Bimoji Training for Nintendo DS

Finally a new “game” has come out for the Nintendo DS that will make me start using it again. Last night I was surfing the Nintendo channel of our Wii while putting off going to bed and came across an advertisement for 美文字トレーニング, a program that helps you improve your handwriting in Japanese. I downloaded the trial version from our Wii to my DS and was instantly hooked.

Penmanship means a lot to Japanese. From kindergarten through high school, children spend countless hours in class learning and practicing how to write properly, and even as adults people still take courses in penmanship and calligraphy. Although I’m not Japanese and never will be, I still compare myself to those around me, and everyone–including my kids–have better handwriting than I do, and it bugs me. Every time I have to put pen to paper, I’m ashamed of my chicken scratch that looks like that of a four year old stroke victim with cerebral palsy.

Here’s how it works. The program shows you a character on one of the DS’s two screens and prompts you to trace it on the other screen in the correct stroke order. When you’re done it gives you grades for balance, detail and stroke width along with praise or advice on how to improve, just like a calligraphy instructor. It covers 3,119 characters including kanji, hiragana and katakana and up to six people can keep track of their progress on one DS.

For 3,800 yen it seems well worth the price and I’m going to stop off and buy it on the way home tonight.

How many kanji do you need to know?

There are a number of official lists of kanji. I’m not an expert by any means, I’m just going by information gleamed off the net.

  • 教育漢字(kyouiku kanji): The 1oo6 characters students must learn by grade 6. Essentially, knowing these characters is a good start, but you’re far from finished.
  • 当用漢字(touyou kanji): A list of 1850 characters published first in 1946 approved for use in public documents and the media. Many characters that were in use until then were simplified; for example, 學 became 学.
  • 常用漢字(jouyou kanji): Last updated in 1981 and the successor of touyou kanji, 1945 characters that basically you ought to know as a literate adult. Used in legal and public documents, newspapers, magazines and broadcast media.
  • 新聞漢字表(shimbun kanji hyou): A standard agreed upon among newspapers based on jouyou kanji, but removing some characters and adding others. The link is to a Japanese Wikipedia article, but the explanation and outline that appears there is possibly under copyright and could be deleted from the site in the future.
  • 人名用漢字(jin meiyou kanji): Characters approved for use in people’s names. As of 2004, when the government had a heck of a time trying to update the list, there are 983 extra characters than can be used in addition to what’s already in the jouyou kanji list, or that are variants of jouyou characters, and most of them are really, really hard to read. The only way I’ll ever learn them is if I get a chip implanted in my brain someday.

Incidentally, mainland China also simplified their characters sometime after WWII but for obvious reasons they didn’t give a rat’s ass about how Japan went about doing the same thing, so in many cases the two countries simplified the same characters but in different ways.

Summing up, if you’re pretty smart, my guess is that you know around 3,000 characters or more. Multiply that number by a few factors to approximate how many readings you’d need to know for all those characters.

As for me, when reading a novel in Japanese I have to look up an average of five characters per page, and I can get through around 15 pages in 2-3 hours when I’m reading to learn. It’s tedious, frustrating, labor intensive, tiring, and makes me feel learning disabled, which is why I avoided serious studying for far too many years.

Oh. My. God. (Unbelievably bad kanji tattoos)

I just came across a blog called “Hanzi Smatter,” which chronicles the butchering of Chinese and Japanese writing in the west.

Oh. My. God.

I can’t stop repeating that over and over as I see some of the tattoos people have gotten. They’re so horrible they’re not funny.

Chinese Tattoo Let’s use this one for an example. It’s no better or worse than any of the others, and that’s what’s so horrifying. It’s really, really bad.

First we have an old character for “money.” One of those big ancient coins, I think. Next, “fugu,” “buku” which means “poisonous blowfish.” absolutely nothing. Next, “a.” (Just the sound “ah.” No meaning whatsoever.) After that, “ouch.” And finally, “love”. Roughly translated, this means, “I’m a complete imbecile.”

Not even to mention the font. It looks like it came out of an inkjet printer.

Honestly, I don’t know what to say. I mean, I see people all the time here wearing T-shirts with English gibberish on them, but for chrissake, they can take the damn things off at the end of the day and throw them in the wash.

If anyone out there has a kanji tattoo, please, don’t ever ask me to translate it. Don’t even show it to me. After seeing so many really, really bad ones, I get the feeling that there’s probably no such thing as a “good one.”

Kanji lookup

In Japanese Windows 2000 or XP there’s a utility to lookup kanji characters by drawing them with your mouse, but if you can’t draw them well enough you’re screwed.

This site will let you lookup characters by choosing radicals. I just found it and it saved me the embarrassment of having to ask a coworker to read for me. (I hate doing that. It’s a man thing, like refusing to ask for directions.)