Author Archives: Micah

About Micah

Oldest of 8 children. I'm skilled in piano performance and computer programming (especially C and Perl on Linux), and have a strong interest in typography, and well-made entertainment media such as books, movies, and video games.

Quotes from Wise Man’s Fear

Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind, and its recently-released sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear, recently solicited people on his blog for their favorite quotes from The Wise Man’s Fear. I read it on my Kindle, and highlighted most of my favorite passages, so it wasn’t much work for me to come up with a list, which I posted there. Figured I might as well put it up here on my blog, too, while I’m at it.

As a pianist, I can empathize with, “This is why there are so few musicians. A lot of folks can sing or saw out a tune on a fiddle. A music box can play a song flawlessly, again and again. But knowing the notes isn’t enough. You have to know how to play them.”

Though I love to play, I rarely listen to live or recorded piano performances, because too many people are focused on being technically accurate rather than being emotive. One counter-example would be Rachmaninoff, but of course his recordings are old and low-quality. You can still hear the difference loud and clear, though.

“My rooms were so pleasant it took me almost a full day to realize how much I hated them.”

“I idly wondered how exactly one was supposed to lounge. I couldn’t remember ever doing it myself. After a moment’s consideration, I decided lounging was probably similar to relaxing, but with more money in your pocket.”

“[T]he only act of creation I accomplished was to magically transform nearly a gallon of coffee into marvelous, aromatic piss.”

“I briefly entertained the notion that I was insane and didn’t know it. Then I considered the possibility that I had always been insane, acknowledged it as more likely than the former, then pushed both thoughts from my mind.”

“Only a fool worries over what he can’t control.” (Like the musician quote, this one resonates closely with something I frequently think about.)

And, finally,

“‘But no. I won’t lock you up. You haven’t done anything less than proper.’
  “‘I broke that boy’s arm,’ I said.
  “‘Hmm,’ he rumbled darkly. ‘Forgot about that. He reached into his pocket and brought out ha’penny. He handed it to me. ‘Much obliged.’”

Final Fantasy 7 versus 8

Recently on Facebook, I mentioned downloading the Japanese version of Final Fantasy VIII, and a college friend of mine on Facebook retorted with a “too bad FF8 sucked” comment. Here was my reply, which I think pretty much sums of the core ideas of VII and VIII fairly well. Please note: I absolutely adore Final Fantasies VII, VIII and X. VII and VIII are tied in terms of my affection for them, though given the descriptions below, from a purely story-focused viewpoint, VIII wins hands down. I think I’d love VI, too, if I could ever play it all the way through. IX and XIII are good too, but not in the same league as the others.

Spoilers ahead. Duh. Continue reading

Announcement: Niwt (Nifty Integrated Web Tools)

Alright, I’ve been working my ass off lately on this project, which I haven’t wanted to say a lot about until i had something reasonable to show for it. I now feel that I’ve reached this point (barely, and depending on your point of view).

Niwt is a project that aims to (eventually) reproduce most of the functionality of GNU Wget (and some additional), but with a radically different design philosophy—namely, that it is built entirely around Unix pipelines, and facilities to easily swap out or extend every existing piece of functionality with an alternative (or additional) program that offers equivalent (or improved) functionality. It is expected that this will result in a big trade-off between, the relative efficiency, lower resource consumption, and portability to other systems that Wget enjoys (which Niwt will certainly not), versus extreme and relatively easy customization. If a highly customizable tool is what you need, Niwt may (when it’s finished) fit your needs; if efficiency and general leanness are what is called for, it most likely will not.

In terms of functionality, Niwt has virtually nothing to offer at the moment. It can download files. It doesn’t have Wget’s automatic connection recovery (yet), nor does it have timestamping or recursion (yet). The point of this pre-pre-pre-prerelease is not to demonstrate what Niwt does, but what it could eventually do, and how it will allow you to do it. Every bit of Niwt’s operation is open and transparent to the user, and modifiable in every way.

To find out more about this project, please visit, and especially to get an idea of how it works (though that page is best enjoyed with your copy of niwt already installed, which you can get from

I’ve set up an IRC channel, #niwt @, where I’ll try to be available when I can, and a users’ discussion mailing list at .

Try it out and let me know what you think!

Niwt’s source code is free and open source software, and is available under the MIT (simple BSD-style) license.

Japanese Mail Archive Character-Set Transcoder

I have no idea if this will be helpful to anyone else, but I’ll just throw this out there for the search engines to pick up, just in case. I wrote a Perl script to take a Sendmail mbox archive of email messages, and transcode the text of all their bodies, and the Subject and From headers, to UTF-8. This script may be had here. It reads in the archive on standard input, and spits the transcoded archive on standard output.

