Kanji: the nemesis of Japanese language learners!
The fear of memorising kanji is enough to put some people off Japanese altogether. When people start researching how to learn Japanese, the kanji question comes up a lot.
We’ve even heard people ask if it’s possible to learn Japanese without learning kanji.
Seriously, guys?! Let’s sort this out!
In this article we’ll look at what kanji are, why you need to know them, and the best way to learn kanji.
You’ll be writing in kanji before you know it!
About the Japanese scripts
Japanese kanji originally came from Chinese. They’re what we call ‘logographic characters’, which means that each character represents a meaning (not a sound, like in our alphabet).
There are tens of thousands of kanji out there, but ‘only’ around 2,000 kanji are essential for basic literacy.
These essential kanji are called the jōyō kanji (常用漢字). They are set by the government, and all Japanese students are expected to know them by the time they graduate high school.
In short, no, you can’t avoid kanji all together if you want to learn Japanese.
You simply have to make them a part of your study routine.
Avoiding kanji all together would be like only learning half of the English alphabet. You’d only be semi-literate.
But the good news is, it’s easier to learn kanji than you might expect!
How am I supposed to learn kanji?
The trick is finding a learning style that works for you.
There are several different methods and tactics for learning Japanese kanji. Some people swear by certain methods, which might have no effect for others.
In this article I’ll share some of the most popular methods for learning kanji. Have a think about which ones appeal to you, test them out, and then stick with your favourite.
Anyone can learn kanji – trust me!
The repetition method
This seems to be the most common way of studying kanji. This involves writing out each kanji over and over… and over… and over.
The repetition will help each kanji stick in your head, and over time, you will also start to learn each kanji by muscle memory.
Most people apply the repetition method to memorise the kanji from a textbook or course.
These courses will usually present you with the most ‘useful’, everyday kanji first. Well, this kind of makes sense because after all, you want to get reading and writing as soon as possible, right?
However, unfortunately some of the most useful kanji are the most difficult to write! Take 読 (read) or 飲(drink). They probably look pretty complicated if you’re new to Japanese, right?
These are usually some of the first kanji taught in textbooks. And they are definitely good to know if you’re planning a trip to Japan.
But, if you’ve never studied Japanese before, they can look discouragingly difficult.
Also, learning kanji in order of use like this means it can be difficult to see similarities and patterns between the kanji.
If you do want to try the repetition method, some special Japanese graph paper will come in handy, as it will show you how to keep your characters well proportioned and balanced on the page.
- You will learn the most useful kanji first – good for motivation!
- You’ll develop nice handwriting
- You’ll start to remember kanji through muscle memory
- Takes a long time
- Not the most effective for long term memory
- Kanji not always learned in a logical order
Learn with Japanese children’s books
Japanese children learn kanji each school grade in an order prescribed by the Ministry of Education. You can see a list of kanji by grade here. Most dictionaries will have a list, too.
Japanese children’s books are a fun and cute way to learn kanji!
There is even a popular range called うんこドリル (Unko Drill / Poop Drill) where a friendly poop-sensei teaches elementary-level characters. 💩
As with textbooks for foreigners, kanji books for children are mostly structured in a way that present the most useful, everyday kanji first.
This is great if you want to start reading and understanding Japanese as soon as possible. However, unfortunately the most useful kanji are not always the easiest to learn!
You should also remember that Japanese children already speak Japanese, even if they can’t read or write all the kanji. Therefore, this system won’t be so effective for teaching you the nuances of language that foreigners need to know.
There are hundreds of different books available to teach kanji to kids. Most of these have the advantage of teaching the stroke order (exactly how each kanji should be written), and have lots of pre-printed characters for you to trace while you get used to the way to write each kanji.
If you live in Japan, you’ll be able to find a selection of these books at any bookstore or even the 100 yen store! If you live elsewhere, it might be harder to find these books, but there are still lots of good resources available online.
- Children’s books are fun and cute
- You’ll learn the most useful kanji first
- It’s motivational to measure your level against the Japanese school system
- Requires time and repetition
- Difficult to find resources outside of Japan
- You might not be able to read the Japanese instructions in the book at first!
The Heisig method
The Heisig method for studying kanji is somewhat divisive in the Japanese leaning community. Some people love it, some people hate it!
James Heisig is a scholar who devised a unique method for learning the 2000-odd most useful kanji quickly and effectively. His method is published in the books Remembering the Kanji 1: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters. So there are actually three separate volumes, but the first is more than enough for most people’s needs.
The Heisig method focuses on teaching you kanji in a way that make them easy to remember.
Heisig’s trick is that he groups kanji together based on radical. Radicals are the essential smaller elements that kanji are made up of.
