Cultural/historical explanations of meanings (and readings too maybe?)

I love WK, mostly because of its structure, i.e. I really appreciate the ordering of kanji based on visual complexity, and the step by step access to increasingly more complicated items, it’s just great, especially because of the way it teaches you to deconstruct kanji into digestible “building blocks”, so even though the items are more and more complex, they don’t feel more intimidating. I can already see that it’s working. :heart:

The mnemonics though… not really a fan. :grin:

This is probably not the case for a lot of people here, but I personally don’t use the WK mnemonics all that much (barely at all): my brain just forgets them instantly. It’s harder for me to retain those than it is to retain the meaning or reading of a kanji or vocabulary on their own, since the mnemonics are, for the most part, unrelated to the kanji or the vocabulary. I’m not saying I actively dislike them (Mrs. Chou is so great :joy:), they’re just unhelpful to me. :upside_down_face:

That being said, what I think would greatly improve WK is the real explanation/cultural background behind the meaning of one particular kanji, or the actual story behind one particular kanji combination used in vocabulary.

This comes from back when I studied Latin, the most fun part of which had always been the mythology and our teacher’s passion for cultural history. We were always behind on schedule because he could read a verb in a text we were trying to translate and start telling us a 20 minutes story of how it primarily means X, but because back then people thought Y, this verb could also be used to mean Z, and so on (I’m talking about words with 5-6 seemingly disconnected meanings).

What I’m trying to say here is that, while I’m a complete ignorant, I think that Kanji don’t exist in a vacuum: their usage, meanings and readings are heavily intertwined with the Japanese language and culture. :thinking:
So, not only are we missing out on a substantial part of what a kanji/vocabulary word is when “learning” them here, but we also miss out on explanations that I strongly believe would help us memorizing them, because we would be aware of the “why” and “how” of them coming to be what they are now. It would also give us an inkling into the Japanese way of thinking, which is why I learn any language in the first place (new windows into the world we all share :blush:).

For me they’d be helpful and way more interesting mnemonics, ones that I wouldn’t need (nor necessarily want) to dismiss from my memory later on, once I know how to read Japanese. And even if it’s not possible to have such an explanation for all of them, I’d be looking forward to the ones that would have it. :blush:

(Come to think of it: could this be something coming up in the later levels that I just haven’t seen yet? Fewer funny mnemonics or simply more actual explanations? :thinking: )


It’s fun to look into the history of kanji, but I can also understand why WK doesn’t even try to introduce it. Oftentimes the kanji changed their shape a lot, so you don’t see how the explanation fits to the kanji.

And the stories are often quite obscure and long, like “there was a tribe called the Nan who used some bell-like instrument, and because nan also meant south in ancient China they just used the kanji for the bell as “South”.” or something similar.

With mnemonics you don’t even try to make something sensible, you just need something memorable and short. If you are interested other courses like the Kodansha Kanji Learner Course include etymology when it’s helpful, and there are dedicated kanji dictionaries that explain the history and kanji shapes.

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That just sounds like WK doesn’t do it because it’s too much work :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye: which is a pity, I mean, even if it’s an anecdote followed by “and here’s an interesting link if you want to know more”, it would still be a better read than the current mnemonics. Sure, not everyone finds them as unhelpful as I do: lots of people like them, but many make up their own anyway. I’m not saying don’t keep them, but the real thing would still add a lot to the value of WK as a kanji learning site, and that’s the material point. And l think they’d also be useful during the memorization process, however obscure. (At least for the vocabulary then, they can’t be all that bad when combining kanji into vocabulary. :grin:)

Thanks for the suggestions too! I’m definitely interested, but not so much as to get something extra into my studying routine just so that I can learn about it, it would just be great if it was part of the lessons here. :blush:

By the way, is this true?

'cause it’s great! :scream::heart:

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I’ve actually been searching for this kind of information elsewhere and I haven’t been able to find it, so if anyone can recommend a good site or even book that would be appreciated

As always there are several opinions where it came from, and on digging out older writings the explanations can change, but I found it in several places as a bell. Shirakawa says it’s a picture of a “Douko (銅鼓)” drum (you can google it for pictures). It seems the tribe was also called Miao as well as Nan, and maybe they actually lived in the south as well, but yes, something like that.

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Really cool! This is exactly the type of thing I’d enjoy reading about, thanks! :blush:

There was a book kickstarted some time ago called “The World of Kanji”, the PDF version costs US$18, which is quite fair for a 600 pages book. The explanations are very short and mainly explain how the old bronze script version looked like. Occasionally I don’t really trust the explanations, but it gives an interesting perspective.

If you don’t mind Japanese I can recommend 常用字解 from Shirakawa, or this page, which often has explanations for the character shape and readings.

