Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Kanji Project!

At long last, I'd say somewhere around 1000 hours of studying and video editing, I have finished the biggest project of my life.

For those of you that just want to see the video, here it is On Vimeo On Youtube

For those of you who want to hear the story, read on (be warned, if you don't know much about Japanese, it might not make sense.  And it's pretty long and boring.)

What the Mosaics Are

Each single mosaic is made up of 532 or 330 individual kanji.  I start by writing out the kanji for my coworkers names, usually one big kanji per side, then fill in the other squares with a different color.

They're kind of hard to explain, but basically if you want one I can make one for you and so you can see for yourself.  Anyhoo, if you are reading this then you are clearly an awesome person and so please don't hesitate to ask for one.  Just send your mailing address to along with your name, and if you have any favorite colors I'll do them. English names are fine also, I already made them for most of my family members so no worries.  I can translate any English name to Japanese (although since Japanese lacks a R, L, V and TH sound, some of the pronounciations will be off, but it's so cute to hear  "Bahbahla" instead of "Barbara")

How They Came About

I arrived in Japan not knowing the difference between hiragana and katakana and kanji but I was absolutely fascinated by the thousands upon thousands of mysterious little pictures that Japanese and Chinese people use as their written language.  I began my time here as a JET (August of 2010) with a strong motivation to learn, but no idea how to learn.  I thought you just show up in Japan and you learn Japanese, right?  Oh how wrong I was.

So I went though August and September basically learning nothing and not knowing how to learn.  It became worse because I was constantly meeting people who have been here for 3, 5 sometimes even 10 years and still didn't know anything besides a few basic greetings and then it hit me that I actually have to study and work hard if I want to learn this awesome language.

Around November I started learning the hiragana and by the middle of December I had a decent grasp of hiragana and katakana but kanji was a whole different story.  Hiragana and Katakana are alphabets of 40 or so characters...Kanji is like 20,000 (but only around 2500 or so are used frequently in Japan) So I was starting to get to the point where I thought I wasn't going to learn kanji since by December I had been here 4 months and barely got the basics down.

My wonderful fiancee Heather came to visit in December of 2010 and it was a changing point for me.  She asked me what everything meant and after living here for 4 months, I couldn't answer a single question she had, I knew nothing.  It sparked a fire that has yet to go out.

She left on January 7th, 2011 and I immediately went to work studying kanji.  I went through all of the book Remembering the Kanji by the end of January and learned all of the meanings of kanji in English thanks to a great program called Anki and 10 hours of studying every day for 20 days or so.

Then comes the hardest part, learning the Japanese readings for them.  I went through February trying to keep up with my Anki reviews and constantly falling behind and lacking motivation.  I knew the English meanings of the kanji, but there are so many compound words (words made of 2 or more kanji) that when I went to the library to read children's books, I couldn't understand anything.  It was soon March and I had gotten very discouraged that my Japanese was still terrible despite putting in all that effort for learning all the kanji.  I had a strong desire to learn the readings, but I lacked motivation necessary to do such a task and I didn't study nearly as much as I should have from mid February to April.

When I would get around to studying, I would just write kanji in these little dollar store graph paper notebooks and hammer out a few reps of anki before getting bored and quitting.  Despite Khatz's best efforts to keep me motivated on AJATT I still couldn't get get myself to study very much.

Then one time I was around half way done with a piece of graph paper when I lost my nice 3 dollar black pen and had to resort to using a red pen that I use for grading papers.  After I finished it with the red pen, I was like "whoa this is kind of sweet with half red and half black, maybe I can make other pictures with these sheets of graph paper."  Then before you know it, the teacher sitting next to me, her name was 金野先生 and so I was like "what the heck, I'll make her name" then I finished it super fast and had a great day of studying and boom, next thing I know I'm making these for everyone in the office and I couldn't wait to open up anki and study Japanese so I could finish these pictures.

So now that I have been studying pretty hard since around April of 2011, I have gone from not being able to understand children's books to being able to get most of the details out of newspapers.  I have somewhere around a 6th to 7th grade reading level, so I still have a long long ways to get fluent, so this is where you come in.  Now that I've finished making them for most of my family and friends, I am worried I will start to lose motivation again, so if you shoot me an e-mail and ask me for one of these, you'll help me stay motivated to keep learning, and you'll be the recipient of a piece of paper with your name written in 330 Kanji.

Thanks for reading!


  1. This is an amazing article and very inspiring. You should always be proud of yourself and this accomplishment. Good Job Son!!

  2. This is awesome! I speak (almost) fluent Japanese, but I can't read anything (probably less than 800 kanji). This seems like a great way to get motivated for reading/writing. Keep up the good work!

  3. That's pretty cool, since you've made all these kanji characters at a consistent size maybe you should consider trying to make a font out of them. I'd be really interested to see how they would turn out. I mean I'm sure you are far far away from having enough characters for a really usable font, but it'd be cool to see how it would turn out. Anyway, cool idea and good work!





  5. Wow, this is an amazing story. Great job with going through with it and studying hard.

  6. Hey - great idea! I struggle with motivation for learning kanji, too.

    How do you choose the kanji that make up the mosaics -- are they random one-offs, words, or do they all have the same radical...?

  7. Great stuff! Awesome vid! You most definitely have inspired me to try harder with my kanji, haha!
    I can read a whole lot, but actually writing it is another. It's so easy to become lazy with writing when you can just type! :P

  8. Great! You did very well in finding a way to motivate yourself!
    Hard work and fun. Really great!
    Appreciate your efforts to share your way of a student with us ;)