On my first trip to Japan as a twenty year old, I was essentially illiterate. I knew hiragana, but my katakana was shaky and I was clueless when it came to kanji. Additionally, I only had about one semester’s worth of vocabulary under my belt so anything beyond introductions or basic requests was beyond my capability. It wasn’t much of a problem in Tokyo or Osaka because most of the signs were sprinkled with enough English to afford comprehension, but once I was in the countryside I became totally dependent on my travelling companions, who were native speakers.
Of course, back then if you wanted to look up a kanji, your only option was to reach for a dictionary. A friend gave me a copy of Kodansha’s Compact Kanji Guide once I got back from my trip to help me study. The book has a nice flow chart pasted on the inside of the front cover that explains how to use it, but looking up words was still a time consuming process.
According to the chart, the first step in looking up a kanji is to determine if you know the On or Kun reading. If so, you can look it up in an index at the back of the book. If not, you move on to step two. I pretty much always had to move on to step two.
Step two was all about radicals, those 214 kanji parts that come together in various combinations to make up kanji. After using the guide for a while, I was able to figure out what constituted a radical, but I never quite got the hang of determining which radical to look up in order to find a word. It seems that kanji are often listed under the radical that is considered the most important, or contains the meaning of the word. Unfortunately, I usually had no idea what the word meant, let alone which radical conveyed that meaning.
Most of the time I found myself at the third and final step of the flow chart; counting strokes. Once you know how many strokes a kanji contains you can search through the stroke index to find the word you’re looking for. Needless to say, understanding even a simple paragraph would sometimes take hours of drudgery. Fortunately these days it only takes a few seconds on a smart phone to track down an unknown kanji, making things much easier to decipher.
On my second trip to Japan, I was able to read and comprehend a bit more than my first. Of course, a little bit of understanding can create problems too. On my second day back in Tokyo, I found myself in Shibuya right around lunchtime. I had spent the morning walking around Meiji Shrine and the grounds of the Emperor’s Palace and had worked up quite an appetite.
I wandered into the Shibuya Hikarie and started looking for a place to eat. There were a lot of great looking restaurants but there were pretty long lines at most of them. My feet were tired and my stomach was empty so I walked around until I found a restaurant with no wait. The name was written in brush strokes so it was hard to make out, but I saw the kanji for beef 牛in several places.
Japanese beef is delicious so I was looking forward to a tasty lunch as I walked up to the host to ask for a table. I was in for a bit of a surprise though, because as soon as the he saw me, he started pointing to his mouth and saying 牛タン (gyuutan) which I quickly learned was cow tongue. 牛タン happened to be the restaurant’s main dish and daily lunch special. It just goes to show that learning a little bit of kanji can open the door to a lot of new experiences.