James Heisig Interview
Interview with Nanzan University's Prof. James Heisig
June 16, 2009
James Heisig is Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Letters and Permanent Research Fellow of the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture at Nanzan University, Nagoya, Japan.
He is famous amongst Japanese-language students for his Remembering the Kanji and Remembering the Kana books, which have now been published in English, French, Spanish, German, Portuguese, and Dutch, with the Hungarian and Italian translations currently being prepared.
There are websites and blogs dedicated to his kanji books, and numerous students have used them to master writing the Japanese characters.
Professor Heisig graciously gave his time over a bottle of wine in a Spanish restaurant to explain why he ended up in Japan, and how he ended up writing his famous kanji books.
What brought you to Japan?
Well, the short answer is that I was invited to help begin the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture by the then-president of the University. I had never met him; I was living in Nicaragua at the time on a small island.
The president of Nanzan had the idea of doing something new on the campus. As a Catholic priest, he thought he would do something connected to religion. He wanted to create a place that would encourage dialogue between various religions. His idea was to start an institute where religions could find a common language.
The university initially dismissed his idea for starting an institute for religion and culture; they didn't have a department in religious studies or post-graduate programs in religion. But he was determined to build it, and so he sent his vice-president to look for possible candidates to come to the institute. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I was one of the people chosen to come to Japan, and they sent me an air ticket.
So in 1977 I was invited to come to Japan to help begin the institute. The president said to me, "I realize you've never lived more than 3 years in any one place, but you'll have to come to Japan for at least 5 years, as Japanese is a difficult language and requires more time."
So when I arrived in Japan in September 1978, I first came to Nagoya and met the head of the new institute; he asked me to "take a good look around, meet everybody," and then he said to me, "I don't want your shadow to darken this place again until you can read, write, and lecture in Japanese; your only responsibility now is to learn the language."
I found out that I had been enrolled in a language school in Kamakura . I said, "But I thought I was supposed to learn the language, not go to school!" He replied, "We've put you in one of the best schools in Japan, it's in Kamakura, they've written textbooks..." And I said, "I don't want to go to school; I haven't learnt any living languages in school." But he said, "You're going."
So I went to Kamakura, and the head of the school was a man from the Basque area of Spain, where I had once lived. We had a talk about the language, and he agreed it would be best if I studied on my own.
The school had a 2-volume textbook. I read through every chapter; I didn't do any drills, didn't memorize anything; I just wanted to see the structure of the language. I just wanted to understand how the language worked. Reading through it all took me about a month. During that month, everyone told me I was crazy - "you have to come to class, start learning kanji, start learning to read - what are thinking? Japanese is not like other languages."
The teachers said the same thing to me as well, as we (teachers and students) all had lunch together every day in the school. The grammar seemed quite simple compared to other languages. Everyone talked about the Chinese characters and about how tough it is to learn them; we were expected to concentrate more on the reading than the writing. So I asked if the Japanese themselves could write the characters, and of course I was told that everyone could, they learn them in school from a young age. So I couldn't understand how it could be so difficult to memorize these characters. I was told that I could probably learn a few hundred or so, but no more than that.
I went to the library and found everything I could on Chinese characters. The first fifty or so pages of books on kanji were usually well-thumbed, and then after that they were untouched as the books were just lists of characters.
So I decided to start learning them as everyone said how tough it was to remember the characters.
I also noticed that the characters had been reformed a number of times in history; and they had been reformed using rational principles, and everyone had been telling me that they were irrational. I also learned that the characters were basically made up of 220-odd pieces. I thought if all the characters are made up of these pieces, what would happen if I took two or three pieces and went through the whole list of the required characters (1875 at the time) and gave each piece a meaning? There were about 4 or 5 pictographs that had survived the changes made through history---"sun," "eye," "moon," "field," and "mouth." Everyone learns those in the first 30 minutes or so, and just using these pieces it was possible to make about 20 characters or so.
The question was the meaning. I gave each of the pieces and each of the characters individual meanings in English, and when the meaning was abstract, I tried to associate them with some concrete image. And then I started playing with stories and imagination: I would dream up scenarios to remember the characters.
The teachers had told me that the Koreans and the Chinese have a much easier time of learning the language because they already know how to write Chinese characters in their own language, but their own languages aren't much help in learning how to pronounce them. I thought this was interesting as these are two different tasks that require the use of two different sides of the brain - learning to write, which is visual and artistic - and learning to pronounce, which is just kind of brute memory. So why couldn't I be like the Koreans or Chinese, and remember the characters using English meanings?
So I thought I should do the most rational thing - the writing - first. I tried to find a meaning for characters by looking in dictionaries, and some of these created a clear image for me. I would move pieces here and there; then I found out that certain characters could form other characters, so I learnt those. I worked about 10 hours a day on this for 30 days, making my way through them (1875 of them); I hardly reviewed them, but I knew that I remembered them all. I never went to any classes; the teachers were getting annoyed as they had heard that I was studying the characters on my own, and this was just not the done thing.
Anyway, when I said that I was doing this, other language students at the school asked for my notes. So I wrote the characters on index cards with my little stories and passed them around to students. In the meantime, the word got out to teachers that I was passing these index cards around. The teachers asked to see me in the lunch break one day. Only one spoke good English. She said to me,
"I've heard that you've learnt some Chinese characters."
"No, no, I've learnt to write all the required characters."
"So you can write all of them?"
"Yes, I can"
They put me in front of a blackboard with some chalk and said, "Write the character for inu."
And I said, "I'm sorry, I don't know what inu means."
"So you've been here for 2 months and you don't know the word for 'dog'?"
I said "Sorry, but I didn't get to vocabulary yet. I learnt the characters through English words. So give me an English word."
