The Ultimate Guide to Learning Japanese Kanji

By  Natasha Henriksson and Meridian Jordan | Updated September 26, 2019

This ultimate guide to Japanese kanji is part of our series on how to learn Japanese.

Japanese Kanji

Learning Japanese Kanji is Essential

Japanese kanji can seem intimidating, but it is an essential if you're seeking full language comprehension. Why? Japanese kanji is one of the three main scripts used in the Japanese language along with hiragana and katakana. Additionally, being able to read kanji will take you from an intermediate level to an advanced level of Japanese comprehension. All together, your Japanese vocabulary will multiply, and gateways to a deeper understanding of Japanese culture will open. Altogether, if the goal is complete literacy in Japanese, kanji is essential.

This article will break down the steps you need to be able to master Japanese kanji. As well as, 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

Benefits of learning kanji

Read more

All About Japanese Kanji

Japanese kanji has been integrated into Japans culture for thousands of years and is now a primary language skill for all native speakers and non-native if given the time. Before kanji was introduced from China in the 5th century, no official Japanese writing system existed. Changes to the Japanese writing system began in the 5th century and ended in the 8th century. Few original Chinese pronunciations were kept, the Japanese people gave these characters their words and pronunciations and even created new ones over this time period.

Japanese kanji are made up of radicals to form an individual kanji. Many kanji are ideographs. Ideographs are pictures which were created to represent real-life objects, like hieroglyphics. For example, 山 (yama), which represents mountains. When you understand the building blocks of Japanese kanji, it can be really enjoyable to break them down and study them.

Types of Kanji

Kanji can have two readings: a native Japanese reading known as kun-yomi (訓読み) and traditional Chinese readings known as, on-yomi (音読み.)  For example, the Japanese kanjifor river (川) is commonly read as かわ (kawa), this is the kun-yomi reading. On the other hand, in the on-yomi readings it’s read as, 河 (Hé). Some kanji only take the on-yomi reading, and the reverse is true for kun-yomi readings.

Why Kanji is Important to Japanese Culture

Japanese kanji has also been adopted into an art form called, calligraphy. Japanese calligraphy, also known as shodo, is artistic writing of the Japanese language. Shodo is the art of writing Japanese characters and symbols by hand using a brush that’s been dipped in ink.

Traditional calligraphy is done with a bamboo brush and sumi ink. Symbols are drawn with a series of vertical, horizontal, and angled brush strokes. It’s estimated that 20 million people practice shodo, and it’s a skill that's been passed down since the Samurais.

How Japanese Kanji can Change Your View of the Culture

In Japan understanding kanji can be a survival skill. If you plan on adventuring outside of the major cities, hardly any small towns have English signs to help you out. Understanding Japanese kanji will be your best weapon in your arsenal when navigating these small towns. So if you’re searching for a more rural experience Japan, Japanese kanji may be essential. 

Japanese kanji has been around for 2 millenia. Understanding kanji is a gateway to this country's long and proud history all the way back to the 5th century. When you understand Japanese kanji you’re fully immersed in the bright Tokyo billboards and the countrysides shop signs.

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How Japanese Kanji Makes Japan More Interesting

Learning Japanese Kanji can be really interesting when you start learning the real meaning behind common Japanese words that everyone knows. Did you know that most Japanese companies actually have a name in Kanji and that those Kanji's are often used in Japan, but rarely ever outside. The same applies to Japanese places and people names. Once you understand the Kanji, you can understand the origin of the place and name even though it may not match with the modern look of the place.

Japanese Companies Names

Did you know if you check your car parts, you can sometimes see the Japanese kanji of the Japanese car manufacturer? Many of the names relate either to the location they came from or providing a grand image of the company and products that they make.

日産:Nissan means sun / Japan and product / birth and can be interpreted as a product of Japan or made from the sun, which the sun is the Kanji character used in Nihon, which is what Japanese people refer to Japan as.

豊田:Toyota is actually named for a place in Japan called Toyota, similar to how the brand Kawasaki is named after a place called Kawasaki. Toyota means plentiful rice fields and Kawasaki means river cape, because there is a huge river that flows through parts of the city.

任天堂:This is Nintendo in Japanese and is definitely NOT a normal word and the blog Kotaku even wrote an article that is several pages long trying to explain the name.

観音:This is the Japanese Kanji for the company Canon, which comes from the Japanese word kannon, which represents the goddess of mercy in Buddhism.

Japanese People Names

Japanese people names and place names are often derived from the location they are at. You got to see two examples of names that are used both for people and places in Toyota and Kawasaki. There are tons of unique Japanese names like Tokugawa, the former ruling dynasty of Japan and other names of former royalty which are not so common anymore but still exist in Japan. You also have plain and commonly used family names like Nakamura which means inner village or even something Kawasaki and Toyota which were used for the masses or for people from that location originally.

The famous soccer Keisuke Honda's family name is main or base rice field, while the famous figure skater Mao Asada family name means shallow rice field. We found a nice article with more information on Japanese family name kanji and examples of people that you may know.

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Learning Japanese Kanji

By the time Japanese students graduate from high school, they’ve learned to read and write around 2,042 kanji. Although with dedication and practice it can take a lot less than 12 years to learn! In order to become fluent in kanji there’s around 2,000 basic Japanese kanjis that are used in media and everyday Japanese life.

However, it should be noted that once you have the first 400-500 down, the rest tend to follow smoothly. You really only need around 1, 200 to read a newspaper or go to work. But, if your goal is complete fluency then 2,000 is a good goal to work for, but it is not necessary.

There are many blogs dedicated to learning Japanese kanji as quickly as possible. However, these methods aren’t recommended. Learning something quickly doesn’t always mean the information is fully absorbed. Be that as it may, a lucky few are able to memorize kanji on the first glance, for all the rest, here are a few techniques to improve your kanji study.

