The “science” of Kanji, part 5: stroke order matters

Handwriting practice

I wanted to end the week on a lighter note, so I thought this would be a nice topic to discuss. So, I have bad handwriting. Really bad handwriting. I remember being 6 years old, and having to practice writing A B C in school on “practice” paper with thick lines (similar to what’s sold here, style #2), but I always did a sloppy job. I have no patience for handwriting I guess. I also had no patience for coloring either; I remember doing that very poorly too and annoying my first-grade teacher.

When I started to learn Japanese in college, I also had little patience for writing. I can read hiragana easily, almost naturally now, but I struggle to write it. Kanji is even worse, because they characters are more complicated, and although I can read words, I can’t write them from memory. I can type them however without much trouble. I studied Mandarin in high-school for 2 years, so I learned stroke-order and basics, but that was 15 years ago, and I never practiced it since.

Also, since writing is not part of the JLPT, I’ve always ignored it until recently. I forget why, but I finally decided I needed to fix my handwriting, both in English and in Japanese, so I bought Kodansha’s Hiragana Workbook. It’s a pretty useful book (my wife is similarly impressed). On weekends, I practice along with my daughter, who is also learning to write in both (so far her Japanese is a lot stronger than her English), and in the evening I sometimes practice too, though not very often. This photo, taken at work, was me doodling on a notepad on my desk, practicing a few basic hiragana letters, and some kanji that were in poems from the Hyakunin Isshu. I write the poetry on my board at work, so that I can memorize the poems easily, but first I had to practice first on a notepad to get it right.

In order to learn correct stroke-order for kanji I write on the board, I looked up the kanji on this website, which has animated pictures of kanji being drawn, and soon discovered I was writing some of them wrong. For example, . I wrote the first line in the wrong direction (left to right, not right to left as is correct), and the final two strokes were backwards. As soon as I did it correctly, my writing looked better.

Also, notice the straight lines at the top. My wife has studied calligraphy since she was a little girl, and even taught a little bit to children here in Seattle (Japanese school). She explained to me that you have to practice basics like drawing horizontal straight lines over and over, many, many times. You also have to practice drawing vertical lines too. So I’ve been trying to follow her advice. It’s actually kind of hard to draw a straight line like that. You might be surprised. Part of the reason for doing that, besides better hand control, is also developing a sense of balance. When writing kana or kanji, you should have a good sense of balance for each part, otherwise, one part is too big, one is too small, too far away, etc.

I realize, as I get older, that a lot of non-technical skills are actually really important. I spent my 20′s relying a lot on technology both as a career, and also my way to solve problems, but in recent times I’ve begun to appreciate traditional “technology” more and more. I like using pencils, paper, and other basics, and prefer reading books to reading websites more. Technology is great until it breaks, crashes, gets stolen, or has a software bug that ruins your day, plus learning things like basic handwriting, writing cards to people, and such are timeless traditions I need to learn more.

Also, astute observers will notice the comic on the right. That is the second issue of Seinto Oniisan, which I mentioned here. This comic is pretty funny, and uses a lot of very casual, conversation Japanese, which can be different than what you study in books. That’s important to know if you actually intend to converse with Japanese people. ;)

P.S. Past “Kanji Science” posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

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4 Comments on “The “science” of Kanji, part 5: stroke order matters”

  1. ロバート says:

    I’ve found that using squared paper helps. Starting with large-ish (20mm) characters before writing smaller ones. It’s also useful to have pointers to good shapes, either from a teacher or from a book. I have some NintendoDS titles (DS美文字トレーニング for instance) that give a lot of feedback on character shapes and balance. It’s also better to have good handwritten models rather that computer typeface output to copy.
    This is a really good site for teaching Japanese schoolchildren good penmanship. There are free worksheets for part of the course.

    I think that the criticism of repeatedly writing characters by some JSL students, fails to take into account that for Japanese children (and I would say JSL students) it’s important to learn good handwriting and you can only do this through writing practice.

    I find it quite enjoyable to practice handwriting. It’s part of what got me interested in Japanese to begin with.

  2. Doug 陀愚 says:

    That’s awesome, Robert! Thank you very much.

    Yeah, although I don’t have a lot of time to do it, I do find the practice enjoyable. I like scribbling at work on that notepad when the stress gets to me and I need to unwind for a few minutes. It’s easy to start up and put back down when you need to. If only my handwriting wasn’t so terrible to be begin with. I hate filling out cards in English or Japanese. ;p

    Interestingly, bad handwriting seems to be endemic in my family, especially on my dad’s side. Maybe it’s genetic?

  3. ロバート says:

    It’s hard to know whether handwriting is nature or nurture. I think it all comes down to practice. I know I handwrite a lot less now I use a computer. But I once trained as an architect in the days before computers when handlettering was an important skill to acquire.
    My Japanese is quite childlike in comparison to my English. Even my English can be hard to read sometimes. Also my wife’s English characters aren’t as good as her Japanese, again I just think it’s practice and familiarity.
    My father who learnt to write in the days of dip ink pens had wonderful copperplate handwriting. Maybe in a generation or two no-one will write by hand anymore.

  4. Doug 陀愚 says:

    My wife in general has excellent handwriting, but she learned calligraphy at a young age and studied for years, so she has good balance and good hand control I think. I was raised pretty different, and pretty left-brained so technology’s always been my first love (until recent years), so that probably has something to do with it. :p

    You know, I’ve thought about that too (the disappearance of hand-writing), but I don’t think it will happen. It might become more and more of an art form or hobby, but there’s something about writing a card as opposed to an email that can’t be replaced.

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