The Beginner's Essential Kanji Guide

In order to become fluent in Japanese, knowing how to read kanji is essential. Why? Being able to read kanji will take you from an intermediate to advanced level of Japanese understanding, your vocabulary will multiple, and gateways will open to a deeper understanding of Japanese culture. In the end, if the goal is complete literacy in Japanese you need to be able to read kanji.

This article will break down the steps you need to know to be able to master kanji, and provide resources for efficient study; and most importantly - tips to actually remember them.

In this article we will be covering these topics:

What are kanji

How to learn kanji

Dos and do nots of learning kanji

Writing and reading the kanji

Benefits of learning kanji

For those who want an overview about how to learn Japanese, check out our article here.

All About Kanji

This might be news to you: kanji is actually a writing system based on Chinese script.  Around the 5th century, Kanji was adopted into Japanese and given it’s own reading. There are still many kanji which share the same features to their original Chinese counterparts, which is why Chinese speakers are able to recognize Japanese kanji and vice-versa.

Kanji are made up of radicals which when combined, form individual kanji. Not all, but many kanji are ideographs. Ideographs are pictures which were created to represent real-life objects. Take this kanji for example 山, it represents mountains - can you see the resemblance?

A kanji can have two readings: the native Japanese readings kun-yomi (訓読み) and reading borrowed from Chinese, on-yomi (音読み.) Two readings, yep - don’t blame me. However, the distinction is very important.

The kanji I used above (山) is commonly read as やま(yama), this would be the kun-yomi reading. But in different circumstances, it can be read as さん(san), this would be the on-yomi reading.  Some kanji only take the on-yomi reading, and the reverse is true for kun-yomi readings. You’ll have to learn the readings independently but there are a few patterns which can make learning the readings a bit more simple.

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Learning Kanji

Did you know that by the time Japanese students graduate from high school, they will have learned to read and write around 2,042 kanji? This is achieved through twelve years of schooling (think about that next time you are down about not being able to master kanji in a month!) With a lot of effort, it won’t have to take you twelve years to learn kanji.

There are many blogs dedicated to learning kanji as quickly as possible. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend this method. I’ve found learning something quickly doesn’t necessarily mean information fully absorbed. A lucky few are able to memorize kanji on the first glance, for all the rest, here are few techniques to improve your kanji study.

SRS

SRS or spaced repetition system is a great way to learn and actually remember information (as we covered in our vocabulary post). This system is best utilized by Anki, probably the most recommend flashcard learning system. There are already many user-made created kanji decks which you can download but I wouldn’t suggest just tackling one head on. To use one efficiently, I would say to download a deck that you can provide context with. Just downloading the “most used kanji’ list and studying them is fine, but you’ll find yourself hard pressed to actually remember them.

The Heisig Method

The Heisig Method was established in the “Remember the Kanji” series written by James Heisig. In short, the Heisig Method is a technique to remember kanji through ‘primitives’ and mnemonic devices. These ‘primitives’ may be radicals, other kanji, or a series of strokes. It is a really interesting method and also has proved to be very effective. People who learn a ton of kanji in a small amount of time cite this method.

Heisig built his concept on primitives. These are pieces of kanji, often just radicals, with English keywords. These primitives are stacked onto eachother to build stories and give meaning and context to the meaning. In this example the 冒 primitives are 目 and 日、they stand for eye and sun respectively. The kanji’s meaning is risk so the story Heisig builds with these primitives is to not look directly into the sun because you might risk burning your eyes.

If what I described instantly clicked into your head, maybe the Heisig method is for you. James Heisig himself said that by using his method, he was able to memorize 2000 kanji within a month but realistically learning 25 to 50 kanji is a more achievable goal.

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Japanese Reading

Brute Force

In my beginners kanji class, my Japanese teacher slapped down a stack of papers in front of all the students. The papers were identical: a place to copy down information on the kanji and plenty of space to practice writing. “This is how I learned kanji in school,” the teacher declared.

By the end of the semester, all of us had cramped hands and couldn’t remember 90% of what we learned. What i’m saying is that the brute force method is tough, and while it may work for Japanese students it’s not the exactly the most practical way for foreign students living in a foreign country. Japanese students have the luxury of being exposed to kanji everyday - we didn’t.

What Way Should I Learn?

So what is the best way to learn kanji? You’ll notice that I reference methods in conjugation to each other. I believe the best way to learn kanji is to incorporate the heisig and SRS system. Each one tackles a strength and a weakness. While the Heisig methods provides the initial spark of memorization, Anki will help solidify the meaning in your mind.

If you are ドM, I suggest the brute force method. Jokes aside, maybe the brute force method does work for you. Some people find that writing kanji helps them remember the fine details. 

Whatever method you end up using, keep in mind these do’s and don’ts when learning kanji.

Do: Establish Achievable Goals

If you want to learn 5 kanji a day - great. If you want to learn 20 kanji a day - even better! But make sure whatever goal you set for yourself will be achievable. It is easy to lose motivation when you have having a hard time meeting your goal.