For example, the Heisig method, associating Japanese kanji with English keywords to remember visual stories that associate the character with its meaning. This is cited as one of the most successful ways to learn Japanese kanji. For more on the Heisig method keep reading!

Using SRS to Understand Japanese Kanji

SRS or spaced repetition system is a great way to learn and retain information. This system is best utilized by Anki, a recommend flashcard learning system. In order to use Anki efficiently, the best method would be to download a deck that you can provide context with. Another way to utilize SRS is by going old school and writing the kanji on a note card and having handwritten flashcards. Just downloading “most used kanji’ list and studying them is fine, but you may find yourself hard pressed to actually remember them. 

The Heisig Method to Japanese Kanji

The Heisig method was developed in the series “Remember the Kanji” written by James Heisig. 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 has proved to be very effective, people who learned lots of kanji in a small amount of time cited this method. James Heisig himself said that by using his method, he was able to memorize 2,000 kanji within a month. Although, learning 25 to 50 kanji in a month is just as impressive and a amazing goal to work for.

The Heisig Method in Action

Japanese vocabulary can be simplified through kanji too! When you associate the kanji symbol with an actual object or image of a dog, bike or sun then it’s easier to remember the word. One good example of visualizing a Kanji and turning it into a mnemonic is relaxing in Japanese.

木=Tree

休 = Relax > A person laying on a tree is relaxing.

田=Field

Challenge 1

What do you think this Japanese Kanji represents?

果:Hint it combines two of the kanji mentioned above.

Examples of Easy to Remember Kanji

Some Japanese Kanji are easier to imagine and remember what it means that others. Here are some examples of some easy to visual Japanese Kanji. The common thread that most easy to remember Kanji have is that they are nouns or words of objects.

雨・車・木・川・森・口・一・二・三・鳥

Examples of Harder to Remember Kanji

Kanji that is used for verbs and adjectives, words used to describe things, are somewhat harder to remember and you would need a good mnemonic or a lot of practice to remember them.

厳・約・都・走・逃

Answers to Previous Challenge and Kanji Answers

Did you guess what 果 this Japanese kanji character represents? It means fruit and is the combination of tree and field, so a common mnemonic used to remember this Kanji goes something like this.

果 Fruit trees growing in a field

雨 (rain) from heavenly cloud

車 (car) with two wheels

木 Tree

森 Forest

川 River

口 Mouth

・一・二・三:1 2 3 respectively

鳥 Bird

Challenge 2

Please come up with a mnemonic or story to remember the Kanji for river, forest, and trees. You are welcome to post your answer on our BFF Tokyo Facebook Page.

If you are looking for some easy to learn Japanese Kanji and commonly used mnemonics, check out the list of Japanese Kanji mnemonics by Jim Henshall.

Learning Japanese Kanji through your Community

Another way to develop you Japanese kanji skills is through your community. Learning from your community can create an exciting environment to learn from your peers and make new friends!

You can join in on competitions like the Kuzushiji Recognition competition which has a grand prize of $15,000! 

Social media is another great way to find a community in your area studying Japanese kanji. Be sure to check sites like Facebook or Reddit; you can search from the social media of your preference for local kanji study groups! One website example is a forum called Kanji Koohii which uses the Heisig method to help people from all over the world study Japanese kanji together. Another awesome website to find Japanese kanji enthusiasts is Meetup, you can find local groups in your area there or even make you own!

Last but not least, find a group of people in your area and create your own study group if you'd like! Studying in groups can help eliminate the stress of trying to learn on your own. You can make your own competitions and games or even practice calligraphy. In your own group you get to decide which way you like to study with the people you like being around!

learning kanji

What Way Should I Learn

So what is the best way to learn Japanese kanji? That all depends on you! One possible way is to use reference methods in conjugation to each other. For example combining the Heisig with the SRS system. Each one tackles a strength and a weakness. While the Heisig method provides the initial spark of memorization, Anki will help solidify the meaning in your mind.

Whatever method you end up using, keep in mind these tips and that having a good drive when learning Japanese kanji is essential. However, study methods vary and whatever works best for you is different from everyone else and it’s up to you to study in a way that benefits you.

Tip #1: Use a Support System

Sometimes you need a shoulder to lean on to help you reach your goal. Which is where your community comes in! You can find this support from your friends, family, or even the internet. Here are a couple of apps to help you form good learning habits.

Habit List:

This app is part of the visualization aspect. You can see your progress in streaks on the calendar, and compare your progress overtime. This app you will allow you to see the most benefit in the long term.

This app is only available to IOS devices.

Goal Tracker and Habit List:

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

Tap once for a successful day, and tap again if you didn’t manage to reach your habit.

Tip #2: Establish Acheivable Goals

If you want to learn 5 kanji a day - great. If you want to learn 20 kanji a day - amazing! But make sure whatever goal you set for yourself will be achievable. It’s easy to lose motivation when you’re having a hard time reaching your goal. Be sure to have fun with what you’re doing but also be driven. If you bully or put yourself down for not acheiving your goal you won’t enjoy learning Japanese kanji. And, don’t forget to treat yourself every now and then for your progress!

Tip #3: Review!

Reviewing is your best friend. Take the time to sit down and go over what you’ve been practicing and maybe even make a little homemade quiz. Take the time to learn kanji at your own pace and review what you've learned. Japanese kanji is like math, you build up your skills with each new one you learn.

Tip #4: Make Some Friends

Another way to connect with the native speakers and the community around you is to ask for help with kanji. Many good relationships and friendships are formed this way! For more, check out “How to Make Japanese Friends"

Additional Information

Check out these articles for more information on learning Japanese reading, listening, and speaking

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