This blog on the etymology of Japanese kanji (Chinese characters) is maintained by Noriko Williams. She writes about small groups of kanji that share the same origin and component shapes in current kanji. Her discussions trace back origins of each kanji, using ancient writing that she recreated from photos of ancient inscriptions and writings.

She is the author of an origin-based illustrated kanji reference entitled The Key to Kanji – A Visual History of 1100 Characters -漢字絵解き (2010. Cheng and Tsui Company, Boston) and the creator of a video clip collection for learning 90 kanji radicals (bushu) entitled “Bushu: The Kanji Makers – From Meanings to Shapes” on the American University iTunes U (2011, 2012.)

Recently retired from classroom teaching of many years, she has started a free online kanji study course for mature Japanese language learners. It is called VISUAL KANJI and is open to anyone who wants to study a large number of kanji and vocabulary. The title of the course comes from its premises that in ancient writing the shapes of Chinese characters were visualizations of their meanings, and that this connection of shape and meaning is still reflected in modern kanji and can be useful for a Japanese kanji learner. The URL is and free.

Contact:  (Please remove two @@.)



アウル先生 Auru Sensei, pictured here in a haori coat, was created by Ayako Williams. He was a long-time friend of Dr. Williams in her Japanese classes. He appeared in many of the study materials that she developed, along with his students Penta (ペン太) and Ginko (ギン子).

9 thoughts on “Author

  1. Hi Noriko! I find your book very interesting. But just out of curiosity, why did you stop at only 1100 kanji? Was it due to lack of funds or historical material to explain the rest? Or do you think that these are all kanji a student will ever need? Is there a sequel somewhere in the making? 🙂

    • Thank you very much for your comments. A short answer is one (huge!) step at a time.
      I am aware, and am very pleased, that there are a lot of people out there who are seriously committed to teach themselves all 2,136 Joyo kanji. I have admiration and respect for their determination. My preparation to cover all Joyo kanji started a year ago, but it has been put on the back burner because of this new web tutorial course work. I look forward to resuming my project, which is probably sometime next year. I would appreciate your patience.
      At the moment, the former classroom teacher in me believes that I can be more useful if I first help people who want to clear the big hurdle of becoming a truly independent learner of kanji. The new course is intended to show them that learning 1100 kanji is more manageable than it appears, and the steps that they can take to do that.
      Those are self-supported projects, with the help of people around me.
      – Noriko

  2. Im wondering the same thing you guys are the best teachers on kanji please continue to at least 2000. Such a shame if we leave this to just half of the recommended level. Are you guys still active? I dont mind if theres no audio/video.

    • Thank you for your kind words and interest, Edward.
      I am currently working on a study guide that will organize all 2,136 Joyo kanji by reference to the shapes they have in common. This Kanji Portrait blog is, in effect, an interim draft, to get comments and to refine my own research and thinking. I explain the history of the common shapes and kanji by looking at ancient writings. It is my intention to draw the reader’s attention to the relationships among kanji that might first appear unrelated in shape, meaning and/or sound. This will not be a sequel to The Key to Kanji. It has a different purpose and is organized differently. I will revisit a possibility of the expanding to full Joyo kanji in the format of The Key to Kanji later on.
      The preparation of this study guide is quite time-consuming. I must find and copy by hand over 4,200 samples of ancient writings, evaluate different interpretations by kanji scholars and then sort out which group of origins each kanji should be discussed in (because most kanji are comprised of two or three different components) before I even start writing. I wish I could tell you when that work will be completed, but it is difficult to estimate the time required. I should also note that it took 15 months to get the Key to Kanji published after the publisher accepted the manuscript. I very much appreciate the patience, attention and support of yours and other readers. – Noriko Williams [January 24, 2017]

  3. Im very interested in your work and research. As a beginner kanji learner the reappearance of radicals drew my attention to the etymology of kanji and ive since learned about Shirakawa Shizuka who spent many long years contemplating the original meanings of kanji from bone oracle script. My question is; are the kanji origins in your book based on the conclusions of Shirakawa san’s work? Are there any instances where you use your own personal interpretation to explain kanji origins? In any case I really like the approach to learning kanji and, clearly, many people agree. I wish you lots of progress in your work and I hope you find time to make a second book with even more kanji origins.
    – Ross

    • Thank you very much for your comment and encouraging words, Ross. Your questions are something other readers may be wondering too. So, let me expand on them.

