic Japanese learning plan involving instruction in grammar, vocabulary, and syllabaries, across all four domains (reading, writing, speaking, and listening), this book can provide a solid footing on the cobblestone path to communication.
The book is separated into chapters, but I consider it to be sectioned into six functional units:
- The Kanji (chapters 1 – 10)
- Stroke Count
The introduction not only speaks to how to use the book, additionally it describes some fundamental aspects of kanji as a writing system. Those readers who tend to skip introductions (present reviewer having been guilty in the past) should consider the introduction to be chapter 1 in terms of important content, albeit not a lengthy chapter. Without some basic information, for example 音読み (おんよみ) and 訓読み (くんよみ), radicals, and pronunciation rules, a beginner will likely have difficulty accessing kanji in any functional manner.
The chapters 1 – 10 would be considered the meat (or 肉, yes, you’ll learn this kanji in the book) of the book. Make no mistake, this is a workbook. An appropriate use of this book is to follow the instructions and physically write in all of the spaces provided. In the back of the book is another section one will write in as well, though I’ll speak more of that in the paragraph on ‘Keywords.’
Each Kanji is described visually with a drawing superimposed over the kanji and textually with a mnemonic device. The meaning is iterated, with some pointers towards usage. Common pronunciation and less common pronunciation are described using romaji, hiragana, and katakana. A short list of common words and compounds is provided, along with a sample sentence. Aside from these descriptors, an area in which to practice writing, as well as an example box showing stroke order, are provided. Between the visual, auditory (if one says aloud the mnemonic devices) and tactual memory strategies, all of the major learning paradigms are incorporated.
As an adjunct to the book, there is a CD-ROM that provides images and sound files for the kanji. I would have preferred a website with this information since I do not have an appropriate drive on my computer, though I did take a few moments to look at the CD-ROM while visiting a friend and the information appeared to be accessible. I did not notice animations showing stroke direction, but I only took a cursory look, so I might have missed this information.
The section on stroke count is short but useful. It divides the kanji presented in the book by number of strokes required. It’s helpful to develop a healthy concept of stroke count since it can be a valuable reference tool later on.
The names section is useful as it acts as a quick reference glossary. Each kanji is listed with its English meaning and page number. They are organized alphabetically by English meaning. For the beginner in Japanese, it might be useful to have a few more pages added with each kanji listed by stroke count and radical. This may allow the book to be used as a reference while reading other (very) simple texts, but more importantly it would help the student develop the skills of searching for kanji using these important aspects.
The readings section provides romaji, hiragana, and katakana readings, or pronunciations, of each kanji. If one knows the word, for example にく and needs to look up the kanji (肉), this section can be used. However, since this book is limited to 200 kanji, the likelihood of this section being useful is not high, especially with current IMEs for the Japanese language easily installed on any modern computer.
The keywords section is another writing section. Using tactual learning is a well-established strategy throughout education. All students can benefit from tactual learning and many adults, especially males, remain primarily kinesthetic learners throughout their lives. In this section we write a keyword for each 音読み, for example ‘each eel’ for 一 (いち).
Whether this book will be useful for you depends significantly on four things:
First, your level of Japanese proficiency. If you’re just starting out then this book will more likely be useful since you will not have encountered these kanji yet. They are definitely beginning kanji, though, so many high-beginner learners may already know the kanji presented.
Second, your willingness to engage in a complete learning plan. Kanji is not Japanese. Knowing kanji does not mean you know Japanese. Without a solid foundation in the grammar of Japanese one can know thousands of kanji and be completely unable to comprehend or communicate in Japanese. If you treat this book as one part of your daily study routine it will be far more useful than if you treat it as a sole resource.
Third, your willingness to engage in the activities wholeheartedly. Workbooks are work, it’s right in the name. This workbook is no different, and it will require you to put in the time and effort to do the exercises, not just read. Studying either by using flashcards (or a flashcard app) or by using the book itself to go back and re-read the kanji and mnemonics, taking in the visual cues, and writing the kanji again will make this book far more likely to be useful to you.
Fourth, your outside reading. Without consistent practice recognizing kanji in context, memorization tends to be fleeting. Using graded readers and other texts to develop fluent reading is the glue which holds any vocabulary, including kanji, in ones mind.
So, in short, this book will likely be most useful for you if you are a beginner who is willing to work hard using the system provided as part of a holistic educational plan including all aspects of the Japanese language and will do outside readings to cement the knowledge acquired from the book.
In conclusion, as part of a well-considered educational plan, Mastering Japanese Kanji can be a useful resource. It is not a book from which one learns Japanese, but it is a book that can supplement that activity. I am personally a great fan of getting kanji learning in early since it can present a barrier later if not learned along with the other aspects of the Japanese language.
There are a few caveats: First, I’m not particularly fond of romaji since it can act as a crutch, even unconsciously, and I’d prefer it not be present in the book. Second, I’d greatly prefer it if the CD-ROM were a web-based resource instead since I virtually always have access to the web regardless of device, whereas CD drives have become all but superfluous. Third, I would prefer to see more common words (熟語, じゅくご) as opposed to the more lengthy descriptors provided, though with space at a premium I understand why this decision was made.