I’m subscribed to a few Japanese-language mailing lists (well, more accurately, one Japanese-language mailing list, a daily mail of the Slashdot Japan headlines, and Google Alerts for wget and tmux). The idea for this was for me to get Japanese practice by reading regular Japanese content on subjects I’m interested in.

The problem is, I just don’t read it when it comes in. The best time for me to practice Japanese is on the train, during my work commute. Which is why I have a Kindle 3, so I can browse Japanese websites on the train. So, I need these mails web-accessible. No problem, I can use a mail web archive tool, like hypermail.

But hypermail doesn’t like dealing with mbox files that consist of messages that are in various incompatible encodings; some of my mail arrives in UTF-8 (unicode), and others in ISO-2022-JP (a popular encoding for Japanese-language text). Hypermail doesn’t deal with encoded characters in the mail headers, and also I didn’t know what character encoding to configure Apache to tell the browser, because it differed from one mail to the next.

So I wrote this transcoder tool in Perl. It just scans through all the mails, decodes the Subject and From headers (currently leaves the others), and transcodes all ISO-2022-JP (or anything that’s not UTF-8), so all the messages use the same encoding, and I just configure Apache to use UTF-8 for all of them. The best part is that, now that the actual content and the server-specified character encoding agree consistently, I can use online tools like Hiragana Megane to process this web mail archive, and automatically provide pronunciations for words I’m not very familiar with.

The script requires the following Perl modules: MIME::Tools (for parsing email format), Mail::Mbox::MessageParser (for parsing mbox), and Text::Iconv (to handle the transcoding).

Slides from Wget Talk

I’ve made the slides available from my Wget talk here in PDF form. You can also get the OpenOffice “Impress” file here, but note that it uses non-standard/non-free fonts, so most likely won’t display properly for you.

As part of my talk, I also used some recorded terminal sessions demonstrating wget usage, including prompts to wait for keypresses. I created these sessions using GNU Teseq (a project I wrote for debugging terminal sessions); but the sessions were then edited by hand and played using a specially-modified version of the reseq program (part of the Teseq project); those changes have not yet been pushed to the development sources. When I have time, I’ll push the final changes to the official development sources at, and then make the automated terminal demos available as well.

Please note that full documentation on wget can be had at

Update 2011-01-04: The modifications to Teseq were pushed a few weeks ago, so I’ll go ahead and put the script files up; there’s a script demonstrating Wget’s automatic retry capabilities, and one demonstrating the --continue option, for continuing downloads across different sessions. These scripts are unlikely to be useful to anyone who isn’t familiar with the points I was making during the script’s run, but there you go. You’ll probably want to right-click the links and do a “Save as…”.

In order to process them, you need to go grab the development sources of Teseq; you do this by obtaining the Mercurial revision control software and the GNU autotools (autoconf, automake, etc), and then running “hg clone” somewhere suitable. Within the source directory, run ./ and then do the typical ./configure && make && make install (all that’s actually needed to generate the reseq program is the ./configure step).

Update 2014-12-15: In order to process them, you need to install GNU Teseq (another project I maintain), at least version 1.1. It’s available on a variety of Unixy platforms, including Debian, Ubuntu, and Fedora. It’s available on Fink, but not version 1.1, so you’d need to follow the “get from repository” instructions in the struck-through paragraph above. On Debian/Ubuntu, you can install the teseq package by running apt-get install teseq; just ensure that it’s at least version 1.1, or it won’t support the interactive files.

Once you have reseq installed, you run the scripts like: reseq --replay --halts auto-retries.seq. Press a key whenever prompted to do so by a green-colored message. You’ll want to do this replay in an xterm-compatible emulator, at least 80 columns wide. You can also play it without the prompts/pauses by removing the --halts option from the invocation.

Upcoming Wget Talks

If you’re interested in GNU Wget, and live in California within a reasonable distance of either Davis (semi-near Sacramento, in Yolo County) or Mountain View (Silicon Valley), then you may be interested in coming to one of the talks I’m scheduled to give at those two locations about GNU Wget. More information can be found here (Davis) and here (Mountain View). The Davis one will take place Novemeber 15th (a week from Monday), and the Mountain View one is January 5th.

Here’s the blurb.

GNU Wget is a computer program that retrieves content from web servers. It supports downloading via HTTP, HTTPS, and FTP protocols, the most popular TCP/IP-based protocols used for web browsing.

