Furigana: just another crutch

If you start studying Japanese, one of the first —and best— pieces of advice you’ll see is “avoid romanization”. The stated reason is simple: almost everything you see written in the roman alphabet is intended for non-Japanese readers, so learning to read romaji saves you some frustration up front, but cuts you off from anything that wasn’t specifically converted for Westerners.

There’s more to it than that, though, but there are plenty of anti-romaji rants out there. Today, I’m going to whine about furigana, small-print phonetic spellings of kanji commonly used in print, and almost completely unsupported on the web. They look something like this (CSS replaced with a GIF, because IE 7 is still broken):

fuigana example

The advantage is obvious: if you can read hiragana, you don’t necessarily have to look up unfamiliar kanji, and even if you do, you don’t have to identify radicals and count strokes. They’re also “real Japanese”; books and comics meant for children and younger teens are full of them, and even adult-oriented material needs them occasionally, to deal with unusual readings and rare kanji. They also get used to add emphasis and subtext.

Some of the disadvantages are also obvious:

  • They have to be added by hand.
  • They increase the required whitespace between lines of text.
  • If multiple words on the same line have furigana, without careful placement they may overlap.
  • If the original text is small, the furigana have to be tiny. This is particularly bad with manga, which are reduced 50% or more when reprinted.

One less-obvious disadvantage that’s been biting me recently is that someone who is accustomed to reading furigana will look at them first, even when he knows the associated kanji. I’ve studied over 1,000 kanji (and written out over 2,000), and if I retained them all, I’d be able to puzzle out the vast majority of the Japanese text I see, and quickly build my vocabulary by reading.

In reality, on a good day I recognize about 800 of them, and often don’t remember all the common readings, because I read the furigana first. I’ve gotten very, very good at reading even fairly small furigana, and can skim through a fully-glossed text quite quickly. The Ask graded readers I mentioned a while back are excellent, and I’m enjoying levels 3 and 4, but I’m reading kanji-with-furigana, not kanji.

Some textbooks try to keep you from falling into this trap by only using furigana the first time a word is used in a page or section (it’s also a lot cheaper…). Unfortunately, this only works when you’re reading the text in order, and really sucks when the teacher asks a student to read something aloud. Better books will use furigana for all new kanji, but expect you to be able to read words from previous lessons. My class didn’t use one of those; ours basically assumed that kanji would magically imprint themselves into your brain without any work on their part.

So, I need to read to master more kanji, but I need furigana to read, which keeps me from mastering more kanji. The best option I’ve found for breaking out of this little catch-22 is the Unicom JLPT Level 2 prep book for the reading section, which includes 30 essays arranged by increasing difficulty, each one printed with and without furigana. I’m also planning to resume my old habit of writing out everything I read, which is tedious, but extremely helpful.

[the other three JLPT2 books in this series are also good, but I’m less interested in them right now. I’ll probably start using them around July.]