The 紀 kanji card and it's strange gloss

This is a bit of an essay but I promise it’s insightful and not a rant post. There’s a TL;DR at the bottom.

Recently I’ve fallen back in love with reading and learning Japanese and have been really impressed with how easy it has gotten to read the kanji I’ve learned in all the random places I see Japanese. So after not the first of my long gaps with using this site, I decided to jump back in to WK and see if I could get through the rest of this site’s material. But to do that I have to wade through the almost a years worth of burn reviews and leeches I left off with. So I have a new approach, I’ve been putting a lot more attention into all the mistakes I make. Trying to understand the details of why I keep getting the same items wrong and why so many of my reviews feel like 50/50 gambles. Often times it’s understandable, conflating two similar words, readings with exceptions, onyomi coin flips, things like that. But sometimes it deserves a little bit more attention which brings me to 紀.

My 紀 story

紀 is a level 15 kanji with a primary meaning of “Account” and an alternative meaning of “Narrative”. I unlocked it 2 years ago to date, since then most of this level have come up to be burned multiple times. This is what my progression stats for this item look like:

As you can see I have reviewed this item 34 times and have never once gotten the reading wrong. And yet somewhere around 41% of the time I get to this item in review I get it wrong the first time. Why is this? Well it’s actually quite simple. 紀 belongs to a class of items who’s meaning glosses are really abstract English words. “account” is a pretty common word in English but it has a lot of different meanings. There’s accounts of events, and bank accounts, and online accounts, and accounting. What is it that makes all of these accounts, what is the essence of the account. I could not help but conflate this word with a similar word “record” which also shows up in WK glosses sometimes. Every time I got to this item it was about a 50/50 chance that my gut would say “record” or “account”. This flip flopping accounts for almost all of my mistakes with this item.

So, what I should have done a long time ago is investigate this a little more thoroughly. In what ways does
紀 mean “account”? Is it reasonable to put “record” as a synonym, or is there a reason WK does not accept both? Why is this the meaning WK gives to this kanji anyway? Let’s try and answer these questions together.

In what ways does 紀 mean “account”?

So to answer this question, the only place we can really start is with the vocabulary. After all, kanji glosses are only ever meant to be convenient ways of understanding the context of why kanji are used in certain words. So let’s start with the WK vocabulary that use this kanji.


Here are all of the vocab items on Wanikani that include 紀. You will notice two things:

  1. I have already burned all of these items
  2. None of these words have anything to do with accounts.

The fact that I have already burned these items should tell you already that something is up. If I can get the vocab but not the kanji itself, then maybe the meaning in use is not actually helping me understand the context of these words. But also, “account” is a terrible way of tying all these concepts together. The word I would choose here would be “century”. In fact, 紀元後 and its cousin can easily be rendered as “before or after the original century” which is a far easier way to understand these terms than the existing mnemonics.

Still, the “account” gloss can’t have come from nowhere. Let’s look at a more complete dictionary to try and get a better understanding of the usage of this kanji. Here’s the list of words that contain the kanji 紀 according to jisho: *紀* #words - Jisho.org. Jisho is not a perfect site but this list should contain all of the most common usages. Of these words, some patterns jump out:

  • The vast majority of these words (almost half) are directly related to periods of time. Either centuries (前世紀 last century, 新世紀 new century, etc.), eras (紀元 common era, etc.), or geologic periods (白亜紀 Cretaceous Period​, 第三紀 Tertiary Period, etc). 紀 on it’s own mostly only refers to specifically geologic periods like the Cretaceous which are very specific scientific units of time.

  • Another common usage is for old texts, specifically the six classical Japanese history texts including 日本書紀 the Nihon Shoki, one of the oldest known works of written japanese compiled in 720CE

  • About 10 or so other words really fit the more general description of some sort of account and most are extremely uncommon. 紀伝 means biography but is less common than 伝記. 紀念 is a sort of commemoration but is much more commonly written 記念 instead (like 記念日 holiday). The most common word that fits this description is 紀行 traveler’s journal which at the very least fits the description quite well.

  • Just about as many words have something to do with law and order. 風紀 refers to discipline and public morals, 綱紀 is law and order and official discipline. Not sure exactly how common these words are either but if you see 紀 in a word it has about as high a chance of it meaning discipline as meaning account.

