The big question on the typical Japanese learner’s mind is: Is it even possible to learn so many kanji?
The next question (and the main question for everyone else) is usually: Can learning kanji be fun?
The answers to these questions are, respectively, yes and yes.
The first thing to acknowledge is that when I—along with pretty much every Japanese teacher on earth—say that kanji are crucial for Japanese learners, I mean to say that they’re crucial to the Japanese, too.
There are Japanese children out there right now, furiously memorizing all the kanji their brains can absorb, who totally feel your pain.
There are even Japanese game shows designed to test (and stump) literate, intelligent Japanese adults on their kanji knowledge.
Why Kanji Is Important for Japanese Learners
The Japanese Ministry of Education developed and issued a list called 学年別漢字配当表 (がくねんべつ かんじ はいとう ひょう) or “list of Kanji divided per school year,” which is comprised of 1,006 characters and their associated readings. This list prescribes the kanji and the readings which should be taught, as well as when they should be taught to Japanese schoolchildren over the course of primary school.
I can already hear you freaking out, muttering, “more than a thousand kanji by the end of primary school, are you serious?”
Well, yes, and Japanese kids and their parents also think it’s a lot, actually.
This list is a subdivision of a more global list which encompasses kanji requirements for the whole secondary education system. If you’ve heard about any of this, that’s probably the one you know: 常用漢字 (じょうよう かんじ) or “regular-use characters”.
This table was issued in 1981 and updated in 2010, and is actually a revised version of a list drafted after the Second World War to foster and provide a framework to literacy development. The initial list—entitled 当用漢字表 (とうよう かんじ) or “list of characters for general use”—was one of the cornerstones of the reform of the national writing system that took place in the 1940s.
I’m not going to delve deeper into details because this topic could easily fill up a dozen posts, but my point was to insist on how key kanji are in the Japanese educational system, and more generally in Japan at large.
Of course, there are many ways to practice Japanese reading but, surprisingly, you can also get better at kanji while having fun on your smartphone.
How to Practice Kanji and Make It Stick
You may have heard teachers saying that you need to see a kanji three times before remembering it.
No matter whether this statement is backed by science or not, your own experience has probably already confirmed that the more kanji you see, and the more frequently you see the same ones repeated, the easier it is to learn and recall them.
That’s why progress can be so significant when you’re staying in Japan, since you’re bathing in kanji all day, everyday, without even noticing it. That’s also one of the reasons why newcomers often say they get the feeling that their brains are going to blow up.
However, even if you stare at kanji from the moment you get up to the moment you go to bed, it’s very unlikely you’ll improve your reading skills significantly. What’s more, your writing skills won’t get any better.
Students often argue that nobody uses their hands to write anymore, that cell phones and laptops have taken over handwriting and that the Internet offers never-ending resources.
That’s true, and it’s true that if you live in Japan, even as an exchange student, you’re likely to type most of the Japanese you have to write. But that doesn’t change the fact that you must pile up many, many lines of handwritten kanji to really, truly carve them in your brain for the long-term.
No Repetition, No Kanji
This is also a reality for the Japanese themselves, and that’s precisely how they learn them. I remember being fairly surprised when I stepped into a Japanese friend’s bathroom and found myself surrounded by posters with lists of kanji. Kanji all over the walls! That friend of mine had one kid in second grade and another one in fifth grade.
Yet the reason why they had to get those characters stuck in their heads—besides the fact that their parents hoped they’d be able to read newspapers as grown-ups—was that they had to pass tomorrow’s kanji quizzes. As well as the next quiz and the one after and so on.
Japanese students repeat practicing the same kanji for days. They repeat kanji for years. They repeat kanji until they graduate from high school, and even beyond that sometimes. They repeat this list until they know it inside out. And when I say “repeat,” I mean to say that their hands repeat it.
When I started studying Japanese, one of our lecturers told us we’d never be bored again. You can always check out a few more kanji, right? So you’d better find a fun way to do it.
How to Get the Best Results from Your Kanji Apps
I love apps when it comes to kanji training because almost all of them are designed to allow you to trace characters with your finger, so all you need is your smartphone and your hand. And, as it turns out, native Japanese feel the same way about this useful technology.
Never Stop Practicing
If you stop using it, you’ll lose it. Same goes for native speakers, and that’s exactly why all these app options exist.
As far as I’m concerned, I was relieved to find out that even the Japanese need to “train” themselves to maintain their reading and writing skill levels. You could see that as the most discouraging point ever, but we already said that Japanese isn’t a language you can even just be done with. Is there any language, including your own, that you can assert you know perfectly, anyway?
