Japanese 'Kanji'

by Carol K. Tohsaku

Carol's current job is an academic advisor for undergraduate students at UC San Diego. Her background is in linguistics and visual arts.

Instructional Objective The learner shall be able to recognize the meanings of Japanese 'kanji' (ideographic characters adopted from the Chinese language), create 'kanji' compounds when appropriate, and classify 'kanji' into related semantic groups.

Learners/Context The learners are UCSD students currently enrolled in the second-year Japanese language program or any Japanese-language students who have studied about four hundred basic 'kanji'.

This card game would be used by students to reinforce recognition of 'kanji' and their associated meanings. Several sets of the card game would be managed by the instructors of Japanese Studies and the Language Lab at UCSD. It is intended to be used outside of class for practice, remediation and enrichment purposes.

Rationale To be able to read a Japanese newspaper, one would need to master at least 1,945 basic characters. This requires time and effort to recall the meaning associated with each 'kanji'. In addition, one would have to learn the different readings or compounds of each 'kanji'. Compounds are words comprised of more than two 'kanji'. Associated with the 1,945 characters are 4,032 readings/compounds, some 2,000 of which represent independent words. The following is an example of a 'kanji' meaning 'human being, man, person' and some of the compounds made with this 'kanji'.

The best way to master 'kanji' is to have extensive contact and exposure of 'kanji', preferably, in a meaningful context. This card game is useful for acquiring, reinforcing, and retaining the meaning of 'kanji' as well as classifying 'kanji'. Because 'kanji' are pictographs and ideographs, the learner can cognitively link meaning to each corresponding 'kanji' represented on a card. The advantage of a 'kanji' card game over mere flashcards is that the game is more interactive, motivating, and creative. In a 'kanji' card game, the learner can make decisions about how to classify 'kanji' into semantic groups. Creativity flows when the learner is faced with the challenging task of combining 'kanji' to form compounds within each semantic grouping.

Rules This game, which is based on rummy, is played with four to six players. The object of the game is to get rid of your cards by laying down sets of cards which are categorized into semantic groups or families. For example, a family called 'human relations' may be made with 'kanji' cards meaning 'father, mother, son, daughter, and child'. To start this game, first pick someone to be the dealer.

1. The dealer shuffles the 'kanji' cards and then deals one card at a time face down to each player in a clockwise rotation, starting with the player to the dealer's left. Each player receives 10 cards. Then, the dealer puts the remaining cards in a stack, face down. S/he turns the top card over and places it face up next to the deck in the discard pile.

2. Each player arranges his/her cards in an attempt to categorize by common semantic groups. For ideas in forming semantic groups, please refer to the next section called Examples. A player may consult a 'kanji' dictionary to look up the meaning of an unknown 'kanji'. One can look up a 'kanji' by referring to one of three choices: the number of strokes, type of radical, and pronunciation reading. The number of strokes it takes to write a 'kanji' is written in the upper, right-hand corner of each card. (See the section on Card Design.) In order to keep the card game moving, a player is limited to about one minute per 'kanji' for consulting a dictionary and 5 'kanji' per dealt hand.

3. Starting with the player to the dealer's left, each player either picks up the top card from the deck or the face-up card in the discard pile. (At any time, players cannot look through the deck or discard pile.) S/he then discards one card and places it face up in the discard pile. A player should hold ten cards until s/he is ready to lay down a set/meld.

4. In melding, a player lays down one or more semantically matched sets. Each set is comprised of three or more cards. When a player lays down a meld, then s/he must say what the semantic group is. For example, "This set is made up of 'kanji' related to 'time'." At this time, any opponent can challenge this player if s/he thinks that any of the cards in the meld do not belong to the same semantic group. If the semantic group has flaws, then the player holding the set must remove those flaws and use them later on to form acceptable sets/melds. S/he can still lay down a set as long as it contains at least 3 cards related to the semantic group.

5. Once a player lays down a set, then s/he may add to any set (meld) already on the table--the opponent's meld as well as his/her own. When adding a card to your opponent's meld, first take his/her meld and place it face up near you and then add your card. You have now stolen your opponent's meld and added to your melds.  Keep in mind that you can lose your melds whenever your opponent steals from you. Other rules to consider: you cannot steal another player's meld until you have laid down your own meld; you cannot change the semantic group; you cannot use cards from melds on the table to form new semantic groups.

6. Play ends when a player gets rid of all cards from his/her hand. If a player can meld all his remaining cards, he may do so; he need not make a final discard.

7. A player who goes out first is automatically awarded 100 points. Every set/meld in his/her possession is worth 25 points. For every 'kanji' compound in a set, 15 points are awarded. If this player can properly name each 'kanji' card or compound in this set, then s/he receives 5 points for each correct reading.

8. The remaining players then show their hands. They group their cards into semantic groups and put them down, face up. At least three or more cards must be in a group. For every set/meld on the table, 25 points are awarded. 'Kanji' compounds in a set are worth 15 points each. If this player can properly name each 'kanji' card or compound in this set, then s/he receives 5 points for each correct reading. Any remaining cards that are not a part of a group count as 10 minus points.

9. A running total is kept of each player's score. The first player to reach a total of 400 points or more wins the game.

Examples Here are two examples of acceptable semantic groups.