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Just wanted to say that I definitely agree with this sentiment. There are times when it would be both more interesting and more useful to learn the cultural/historical backgrounds. I do understand this would take a whole lot of effort and probably be far down the priority list - but to me it’s very worthwhile.

Similarly is how WK only teach one meaning per kanji when sometimes it would make so much more sense to teach two meanings. I understand the simplicity in only learning one, but in some cases the following vocab(s) is based on the kanji meaning that WK didn’t teach - cue much confusion.

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I couldn’t agree more. :blush:

As to the rest, I actually don’t mind learning one reading/meaning with the kanji item first and then another common reading/meaning for it with the vocabulary… divide et impera. :wink:

I have this book. I’m also not entirely certain all the explanations are correct (definitely don’t attempt to use it as an etymological reference) but it’s a good alternative source of mnemonics, provided you can make the connection between bronze script and kanji–sometimes they’ve changed quite a bit.

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Oh yeah, I agree with learning just one reading and building on more readings as it goes along. But if I memorize a kanji meaning, get it to guru, and then the following vocabs I learn are incomprehensible until I realize that they’re using a secondary meaning that WK didn’t teach (and then doesn’t mention while teaching the vocab that the reason the kanji meaning isn’t at all related to the vocab meaning is because the kanji has a secondary meaning) I think it probably is best to teach that meaning from the beginning or at least include it in the meaning mnemonic :slight_smile:

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The area where I sometimes wish we got something like this is actually more for vocabulary. Perhaps sometimes there’s just no logic to why a compound is formed the way it is and means what it does. But sometimes the mnemonics are like “if you combine A and B you get C, dunno why but that’s weird!” And I can’t help but wonder if there sometimes are reasons, and having those reasons might actually make remembering the meaning easier.


I think other people have brought up good points already, but I’ll just add explaining the historical meanings of kanji are far beyond the scope of what WaniKani wants to do. Often times the original meanings or histories are disputed, unknown, or require lengthy explanations. All of this historical and etymological research is incredibly time consuming, and would be (imho) a lot more to slog through than silly mnemonics using Charlie Sheen and Ms. Chou.

The etymological origins of kanji are fascinating, though, and I encourage you to look up some if you’re interested. (They’ll definitely cement themselves in your mind if you do a lot of research on them!) I can second Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course because it uses a few more of the traditional radical explanations.

All that being said, I would like more explanations on the place names that WaniKani teaches. I feel like a lot of the meaning mnemonics are “A + B? That’s weird. Look at the reading for it to make sense.” which to me feels a little like a cop out. However, that might turn into more of a history lesson which, again, is asking a lot from a learning tool not built to teach history.

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Usually I’d love this kind of information. I never feel like I really understand a language until I learn its history. With kanji though I’ve kind of given up on etymology. There’s just too many characters that used to make sense at some point but over the years changed for completely non-semantic reasons.

I just found a good example of my point above with “please teach two kanji meanings sometimes” so pardon for reawakening this thread that isn’t even about this, but I just wanted to share.

I just guru’d the kanji 没 which WK teaches as “die”. My first vocab lessons featured the words: 日没 (sunset) 没頭 (immersing oneself) 没落 (ruin, fall, collapse). I was like, huh? How does “die” make sense in those contexts that aren’t really about death at all? So I jisho’d the kanji as one does and it gives me the kanji meanings of “drown, sink, fall into, disappear, die”. Well, those make more sense! Instead of “sun death” we get “sun fall”, etc. Wouldn’t it be easier to memorize those vocab if from the beginning WK taught the kanji as “fall, die”?

Again, I understand the point of simplicity, and I appreciate that, but in this case where literally the first three vocabs don’t make sense (unless you squint) with the taught kanji meaning…? Also if you’re adamant about only teaching one kanji meaning then can’t you at least mention the alternative meaning while teaching the vocab? “This word isn’t about the sun imploding or anything. An alternative meaning for the kanji is ‘fall’ so you can imagine it in that context instead”. (There are cases where the taught kanji meaning is even more removed from the vocab meaning where WK comes up with mnemonics instead of just introducing the alternative kanji meaning. But I can’t remember them right now.)

I think that’s a good point, I wouldn’t have known this to be an issue because of my ignorance of multiple meanings.
Recently, once I started seeing unexpected meanings (looking at you, 空車), I’ve been trying to look up the kanji on other resources to see what’s up… I don’t bother adding user synonyms to though, it just something that ends up staying somewhere in the back back of my mind. It would be nice to have more complete lists of meanings, and I think mnemonics based on cultural/historical reasons would be less affected than the random ones made up by the developers here on WK… :grin:

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