  • A small handful have no clear relation to any of these concepts or are in proper nouns, the weirdest one I found is 芳紀(ほうき) “age of a young lady who is at the peak of her (sexual) attractiveness; marriageable age (of a young lady); sweet sixteen”. I should also mention that this kanji is in the title for Neon Genesis Evangelion 新世紀エヴァンゲリオン (literally “new era evangelion”). Funnily enough 新世紀 is also used in a word for the millennial generation so I guess one way you could refer to millennials is the Neon Genesis Generation.

We could continue our search to other dictionaries but I think at this point we have enough information to come to a solid conclusion.

Can we reasonably add other words as synonyms for 紀?

While I won’t go as far as to say “account” is a useless way of describing the usage of this kanji, especially in regards to historic texts, there are certainly lots of other words that we could use instead. It’s general usage seems to have more to do with the passage of time then it does to specifically recording that time. I think that “century”, “era”, “period”, “law”, and “discipline” are other glosses that will help your comprehension more. When it comes to WK specifically, I think the usage of “account” as the primary gloss is especially unhelpful for getting through the vocabulary cards as “century”, “era”, or even “time” would help better understand the vocab terms you need to learn.

As for my initial predicament of “record” vs “account”, at this point in my WK journey I gain nothing from memorizing any gloss in particular for this kanji since all of its vocab terms are already burned. At this point it only makes sense to synonym whatever words will get me to answer this card correctly and move on. In general though, I don’t think “record” in this case confers any subtlety that isn’t conveyed by “account” and if you are having trouble with this specific card I don’t think using this synonym or other similar ones will harm your understanding.

What did we learn?

Well for one I guess we learned that the gloss for 紀 should be “century” not “account”. But in general, you shouldn’t be doing this kind of analysis for every single kanji you learn. I’ve been writing this post for almost 3 hours now, and I now have a tiny bit more knowledge about 1 character.

The larger lesson for me is that leeches are not always about getting your mind to fit into the right box. When looking at the things you are memorizing, the goal should always be to see how learning this item in this specific way helps your understanding later on. And if a certain gloss or visualization doesn’t help you, It’s okay to discard it. With kanji, the goal is never to learn an encyclopedia article’s account of a symbol but instead how that symbol can functionally be read in its context. It’s sometimes quite easy to forget that.

Also, if your struggling with subtle meaning mistakes like this, a good way of dealing with it is to do a little research and look at the vocab. If you already have a good grasp on the kanji in the vocab then it’s okay to not worry so much about the details of what the kanji card says. If you’re not sure if a synonym is appropriate or not, look it up. It is much more often the case that WK will be sparing with reasonable synonyms then you might expect at first glance.

I think this intentionality has really helped my focus on getting through my reviews. Mistakes aren’t always necessarily headaches and time sinks when you get a chance to deep dive on a specific topic. Also putting a little more thought into what you are doing helps these things stick in your mind. When all you see is the green and red of the WK UI you fail to see the intricacies of the real world details you’re learning. My focus going forward is a focus on finding context and dealing with mistakes intentionally.

TL;DR the 紀 kanji card was always a major leech for me cause I could never keep “account” and “record” straight in my head. So I looked it up and 紀 has more to do with the word “century” than it does with the word “account”. Since everything else related to this kanji is burned for me, there’s no point getting hung up on subtleties like this. Sometimes it’s a good idea just to move on and find the details that are useful in your memorization then strict adherence to the existing cards and this kind of intention helps you learn better.

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If WK gives a kanji an objectively stupid meaning and doesn’t accept reasonable synonyms, just cheat if you can’t remember it

This kind of thing is why personally I don’t really think it’s very useful to directly learn “kanji meanings” rather than learning vocabulary…too many kanji have multiple meanings or get used in common words not really related to their main meaning.

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Now, to mention about Jisho Kanji page, I feel Wiktionary works better. (Or just use Goo.)

(ki)

  1. rule; regulation
  2. age; era; period
  3. to record; to write down

Reminder to myself. I have to avoid confusing にっき with 日本書にほんしょき, (and しるす).

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I think the difference between 紀 and 記 is probably what got me confused in the first place :sweat_smile:

But using one of those sites is probably a faster way to get an answer than what I did. Though it is fun to look through obscure words and try to piece them together

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