I’m just a pup in my kanji practice, but I thought I’d share some ways to make mnemonics more systematic.
On’yomi readings are older. They come from China. I picture China as an ancient countryside. This is the landscape in which I picture all my on’yomi mnemonics.
Kun’yomi readings come after on’yomi, historically (I know it’s quite a bit more complex than that, but bear with me). So I picture the mnemonics in modern-day Tokyo (I see a city block). After a while, I notice that kana just feel out of place in the Chinese countryside; they “pull” me into Tokyo.
Let’s take 日. In on’yomi, there are two readings. For each, I picture an antique-looking woodblock print of the sun, which is on an old easel in the older landscape. Also on the print is either a portrait of Nietzsche (にち) or someone doing ju-jitsu (じつ）(not the official mnemonic, but it will do). Then I can activate those secondary images for different on’yomi combinations. For instance, which 何日 (what day), I think of the little portrait of the philosopher Nietzsche wondering: what day? (The image of what, of uncertainty, is a nice disk of naan flatbread floating like a thought bubble.) For 近日 (soon, in a few days), I picture my country kin, pressed all close together, looking at the tiny ju-jitsu dude on the sun print and thinking: Soon, soon he will be victorious.
Meanwhile, for the kun’yomi reading of 日, I picture the same sun, but no longer an antique print, looking over my city block of Tokyo. Now that it is real and modern, it puts out tremendous heat (ひ). I can see the fire (火) coming off the sun. Those are the meanings so far; it looks like there are many kanji/vocab that use ひ, and I will add them in some way to the Tokyo sun as needed.
I think it is important to always use the same mnemonic for the same reading, even for different kanji. For instance, I really picture the country kin, pressed close together. They are also covered in gold (金). I’m sure another kanji will get the reading きん and I will add that meaning to the country kin.
I also think that alternate readings need to attach the same object, like the Nietzsche or ju-jitsu images on the print of the sun.
I also have my additions for those little rendaku or gemination (I had to look it up — it’s the term for the little つ, like in きって). I think of rendaku as a softening of hard consonants, so I put a fuzz (preferable a fuzzy hat) on whatever gets rendaku’d. For instance, in かき氷 (かきごおり) I picture an ice sculpture of the exciting Canadian singer Corey Hart being shaved while wearing a fuzzy hat – I picture the fuzzy hat being shaved. This is in Tokyo, of course. For gemination, usually the image in the mnemonic gets cut in half.
The advantages of putting these mnemonics into these two pieces of scenery, for me, are:
- I know whether a reading is on’yomi or kun’yomi, because I can see the scene in my mind. After a short while they feel completely different.
- Everything I’m supposed to remember is in one place. I don’t separately remember the close country kin and the ju-jitsu figure as separate images; I remember them in one little “skit” and they begin to flow together.
- When the day comes that I hear きん, I will picture close people in gold (along with the later readings I’m sure are coming), and I will have access to all those readings on one image.
Anyway, use what you will!