During a visit to see family, little did I know that an elementary knowledge of kanji would add another dimension to watching Top Gear, a British TV devoted to cars. My brother Patrick, who has been enamored with the world’s flashiest and fastest motor vehicles since his high school days, cannot get enough of the program and wanted us to see an episode that took place in Japan.

While Patrick’s eyes were riveted to Jeremy’s cherry red Nissan GT-R, my husband and I cheered for Richard and James as they navigated through Japanese public transportation as all three raced to Mount Nokogiri. Richard and James, despite being separated earlier by a train split, had managed to reunite and board the ferry headed to their final stop. Jeremy had lost a significant amount of time due to a hiccup with his navigation system and knew that he was coming from behind. “Frankly what I’m going to need to win this now is a divine wind, and I’ve got just the thing…” He vigorously knotted a ninja-style headband behind his head, turned toward the camera, and shouted, “I’m ready!”

“Stop!” I began laughing. “It’s upside-down!”

My husband and brother looked at me as though I had sprouted a couple more eyes. “What’s upside down?”

“Jeremy’s headband – the kanji is upside down.” I retrieved the kanji textbook from my carry-on tote and began flipping through it, trying to locate the same characters. My brother looked at me incredulously. “You studied on the plane?!”

Dramatic close-up and panoramic shots of the Nissan forging through mountainous terrain were punctuated with piercing electric guitar, and all the while, Jeremy’s headband remained inverted for almost three minutes of screen time. In one of the closest races in Top Gear history, Richard and James were speeding up to the giant Buddha statue, Jeremy was screeching around a corner in the GT-R, and…

“Someone figured out the mistake!” I exclaimed. Jeremy’s headband had suddenly righted itself to read 闘魂 (とうこん) or fighting spirit — definitely good kanji for channeling a divine wind!

Many people living here in Okinawa who are interested in learning Japanese do all within their power to avoid studying kanji, clutching onto their rōmaji or kana for dear life. This behavior is not without some justification. Kanji are very difficult, often requiring many years of continuous study to reach a basic level of literacy. Many of us do not have much extra time or energy to devote to such a time-consuming endeavor and do not see how it will be practical in everyday life.

However, even recognizing basic kanji adds another level of richness to everyday life here in Okinawa. A once unfamiliar street off of the beaten path becomes a curious array of coffee shops, and of mom and pop storefronts selling bento lunches, knick-knacks, ice, and fish. Being able to decipher a short message on a billboard or shop sign is not only exciting and satisfying, but it may also become addictive!

If nothing else, being able to recognize some “survival” kanji may be necessary for maintaining personal health and safety:

止 = stop
病院 = hospital
危険 = dangerous, hazardous
立入禁止=keep out, no entry

This article will introduce resources to help beginners get started taming the kanji beast. For those who have little background with kanji (or perhaps are unsure what they even are!), it may help to read either a brief or in-depth summary of how these characters became the backbone of the Japanese writing system.

Kanji/Kana Funtime iPhone App

A friend of mine who is fluent in Japanese and English, first saw me feverishly drilling myself with this program. “Kanji…Kana…Funtime?” she asked, drawing a question mark in the air. “I think the title is supposed to trick you into enjoying studying,” I admitted. Starting the program’s kanji section is immediately discouraging: there are 10 kanji per level and a total of 238 levels. I was still in the teens.

How Kanji/Kana Funtime works is the English meaning and both the on’yomi and kun’yomi will come up at the top of the screen. At the bottom of the screen is a selection of 9 different kanji. You start with 28 seconds to tap the correct kanji, but your time clock quickly whittles down if you take too long or choose incorrectly. If you complete a level perfectly, you earn stars by the level’s name. My friend finished the last level for me, but sadly there is no special reward at the end — only a bare bones “last level completed” message.

At $1.99, Kanji/Kana Funtime is an excellent value for all of the information it contains. Using it on the iPhone makes for convenient and portable studying, whether you are waiting in line or killing time in the car. Its similarity to a video game can also make it fun, sharpening your mind as well as your reflexes.

Kumon Kanji Books and Flashcards

I put off studying kanji for a long while, mostly because I was afraid of failing miserably at it. The first resource I was brave enough to use was Kumon’s introductory kanji workbook for ages 4-6. Like many Japanese items marketed to children, this book was absolutely adorable: the cover had a bright pink mother and baby hippo with colorful kanji spilling out of their mouths, inside the front cover was a sheet of reward stickers with little trucks, ladybugs, strawberries and tugboats, and the inside was teeming with equally cute illustrations. The title, やさしい かんじ (easy kanji) also promised me a painless learning experience. Regardless, I was still terrified.

Kumon’s early kanji books are structured in a logical manner based on the number of strokes and meaning of the characters. A few exceptions exceed 5 strokes, but most are quite simple. Only a few kanji are presented at a time and are often selected by theme. For example, one lesson focuses on parts of the body and includes the kanji for leg (足), hand (手), ear (耳), eye (目) and mouth (口). The books illustrate the proper stroke order and give you ample opportunities to practice writing. However, the drawback to this trace, write, repeat method of learning kanji is that it relies so much on rote memorization. Children can often retain information quickly through rote learning, but many adults who have been primed to digest information through many channels of critical thinking often struggle with rote.

If you are not concerned with writing kanji as much as recognizing and reading it, or you are looking for a supplement to the workbooks, Kumon also makes sets of flashcards for beginning kanji learners. These are categorized into sets such as vegetables, fruits, animals, Japanese food, plants, and household items. On one side is the kanji, and on the other side most flashcards have an illustration of the kanji’s meaning as well as the corresponding English word. Readings are not given, so you may need the help of a Japanese dictionary to understand that 雪 is snow and the Japanese word for snow is yuki (ゆき).

The kanji books can be purchased at off-base bookstores such as Miyawaki Shoten, and the flashcards are available at Toys “R” Us and The workbooks cost between 600 – 950 円, the flashcards cost 1,000 円 on average. It is necessary to recognize hiragana and katakana in order to learn the kanji readings.

Both Kanji/Kana Funtime and Kumon Kanji books and flashcards are useful resources to help beginning kanji students get started. In future articles, I will take a closer look at materials for elementary to intermediate kanji learners. In the meantime, draw on your 闘魂 fighting spirit to advance in your studies, and always keep a watchful eye ready to spot kanji errors on TV and in print!