When you’re new to Japanese, a character like 願 (used in お願いします, ‘please’) looks like a completely random mess of lines, right?
But nothing is random about kanji. 願 is actually made up of many smaller parts, such as 厂 (the ‘cliff’ radical), 白 (white), and so on.
The Remembering the Kanji 1: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters teaches you kanji in batches based on these radicals (basic elements).
Each new kanji is based on kanji you already know. Over time, you become familiar with more and more elements. Then, you’ll find yourself able to remember more and more complicated kanji effortlessly.
He also advocates coming up with an effective story or mnemonic to remember which elements make up each kanji character.
Heisig claims that if you can create an effective kanji story once, it will stick in your brain forever – with no need to write the kanji out over and over.
The book is designed for serious students, who have the ultimate goal of becoming fluent in Japanese and knowing all the jōyō kanji:
Because of the way the book is structured in batches based around radicals, there are some rarer kanji which appear right at the beginning of the book, and some ‘basic’ kanji which don’t appear until right at the end. For example, 人 (person) is kanji 951 in the book!
You have to really commit to Heisig and finish the entire course. If you give up half way through, you won’t have covered some of the most useful kanji.
- A huge number of Japanese learners call this the fastest and most effective way to learn all 2000-odd jōyō kanji. If you’re serious about becoming fluent in Japanese, this might be the best method for you.
- The kanji are presented in a logical order, and should stick in your head for longer
- You will learn how kanji are built up from smaller parts, making it easier to read and learn new kanji in future
- You won’t necessarily learn the most useful kanji first
- Best suited for serious learners aiming for fluency
Learn kanji by radicals
As we said above, radicals are the essential smaller elements that kanji are made up of. For example, the kanji for ‘wood’ (林) is made from two ‘tree’ radicals (木) (unfortunately, they’re not all that easy!)
Learning kanji by learning the radicals first is a common method that makes a lot of sense in my opinion! Heisig’s book is the most famous and thorough, example of that but there are many others.
You can actually download a free kanji ebook called A Radical Approach to Mastering Kanji from JapanesePod101 (you don’t have to be a paid member to access it, but you do need to make a free account – all you need is an email address.)
This book introduces the top 50 radicals, which together appear in over 75% of the jōyō kanji! So by learning these 50 radicals, you have a massive head start in learning to read the most essential characters.
- Easier to learn new kanji, once you’re familiar with the basic parts
- Free book!
- Have to study in a particular order – may miss more useful kanji
- Still requires some degree of repetition to make them stick
Flashcards have always been a well-loved resource for language learners. These days, purpose-made computers and smartphone apps make it easier than ever to store and carry your cards.
Flashcards can be a great way to learn new vocab and revise the words you learned previously. There are several options for using flashcards. If you prefer the old-school physical version, there are many different sets for sale at Amazon or OMG Japan.
This set from Tuttle is a popular choice for beginners, which covers the first 200 kanji you need to know.
Or, you can always make your own on plain paper or pre-cut index cards.
There are also several flashcard apps and software programs available, so you can drill your kanji from your phone.
The best use SRS (spaced repetition software). Rather than cycling through all of your cards on a loop, an SRS will calculate when to show you a card again based on how easy it was for you to remember it.
A difficult card might come up again five minutes later, but an easy card might come up next week, or even next month or next year after you’ve been studying for a while. This is based on research that shows that the memorisation is most effective when you try to recall something just as you’re on the point of forgetting it. Also, you won’t get so bored seeing the same easy cards all the time.
One of the top rated flashcard apps out there is Anki. You can either download pre-written decks of cards, or write your own.
You can find pre-written decks to go with most popular textbooks (such as GENKI I: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese (English and Japanese Edition) or Remembering the Kanji, Vol. 1: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters (English and Japanese Edition)), which will save you a lot of time!
My recommended e-learning course, JapanesePod101, also has a flashcard module to help you review the new words and kanji from each lesson.
Some people learn kanji through exposure to flashcards alone. However, other people may find that flashcards work best in conjunction with one of the other methods listed above. You can use flashcards to consolidate and review your learning.
- Flashcards are portable, and great for filling in spare moments commuting or waiting in line
- Flashcards help to consolidate new words into long term memory
- Flashcards can teach you individual words, but not the whole language
- Best combined with another language learning method
And hey, if you’re really struggling with learning kanji, don’t feel too bad… you’re not alone 😉
How do you learn kanji? Any tips? Share them with us in the comments!
- Japanese Writing Practice: Ultimate List Of Resources For Every Level
- Japanese Writing Paper: FREE Printable Blank Japanese Writing Sheets
Rebecca is the founder of Team Japanese. She spent two years teaching English in Ehime, Japan. Now back in the UK, she spends her time blogging, self-studying Japanese and wrangling a very genki toddler.