Baby Steps: The Best Way to Learn Kanji Without Losing Your Cool

Kanji gets a bad rap from foreigners studying Japanese.

But I am here to tell you, it’s not hard, it just takes time!

To be literate in Japanese, you need to know the roughly 2,000 “Standard Use Kanji” (常用漢字/じょうようかんじ) which are what you’ll find used in newspapers, magazines, novels, advertisements and so on.

So how should we tackle this task? Well, here are a few ideas for learning kanji that will show you how awesome this part of Japanese can actually be.


Baby Step 1: Get Yourself Motivated

Think about your motivation

Why do you want to learn kanji? The first time I went to Japan I was traveling with a vegetarian, so we made sure to learn the kanji for all the common fish and meat animals before we set off. My current goal is to be able to read Haruki Murakami’s novels in Japanese. Each different goal will involve learning a different set of relevant kanji.

Establishing the core reason why you want to take on such an enormous task will help you to narrow down your study focus, or at least find a place to start! Say you’re planning to move to Tokyo soon. Maybe you could start by learning to read the subway map in Japanese.

If you want to drive around Japan, you’ll need to learn all the road signs! It can be as niche as you like, if it’s what makes you really care and want to study. Any start is a good start!

Use materials to signify your goals

I love making posters. I make them color-coordinated and pretty, so that my eye is drawn to them. I get sick of flashcards really quickly, so I use posters and a big chalkboard in my office to do sight-reading, and keep flashcards on hand for some extra writing practice.

The great thing about posters is that you can use them to visually break down your goal into smaller parts to tackle, and you can mark stuff off once you’ve learned it. This helps you keep track of your overall progress and remember how much closer you’ve gotten to your goal. I like to circle groups of kanji on my posters twice—once when I know the English meaning and Japanese reading from sight, and again when I can write the kanji without a prompt.

Keep yourself accountable

John Fotheringham suggests making a learning blog or starting a bet with friends. I love the idea of setting up a competition with other Japanese learners to motivate myself to learn kanji.

For example, you could agree on a date in several months’ time, and test yourselves to see who has learned the most by then. Or you could set a specific number of kanji you all have to learn, and race to be the first to be able to read them all off a poster or write them all down without needing to check. You could keep up-to-date by testing each other each week leading up to the deadline.

Maybe you could figure out a rewards system—either for yourself or your study group. For example, you all go out for sushi once you can read all the kanji on the menu!

Baby Step 2: Decide How You Learn Best

The traditional rote memorization method doesn’t really work for many people.

In fact, in most cases it will hold you back, as you get hung up on specific details without actually learning to recognize and reproduce the kanji. These learning techniques come from Japanese primary schools, where they sort of make sense because the students are surrounded by kanji and already speak fluent Japanese. The language already makes perfect sense to them, so most of this practice is natural and incidental.

This is (unfortunately) not the case for us, so we need more dynamic practice than just writing and rewriting. We all learn in different ways, so here are a few examples of avenues you could take to give your kanji study some structure that benefits you.

Read, write and speak new kanji all at once

Some teachers prefer to separate learning the English meanings of kanji from learning the readings, but to me that seems like a waste of time. Then you’re starting at the beginning to learn the word twice. Better to concentrate your energy on learning the word in its entirety from the get-go.

As you write the kanji a few times, repeat the Japanese readings and English meanings to yourself until they feel like they make sense together.

Learn with radicals

There are around 200 radicals, and they’re used to make up kanji characters. Often the radicals come together to literally paint a picture of what the kanji represents. How wonderful it is when that happens!

However, be warned: Radicals won’t always relate logically to the meaning of the word. For example, how does an arrow inside two-thirds of a box represent a doctor for the  in 医者(いしゃ)? Of course, you’re welcome to make up your own story as to why this is. As helpful as radicals can be as a starting point, you need to be mindful not to rely on them too heavily in your quest to learn kanji.

One way to increase your chance of remembering kanji using radicals is by learning groups of kanji that all use the same radical for the same purpose: For example, you might try to learn all the kanji that use the water radical and that also relate to water. Start with 海 (うみ – sea) or 洗う (あらう – to wash). Once you’ve got them down, tackle the kanji that use the water radical but don’t have an obvious, direct link to water such as 漢字 (かんじ – kanji) or 漫画 (まんが – manga).

Learn using muscle memory

I’ve read a lot of people recommending that we forget stroke order in our study of kanji, and I sort of agree. It’s certainly true that getting stuck on specifics like stroke order aren’t going to help you to remember the character. However, I have used stroke order to memorize several characters that for some reason just wouldn’t stick in my mind. I could recognize and read them fine, but every time I went to write the character my mind would go blank.

For these pesky kanji, I found that coming up with my own stroke order and counting out the strokes as I wrote them a few times helped me to remember the characters, much in the same way as we learn chords on a guitar. Now, when I’m stuck on one of these letters I just have to write the first stroke and my hand will just kind of do the rest!

Learn with vocab

In high school, we learned thousands of Japanese words in order to pass our speaking and listening exams, but only about 200 kanji. It seems to ridiculous now, when I can speak the language fluently but am basically illiterate! If we already had to memorize the words, why didn’t they just teach us the kanji? Now I’m determined to always learn the kanji for a new word—and I’m going back to learn the kanji for all the words I thought I already knew!

You can use vocab to structure your kanji learning by learning all the different readings and meanings for one kanji character. This should help you get your head around the nuances of the character.