Its features include recursive download, conversion of links for offline viewing of local HTML, support for proxies, and much more. It appeared in 1996, coinciding with the boom of popularity of the Web, causing its wide use among Unix users and distribution with most major Linux distributions. Written in portable C, Wget can be easily installed on any Unix-like system and has been ported to many environments, including Mac OS X, Microsoft Windows, OpenVMS, MorphOS and AmigaOS.

It has been used as the basis for graphical programs such as GWget for the GNOME Desktop and KGet for the KDE Desktop and VisualWget for Windows. [From Wikipedia].

Micah Cowan was maintainer of Wget between mid-2007 and early 2010. His talk will discuss:

  • What is Wget?
  • My history with Wget
  • How to use Wget
    • Restartable downloads
    • Website archiving/recursive downloads
    • Fine-grained controls over which links to follow
    • Content conversions for local browsing
  • Wget shortcomings
  • Lessons learned while maintaining Wget
  • Issues unique to maintaining a GNU project
  • (Mostly) Harmless Faiths

    I just started following Atheist Quote of the Day on Facebook. Today it asked its constituents the question, Most of us will agree that a faith based without evidence is irrational and negative, as most religious faiths are. However, what forms of faith, if any, do you think are good?

    Here was my answer:

    I like Buddhism, if you strip out the mythology and concepts like reincarnation. Siddhartha is said to have refused to make a definite statement about nebulous concepts such as reincarnation (see the book “Buddhism Without Beliefs”, which I must admit to not having finished).

    I like the Quakers (the Religious Society of Friends). Their faith is very simple and non-specific; the more liberal varieties don’t require a god (there are Atheist Quakers, though I don’t know many). They hold that every human has “the divine light”, which is non-specific enough that you could arguably define it to be “the human spirit” (which doesn’t have to be a non-physically-based entity)… Best of all, it does not approve of basing your life on a book. I’ve known of a few Atheists and Agnostics who came from a Quaker background, which honestly seems a fairly natural progression.

    Unitarianism seems okay. It’s not for me, being old enough to feel kind of stuffy and liturgical. On the one hand, by acknowledging some basic truth among all faiths, it might be considered to give some undue credibility to them; on the other hand, being forced to treat them all alike, it effectively prevents any specific dogmas or creeds from drawing too much attention and approval.

    Don’t know much about it, but from the little I do know Ba’hai seems alright. Probably suffers the same basic problems as Unitarianism. It has the key feature of not getting too caught up in any particular beliefs, because God supposedly is revealing himself through a series of clearer pictures (Christianity, then Islam, then Ba’hai…), and theirs is not the last revelation.

    New Japanese Blog

    I’ve split off a new blog,, from the handful of articles on this blog about learning Japanese; and also added a new post examining readings of the kanji character 「見」 within compounds, and a number of different kanji which can be used to write the verb 「みる」 and when to use them.

    The plan is to focus on learning tips, groups of kanji that are commonly used to write essentially the same word (such as in the new article), and learning kanji through reading practice.

    Towards a System for Learning to Read Japanese

    This article has been moved to; post any new comments there.

    Learning Japanese through reading practice can be very frustrating (probably a familiar theme by now). Instead of simply learning just new vocabulary or new characters, you’re often trying to learn new characters, new radical/sub-component characters that made up the character you’re studying (in order to help you understand how its components combined to provide the meaning it has), 4 or 5 or 10 possible pronunciations this character might have depending on a variety of contexts, new vocabulary and compounds that use this character, and maybe even some new, previously unfamiliar grammar points or nuances to the phrase you’re trying to study. I often feel that attempting to learn vocabulary and characters by reading through Japanese text is an exercise in sheer force of will: just pushing through and tackling all these items simultaneously, just to learn sufficiently about one character in one word, and having to start it all over again for the next tiny fraction of a phrase I’m trying to both comprehend and learn for future benefit.

    I’ve used a variety of techniques to help me expand my repertoire of kanji, and none of them are a panacea. I’ll spend some time trying to read through grade-school books. This has the advantage of having a much lower density of kanji to learn at one time, but a disadvantage in that kanji-derived vocabulary is actually much quicker to learn if I understand them from their component kanji, giving me insight to why it’s pronounced that way, and associating those sounds to the word’s meaning. So I’ll get into some heavier reading, in order to focus more on learning kanji than on learning vocabulary, but of course I run into the problems I described in the paragraph above. Then I’ll turn to a Japanese reader for learners, where it provides the vocab and character readings for me right there (but of course only the readings for what I happen to be reading right then and there). Then I’ll try learning kanji through means other than reading them in a sentence; for instance, going through a list of kanji by order of frequency-of-use. That way, each new character I learn will be applicable in a maximum of reading situations: I’ll get the biggest bang for my learning buck. Or I’ll spend some time learning more about characters that are also components of other, more complex characters; they may not be especially frequently-used characters, but knowing them will enable me to better understand and learn about the more frequently-used characters.

