四字熟語 – four-character compounds

Japanese has a great many expressions made up of four kanji.  These are called 四字熟語 (よじじゅくご – yojijukugo).  That neatly self-referential term can be defined roughly as “four-character mature expression”.  Usually their meanings can be deduced from the kanji, but they are better considered idioms than words.  Many are sourced from Chinese and keep their original meaning, while others are native in origin.

Idioms add spice and colour to any language, and I think the addition of the kanji’s layers of meaning make this especially true of the 四字熟語.

Moreover, I believe that learning these can have the double purpose of learning kanji readings easily.  With every expression you get four readings, and they have a sort of built-in context, which makes learning them easy in the same way that learning phrases can be easier than learning individual words.

I have now taken the 401 most common 四字熟語 and made a shared deck for you anki users.  Search for “yojijukugo – 401 most common”.  There are three other 四字熟語 decks as well, but obviously mine is the best 😉  Big thanks to Kanji Haitani for providing the source material, and to BlackDragonHunt for parsing it into a tab-delimited file and saving me hours of work.

Eventually I want to upgrade this deck with example sentences, but this will do for now.

Edit: here are the kanji statistics for this deck.

The 401 cards in this deck contain:

  • 718 total unique kanji.
  • Old Jouyou: 643 of 1945 (33.1%).
  • New Jouyou: 15 of 191 (7.9%).
  • Jinmeiyou (reg): 21 of 645 (3.3%).
  • Jinmeiyou (var): 0 of 145 (0.0%).
  • 39 non-jouyou kanji.

Jouyou levels:

  • Grade 1: 66  of 80  (82.5%).
  • Grade 2: 100 of 160 (62.5%).
  • Grade 3: 92  of 200 (46.0%).
  • Grade 4: 90  of 200 (45.0%).
  • Grade 5: 68  of 185 (36.8%).
  • Grade 6: 57  of 181 (31.5%).
  • JuniorHS: 170 of 939 (18.1%).

JLPT Levels:

  • JLPT 4: 82 of 103 (79.6%).
  • JLPT 3: 107 of 181 (59.1%).
  • JLPT 2: 276 of 739 (37.3%).
  • JLPT 1: 178 of 922 (19.3%).
  • 75 non-JLPT kanji.


Update 2011-12-10:

A quick follow up on this is probably in order, since people still view this post from time to time it seems. It must be said that the original deck was, for me, an abject failure. Learning more than one reading in a card is a very very bad idea. However; now, much later, when I’ve gotten a great many readings under my belt already, I’ve come back to the 四字熟語 – not this deck, but the deck at readthekanji.com – and now, it’s really coming together. Usually when a new card comes up, I’ll know all the readings maybe a third of the time, three of them another third or so, occasionally two, and almost never one or none. So now my brain can find a home for that new reading, the 四字熟語 with its full reading and meaning, and usually only one reading is unknown or weak. Now that built-in context can really set to work.

So if you’ve come to this page looking for a shortcut for kanji readings, apologies but this isn’t it. There really isn’t one; but, once you’re at more of an intermediate level, with perhaps a solid knowledge of readings for a thousand characters, not all of them per character but the common ones, and some exposure with a bit of recollection for a few hundred more perhaps, at that point studying these 四字熟語 for both their own value as idiomatic expressions and for kanji readings will prove to be of great benefit.

two for the price of one

A frequent pattern in Japanese is the closely related transitive and intransitive verb pair.  These will use the same kanji, and usually the same reading for the kanji, but slightly different okurigana.  It’s easy to confuse the one for the other if you study randomly, but by studying pairs together, you can learn two verbs in no more time than it takes to learn one.

Let’s look at a couple examples.  How about:

集まる/集める (あつまる/あつめる)

Here, 集まる is the intransitive form and 集める is the transitive.  Both have the meaning of gathering or collecting.  So you might say, for example, ”虫集まる” – “The insects gather” – or ”彼は虫を集める” – “He collects insects”.  You can see the only difference is the next-to-last syllable, which moves from the あ row for intransitive to the え row for transitive.  Several of these pairs work the same way; another such is 決まる(きまる)- to be decided – and 決める(きめる)- to decide something.  But there are lots of different ways in which the pairs can vary and that is just one of the more common forms.

