> My project for next year is to learn Japanese well enough to skim
> through for keywords in the mailing lists (if not more) and to be able
> to speak basically to my family in Japan :)

I've been learning japanese for two years.

If you learn to be able to read, I would personnally advice you to learn 
full japanese or nothing. You should not think of "saving time" by 
learning some writing systems and not others.

I have experienced it is finally a waste of time.

There are basically four writing systems :
roman
hiragana
katakana
kanji (chinese characters)

The first three ones are not very difficult to learn. But, for 
foreigners, the big thing is "kanjis". (The book "Remembering the 
kanjis" may help you to rembember the meaning of thoses caracters)

I also think it is much easier to read sentences with kanjis. They allow 
you to recognize the structure of sentences. Without them, it would just 
be as though you were deciphering an english text written phonetically 
only...(good orthograph allows to figure out sentences faster).

And as the time goes on, you'll be able to associate vocabulary and kanjis.