So she explained to the other teachers who were there, and somebody threw out "cow." So I wrote the character for cow. And the same for "cat." And they all started talking amongst themselves in Japanese. And I said, "What's wrong? Is the character wrong?" And they replied, "No, it's correct, but you're not supposed to know it because it's not on the official list." I explained that there were a lot of them that weren't on the list but they were easy to learn, so I just added them anyway.
So they started testing me; they might ask me to write the word "sad," and I would write the character that I had given the meaning "sorrowful" to, as there are many overlaps in the characters. Following that, they asked me to come back after classes had finished that evening.
So I went back at 5:30, and all the teachers were sitting there. The one lady who spoke English said, "We've discussed your case very carefully, and there's about seventy years of combined teaching experience in this room, and it's the opinion of everyone in here that you are doing yourself a big disservice by studying this way and you should come to class."
And I asked why it would be a disservice to learn the characters. And they said, "It's short-term memory. You have a photographic memory, and you'll discourage the other students who don't have one."
And of course I disagreed with them. But I said that I wouldn't bother the other students. I went to see the head of the school and offered to leave as I didn't want to cause any problems, and the head of the school asked me to stay a few more weeks but to keep a low profile.
So I stayed until just before Christmas. But a few days after the teachers had spoken to me, I had a call from the president of Nanzan University, asking me to go back to Nagoya quickly. So I went back to Nagoya, and to the president's office.
He said, "Look, we went to great trouble to bring you to Japan . We expect you to be a diligent student of the language. This is not a game. This is a very serious business, it is a difficult language. I hear you refuse to go to class, study on your own and make this outrageous claim that you can write the characters. I've been here for sixteen years, I cannot write them, I've never met a foreigner anywhere that writes all the characters that the Japanese know, and yet you said you did it within a month."
And I said, "Well, sorry, but yes, I did learn them."
So the president brought a few Japanese teachers and a blackboard into his office. I was tested once again, and I wrote everything that they asked me to. The president dismissed everyone from the room, sat me down, and said "How did you do that!?"
So I tried to explain it all to him, and he accepted what I told him and that I was serious about staying in the country and studying the language. He said, "I want you to write this up in a book. Now."
So I organized my notes within a few days and he pressured me to write a book from my notes. I went back to Kamakura and laid out the individual index cards on paper, and that took an entire month. I left the book as it was, without my name on it because I was embarrassed about the stories. I gave it to the president of Nanzan University, and he took it to the printing office and they printed 600 copies.
One of the secretaries at the institute asked me how I was going to learn to speak the language, and I said that I would play with children as the adults were too polite to correct my mistakes. So the secretary suggested that I stay with her sister's family in Nagano. The two young children in the family I stayed with became my teachers and that's where I learnt to speak Japanese.
The book was published, and I took a copy of the book to a foreign publishing house (Tuttle) in Japan and asked to see the president, a very nice lady called Iwamoto Keiko, who had lived in the USA and spoke English. She asked me to write her name in Chinese characters, so she gave me her name with the English meanings and I wrote the characters. One of the characters was the character for "happy"; I wrote 5 different characters, the first four were incorrect, and I got it right the fifth time. But she said that all the characters were all correct in the sense that they all had a related meaning ("happiness"). So she asked me how I did this, and I said, "Well, that's what the book is about." She asked, "How many did you print?" and I replied "Six hundred." The book sold out in 6 weeks. She called me a few months later and asked if she could publish a proper version. But I had little time and let the book sit until 1981. This time I went to another company and I printed 500 copies with an ugly gray cover! I said to the publisher to only pay me for the books that sell. Two months later they called and said that the books had sold out, so we reprinted the book. I went through 15 or 20 printings with the initial book. So then I wrote volume two, then volume three, working with the same people for many years. The book was never advertised and it has basically just sold itself. Eventually the University of Hawaii Press agreed to take the whole series over.
The wonderful thing is that I have had letters from all over the world from language students and teachers who have used the book, and I continue to receive emails from people about the books. I usually answer the questions by saying that I'm not a professional linguist and cannot really answer certain questions: I just know that I wrote this book, and if you use it in the order in which it was written, it works. Some people expect magic, or expect that it can be used to cram for an exam, and it doesn't work like that. The book is only meant to do one thing - if you want to learn to write the characters in a short space of time, begin from page one, don't interrupt yourself, and you'll do it. I've never seen anyone who has made it to the end and failed.
These books are a hobby for me and of course are not my main field, and in fact the people in my field (philosophy and religion) don't always know I'm the same person who wrote the kanji and kana books.
I was once waiting in Kansai airport and there was a guy sitting next to me reading Remembering the Kanji. I asked him, "Is that book any good?" and he replied "Yeah, it's like my bible, I take it everywhere." So I said to him, "I hear the author's a real whacko," and he said "What do you mean?" and I replied, "Well, I hear he's just nuts, he's really strange." And he said, "Well, I wouldn't know that from this book," and I replied, "Well, you better be careful what you read!" and he said, "Well, there are a few strange examples in the book. So this guy is really crazy?" And I said, "Yeah, absolutely. He's been crazy all his life." Later, he asked me to watch his bags while he went to the bathroom, and so I took his book and signed it when he was in the bathroom.
Is there anything you don't like about Japan?
Well, I lived in a lot of places when I was young, and most of the time, it was so short I could never really compare one place with another. So I'm not good at comparing places. Every culture has its own unique way of oppressing people and also its own way of expressing the beauty of human nature, and Japan is no exception. I love Japan. Japan is a civilized country, it allows for self-criticism, and besides, I've lived in Nagoya for a long time now.
Interview by David White