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The Search for the System: How I Found One, Why You Need One

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Systems

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
~ Arthur C. Clarke

As much as I love “Star Trek”, I’m actually rather weak on the movies, especially the TOS ones (the The Original Series ones — I know, redundant redundant, right?). I’ve seen all the TNG ones and the 2009 one, but only two of the TOS ones. So I don’t know what Spock was searching for. But I do know what I was searching for: The System. A system. That would work. I was searching for a way of what I like to call “handling the atom”.

Those of you who are old enough may be aware of the clusterhump of buckfuttery that is JSL (Japanese as a Second Language (?)) education. And, well, Chinese too. The complete absence of a system. The system is the lack of a system.

They give you a list of kanji and test, but no method — no system — of learning them.
They present them in an unsystematic order where an unsystematic teacher using unsystematic criteria unsystematically grades you based on her whims and moods.

And this is why the people who do (somehow) learn Japanese are taken for gods.
As Arthur C. Clarke would say if he were here: any sufficiently advanced learning method seems like magic.
The people who do learn Japanese, who do learn kanji, seem magical. They are like little buddhas. They have achieved englightment. They have that Confucian virtue. They have superhuman discipline. They are exceptions. They are outliers. They are them. They are they.

Well, bollocks.
I know none of that is true because I know me. I know I am lazy. I know that I spend every last penny you pay on hookers and blow. And blow on hookers and…just…
What I’m saying is I know I’m a bad person. I know I’m a lazy person. And I’m always me. I’m not lazy here but hardworking there: I am 100% lazy. All the time.
And so I know that what gave me literacy — and therefore power — in Japanese was a system. Not my character. Not magic. Not far king “kanji genes”.

A system.

Do strawberries have “cake genes”?
Then how is it that strawberries can be turned into cake and smoothies?
Answer: systems called “recipes”.

I sought a system.
I knew that…I could learn one Japanese word. I knew I could do that.
And I knew that I could learn one kanji. I was good to go.
So the only trick was to learn another word, learn another kanji…and keep the one I had learned before.
My mind was a bucket and I needed to block — or at least slow down — the leakage.
I needed to be able to add words and kanji faster than I was losing them.

I sought a system to do that.
And a guy called Chris Houser led to me to the SRS.
And the SRS was the answer — an answer. It was the glue that held everything together. That gave direction and traction and meaning to the rest of my (immersion) experience.
And after that, I was like, how you say in a-Japanese — an ogre with an iron club.
And Japanese was a baby seal.
And it wasn’t going to be pretty.
Because now success was just a matter of time. A matter of hits.

Not character.
Not magic.
Not enlightenment.
Not meditation.


I knew that if I had an efficient, deliberate, predictable, inevitable — in a word, systematic — way of handling the “atoms” (words, kanji etc.) of Japanese, of ensuring that I retained them, in such a way that I could tell you with exceedingly high levels of confidence that for any given word, 6 weeks, 6 months and 6 years 1 later, I would still know that word…I knew if I could handle the atoms then a “chain reaction” would take place; I could reach “critical mass 2. I would become unstoppable. I could learn arbitrary amounts of Japanese, arbitrary numbers of kanji and use them with perfect precision.

What SRS taught me was that 90% confidence was good enough. “Perfect” was unnecesary. I could afford to forget some stuff — indeed, native users did and do all the time. And I would still be awesome.

This is the awesome power of a system.
And this is also why systems can be so damaging.
The double-edged nature of the nucular metaphors I am using is not lost on me.
Systematic racism, systematic gassing of human beings, systematically letting Irish people starve to death, systematically burning people. It’s not very cool.
So that’s why you reflexively hate systems and that’s why the phrase “the system” came to mean something bad.

But it’s also why you need systems. Because without them, you’re stuck believing in magic.
But with them, you become the magician.

Magicians don’t believe in magic. They just do it.
Don’t believe in magic. Be the magician. Do it.
Don’t be shocked or awed. It’s just a system at work. The system is the magic. And there’s about as much magic in the system as there is magic in a magic trick. Which is to say none at all.

So get a system. Buy a system. Build a system. Use a system.
Just make sure it’s a good one.

Series Navigation<< The System Will Set You FreeWhy The System Won’t Set You Free >>


  1. (← oh, calm down…please, we are not playing that number game)
  2. Yeah, I’m back to misusing physics metaphors again 🙂 . I guess I’m hoping that lampshading my pseudoscience will make it less pseudoscientific. You’re all: “No. No, it won’t.”

  12 comments for “The Search for the System: How I Found One, Why You Need One

  1. 李便神
    July 18, 2012 at 10:09


    • 李便神
      July 18, 2012 at 11:37

      V /  / _,, ァ=ニニ:}      
         .V  /,.ィ”f= <r’ニ三{     
          ‘vf^<””  弋z.ミ’テtフ      
          〉!ト _ i{ ´ ̄r’ =|’
         ./ェ゙‐ェi.    、__`_ヤ     
         ./iュ.Hヽ.、   ゙,ニ/
        -^ ー’-.、,i._`ヽ,.仁リ
        ー – .、     /、

      • ライトニング
        July 18, 2012 at 17:58


  2. July 18, 2012 at 10:55

    Thank you!! I’m so sick of people acting like anyone who learns Japanese is some sort of god. People treat kanji like its some sort of mystical otherworldly language that an enlightened few learn. Like you said, find the system and anyone can learn. 

    • Douglas Aparicio
      February 19, 2016 at 16:53

      Exactly. Kanji is really just like writing a word in any other language, except unlike English where you have to combine different letters to make a word, Kanji is a combination of radicals that make a word (or Hiragana/Katakana combinations). Now…learning Thai, that’s something different. I would praise someone who has learned Thai, because that’s hard.

  3. Tz
    July 20, 2012 at 06:50

    Katz have you been in a movie lately?
    I think i saw you singing in moteki??!

  4. Raphael
    July 22, 2012 at 00:41

    Nothing new, but it’s good to repeat things sometimes when they are so true and important. SRS is the core of success. Brilliant post.

  5. John
    August 13, 2012 at 14:26

    Any good SRS system for learning Japanese on iOS ?

  6. Jim
    August 14, 2012 at 18:13

    Hi John
    I use JapanEasy. It does its job. it has got a decent dictionary with example sentences and whatnots
    Lists (jlpt, …) are built in which is really nice compared to too general systems like flashcards where you have to load xml files into the app.

  7. Oosaka Ayumu
    January 30, 2013 at 22:04

    so we can say “healing potion” instead of “medicine” !! ^_^

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