If you want to learn kanji as quickly and efficiently as possible you should set up a schedule which will transform into a habit. You’ve heard how the thirty under thirty billionaires like to wake up at 3:00 AM and go run, why not do that? I’m not suggesting you wake up at 3AM and run but making kanji learning part of your morning routine. Or if you are like me and like slow lazy mornings, why not make it part of your evening routine. Or if you are like me and like slow lazy evenings, then add it to a different part of your day.

When I have work to do i’ll go to a fast food restaurant, get a coffee and work. If you need no distractions to work, public areas are surprisingly effective. Even now, i’m typing this article in the corner of my local McDonalds. And when you’ve done a few days in a row, why not treat yourself to a Big Mac (or whatever you fancy.)

Do: Use a Support System

Sometimes you need a shoulder to lean on to help you reach your goal. You can find this support with your friends, family, and the internet. Here are a couple of apps which help you form habits.

Habit List:

What I like about this app is the visualization aspect. You can see your progress in streaks on the calendar, and compare your progress overtime. I think using this app you will see the most benefit out of it in the long term. Unfortunately, this app is only available to IOS devices.

Goal Tracker and Habit List:

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=info.intrasoft.habitgoaltracker

I like the simplicity of this one. Tap once for a successful day, and tap again if you didn’t manage to reach your habit.

Create friends:

One way to connect with Japanese people is to ask for help with kanji. A lot of good relationships are built using language exchanges. Check out our post on “How to Make Japanese Friends” for more information.

Do: Learn with Context

I could go on forever about the importance of learning with context but it really does help, our brain learns by context! If you are practicing reading, at the same time you can incorporate kanji learning. You’ll already have the context you will need.

We have a post dedicated to reading sources for beginners to advanced learners, so check that over here!

And now what not to do-

Do Not: Forget to Review!

I can’t overstate how important reviewing is. Without reviewing, all your progress is wasted. 

Whenever I start a new flashcard deck, or follow a new studying routine, usually the first couple of days I am pumped. Then slowly, one day i’m too busy to review and then the next i’m too tired. Suddenly all those excuses pile up and I haven’t even looked at my study material for a month. Sound familiar?

I don’t know if reviewing gets ever easier, like exercise it’s something you have to force yourself to do until it becomes second-nature. While I am drawing parallels to exercise, results will only be produced after you put in hard effort for a dedicated amount of time.

So when do you need to stop reviewing? When you get to a point in the language where you feel comfortable with your knowledge. Obviously, I don’t need to review flashcards for English since i’ve been speaking it for my entire life, but I do also get “Word of the Day” emails from Dictionary.com.

As long as you engage with Japanese, I don’t think you ever will stop learning. One day you’ll get to a point in your Japanese skills where simply reading subtitles, books, and conversations will keep words fresh in your memory; and it will be more easy to pick up new words just by context.

Writing Vs. Reading

Do you think learning a kanji’s writing is harder than learning it’s reading? I know I do. While I actively try to learn the reading of kanjis, I tend to push writing to the side. Currently, I am part of an intensive Japanese Language program at a university. I remember on the first day my professor said we would be focusing on reading and not the writing because it will slow down our learning and also in the future writing won’t be as important. Agree or disagree, she’s right. Take it how you will, times are changing and now that so such of our communication is through computers (computers which will type in the kanji for you) writing is being left behind.

This might be surprising but many foreigners cannot speak Japanese even though thy spent over a year learning Japanese at an accredited Japanese language school. The reason is because they spend more than one to two hours everyday focusing on writing Kanji for homework when you could learn to read the same kanji in 10 to 15 minutes of solid work a day.

To become an accredited Japanese language school, you have to teach people how to write kanji. This is because the accreditation board is trying to make foreigners learn the same way that Japanese people do. Japan Switch purposely did not get accreditation because we wanted to avoid having to follow these restrictions.

On the other hand, writing kanji also offers some benefits. Kanji can look very similar, especially when the difference is a radical. Writing allows you to focus on these small differences which make the character more recognizable. And we can’t erase the fact that you actually do still have to write things sometimes. Like for example, when you apply for jobs in Japan, lot’s of them want handwritten resumes. Your resume would look much more impressive if your kanji are written correctly.

Benefits of Learning Kanji

Why should you invest the time in to learn Kanji? If you read this article and are not fully convinced of all the amazing things that come with knowing kanji then it will be tough to convince you from here. Personally, being able to read kanji has made me feel more connected to the Japanese culture. I also feel more confident in my daily life in Japan. 

People have also told me stories about how their kanji knowledge has helped in their travels to China and Taiwan. Usually, the lack of an English menu frightens tourists from restaurants catered to locals, but they felt comfortable eating at these places because they recognized the kanji for meat, chicken, vegetables, etc. 

Do I need to say more? Kanji is one of the more difficult parts of Japanese, but don’t let that frighten you. It’s tough, but equally rewarding.

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This article was created by Japan Switch

We provide the most affordable Japanese lessons in Shinjuku, Tokyo.

Authors

Natasha Henriksson and Tyson Batino

Natasha is pursuing a bachelors towards Japanese Language and Culture. She enjoys travelling, visiting temples, and eating elaborate snacks she finds at conbinis. So far her favourite snack has been a mini chocolate bar called “Black Thunder.” Without sounding like an advertisement, she guarantees you will like it.

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