    But I get to feeling like I’m studying each of these methods through sheer force of will, and not at all feeling like I’m learning fluidly, easily, or naturally, fighting my way tooth-and-nail for every inch of gained territory, banging my head against the same wall until I get a headache, switching to pounding against it with my fist until the skin of my hands is too raw. The problem with all these methods is, I’ll learn all I need to know about what I need for that specific situation, and maybe some related studying for my future understanding—but I won’t get to practice that knowledge, so I stand a pretty solid chance of losing it.

    What I really liked about Miller’s A Japanese Reader (see my previous article) is that it starts from zero, and builds up to a fairly complete repertoire of characters. This is great, because I’m not so much jumping into a sea of characters, trying to grab each fish with my hands (while struggling to keep the fish I already had), as sitting with a net by a stream, nabbing each fish as it comes past me one by one, and tossing it in with the others. However, the text moves too fast, and doesn’t require enough repeat encounters with the same information to keep me from losing what I’ve learned so far (if I stick to the net-and-stream analogy, then there’s a gaping tear in my net). Also, it’s all old texts so it’s significantly out-of-date (some of the fish aren’t particularly edible?).

    The Reading Japanese book by Eleanor Jorden (again, see the article) does a much better job of letting you become familiar with each new character before you have to deal with the next. It frequently seems like it brings up some previous character at just the right time. Even with the kana (syllabic) characters it introduces as few as possible as are necessary to start using them to form words. It’s a pretty ideal way to learn; unfortunately, it doesn’t teach as many characters as it might (425) and it too is fairly out-of-date in some of its information. Both Reading Japanese and A Japanese Reader suffer from the fact that they depend on other books to teach the grammar they use in the book, and are designed to be used in lock-step with other materials that are no longer in print today (despite the fact that these books themselves are).

    There are some things I really wish had been explained to me earlier on in my Japanese learning career. One of the earliest things I learned was that the verb “miru” can be used for any of “to see, to watch, to look at”. When I started to learn kanji, I learned that “miru” is written 見る. No one bothered to explain to me that it might be more appropriate to write as 観る in some situations where “to watch” is meant (such as “I forgot to watch The Daily Show last night”), or as 視る if I mean “to view”. Every time I come across a new character for a verb or an adjective, I have to do some legwork to find out whether there are other characters used for the same (or nearly the same, and homophonic) word for subtly different contexts. But none of the textbooks or learning resources I had taught me to do this; I’ve learned to do so through experience. Worse (much, much worse!) there are no Japanese-to-English dictionaries I’ve ever encountered that even bother to differentiate properly about which one to use and when! Usually all the variant writings are just listed alongside each other for the same definition. If there are examples, they may illustrate some of the uses properly, but not in wide enough range to give the learner a clue. This can be a major problem! It would be much, much, much better if this had been explained to me from the start, and if every time a new character was introduced for words that also used other characters in different situations, some context was given to make it quite clear in which contexts I should and should not choose this particular character to express a word.

    For about the last year or so, ideas have been percolating in my head about what an effective system for learning to read Japanese might be. I would love a system that combined the strengths of some of my favorite systems, while avoiding as many of their weaknesses as possible. Learning shouldn’t have to be an impressive display of abilities in concentration and determination. It should introduce characters a few at a time, building only on previous repertoire (unlike typical “reader/collection” texts, which tend to dump the characters of a normal block of text on you, without building on previous studies), and reiterate previously studied material often enough to keep it fresh in your mind, without moving too quickly, and providing a sufficient repertoire of characters before the end to allow the student to be able to recognize and understand most of the characters they encounter in other, more natural Japanese texts.

    A lot of students are under the impression that they must learn all 1,945 (soon to be more) of the Jōyō Kanji (those required to be taught to children at school from 1st grade through high school), but I’m not convinced that’s the case. All kanji characters are not created equal. According to the Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary, from an analysis of data collected from a year’s worth of issues of the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shin’bun, understanding just the 500 most frequently-used kanji provides eighty percent coverage of the papers’ text! One quarter of the nearly two thousand characters in the Jōyō Kanji set provide coverage for four out of five of every kanji in the text! And knowing the top thousand kanji gives you 95% coverage!