Koichi from Tofugu has put together a good basic list of such pairs on smart.fm, and that’s a great way to get started.  This interesting linguistic phenomenon can either really confuse you or make your learning more efficient, so you might as well use it to advantage!

katakana :(

Some people claim that katakana are harder than kanji.  They have a point.  The trouble with katakana is that since they’re only used for loan words, you end up not seeing them very much in the course of study.  And since they don’t have a meaning, there’s no “hook” to remember them by.  Picture a case where every English word that was borrowed from a foreign word – like ennui or schadenfreude* – was written in a completely different alphabet.  Might be a little hard to recall letters like z and q, no?

There’s an English sentence – “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” – that uses every letter in the alphabet in a single sentence.  Someone much cleverer than myself needs to make something like this for katakana.

*I coulda picked more pleasant examples I guess?

what are your japanese goals this year?

This is a typical new year’s post, typically late.

I was thinking of this issue a few days ago in an attempt to provide a little guidance to my efforts.  Wandering is perfectly fine mind you; constant contact, as Khatzumoto says, is more important than regimented progress.  Too much of that though and I end up just watching anime and calling it study!

So with Japanese, unlike most languages where your two fields of study are essentially the grammar and vocabulary, you have an additional field in the kanji.  Truth be told, I find it almost a little puzzling how for some people the kanji are a dreaded obstacle more than anything else.  In fact I suspect if it weren’t for the kanji I’d probably have picked a different language.  I find them utterly fascinating.

At the same time, they are just as much of a challenge as you’d think.  In essence, it’s as if you were going to a school or a workplace with 2000 colleagues and had to remember each of their faces and first and last names.

1) So for this year, I intend to go through Heisig with my trusty Kanji LS Touch loaded up and memorize the writings and meanings of all the general use kanji.  I’d also like to get a start on the readings, but most of that will probably come from –

2) the vocabulary, in which I would like to master the 3700-odd words from what used to be the JLPT 2.  I can see already that that’s going to require a fair bit of SRS work with sentences/phrases in addition to the regular use of Japanese Flip which I’ve been doing up till now.  Then,

3) in terms of grammar I don’t really have a set goal as such, other than I do want to finish my Japanese For Everyone text, which ought to take me to the point that I can hold a reasonable conversation.

Looking at it laid out like that and comparing it to my achievements up till now, this does look awfully optimistic.  However I am definitely much more seriously into Japanese study now since late last year than I’ve ever been before.  So while this represents what I would like to accomplish, it is certainly more of a direction than a destination.  The important thing is simply to stick with it every single day.

I guess you could say that about pretty much anything you’d like to achieve.

So if you’re studying Japanese as well, where do you see yourself at the end of the year?

RTK list for Kanji LS

Balancing my interest in the kanji etymology with my desire to learn them as fast as possible, I finally broke down and ordered Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji, like everyone else already has.  I still want to study Henshall’s book but I’ll do that afterwards as it will make an excellent introduction to etymology study; it will do that a fair bit better than it will help learn them in the first place, I think.

Naturally the first thing I did was try to find a pre-compiled list that I could import in order to study the kanji in Kanji LS in the same order as the book.  Despite the long odds of this, someone has in fact already done this 🙂  So thanks to user “exxel” on the Reviewing the Kanji forum for his excellent work.  Download the list here.

Incidentally, exxel has intelligently put the whole list in one file, using the range selection capability of Kanji LS; I should’ve done the same thing but never thought of it.  If I am very bored one day I’ll redo my lists into one.

GRJC files for Kanji LS Touch

Bit of a specialized interest here.  This is for people who are learning kanji using Kanji LS Touch and who would like to follow the order in the excellent text, A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters by Kenneth G. Henshall.

With the new functionality in Kanji LS Touch that allows you to import your own sets of kanji, this becomes possible.  But it’s still a lot of work to get that many kanji in a row.  I’ve now done this for you, dividing the book into sets of 34 characters (yes, this is the same set size that KingKanji uses; this is not a coincidence 😉 ).  These files can be found at http://willowroot.ca/grjc/. this link.

I hope this is useful to at least one other person!