Learning to read Japanese is no picnic.
In fact, some would argue that it’s the world’s toughest writing system to learn.
It even beats out Mandarin Chinese, due to kanji mixing and matching with kana.
But, hey — we’re modern kids armed with awesome iPhone apps.
Our lives are totally streamlined.
We all know by now that good quality apps can make any aspect of life a lot easier.
What Makes the Japanese Writing System So Hard?
Well, for starters, there’s the fact that there are technically four different writing systems that could be mixed up together in one sentence: katakana, hiragana, kanji and romaji.
But what makes it really tough is that, in order to be fully literate in Japanese, you have to learn the meanings and sounds of over 2,000 ideograms.
Welcome to the world of learning kanji.
Kanji characters, Chinese characters that came to Japan centuries ago, present an astounding headache for anyone studying Japanese. But luckily, there are kanji iPhone apps that can help.
iStudy Japanese: 6 Free iPhone Apps to Help You Learn Kanji
These apps can take the drudgery of kanji study and transform it into games so that it’s (believe it or not)… fun!
So, I took it upon myself to try out some kanji learning apps that are free and easy to use. All of these apps are:
- Free. In other words, they’re not trial samples of premium apps that you have to pay for if you want to unlock content.
- Available without the need for sign-ups, memberships or any other complications.
- Available for the iPhone.
For each, I’ll give you a quick description along with my recommendation for which type of learning — and learning situation — each app works best for.
KanjiQ by Aribada Inc.
Focus Area: Learning how to write kanji at all skill levels.
Kanji Q is a simple, straightforward app that helps you practice writing kanji characters. It shows you the stroke order and you follow it, tracing the lines by number. It shows the character at the top of the screen but you can challenge yourself by clicking on the character and making it disappear.
For characters you already know, you can skip ahead. If you want to know more about the character, you can click on a book icon and it tells you the meaning, all of its readings in Japanese, its reading in Chinese and Korean, what JLPT level it is and in which grade kids learn it.
This app is good for all levels because you can choose which JLPT level or school grade kanji you want to learn, making it a personalized experience.
Japanese Vocabulary Flash Cards by Shinsuke Tamura
Focus Area: Kanji reading and recognition for all levels.
This app teaches you the sounds and meanings of kanji characters. It works just like a deck of flashcards, but it’d digital and you flip through them by swiping your thumb across your phone’s touchscreen.
There’s a menu at the bottom of the screen that allows you to choose characters by school grade or JLPT level. There’s also the option of a random flashcard from the entire deck, or from a grade or level of your choice. I’d recommend this app especially if you’re studying for the JLPT.
Like Kanji Q, Japanese Kanji Flash Card is simple and very easy to use.
Kanji Quiz by Transcosmos Inc.
Focus Area: Reading and recognizing kanji at an intermediate level.
I consider this one intermediate level because you have to know some kanji already in order to use it. The menu is in Japanese. This app is good for reading, recognition and, in particular, understanding the various readings one character can have.
The menu lets you pick character sets by elementary school (小学校), junior high school (中学校), high school (高学校) or university (大学) levels. None of the others I tried on iTunes have a university level. The app gives you an actual Japanese word, which is made up of kanji and/or hiragana, and you have to choose the correct reading from two choices. This is especially good for your reading skill since it uses actual words.
Kanji Quiz is very game-like. It even has a cuddly little dog character that cheers you on and cutesy sound effects. It also has a time limit which factors into your score, thus lighting a little fire under your rear to get you going.
Kanji Game by Yoko Okita
Focus Area: Recognizing and reading kanji at a beginner level.
If you’re not ready to start tackling real word recognition yet, this is a very simple app that’s great for beginners who are just setting off on their kanji learning journey. This app has two quiz types, “Which is correct?” and “Is this a true kanji?”
“Which is correct?” shows you two characters and you have to choose which is correct. Most of them are common Japanese kanji with the radicals switched around. If you’re just getting started, this will help you hone that sixth sense that tells you something doesn’t quite look right which is so important in learning to read and write in a new language.
“Is this a true kanji?” is a bit more challenging. It shows you a character and you have to guess whether it’s an actual character or not. The false characters use real radicals, so it can be quite tough to figure out if they’re not real.
Kanji Star by Aidan Povedano
Focus Area: Learning to write kanji for any level.
Like Kanji Q, Kanji Star teaches you how to write kanji, but it has a bit more to offer. First of all, in addition to choosing characters based on school grade and JLPT category, you can also choose a thematic category. The categories are numbers, colors, animals, geography and the body. So, if you want to brush up on your color kanji, you can focus on only that.
It also offers a challenging twist — you don’t just trace the character. You have to actually remember it.
At first, it shows you how to write the character. Once you start the lines disappear, leaving you with only a tiny circle that shows where to start. After you draw each line, the circle shows you where to connect to the next line. You really have to think about where each line goes and it’s quite a challenge, even if you can already read Japanese pretty well. But don’t worry. If you’re really clueless, it’ll give you a hint and show you the general direction in which the line is supposed to go.
It also provides readings and meanings. You can practice characters in order or skip the ones you know. There’s also a shuffle mode.
Kanji Star doesn’t technically fit the bill of “free iPhone apps” entirely here — JPLT levels two to four and school grades one to four are free, but you have to purchase more if you want to advance. I liked this one so much, I decided to include it anyway. Plus, unlike other teaser apps that offer just a sample, this one actually has quite a few characters you can practice (rather than just the most basic level available for free).
Let’s Read Kanji — Basic 100 Verbs by Sakurako Ogata
Focus Area: Recognizing and reading kanji and learning basic vocab for beginners.
This app offers quizzes where it gives you a verb using kanji and you have to choose its kana reading from four choices. This is very simple and fun, and ideal for beginners. The bonus of this app over other kanji quiz apps is that it teaches you useful beginning vocabulary. The words you learn here are 100 of the most commonly used Japanese verbs. You can kill two birds with one stone.
*Bonus App: FluentU by Fluentflix
Focus area: Immersion and comprehension
This one’s more of an all-around learning app, but it does have some great benefits to those working on learning kanji.
FluentU takes real-world Japanese videos—like music videos, movie trailers, documentaries, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
It naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You’ll learn real Japanese as it’s spoken in real life, and you’ll see all the related kanji pop up on your screen as you watch with subtitles.
Just take a look at the wide variety of authentic video content we have available. Here’s a small sample:
You’ll discover tons of new Japanese vocabulary through these great clips.
Don’t worry about your skill level being an issue when it comes to understanding the language. FluentU makes native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts.
You can choose to watch with Japanese and/or English subtitles—or no subtitles at all! However, watching with the Japanese subtitles will expose you to kanji, written with helpful furigana beneath them.
Tap on any word to look it up instantly. Don’t understand that string of kanji? Tap ’em. You’ll instantly see definitions, native pronunciations, in-context usage examples and helpful illustrations.
Simply tap “add” to send interesting vocabulary words to your running vocab list for later review.
FluentU has a learn mode which turns every video into a language learning lesson and gets you to actively practice your newly-learned language.
You’ll learn so much more than kanji while using FluentU. It’s a more holistic approach to learning Japanese. We want you to get completely immersed in the language. As a result, you’ll find yourself absorbing kanji, along with their definitions and readings, in a very natural way.
Keep Exploring to Find More Apps!
Of course, there are tons and tons of other apps and resources that can help you learn kanji. Some of them are very reasonably priced, costing you just a couple of dollars for months or years of study material. You can also use children’s books and manga to get started in a fun way.
Free iPhone apps to learn kanji are just one tool in your arsenal for studying Japanese — but make sure you keep this handy tool sharp!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.