My name is Eve Kushner, and I’m a freelance writer in Berkeley, California. Ever since 2002, when I first started learning kanji, I’ve been hopelessly infatuated with these characters. How could I not be? Just look at this charming combination:
山羊 (yagi: goat) mountain + sheep
That is, if you take the character for “mountain” (山) and join it with the one for “sheep” (羊), you’ve made a goat! Here are three more of my favorites (though it’s hard to choose from thousands of great ones):
食道 (shokudō: esophagus) food + way
夢中 (muchū: in a trance) dream + middle
一瞬 (isshun: moment) one + to blink
Such compressions of wit and wisdom, each one a haiku unto itself!
In the early days of my kanji obsession, I spent many happy afternoons in the garden, feeling perfectly content as long as I had a pot of green tea and Mark Spahn’s enormous kanji dictionary. Nearly any page afforded an aha! experience. And with each discovery came a new question, sending me down an infinite trail of inquiry. Sitting in that tranquil spot and following those trails wherever they led, I was in paradise. Indeed, the breakdown of the Japanese word for “paradise” described my situation perfectly:
楽園 (rakuen: paradise) pleasure + garden
Of course, compounds (words formed from the combination of characters) don’t always make sense. Some are as illogical as these:
皮肉 (hiniku: sarcasm) skin + meat
折角 (sekkaku: even though) to fold + angle
月並み (tsukinami: trite) month + to line up
When you break apart a compound, you never know whether you’ll find something crazy or cool inside, and that uncertainty makes kanji curiosity all the more exciting.
I’ve been blogging about compounds on my own website, and the folks at JapanesePod101.com have invited me to move that blog to their site. As I go public with what began as an extremely private passion, I can hardly believe my life has led me to this point. Sometimes I review events to reconstruct how that happened.
At age thirteen, I visited Japan for four days, and although the trip was brief, it filled me with a longing for Old Japan. A college course on Japanese literature deepened my interest, as has frequent exposure to the Asian aesthetic in the San Francisco Bay Area. When I came across the beautiful (and now-defunct) literary magazine Japanophile, I felt desperate to publish there. I did so, several times over, and whenever I researched Japanese topics, my fascination grew. It became apparent that I needed to know the language if I hoped to understand Japanese culture, so in 2001 I began taking classes here in Berkeley.
When I started learning kanji the following year, the earth shook and the heavens moved (or however that goes). I often shared fun kanji tidbits in letters to a friend, who repeatedly urged me to write an article about my love of the characters. I always said no, as it seemed impossible. But soon I found myself writing a book on the topic! With the help of a kanji expert who checked my work, taught me more about the script, and helped me locate information beyond my reach, I was as happy as if Spahn himself had been by my side, guiding my investigations. Crazy for Kanji: A Student’s Guide to the Wonderful World of Japanese Characters is now out from Stone Bridge Press! (You can see sample pages at this link.) After finishing the book, I wrote the love-of-kanji essay after all! And then I began pouring my passion into a kanji blog, which I’m delighted to share with you.