    Of course, 80% coverage still means that you’re having to struggle with one out of every five characters, which is still a bit too frequent to read comfortably. 95% is a great deal better, but you’re still looking up one out of twenty. Still, it at least provides enough of a foundation that you may only have to look up one or two in each sentence (more on some, maybe none on others—it’s an average, after all). Enough that studying the remaining kanji required to get truly comfortable won’t be such an incredibly daunting task.

    Also, keep in mind that any sort of frequency analysis from just one source is liable to be biased. Looking over frequency lists taken from analysis of newspapers, I see characters related to politics, business and government at much higher positions than I imagine they’d appear in, say, literature, or manga. Still, quite a lot of it should correspond to the most important characters from a wider variety of sources, and pretty much the same principles of coverage should apply.

    Ideally, characters that are component parts of more complex characters should be introduced before those characters (even if they occur less frequently). We may be wasting time on “lesser” characters where the more complex character will be handier in reading real-world texts, but the less frequently-encountered character could make it easier to understand and remember the more frequently-encountered character, which could make the detour worthwhile.

    Of course, if we introduce too many obscure component characters just to provide study keys for the more complex characters, we may be spending too much energy learning them. And the value of learning these component characters may depend a great deal on whether we want to focus on simply recognizing characters on site, or be able to actually write them out correctly. It takes much greater familiarity with the character’s form and components to write than it does to recognize.

    I took a look at a few sort-by-usage-frequency lists, and made some gut decisions about what might be the minimum number of characters I’d need to know in order to feel fairly comfortable in reading a book with a dictionary in hand. The first 500 characters from newspaper-based lists have many many characters that I recognize to be essential, but there were still quite a lot of essential characters that are outside of that group. I started looking through the list, noting how often I’d see characters that I was familiar with and knew to be pretty crucial. Around the thousand-character mark it started feeling like a tolerably low leverl of important characters, but I was still seeing a lot of important characters beyond there. I made up a list based on the first thousand most frequently-used characters as identified by Monash University’s KANJIDIC, which used data collected by Alexandre Girardi from four years of Mainichi Shin’bun issues; and hand-picked about eighty additional characters from the next 700 frequently-used characters (positions 1001-1700 in the list) that I knew I’d personally encountered more than once during reading (yeah, I know: not very scientific).

    Alright, so given all this, here’s my thoughts on what I currently consider to be an ideal system for improving Japanese reading abilities.

    • Reading exercises should be fun, and not drone on mindlessly (perhaps unlike this article—sorry). It should be interesting, gripping, or at least humorous… anything to make it fun, providing enough motivation to keep learning.
    • It should be as natural as possible. Instead of requiring you to try to come up with sufficiently clever mnemonics and visualizations that will help you finally remember the character (but ultimately fail to provide you with keys for the various pronunciations in various contexts), it will rely on repetition and reinforcement to keep the information fresh in your mind. New concepts should be hammered in at first, and only gradually drift into the general background, being sure to make frequent reappearances.
    • The complete array of a given character’s common pronunciations and uses should be studied together. It doesn’t help much to learn just one portion of a character’s typical uses, if that’s not the use you happen to encounter when you’re reading “real” Japanese texts.
    • Anything that gets in the way of actual reading (where reading includes comprehension, of course) should be avoided as much as possible. Studying vocabulary lists (or flipping back and forth between them and the text) puts a halt to the reading; new words and kanji should be introduced in the text itself, accompanied by an annotation providing the translation for this context… it should become apparant through varied use what the more detailed definition is.
    • The most frequently-encountered kanji should appear before less frequent ones.
    • It should introduce a sufficient set of characters that reading “real” Japanese texts is not hampered by lack of kanji knowledge.
    • Ideally, it would also familiarize the student with characters as they are commonly used for names of people and places.

    Unfortunately, as far as I know, no system matching these criteria is available, to my knowledge. If I want to use a system like this, I’ll have to create it. It would be much, much better if someone with a much, much greater knowledge of the Japanese language would create this, as I’m prone to make plenty of mistakes, teach some things that aren’t true, and especially, write Japanese that would look a little strange to actual Japanese readers. But no one else has done it yet, and I (and I think others) need this, even if it’s far from perfect, so I believe I’ll make an attempt. If I make it as open a process as possible, perhaps I can find collaborators that would be willing to help me edit and polish, and to correct my mistakes and my poor Japanese.

