Reviews of The Kanji Code

Dr Jim Breen, Founder WWWJDIC and Adjunct Snr Research Fellow, Japanese Studies Centre, Monash University 

“Refreshingly different. Well worth reading, and the sort of book I wish I’d had 35
years ago.”

In recent years it seems there has been quite a flood of books about kanji, generally aimed at university-level students of Japanese, and most with the stated intention of “unlocking” the “secrets” of kanji learning. They range from the venerable and popular mnemonic-based approaches of James Heisig and  Kenneth Henshall, to books largely about visual patterns (片 is a man on a chair holding a pair of aces!).

Joining this field, but in many ways refreshingly different, is Natalie Hamilton’s “The Kanji Code”. She concentrates very much on the phonetic aspects of the characters themselves, in particular their ON readings, and the application of this to recognizing and learning them. We all know (or should know) that the vast majority of hanzi/kanji are not pictographs or ideographs, but composite “semasio-phonetic” characters combining semantic and phonetic information, however this rarely gets exploited or even mentioned in educational contexts.

The Kanji Code is an attempt to move this out of the realm of learned papers into the world of students (and teachers) of Japanese. It’s well worth reading, and the sort of book I wish I’d had 35 years ago.

Dr Etsuko Toyoda, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne

“An invaluable resource that explains very well the relationship between kanji and kana, kanji and phonetic code, and kanji and visual code. I will be recommending it to my students.”

“Natalie has compiled a lot of valuable information in the form of a book that students can carry around. This can be a textbook, a reference book or a dictionary. It explains very well the relationship between kanji and kana, kanji and phonetic code, and kanji and visual code. Many of the phonetics listed here are the same ones my research identified as being useful for students of Japanese.  The idea of seeing the relationships between kanji through a common visual feature is also original and very interesting. I will be recommending it to my students. It is an invaluable resource.”

Renae Lucas-Hall, author of Tokyo Tales

“5 stars. An absolutely brilliant textbook! If you’re serious about learning Japanese or if you’re planning to live in Japan you need to read this book and integrate its principles into your studies.”

This textbook is ideal for beginners, intermediate or advanced Japanese language learners. Japanese teachers will love this textbook as well! If you’re serious about learning Japanese of if you’re planning to live in Japan you need to read this book and integrate its principles into your studies. I completed a BA with a major in Japanese language and culture at university and I remember just how difficult it was to learn hundreds of kanji characters. Using flashcards, I used to write each kanji character on the front of a card and on the back was its meaning as well as the “on” and “kun” reading. I memorised these cards over and over again but now I know this was overly time-consuming and not the best way to learn all of those kanji. If I’d read this book at that time and applied all of its principles, I know I would have been able to learn so many more kanji characters a lot quicker and I would’ve enjoyed the process so much more.

The first chapter in Natalie Hamilton’s book is really fascinating. She has obviously spent a lot of time looking at the history of kanji, researching how people learn, and discovering how behavioural and psychological factors impact different people when they learn. Hamilton has also looked at the way Japanese, Chinese and Western students learn the Japanese language and the way the process differs in each of the three groups. Hamilton has obviously strived to find the best way to learn kanji. In this textbook she breaks down the whole process of learning Kanji, making it infinitely simpler for the learner, and in doing so all the characters become easier to memorise using what she calls “the kana code”, “the phonetic code” and “the visual code”.

The second chapter is when it all starts to make perfect sense! Hamilton recommends several ingenious methods that really do have the power to make your studies and your time in Japan a lot easier. You’ll be able to understand a lot more after you’ve read this book. You can forget about slaving away for hours on end rote learning kanji that you know will slip from your mind in a couple of days if you don’t see them all the time. In this chapter, Hamilton showed me how easy it is to instantly see the “on” reading in so many kanji simply by recognizing a katakana symbol inside a kanji character using “the kana code”!

I moved on to Chapter Three and I was blown away again when I discovered how many more kanji characters you can understand using “the phonetic code” if you learn the 150 phonetics Hamilton has set out really clearly in just a few pages. Chapter Four goes on to show you how you can learn hundreds more kanji just by visualizing or looking at the same trace elements in different kanji, the same geometric shape, the composition of the components, the structure of the lines in the kanji, and the components in a series within a kanji character. She calls this method “the visual code”.

Hamilton explains all of this in her easy to understand book that is revolutionary in its approach. I do think you’ll grasp the principles in this book even quicker if you’ve done at least one year’s study of the Japanese language or if you’re familiar with the 46 katakana and hiragana symbols. However, I think most people who live in Japan get to know these pretty quickly so the next step, if you’ve reached that level, is to read this book and save yourself a lot of wasted time learning kanji if you’re only using more traditional methods.

Quoted from Goodreads:

Annabelle, N.C., United States. Holds a degree in East Asian Studies, former JET Programme participant, Nantan, Kyoto.

“Frankly impressive!..An excellent companion book for intermediate learners! …An awe-inducing level of academic rigor… An excellent compliment to the mainstream kanji method of radicals and rote memorization…[and] a recommended addition to the library of any Japanese language enthusiast.”

An excellent companion book for intermediate learners!

This book is frankly impressive. There is an awe-inducing level of academic rigor here, showing a huge investment of time and effort by the author. At first, it’s slightly intimidating (especially if you’ve always struggled with kanji, like me), but that said, there are a lot of gems to unearth here.

