Learning phonetic components helped me pass the kanji section of Level 1 JLPT

hanbai_phonetic component.pngNatalie Hamilton is a writer, translator and lecturer in Translation Technology. She turned her focus to Japanese study while living and working in Japan’s rural Oita Prefecture on the JET Programme. She was awarded a Master of Japanese Translation in 2014, which included a linguistics dissertation entitled Cracking the ON Yomi Code. Her new kanji textbook The Kanji Code is a #1 Amazon Best Seller.

When I was studying for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) in 2005-6 while teaching English in Japan, I started to notice that certain kanji that shared the same phonetic components also had the same ON reading. Stationed in a rural town, I relied on textbooks found on the shelves of bookshops in Osaka and Fukuoka and written in English. I had no knowledge of the two books written in English that listed the kanji in ON reading: The Study of Kanji (Pye, 1971) and Remembering the Kanji 2 (Heisig, 1987). These books were probably in university libraries but they weren’t in the shops I went to.

Heisig refers to the phonetics as ‘signal primitives’, so they didn’t come up in any of my internet searches. Pye’s book is now out of print and lists kanji in ON reading order, but does not explicitly list the phonetic components that appear within them.

At the time, I did quite a few internet searches for phonetic components but nothing came up. I asked around to my JET senpai, but the answer was frustrating, “You just have to learn them”. So I decided to make my own list.

During Spring vacation of 2006, when I had no lessons but still had to be at school, I took a two page printout of the Joyo (Daily Use) kanji, which was listed in ON reading order. That is, it started with 亜 (A) and ended with 和 (WA). I looked for kanji that were near one another, and therefore had the same or a similar ON reading. I cut them out and pasted them onto index cards from the 100 Yen Shop, labelling them with the reading once I’d confirmed them in a dictionary.

This process took days, but it delivered results. I found that a number of phonetics were indeed linked to certain ON readings, and this helped me learn those readings faster.

kanji phonetic componentFor example, the following kanji all contain the 㑒 component, and they also have the ON reading KEN. So the phonetic component 㑒 can be said to indicate the ON reading KEN.

  • 検    examine
  • 険    danger
  • 験    verify

I also noticed some other visual patterns, which I catalogued on the cards. Some of these patterns were more to do with the overall shape of kanji, rather than exact components. For example, I realised that some kanji with the ON reading KON had similar looking elements on the right side: 婚 根 混. Kanji connected like this are listed in the Series section of the Visual Code chapter of The Kanji Code.

Once I had made the cards, I used coloured highlighters to mark groups with similar sounds, such as those that ended in N (KEN, SHIN, etc.)or that ended in a long sound like SHOU or KOU. It was basically a mass categorizing activity.

By the end of the two weeks, I had a much deeper understanding of the relationship between kanji form and ON readings. As a result of this knowledge, I went from passing Level 3 of the JLPT to passing the kanji section of Level 1 in just one year. No – I didn’t pass the whole JLPT Level 1 test that year, but I passed the kanji section quite definitively – and I attribute most of that to my knowledge of phonetic components and visual patterns.

I later made this exercise formal, undertaking a linguistics dissertation at Macquarie University in 2011 entitled Cracking the ON Yomi Code, as part of a Master of Japanese Translation. Today, the topic of phonetic components remains controversial among Japanese linguistics scholars.

When I graduated, I put the study to one side, got on with my life as an elearning writer and Japanese translator, and started a family.  I returned to the list afresh in 2018 and completed The Kanji Code, which lists 150 phonetic components and provides example kanji and words for each identified pattern. I hope this list will help other learners to remember kanji ON readings.


*Epilogue: For those wondering if I eventually passed the whole JLPT Level 1 … after failing Level 1 the year after I took Level 3, I decided to set a more achievable goal and challenged for Level 2 the following year. This was in 2007, when the test was only held annually. I passed Level 2, and a couple of months later I returned to Sydney and started a full-time job as a translator at Fujitsu. At the same time I began a Master of Translation part-time. It took me 6 years to complete the Masters while also working full-time as a translator and elearning technical writer. I graduated with NAATI accreditation from Japanese to English. Some people say the NAATI exam is harder than the JLPT. I can’t confirm that, but I was basically all exam-ed out by that point. And, after a 5 year break from study, I’ve been lecturing at a Sydney university part-time while raising a young family. I wouldn’t rule out taking the JLPT N1 in future, but I have more than enough on my plate right now.

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