    But in order to create such a work in a remotely feasible amount of time, I’ll have to make certain compromises:

    • It will focus almost exclusively on learning new kanji. Kana-only vocabulary, and enhanced knowledge of grammar, will not be priorities, though they will receive light treatment.
    • The focus will be on reading, not writing. Information about stroke order, and differentiating handwritten forms from printed forms, will not be included. Since these days Japanese is more often typed than written by hand, this seems a reasonable priority decision. However, the ability to choose the right character to express a given word is just as important when typing as when writing, so reading exercises will attempt to give students the tools they need in order to make the right choices.
    • Characters that form components of other characters won’t be added to the list of ~1,080 characters I plan to include. However, such characters that are already among the highest-frequency characters that were slated for learning, will be moved toward the front so that they occur before the characters that incorporate them.
    • A certain level of understanding of Japanese grammar and vocabulary will be presumed. This is not for beginning students, but for intermediate students that wish to come to an advanced-intermediate level of kanji knowledge.

    I guess we’ll find out what comes of this. I’ll be doing this for my own benefit primarily, because I really, really need for this to exist. But I’ll need someone else to come along and fix it.

    Resources That Gave Me A Leg Up In Japanese

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    As I mentioned before (here and here), learning Japanese can be very frustrating. Here are some resources that I found to be better-than-average at helping me find the next footing. Many of them have unique qualities that made them enormously helpful in some way; but nearly all of them also have major shortcomings.

    Essential Japanese by Samuel E. Martin. I can’t even begin to describe how enormously helpful this book is. It taught me more in one, literally pocket-sized, 460-page volume than I had previously understood from 18 years of studying Japanese on-and-off through classes at a Japanese Buddhist church, university courses, and various resources I used for self-teaching.

    Unfortunately, it’s also incredibly outdated, and much the vocabulary is specialized for post-World War II military basemen and Christian missionaries, who were the primary target market for this book (probably making up the majority of Americans living in Japan). It’s also out of print; all these things make it somewhat difficult to recommend for general use. It teaches some extremely formal language that has nothing to do with “Essential Japanese” any longer—it’s pretty much only spoken around royalty, and most people aren’t dining with the Emperor’s family. It’s great for understanding super-formal speech in a Samurai movie, maybe, not much else. But on the other hand, you won’t easily find explanations of these speech modes anywhere else, and in addition it explains language that really is crucial to understand in a very straightforward manner, that I hadn’t seen addressed in other textbooks I’d used. It is at the same time the most complete and most concise book on Japanese grammar I’ve had the pleasure to know.

    It’s worth noting that it does not use any sort of Japanese writing system other than romaji (latin letters).

    Here’s my review of it on Amazon.

    Nintendo DS + Dictionary software. The Nintendo DS is, of course, a video game system, but Nintendo and other publishers have actually made available plenty of great software for Japanese language studies on the DS. The dictionary software I use is this one: 漢字そのまま・楽引き辞典 (kanji sono mama/rakubikijiten), which means something like “Kanji As-It’s-Written” Easy-Lookup Dictionary. It’s a Japanese-Japanese and Japanese-English dictionary, intended for Japanese users (the interface is in Japanese), but the great thing about it is that you can just draw in the characters you want to look up. This makes it easy to look up words, even if they’re made up of characters you’ve never seen before! Without a tool like this, it used to take me several minutes just to look up one character; if I was trying to look up a word made up of several characters that weren’t familiar to me, I could spend around 10 minutes on each character (finding the primary radical, and counting the total strokes, perhaps getting the stroke-count wrong, checking the other stroke-count entries…), and then spend a few minutes on the dictionary while I try each of the several pronunciations that character might have to see which one is being used in this case. Looking it in while writing it is just loads easier!

    The character-recognition is very forgiving, and frequently recognizes the character I’m trying for, even when I’m writing on a bumpy train or shuttle, and can’t really even recognize the character I wrote myself! If it guesses wrong, it gives you the chance to choose from close alternatives. Occasionally I have trouble making it understand the character I wanted; this is most often due to getting the ordering of strokes wrong (most of the time it forgives this as well, but there are times it doesn’t). In general, though, I spend seconds performing a lookup that could’ve taken me twenty minutes!

    Unfortunately, the quality of the Japanese-English dictionary entries themselves leaves much to be desired; often, I’ll use the Nintendo DS to identify the word, and then look up the word in a different dictionary in order to actually gain understanding of it. The Japanese-Japanese entries tend to be better, but of course that can have the tendency of sending me looking up other words from the definition… not ideal. Still, it’s well worth the money I spent; I might leave my paper dictionary at home, but I always have my DS with me if I plan to do any Japanese reading.

    Reading Japanese by Eleanor Jorden.