The author sets the context beautifully with an explanation of the different writing forms and their development through time. The historical insights peppered through are not only useful, but fascinating – even as something of a kanji-hater, I kept stumbling across “Aha!” moments and drawing connections that peaked my interest.

Once the stage is set, the book proceeds to introduce the eponymous “Kanji Code,” a phonetic-based learning approach. Each concept is supported by beautifully illustrated examples, illuminating connections between sound and image. It is almost like the author is letting us in on her own, personal mnemonic method – the extensive network of visual cues and shortcuts she has developed through her thorough study of the characters.

The system relies on some foreknowledge of the language, so it seems best suited to intermediate students. Also , this is not a workbook – it is a reference, and will require some self-motivation for students to get the most value from its pages. I think it will especially appeal to visual and conceptual learners – can I say, for a moment, that I love how she’s grouped radicals in the index by category rather than number of strokes? Thank you!

Overall, this text struck me as an excellent compliment to the mainstream kanji method of radicals and rote memorization – not replacing that method entirely, but harmonizing with it to help students build better reading instincts and a more well-rounded understanding. A recommended addition to the library of any Japanese language enthusiast.

Malcolm, Japanese secondary teacher, Former JET Programme participant, UK

In The Kanji Code, Natalie Hamilton has created an enjoyable and useful weapon for the non-native speaker’s kanji-learning arsenal. Clearly laid out and complemented by an attractive, uncluttered design aesthetic, over 189 pages Hamilton provides several different ways of organising kanji into codes. This codification aids the learner by mapping lines of meaning across kanji and in doing so allowing predictions to be made toward the pronunciation and/or meaning of previously unseen characters. Hamilton’s aim is to increase learner confidence and decrease the feeling of overwhelm learners often experience when attempting to engage with kanji learning. The various organisational codes utilise of a variety of learning styles, allowing learners favouring one style rather than another to derive benefit from the book.

However, the book’s main focus is the phonetic code introduced in the second section. I really liked the way the author has chosen kanji that share the same pronunciation and then provides an accessible explanation of the visual similarities between them that aid memorisation. These explanations are in themselves really interesting- I definitely had aspects of kanji I have used for years without noticing pointed out to me. This phonetic code is the book’s greatest success and is a valuable tool in kanji acquisition. Showing how kanji that already share the same sound can be grouped by visual similarity gave me a twofold feeling of reassurance; these kanji were learnable as they were bonded by two compatible systems. In doing this the book left me with that calming, vaguely self-satisfied feeling I get whenever I encounter any tool that manages to explain an aspect of Japanese to me.

The Kanji Code is a painstakingly researched book that is consistently clear and patient in its explanations. Facility to be used to access stand-alone ‘chunks’ of information, based around a sound or character, are particular strengths. On a more meta level the discussions on learning style differences between Chinese and English background learners in the opening chapter added some self-awareness to the way that I learn, and have learnt, kanji that was both useful and interesting. Having experimented with both English explanation (think Genki) and all-Japanese (Kanzen Master) I think there is much to be said for detailed, L1 language explanations, so if you like this style of explanation, you’ll really enjoy that aspect of this book. I feel I learn best by listening and struggle to remember accurate visual details of a character’s construction- I remember the shape of a character but struggle with its constituent radicals, especially when compared with other very similar characters. Due to this I really liked Hamilton’s phonetic system of kanji organisation based around sounds.

The Kanji Code will resonate particularly with several ‘types’ of Japanese learner. Firstly, people who delight in kanji for its own sake. Hamilton identifies and teaches aspects of a character’s design that I had never noticed before, and in discussing its constructions often tells a story that created a surprisingly powerful mnemonic with me. Secondly, I think the book has lots of offer those who are a bit ‘stuck’ with their kanji learning. The Code offers several new ways of approaching the business of character learning altogether, which could help rekindle the all-important fires of motivation essential to progress with kanji. I found the codes surprisingly ‘chunkable’- I loved the feeling that I could learn three or four characters and their linking sound or shape and thus take something concrete from every time I picked the book up. I found the Code motivating in that it is a genuinely enjoyable read, and is a great antidote to the deleterious effect trudging through days of JPLT practice exercises has on one’s motivation. I think this book would be very effective in a supplementary capacity to a more traditional programme of study, whether self-study or taught. I felt it had the effect of ‘tidying up’ my own methods of organising already learnt kanji, and since reading, has helped me to parse out meaning and pronunciation of kanji I hadn’t previously encountered. Hamilton states in her introduction that her book’s intention is to reduce reliance on rote learning of kanji, and she is successful in doing this. The Kanji Code provides a really enjoyable, eminently usable pier out into the sea of kanji that the learner of Japanese has to navigate.

JV, parent of a high school student studying Japanese

I bought this book for my son who is studying Japanese but I found myself flicking through the pages immersed in the descriptions and anecdotes. As a text book it’s enchanting and informative – a beautiful gift for your favourite student of this intriguing language. Very highly recommended. Yes, I would recommend this to a friend Source: Booktopia

David, currently studying for JlPT N2

“I’m still going through it but my initial comments would be that it does an excellent job incorporating history into the book as a sort of reasoning behind the method. This method is a very individual approach which could be used as a model for other linguists or teachers. I am thoroughly enjoying it so far.”