The term Kanji refers to ideographs that make up the largest (and most formidable) part of the Japanese writing system. They were borrowed from the Chinese perhaps as early as the fifth century and have since been adapted in many cases. The word Kanji first came into the English language when William Montgomery McGovern wrote his book, “Colloquial Japanese” in 1920.
To many Westerners, Kanji appear as something artistic, even beautiful, with some people heading to the tattoo studio to have characters permanently inked onto their skin – not always with accurate results. To others visiting Japan for travel, Kanji represents a barrier to communication; they are a mass of intricate squiggles that leaves one feeling exasperated and pining for the good old ABC.
However, Kanji can be fascinating in the stories that they tell, and if you unlock the method of reading them, you can move around Japan more comfortably or get the tattoo that says “Love” instead of “Eating”.
Let’s take the character 好(suki) which translates as like, likable or love. Perhaps it looks a little complicated, so let’s break it down into smaller parts. The left side of the character, 女, is the character for woman. It is an ideograph adapted over centuries which started out as a primitive picture of a pregnant woman with arms outstretched. The right side character is the character for child. To the Chinese, a woman and her child symbolized something which was good, and so you get the character 好. Here is the character in the sentence “I like the mountains” (mountain is yama or 山): 山が好 (yama ga suki)
When you start to break the characters down into their individual parts, they become clearer and may also offer a clue as to the meaning of the word.
So, only about another 1998 characters to learn until you can successfully read in Japanese!