I'm studying the kanji on the Heisig's book "Remembering the Kanji" and yesterday I came across the number 56: 員 which is translated in the book as "employee". I also have a subscription on JapanesePod101 and the today world of day was: 従業員 which turned out to mean... "employee".

I'm actually quite confused. After a search on wwwjdic I found out that 員 means "member" so why Heisig translates it as "employee"?


Heisig's keywords aren't translations. Remember that you aren't actually learning any Japanese when you do RTK—you're learning mnemonic devices which help you to remember how to write all of the kanji in his list. This skill is supposed to help you when do you start learning Japanese.

The book does purport to teach you the meanings of characters, too, but the single keywords are not reliable translations of anything. If it were otherwise, we could say that a 弁護士 is a Valve Safeguard Gentleman, but a 弁護士 is in fact a lawyer.

In this case, he probably chose the term "employee" for 員 based on certain compounds it appears in, including the one you mentioned as well as (for example) 社員 and 店員. If we play the game of putting keywords together, we get "company member" and "store member" for these. Are these really that much better than "company employee" and "store employee"? (Note that your word 従業員 is gibberish either way—neither "accompany business member" nor "accompany business employee" makes any sense.)

The truth is, you can't learn the meanings of all the words and morphemes written with a given kanji by memorizing a single keyword. It'll work okay in some cases, but in a lot of others it won't. Instead, you need to learn what words (like べんごし) and morphemes (like いん) mean, and you can't assume that their meanings will resemble Heisig's keywords for the kanji they're written with.

So when you encounter a keyword that doesn't seem to match up with the meaning of a word or morpheme, just shrug and move on. There'll be plenty more where that came from.

  • I think that "purport" is the key. Reading the introduction I had the impression that the keyword has to be closely related to at least one (of the base) meaning of the kanji. But it turned out it isn't like this always. I didn't like much your compound example tho because in the introduction he clearly states that compounds are out of the scope of the book. Thank you.
    – Geeo
    Feb 18 '14 at 7:09
  • 2
    @Geeo By the way, I think if you look online you can find alternate keywords to use--various people in the past have disagreed with one keyword or another. (Heisig also revised some of them to be more accurate in later editions, so for example 峠 changed from "mountain peak" to "mountain pass". But 員 is still "employee".)
    – user1478
    Feb 18 '14 at 8:10

Each kanji is assigned a key word that represents its basic meaning, or one of its basic meanings. The key words have been selected on the basis of how a given kanji is used in compounds and on the meaning it has on its own. [...] To be sure, many of the characters carry a side range of connotations not present in their English equivalents, and vice versa; many even carry several ideas not able to be captured in a single English word. By simplifying the meanings through the use of key words, however, one becomes familiar with a kanji and at least one of its principal meanings. The others can be added later with relative ease, in much the same way as one enriches one’s understanding of one’s native tongue by learning the full range of feelings and meanings embraced by words already known. (RTK1, p9)

Heisig's keywords are just that: keywords. They don't represent the full range of meaning of the kanji and certainly are not "translations". I suspect Heisig chose "employee" for 員 for its use in common words such as 社員 and 従業員 etc. While in this case I agree that "member" would have been a better keyword, I think the real problem here is that you haven't properly read the introduction to RTK.

As a small aside: while there's a fair amount of controversy (opinions both ways) regarding Heisig's method in the Japanese learning community, I will just add that I found the method helpful and found the italic'd part of the quote to be true.

  • Thanks for your assumptions. While I was fully aware of the introduction, which I read 2 times before starting studying, it's still quite hard for a newbie to figure out why a specific keyword was picked and how the meanings in compounds are weighted in the process, especially when a much general term (like member) is available that would even help in the future in making all those more complex compounds.
    – Geeo
    Feb 17 '14 at 20:15

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.