Kanji Book “The Key to Kanji”

“The Key to Kanji –A Visual History of 1100 Characters 漢字絵解き”


Author: Noriko Kurosawa Williams

Publisher: Cheng and Tsui Company, Boston

Year of Publication: 2010

ISBN: 9780887277368

(Illustrator: Ayako E. L. Williams)


1. Origin-based account of kanji (漢字の成り立ちから字形と意味の関係を知る)

Discover the relationship between shape and meaning that is hidden in the origin of kanji.  An origin-based explanation is based on the fact that kanji originated from the ancient meanings of its components. It may come as a surprise to learn that there is still a close relationship between the shape of a kanji and that ancient meaning. This relationship also allows the student to understand the meaning of different kanji in which the same ancient shapes reappear.

2. Illustrations of the meaning of kanji components (図解で漢字の意味を即座に知る)

An image that illustrates meaning makes it easier to grasp what the kanji is about, even before you read the English explanation. It helps you remember both the kanji and its meaning if you can connect a visual and verbal account.



The three introductory chapters discuss background information on kanji history, kanji formation, and the Japanese writing system.

Chapter 1: The Historical Development of Kanji Forms – how ancient Chinese writing, precursors of the Japanese kanji, developed.

Chapter 2: Kanji Formation Types and Dictionary Section Headers – forms of kanji, including different ways that kanji were “built,” the role of kanji section headers (bushu or radicals), and the traditional kanji dictionary.

Chapter 3: Development of Japanese Writing Systems – the effects of the adoption of Chinese characters into the Japanese language, including the creation of phonetic alphabets (Man’yoo-gana, katakana and hiragana) and the merged style of Japanese and Chinese that became the present-day Japanese writing system.

It also gives the reader a useful table of the 184 dictionary section headers (bushu) that appear in the 1100 kanji in The Key to Kanji.


• 1,100 Kanji – The 1,100 kanji cover all the 1,006 educational kanji, 93 other Joyo Kanji (Commonly Used Kanji) and 々.

• In the order of On-reading on the 50-on syllabary chart (i. e., the order of aiueo- kakukeko.)  Note: The 1100 kanji are not arranged by bushu even though it provides a 10-page table of 184 bushu.

• Four Kanji per Page


The Key to Kanji (Williams 2010) Sample Pages

• The Features – Each kanji has various descriptions, as illustrated below.

The Key to Kanji (Williams 2010) Kanji Features

The Key to Kanji (Williams 2010) Kanji Features


A reader has five different ways to look up kanji in the back of the book:

Index 1: Order of Appearance in the Key to Kanji (音読み五十音順 in the order of the Fifty Syllabus Chart — the aiueo order)

Index 2: In order of On- and Kun- Readings (五十音順で音訓読み)

Index 3: On- Kun- Readings in Romaji (ローマ字による音訓読み)

Index 4: Arranged by Total Number of Strokes (総画数による索引)

Index 5: Arranged by Section Header (部首による索引)



9 thoughts on “Kanji Book “The Key to Kanji”

  1. Hi, good evening, do you know where can I buy your book in Japan?

    • Thank you very much for your interest in The Key to Kanji. Unfortunately the publisher’s marketing is quite limited and Japan is left out. Occasionally Amazon.co.jp carries it as Amazon merchandise at regular price. You may be able to order a copy from branches of Kinokuniya, Maruzen-Junkudo Bookstore (Marunouchi branch) or Yaesu Book Center in Tokyo. I know they used to carry copies.
      If you cannot get a copy, please e-mail me. I will try to work out something for you. – Noriko

    • Hello Zaheer. This is a paper back. I am afraid I do not know how you can get a copy in India other than ordering directly from the publisher in Boston (Cheng and Tsui) or from Amazon.com. Either way the shipment may cost a lot. -Noriko
      —Edited on July 29,2018 — Sorry I had misunderstood the word “soft copy.” We do not have this book digitalized. – Noriko

    • Thank you very much for your comments. I am afraid that there is no immediate plan to digitalize the Key to Kanji at the moment. After I finish the current project I may look into the viability of the digital version. -Noriko

  2. Dear Noriko, I stumbled upon your book once at Kinokuniya Shinjuku a few weeks ago but thought I would buy it later. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find it since then, at Kinokuniya or Mazuzen or Yaesu Book Center (the ones you mentioned). No one at the bookstores told me it was possible to order it 😦
    Do you know how I can get a copy of your book (paperback) in Tokyo? どうぞよろしくお願いいたします!

    • Dear Eastsidepigeon. Thank you for your comments. I happen to be in Tokyo now and I have made some inquiry today. (1) At Kinokuniya Bookstore the Key to Kanji is out of stock since October, as you have found out. They do not know when or if new copies will be coming from the U. S. (2) You can place a special order of a copy to be imported from the U. S. if you go to the store in person. It may take as long as a month to arrive however. It is sold at 4,590 yen. (3) Foreign language books are primarily sold at Books Kinokuniya Tokyoブックス紀伊国屋東京 rather than the Shinjuku Main store. The address is Takashimaya Times Square South Building 6th floor, 5-24-2 Sendagaya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo151-0051. Phone, 03-5361-3316. FAX, 03-5361- 3339. This branch store carries quite a selection of Japanese language study materials.
      I appreciate that you have given me a chance to visit Kinokuniya to find out what it is like to get a copy of the Key to Kanji now. Best wishes. -Noriko [November 14, 2018]

      • のりこさんはお返事をどうもありがとうございます!I was looking to get a copy from Amazon US but I will try to order a copy at Kinokuniya Takashimaya then. Thank you very much for your quick answer! Have a nice stay in Tokyo. マリー

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