In this group called 'natural elements', there are seven natural elements: 'ame' (rain), 'hi' (sun), 'kaze' (wind), 'umi' (sea), 'mizu' (water), 'ten' (heaven), and 'tenki' (weather). Please note that the 'kanji' for 'heaven' is also the first 'kanji' in the compound meaning 'weather'. To score this set, award 25 points for the set/meld, 15 points for the one compound 'heaven', and 5 points for every correct reading (5 points X 7 correct readings). The total possible points is 75 points.

In this group called 'things related to human beings', there are five 'kanji' and five meanings: 'hito' (human), 'otona' (adult), 'jinko' (population), 'jinniku' (human flesh), and 'karada' (body). Three compounds are made with the 'kanji' meaning 'human' (hito): 'otona', 'jinko' and 'jinniku'. Notice that 'hito' has two different readings in these compounds: 'jin' as in 'jinko' and 'jinniku', and 'tona' as in 'otona'. To score this set, award 25 points for the set/meld, 15 points per compound (3 compounds X 15 points), and 5 points for every correct reading (5 'kanji' X 5 points). The total possible points is 95 points.

Here is a list of possible semantic groups which can be used in this card game: animals, body parts, color, daily activities, daily activities, days of the week, drinks, energy, family, food, human, natural elements, movement, number, positions, seasons, temperature, time, transportation, and so on. Students should be creative in making their own semantic groups with the 'kanji' cards.

Card Design Each card in the deck has one 'kanji' written on the front side. In the example below, this 'kanji' means 'person, human, and man' and is pronounced by itself as 'hito'. It takes two brush strokes to write 'hito'. The number of strokes is in the upper, right-hand corner of the card. This number is important for the player who needs to look up the meaning in a 'kanji' dictionary. In the index, one can find 'hito' under the two-stroke order section. The actual card size is twice as large as this example.

Deck Design In the first-year Japanese-language course at UCSD, about 400 hundred basic 'kanji' are taught. This card game, which was developed for these students and second-year students as a review, has a complete deck of 400 cards. However, due to playing time constraints, players only need to play with half of the shuffled deck (200 cards).

As illustrated in the card design section, each front side of a card has one 'kanji' with the number of brush strokes printed in the upper, right-hand corner. The number of strokes is printed in case a player needs to refer to a 'kanji' dictionary to look up a meaning. Please refer to rule number 2 in the Rules section. Each 'kanji' card represents a meaning. When players make legitimate compounds by using two cards, another meaning and/or word is acquired. Please refer to the Rationale and Examples sections to see several 'kanji' compounds.


The 400 'kanji' cards selected are 'Joyo Kanji' (Characters for Daily Use). In 1981, the Japanese Language Council recommended a list of 1,945 characters called 'Joyo Kanji' which one needs to master in order to read a Japanese newspaper with ease.

Design Process The first design consideration was deciding on the type of structure to use for this instructional problem. At first, a card game of matching pairs to form a 'kanji' compound was considered. This was ruled out after playing the game with 400 cards spread out on the floor. Players were inundated with information and all the cards appeared to look alike.

After consulting a Japanese language teacher at UCSD, I decided on developing a rummy 'kanji' game to focus on building semantic groups. Japanese Studies at UCSD is using a topical syllabus which contrasts with the common grammar syllabus where 'kanji' is presented in an arbitrary manner. In the former approach, 'kanji' are presented in each lesson in a semantic group related to the topic of each instructional unit. The advantage of building semantic groups and compounds within a group helps the learner to acquire vocabulary: 1) naturally in a meaningful context and 2) systematically while categorizing 'kanji'. This card game is a good mental exercise for the right hemisphere which processes visual, concrete and spatial information when presented pictographs and ideographs in the form of 'kanji'. In addition, the left hemisphere of the brain is exercised when analyzing 'kanji' relationships and categorizing 'kanji' into common semantic groups.

Another hurdle to overcome was addressing the issue of whether or not to provide clues to help students recall the meaning of forgotten 'kanji' and help students differentiate between 'kanji' which resemble other 'kanji'. Often 'kanji' appear to be alike when they incorporate the same radical. For example, the 'kanji' representing 'rain' is a radical forming the top portion of the 'kanjis' representing 'snow' and 'electricity'. Both rain and snow are composed of water. However, how is rain and electricity related?

To encourage an environment and atmosphere conducive to learning, players were allowed to refer to a 'kanji' dictionary when they needed to check the meaning. However, they were restricted by the number of times and a time limit. Please refer to rule number 2 in the Rules section. One useful device which appears in the upper, right-hand corner of each card is the number of strokes. By knowing the number of strokes, a player can quickly scan the list of 'kanji' in the index to identify the page number that the 'kanji' is on in the central core of the dictionary. There the meaning can be found. This ended up as a good practice for students to look up 'kanji' quickly to check each other's answers at the end of each dealt hand.

In one case, I tested this game with a native speaker of Japanese, thinking that I would be at a disadvantage as a non-native speaker of Japanese. However, the act of stealing my opponent's set of cards with one card related to that set provided a balance between the different levels. Any one can accumulate more sets through inheritance or stealing with just one card. This situation increases motivation because of the challenge to top the opponent. Players have to make decisions and develop strategy of stealing sets of cards at an opportune time. Players can openly challenge the opponent's choice of cards in a semantic group. For example, is the compound a legitimate one or a concoction?

Presently, I am thinking that for an individual this deck of cards can be used as flashcards to practice recalling the meaning. This may be boring, but, perhaps as some sort of card game based on solitaire and semantic grouping, the learner could acquire, recall and retain 'kanji' as well as players in the rummy 'kanji' game.