Never Waste a Minute of Potential Study Time
Yet, even if I do believe that kanji is a wonderful thing to know, something fun to practice and something that I’ll keep learning forever and ever, I’m like anybody else. I need to be strategic with my time.
Japanese beginners often say—and I say this too—that they can’t possibly spend the whole day lining up characters on a notebook. Point taken, nobody can do such a thing (if you can, shoot me an email and share your secret regarding time management).
However, I know for a fact that you have time available that you haven’t optimized yet. You commute, wait in line at the grocery shop and sit in the waiting room at the dentist’s office. You wait for food to cook. You laze on the couch from time to time. You have a lull at work. You have a coffee break.
That’s when I practice kanji.
After trying a bunch of apps during this study time, I came across a few high-quality kanji apps designed for native Japanese speakers themselves.
Apps for foreigners are a wonderful tool, especially for beginners since they’re more user-friendly for non-natives, but the apps targeting native speakers are awesome for those who live in Japan and for those who want to speed up the whole process. Plus there’s a certain satisfaction in using the same tools as the locals, don’t you think?
To get such results, you need to be consistent. Japanese children are constantly tested and it’s quite a fast-paced process.
My take on this is that it’s better to study five minutes every day rather than two hours every three months. Of course, any time dedicated to your studies is good, but it’s much more efficient to put in some time on a regular basis. And again, who doesn’t have five minutes a day to spare?
The 5 Best Kanji Apps Used by Native Japanese Speakers
(かんじ けんてい・かんけん かんじ とれーにんぐ — Kanji Aptitude Test Training)
It’s a classic because it was designed for adults willing to take the Japan Kanji Aptitude Test.
This test is administrated by the 日本漢字能力検定協会 (にほん かんじのうりょく けんてい きょうかい) or Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Public Interest Foundation.
There are 12 levels, with level 1 being the hardest. Adults typically take tests ranging from levels 3 to 1, although level 1 is extremely difficult to pass. Level 2 can be an advantage when applying to jobs, and can even be required by your employer.
Passing level 1 is rare among native speakers, and as a consequence it’s exceptional among foreigners. Make sure to pick a level that matches your current knowledge of kanji and build your way up progressively.
(よめないと はずかしい おとなの じょうしき かんじ — Usual Kanji That Adults Would Be Embarrassed Not to Know)
Here we’ve got another option for native adults with a funkier vibe than the previous one.
It’s divided between beginner, intermediate and advanced levels, with subdivisions that form little chapters. Like the previous app, it’s free on Google Play and Apple Store, and you can pretend you’re a virtual ninja. Plus, being a kanji ninja will earn you more respect than being a fruit ninja.
(かんじけんてい・かんけん かんじ ちゃれんじ — Kanji Aptitude Test Challenge)
This one also is another favorite in Japan, with a different spin on the learning process. This one is more about rapid-fire recognition and reproduction than any other.
小学生手書き漢字ドリル1006 – はんぷく学習シリーズ
(しょうがくせい てがき かんじ どりる1006 – はんぷく がくしゅう しりーず — Handwritten Kanji Drills for Primary-schoolers – Repetition Drill Series)
It’s a playful app, and very user-friendly. I recommend you start from the very first level and move upwards upon completing each one. It may seem easy to intermediate learners at first, but keep moving and continue your way up until you reach the top of the ladder.
(ちゅうがくせい かんじ [てがき あんど よみかた] — Kanji for Junior High-schoolers [Handwriting and Reading])
Developed by the same company as 小学生手書き漢字ドリル1006 – はんぷく学習シリーズ, this belongs to the same series and is designed for the junior high school level. If you’re an upper-intermediate or advanced learner, download this on iTunes or Google Play and enjoy.
FluentU was created with learners in mind, not native Japanese users, but its authentic method of learning makes it a valuable asset for anyone studying 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. That means you’ll be learning kanji that’s relevant to everyday life, as it’s used by real native speakers.
Just take a look at the wide variety of authentic video content available in the program. 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.
Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
You’ll see definitions, in-context usage examples and helpful illustrations. Simply tap “add” to send interesting vocabulary words to your personal vocab list for later review. The program uses adaptive quizzes to test your memory of the kanji and its definitions, and makes furigana available in flashcards for your convenience.
FluentU even uses a learning program which adapts to your specific needs to turn every video into a language learning lesson and get you to actively practice your newly-learned language.
Access FluentU on the website to use it with your computer or tablet or, better yet, start learning Japanese on the go with the FluentU app!
Try all these kanji-learning apps and see which one’s the best fit for you.
Your time on the bus is about to become way more interesting!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.