    Here’s the text of my review on Amazon:

    This is a truly excellent resource for learning written Japanese. Great pains were taken to introduce the characters in such a way that they can be used immediately and repeatedly from that point forward. For instance, when beginning with the Katakana characters, rather than teaching the characters in canonical order, it starts with just the two characters “su” and “mi”, and from those teaches you to write “Sue”, “Smith”, “Miss Sue Smith”, etc. It then quickly builds on these, ensuring at each step that the next small set of characters introduces a large array of new things you can immediately learn to write.

    Accusations that the material is out-of-date, are not wrong (this is the reason I must give the book four stars rather than five). The book was published in 1976! Much of the kanji is used a little differently, or has been replaced in certain uses by other characters. Of course, most of it is still applicable, and when no newer resources come even close to being as effective, you learn you must make do with information that may be out-of-date–better to have slightly-dated but solid knowledge of the most common uses of several hundred kanji than to continue to struggle to learn your first hundred or so.

    Note that the author has written a more recently-published set of books, Japanese: The Written Language: Part 1, Volume 1 (Workbook) (Yale Language Series); I have not examined these but I suspect they may correspond to much of the same material, but perhaps more recently-updated. It might be worthwhile to look into those.

    This book, Reading Japanese, is intended to be used in conjunction with a companion grammar book, Beginning Japanese: Part 1 (Yale Language Series) (Pt. 1). However, if you are already familiar with basic Japanese grammar, you will probably find that you can do without the companion.

    A note on romanization: you should not be scared off by the fact that it uses “si” instead of “shi”, or “hu” instead of “fu”. Many Japanese will romanize similarly, and a serious student of the language will need to become comfortable with systems such as Kun’rei-shiki in addition to the more popular (at least among English speakers) Hepburn romanization system. Recognizing “si” and “shi” as the same phoneme with the same pronunciation will help the student become stronger in the language.

    Weighing in at only 425 kanji, this book will clearly not be enough on its own to give you command of the written language; but it provides a very excellent start. Follow it up with something like A Japanese Reader: Graded Lessons for Mastering the Written Language (Tuttle Language Library) (another somewhat-dated but excellent book), which covers a much fuller set.

    Reading Japanese With A Smile

    Here’s the text from my review on Amazon:

    What I really love about this book is it provides a lot of meat in a very small package. The book is both small enough and complete enough, that you can simply grab it on your way out the door, to work on when you’re standing in line, or on the bus, etc. Each story is less than two small pages, so you get your sense of accomplishment quicker. 🙂

    On the pages opposing the Japanese stories are the english translations; but I don’t find the translations so useful as the sentence-by-sentence destruction (which repeats the Japanese, but with furigana) and commentary that follows after each story. Each sentence is further decomposed almost word-by-word, and includes such things as explanations of common idioms, and even pointing out puns and wordplay.

    Since the decompositions provide all the readings for the kanji and explanations of the vocabulary, the book is really all you need to read the passages. You don’t need to grab your kanji and wa-ei dictionaries (though I tend to anyway, in case I want to gain a little more insight).

    Because of the furigana, I don’t think strong knowledge of kanji is necessary to enjoy this book (though of course it will make it easier: you may not need to flip to the commentary as often). A working, intermediate knowledge of Japanese grammar, however, is important, as you’re generally assumed to understand various verb forms and sentence patterns.

    A Japanese Reader by Roy A. Miller.

    You can find this book here on Amazon.

    The main drawing feature of this book is that it starts from zero understanding of Japanese writing systems (but not of grammar), and builds up to bring you to a complete repertoire of not only the kana syllabaries, but the full set of the 1,850 tōyō kanji characters (the precursor to the current set of 1,945 jōyō kanji that are required to be considered “literate” in Japanese, which didn’t exist yet when this was originally written).

    As you might guess from that last sentence, this book is old. It was first written in 1962, and in fact, some of the earlier lessons are intended to be used alongside Martin’s Essential Japanese book at the top of the list; in fact, I originally bought my copy of Essential Japanese for exactly that reason (I had the Reader first).

    I admire the aspirations, and the book has been very useful to me, but I’ll admit I’ve never gotten much beyond lesson 30 (of 75). It is very fast-paced, very demanding, and doesn’t really reiterate often enough in my opinion, so there’s a good chance of losing what you’ve gained.

    Kanji ABC

    Here’s the text of my review on Amazon; hopefully it will explain what I appreciate about it.

    This book is a great help for finding tricks to learn kanji characters more quickly. However, I don’t think it’s sufficient on its own to really complete learning these characters.

    The book is divided into two parts; Part I is a repertoire of around 250 “graphemes”, kanji “pieces” that are used to build up actual kanji characters, but may not necessarily form characters of their own. If that sounds like the definition of a “radical”, well good: they’re closely related. However, there are various graphemes that are not officially considered radicals, so you might consider the graphemes to be a superset of the radicals.

