I have been studying Japanese on and off for years now, and I still struggle with the basics. This past summer, I brought home a kanji workbook with 1000 characters that I had traced over the outlines of and tried to commit to memory. Sifting through the stroke order and the onyomi and kunyomi is a trial, and without regular practice they slip away from me quickly. My grandfather, Art (Hayao) Komori, a nisei who was educated in Japan during his childhood, was baffled by the textbook when I showed him.
“This looks painful!” he said, paging through the hours of work I had poured into the book.
I laughed, but I felt a twinge of frustration. How did he learn them, then?
“I just always knew them,” Art replied.
Perhaps Art doesn’t remember rote memorization drills from his school days. Ninety years on, he deftly reads Japanese philosophy and studies etymology. But, when I send him a child-like letter, penned in hiragana with my newly acquired kanji worked in here and there, he sends the kindest responses.
「漢字上手ねジェーン！」(kanji jouzu ne, Jane!), or, “Your kanji is good, isn’t it, Jane!”