      I am glad that you have discovered the usefulness of radicals in your kanji study. What I am working on is expanding the notion of radicals (bushu; section header) beyond the traditional grouping in a kanji dictionary, and going back to their historical roots. Common shapes in ancient writing that came from the same origin are directly or indirectly reflected in kanji that we study, in shape, meaning and sound.

      In order to understand the relationship among related kanji, I start with ancient writings from photos in Akai (1985; 2010). In explaining those shapes, I find shape-based accounts in Shirakawa (2004) most comprehensive and helpful. That is why you see his name often mentioned in my writing. As his critics note, however, a large part of his accounts was built on his claim (with inference from other classical documents) that religious rites and magic practice were prevalent in ancient life in China. I do not feel comfortable with many of such interpretations, and at that point I have to step back a little.

      To get different views I also evaluate other accounts, including the Kadokawa dictionary (1995; Suzuki, Shikibe, Mizukami) for a “neutral” view and Kanjigen (2011; Todo and the members of his school of etymology through phonetic reconstruction) in a limited manner, and most recently Ochiai (2014) on some oracle bone writings. Twenty some years ago I also relied on Yamada (1975) because it gave a lot of ancient writings on the educational kanji.

      It is a sort of balancing act that I try to maintain between a story which ancient writing appears to be telling me and different accounts by kanji scholars. To compensate for the fact that I am not a kanji scholar or historian by training, I offer ancient writings in each kanji so that our mature reader can have an opportunity to see if it makes sense or not. As future kanji researchers work on new archaeological finds, what we write now may be subject to reevaluation.

      Thanks again for giving me this opportunity. –Noriko [March 2, 2017]

      • Hi Ms Williams

        I’ve been following your kanji explanations with great enjoyment and interest. In addition to the obvious benefits of learning and remembering more kanji I especially like to wow my Japanese friends by explaining to them the origin of some kanji which they have used all their lives without ever knowing the meaning behind the strokes. Some of my favourites are 学、感、住 and the kanji for 漢 itself, which tells of the Han people whose Dynasty traces back to a dried river bed.
        As a full time researcher (unfortunately not relating to kanji) I study your materials in the time gaps and breaks that appear throughout the day. Since this can happen at any time I like to keep A4 prints of your website pages in a folder which I keep in my bag. Being able to study offline is important to me. Although I also bought the Key To Kanji – I actually find the website content to be easier follow and absorb since related kanji are grouped together. This greatly helps to link the phonetic/semantic similarities and differences between kanji that share a bushu. Although the book is certainly useful for reference the website serves as a more efficient way to systematically learn kanji (in my case).
        I know you have many requests to write another book, to cover even more kanji – and so I hope this feedback can be helpful to in the case that you do so. I also certainly hope there will be another book!

        Thank you sincerely for your persistent efforts and continued adding of material. I read every word of every post! Here in Holland the cherry blossoms are just starting. Its very nostalgic.

        Kind regards

        • Hi, Ross. Thank you very much for your comments. Your observation makes sense. The Key to Kanji was prepared as a reference for students who are studying one of the standard Japanese textbooks and need help with a particular kanji — hence, it is in the 50-syllabary order by on-yomi, more like a dictionary. In this Kanji Portraits blog I am writing for mature readers who want to learn the entire Joyo kanji and have curiosity, tenacity and intellect to work through the complexity of kanji and build their own way of grasping each kanji, often by reference to other kanji. They have different objectives. I assure you that I have every intention of turning Kanji Portraits into a book, but it will take some time.
          Enjoy the cherry blossoms in the Netherlands. I always enjoy knowing where our readers are from. -Noriko

  4. Hi there,
    I was struggling in searching for materials about the meaning of kanji, and I’m glad that I came across your blog.
    I used to read the book Fun with Chinese Characters to get some reference about kanji, which really helps me in studying and remembering kanji. (For me, this way is much more entertaining and useful than reading Kanji Look and Learn and using flashcard lol). I am a Vietnamese, so we actually can grasp the meaning/context of kanji, because we use a lot of “từ Hán Việt” (literally means Vietnamese words derived from Chinese words) in our vocabulary. However, we use a Latin alphabet in the modern days, and we don’t use our Vietnamese pictographs or ideographs characters anymore (they were abandoned in 1890s-1940s), so learning kanji is really hard.
    I love to read the history behind kanji and its meaning, so your blog means a lot to me. Thank you for your hard work.

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