Learn Kanji with Japanese Signs

Learn kanji with my Kanji Kanban(漢字看板) Japanese street and shop sign series, an ever expanding database of kanji characters and kana in natural contexts. The word ‘kanban’ refers to shop signs in Japanese. This series focuses on the joyo kanji (常用漢字), the most frequently used characters. It includes various reference tools that make this much more than a collection of photos, allowing you to interact with the characters in new ways that will bring your kanji study routine to life. You’ll also find brief notes on culture that enrich the context of the photos and make for easier retention of the characters and their meaning.

I strive to take photos that will interest you beyond their language content, so that you’ll be more likely to remember what you learn here, and even if you don’t study the language. To receive the latest installment automatically, please subscribe to my RSS feed or email list.

If you’re studying Japanese, the following will get you started and help you to get the most out of Kanji Kanban.

Photo Selection Criteria

I choose my subjects with the following considerations in mind:

1. Content

I strive to pick signs that feature kanji that appear on the government’s list of general use characters, ‘joyo kanji'(常用漢字). This list changes occasionally, as characters are dropped and others are added. The last update was in 2010 and there are currently 2136 characters included. I’m working toward providing at least one example of each, with many characters making multiple appearances.

In terms of language, I focus on material that includes minimal ‘static’ that can lessen the impact of the kanji we’re targeting. What’s not included is as significant as what is. Kanji that fall outside the general use characters are minimized. I steer clear of references to local places, groups and events.

Proper names are sometimes very hard to read. Even Japanese people are sometimes stumped when they see the name of an unfamiliar town, street, person, etc. in the newspaper if that compound isn’t often seen or has more than one reading. Temples and shrines can be especially challenging in this regard, and I avoid this sort of content.

You’ll of course see some of this language, but they will be limited and you’ll know them for what they are based on their placement in the sign, the size of the characters, etc. From this context, you will know not to put undo focus there, unless you happen to have a particular interest in something. I selectively include high frequency surnames that use joyo kanji and have common readings, such as Yamamoto 山本。These can be learned efficiently, often as sets, and add flavor to the reading. They also have broader applications for study and it’s satisfying to be able to read something as practical and significant as someone’s name.

Certain common place names are of course also worth acquainting yourself with as you happen upon them, and my home since 1998, Kyoto京都, is among them. Since I take most of these photos in 京都, you’ll soon get used to this pairing.

2. Culture

Even after all these years in Kyoto, I love simply walking or cycling down its streets. Even the most familiar routes still seem fresh, and there’s so much to look at, be it the language all around me, the architecture, the people and their routines, etc. This project has heightened that sense, and since I started carrying a camera with this in mind, I’ve found myself even more entranced by this city.

Through these photos, I hope you’ll be able to share some of that feeling of discovery with me and find motivation for your studies in the process, as well as feeling the simple pleasure or seeing a slice of life that has a particular flavor to it that might be different from the world that you wake up in every day.

If you’re a student of the language, the context, seeing a storefront or a glimpse of a neighborhood, etc. can help you understand and retain the kanji meaning. Affect, an emotional response and connection, can be a powerful part of learning, and relating images and impressions to characters makes it more enjoyable and more likely that you’ll retain it, which of course increases the odds that you’ll continue with your kanji study and not become a ‘three day priest'( 三日坊主), someone who gives up soon after starting something.

3. Aesthetics

This is probably the most subjective element of all, admittedly. Even if I see a sign that has language that is focused and useful, I can’t bring myself to snap a photo if it’s either bland or crammed with kanji characters, etc.

If my eyes aren’t drawn to it when I come across it in real life, or if on closer inspection it doesn’t fulfill the above criteria, I assume you won’t feel the urge to engage with it when you see it on a screen. So I keep pedaling.

I hope you’ll enjoy these on whatever level you choose to see them on as much as I like coming upon them and ‘catching’ them. When I was a boy fishing enthralled me, the possibility of suddenly hooking a fish, landing him, the vastness and mystery of the water and what might lie beneath it. I suppose my kanji hunting is an extension of that. It’s even better, really. It’s like catching fish and keeping them without having to clean them!

Special features: Learn kanji more efficiently

Formatted for use with popup online dictionaries like rikaichan

I transcribe the kanji characters we’re focusing on just below the photo, which enables you to instantly access a wealth of information about their meaning and reading as you learn. It’s all literally at your fingertips, and just takes a few moves with your mouse. I highly recommend a quick trip to my post about this free tool that’s significantly accelerated the pace of my learning and helped me to build the skills to read authentic material like newspaper editorials on my own that would have been too advanced for me to crack otherwise. You’ll see photos of rikaichan in use and examples of various ways to harness what it has to offer.

A handy cross reference for learners who use Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji and Kanji in Context

The numbers assigned to individual kanji characters by both Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji system and the Kanji In Context series are noted below the photos. These numbers make it possible to search for a given kanji symbol as you come across it in your text or in a given Kanji Kanban photo and want to see more examples of it in action. When you input the character’s number from your text into this blog’s search engine, remember to add the appropriate letter preceding it as noted in the posts, using an ‘H’ or KIC’ depending on which system you’re using, so that character #498 in Heisig’s system becomes H498, and #76 in Kanji In Context becomes KIC76 when you search.

You can also of course search for common kanji compounds or revisit a photo by noting that photo’s title, such as Kanji Kanban #42, which includes its number in the Kanji Kanban series, and later doing a search with it. Not all searches will bear fruit, of course, but as this database grows, my aim is that you’ll be rewarded with at least one example the character you’re looking for.

Personally, I like an element of controlled randomness as well as structure, as it makes for a fun, engaging and natural way to learn kanji. If you do too, subscribe to my RSS feed or email list and you’ll receive a regular delivery featuring a familiar, controlled format with a rich variety of content offered in no particular order. Along the way, You can accelerate your kanji study and catch up on the ones you missed by visiting my archives of past posts.

I hope you’ll enjoy each installment of Kanji Kanban, and as always, I welcome your comments and suggestions!

Gary