    Each grapheme is associated with an english word or phrase. The book is fairly careful to use different words for very similar meanings, so that you can manage to keep them separate.

    Part II is a list of two thousand kanji characters, ordered in such a way as to make full use of the graphemes learned. The kanji are ordered so that the characters only use those graphemes that have already been introduced in the associated group from Part I. Each character is listed along with only its very most common readings (kun and on), and a list of the english words representing the graphemes from which it has been built (which appear in an index at the back of the book).

    The book is intended to be used in one of two ways: one way (the way I’ve chosen to use it) is to learn all of the graphemes in Part I (or at least a large number), and then use Part II to look up characters you wish to learn, and see which graphemes it is made up of. Of course, in reality, you wouldn’t normally need to look them up to begin with if you know all the graphemes: you’ll recognize them in the characters themselves.

    The other way this book is intended to be used, is to systematically learn all the characters of Part II, by learning one group of graphemes, and then studying all the characters from Part II for that same group (which will be ordered appropriately). According to the preface, this is the “ideal” way to use the book. However, I don’t really see that as practically possible, without the use of a more detailed kanji dictionary (such as The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary. Because, for on readings, you can’t really get a feel for a character without seeing in what compounds it appears, and how; and learning kun readings can be very misleading, since often a single adjective (atatakai) or verb (hajimeru) may be written using multiple alternative kanji, depending on the context and subtle differences in meaning that are intended. Thus, Kanji ABC might be adequate by itself to learn to _read_ the most common cases where these characters appear, but is quite inadequate for learning when to _write_ them.

    The nice thing about this book is that it provides just the tools you need to help grasp the components of a given kanji character, and little else. It doesn’t bog you down with _why_ these components have been associated with a given meaning. In the end I think this helps you to learn them more quickly. Other books that may focus more on a character’s etymology (such as A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters (Tuttle language library) (Japanese Edition) can be very enlightening, but in the end they tend to just confuse, as the original etymology of the characters can often have little to do with the modern form and meaning. On the other hand, the trade-off is that you often don’t get the “true, original meaning” of a radical or grapheme, just the one that makes it easiest to combine it with other graphemes to learn a kanji.

    A Guide to Remembering the Japanese Characters

    Here‘s the link on Amazon.

    I mentioned this book in the review above for Kanji ABC. Basically, this is the book I used to use to accomplish about the same things for which I now use the tricks from Kanji ABC. That doesn’t mean that Kanji ABC is better; they both have their points. Kanji ABC assigns words/concepts to individual “graphemes” without really explaining them; the Guide will dissect a character into its original ideographic components, referring to historical forms and meanings. But often, it will end up by saying “but its current meaning is totally different”, and all that build-up for grasping its history may well turn out to be for nothing as far as actually finding the keys for remembering the character is concerned.

    Kanji ABC is pretty much oriented around learning hundreds of “graphemes” and their associated concepts, which afterward can be recognized in actual characters, and using it in the reverse to look up an arbitrary character and then break it into its individual concepts doesn’t really work as effectively (in my opinion). The Guide works a bit better for that, since you don’t have to go looking up the other components it broke into (apart from components which are themselves other characters), and it provides you a workable mnemonic phrase right there in the entry.

    Learning Japanese

    (Amazon link.) This is a fairly academic, university student-oriented book. I don’t know how it compares on the whole with other Japanese textbooks, since these are the ones I happened to use in University and in my classes as a teen. However, I will say, the one thing I really, really have come to appreciate about it is that it focuses a lot of its energy and book-space on drills, lots and lots of drills. Reading drills, question/response drills, transformation drills (where you start with a word and build or modify a sentence as it introduces new words to add to your “sentence”), etc. It gives you a firm stepping-stool into that crucial skill of thinking in Japanese, rather than translating to and from English. Although I can’t claim to really be doing that, I’m much closer to it than I would otherwise be, thanks to this book (and I’d probably be much closer if I just went back and went through these drills again).

    Japanese books for school-age children.

    When I want to get into reading Japanese without straining myself over kanji, it helps to find some Japanese material intended for school-age children (who themselves are still learning kanji). I’ve picked up a few books from the Kinokuniya bookstore I’m fortunate to have nearby in San Jose from the series, イッキによめる! (ikki ni yomeru! “Read in one go!” link), which are collections of Japanese folk tales, with one book for each year of grade school. One nice thing about this is that these stories tend, more than most other books I’ve read, to use a lot of colloquialisms, which is a great way to learn some areas of Japanese you might not otherwise be familiar with.