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Kanji-compound presentation

Mark Rebuck Nagoya University


Quick Guide

  • Key words: four-character kanji idiom, presentation
  • Learner English level: Beginner to advanced
  • Learner maturity: High school to university
  • Preparation time: Minimal
  • Activity time: About one minute for each student
  • Materials: Original idioms handout (See Appendix)


I got the idea for this activity when I was studying for level two of the Japanese Kanji Aptitude Test, a section of which tests the examinees’ knowledge of some of the numerous four-letter kanji idioms (四字熟語yojiyukugo) found in the language. While some idioms that have their origin in Chinese legends or obscure Buddhist texts are unlikely to be understood even by manynative Japanese speakers, others are commonly used and comprise an indispensable part of the modern Japanese lexicon. For example, most TLT readers probably carry a mobile phone or 携帯電話(keitai denwa) and pay for their health insurance 国民保健 (kokuminhoken) out of what they have earned by working 一生懸命 (isshokenmei—earnestly).

I thought it would be interesting to have my students create their own four-letter kanji idioms and provide explanations and commentary to the class. This activity gives students an opportunity to be creative with the Japanese language, and then requires them to translate and convey their ideographically bound ideas into English. Learners are genuinely interested to see and hear about the idioms created by their classmates and motivated to do their own kanji creations justice with an interesting oral presentation. Teachers also will find that the activity provides an insight into the current preoccupations and concerns of their students.


Prepare handouts or an OHP with a few examples of original four-character kanji idioms and accompanying explanations. The idioms created by three of my students in the appendix can be used, or readers could make their own example or ask a colleague.


Step 1: Elicit the term yojijukugo by writing two or three common four-character kanji idioms on the board and asking students what such idioms are called in Japanese. Tell students that in English they are commonly termed four-character kanji idioms.

Step 2: Explain to your students that the following week they will give a short presentation (no longer, perhaps, than 3 minutes) of an original four-character kanji idiom. For homework, students create the idiom and write a paragraph or two explaining its meaning. Tell them that the idiom can be about anything, but if they think about their feelings or what’s happening in their lives, Japanese society, and the world they should be able to come up with a good idea.

Step 3: Show or hand students some examples of original idioms (see Appendix) to give them a more concrete idea of what is required. Tell them that, as in two of the examples in the Appendix, they could begin their presentations with the phrase this 4-character kanji idiom expresses (my)...

Step 4: On the day of the presentations, each student comes to the front of the class, writes their original idiom clearly on the board, and reads what they have written about it.

Step 5: After each student has finished, the teacher can give feedback or ask a question related to content.


If the teacher cannot read kanji, ask the presenter to give the meaning of each character. Those who know some Japanese can impress the class by reading out the idiom after it has been written on the board. My students enjoy the mistakes I make when I do this.


Some students have commented that as they work on combining kanji into idioms, they are thinking of what to say in English. There are probably few opportunities for this kind of creative integration of L1 and L2. In my experience, students often use the presentations to say something about Japan. An activity that employs kanji to convey a message in English about their own country seems particularly relevant considering the recent emphasis on English as a means of transmitting Japan to the world (see, for example, Yoshifumi (2007).


Nippon Kanji Noryoku Kentei Kyokai.(2000). Kanken bunbetsu mondai shu: ni kyu [The Japanese kanji aptitude test practice book: Level 2]. Kyoto: Nippon Kanji Kyoiku Shinkokai.

Yoshifumi, S. (2007).Eigo de nihon wo hasshin suru tami ni hitsuyo na koto [What is necessary to communicate in English about Japan]. The English Teachers' Magazine (Eigo kyoiku), 56(3), 32-34.


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