One way to do this is to use imiwa, the Japanese dictionary app. When you type in a kanji character, it will spit out several different words that use that character. Learning this way will eventually help your brain to really understand the way that kanji is used to indicate meaning, and should really pick up your learning speed as you go.

Learn by context

If you’re a fan of manga or Japanese literature, this is for you!

Dig up some simple material, and sit down and see how far through it you can get. This is a great way to find new characters to learn and to practice reading the characters you’ve already learned. You can also use websites, blogs and social media to find Japanese texts to immerse yourself in. This is a great technique for motivating your study and keeping it relevant and important to you. Find everything that you love about Japanese language and culture, and use it to make study exciting!

Learn by immersion

Planning a trip to Japan? There’s your study route!

In the lead-up to your trip, make a list of all the times you’ll need to read kanji (restaurant menus, street signs, commute details, event details, etc.), and learn everything you can within each category. The study will continue upon your arrival too, of course! There’s no carrot to keep yourself plodding along like a trip on the horizon!

Baby Step 3: Solidify Your Learning

Drill, drill, drill

This has got to be the most boring part of the process for me. But there’s no point learning all this stuff only to find that you can’t recall it when the time comes. Nihongo Shark has a great, super-detailed step-by-step method on drilling, to give you an idea for one way to structure your practice.

I’m an analog person, I like to write kanji down while repeating the reading(s) and meaning(s) aloud. I make my own flashcards and carry them around in my wallet. I can understand why some feel that learning to write kanji is a bit obsolete, but writing stuff down forces me to concentrate. As I mentioned earlier, I learn some kanji basically from pure muscle memory, just by writing and rewriting the character, and others I learn just by writing them within sentences and paragraphs.

For those of you a little more engaged with the 21st Century, there are flashcard apps like Anki and even video-based flashcards from FluentU

FluentU is a web and mobile-based language program that uses authentic videos to teach you Japanese. Each video on the platform has interactive subtitles, complete with all the kanji used. You can even click on a word you don’t know to see the meaning of each kanji and add it to your own vocabulary list to review it on your own custom flashcard deck later. 

Another great way to get this stuff into your head (and back out again!) is to use mnemonics to assign stories and associations to radicals or kanji. The brain is really good at remembering stories, and the stories themselves can help your brain to recall the character. Mnemonics is a learning technique that uses stories and associations (i.e. something you already know) to learn and store a new skill or memory (i.e. something you don’t know). A mnemonic can be anything (a word, a story, a picture, a song, an acronym), as long as it’s distinct and can be strongly associated with the kanji that you’re trying to learn.

I tend to make up funny, and often totally absurd mnemonics, because I find that I can recall them much faster than serious (and perhaps more tangible) associations. However, what you decide to use is totally a personal call. Whatever seems to pop up most easily in your brain is what you should go with!

Make practice fun!

Visuals. Along with all my posters, I have a blackboard in my office that I cover with kanji every week. I’ve decorated it to make me want to look at it every time I glance up from the computer, so I end up doing a quick sight-reading practice. I don’t write the readings or meanings on the blackboard, so if I forget either I have to look them up in my notebook. It’s an easy, passive practice that keeps me up-to-date when I get sick of flashcards.

Advertising is your friend! Japanese magazines, catalogues and variety shows are all plastered with advertising, which is generally written in catchy, colloquial language. Advertisements are designed to be memorable—use this to your advantage! Translate and memorize the catchphrase, taking note of the kanji. When you see the kanji elsewhere, you’ll be reminded of the advertisement which will, in turn, trigger the memory of the meaning of the kanji in your mind.

Make a phrasebook. I have about eight thousand notebooks on the desk in my office. One of these is my kanji phrasebook. I fill up a page or two of new kanji that I’ve discovered and want to learn, plus the furigana and meanings. I use the book right at the beginning of my study of these characters to get used to reading them, and then I keep it as a reference for if I ever forget exactly how to write a character later down the track.

Read! Being able to read is really the goal of learning kanji, so consolidate everything you’ve learned (with a serious pat on the back!) by reading everything you can. Some people use reading to learn kanji, but I think it’s better served as practice once you already know a few characters. Then you’ll be seeing the characters you already know in context, which will help them to make sense and stay in your memory, rather than just looking at a piece of text and feeling overwhelmed by all the kanji you have to learn. So pick up all the magazines, newspapers and novels you can find, and see how much sense you can make of them!

Baby Step 4: Check Your Progress

There’s nothing more motivating than finding out just how far you have come in your study. Test your kanji ability before you really knuckle down to study it to get an idea what level you’re at, and then test yourself periodically as you learn. There are various online tools for testing your proficiency, including the JLPT Level Check, which has a kanji section, or the MLC Kanji Level Check. There’s also a blog, Japanese Level Up, which includes several posts on how to gauge your proficiency level.

Testing yourself doesn’t sound like much fun, but it’s another way to keep yourself accountable and to check your progress. Besides, you’re not a formal student anymore. That annoying guy in the back row won’t be looking over your shoulder trying to find out your score. A test doesn’t have to be the source of anxiety, just a way to keep on track with your progress. Then you can congratulate yourself when you’ve made progress!

The great thing about learning kanji (or learning another language at all, really) is that you really can track your progress. As you learn, the language opens up to you. Every time I sit down to read a piece of text in Japanese, it gets easier. It’s incredibly motivating!

That’s a less formal, but immensely rewarding way to track your progress: Be aware of your increasing literacy. Pick up a Japanese novel/manga/magazine/newspaper and take note of how much more you can read than you could last time. Being able to read something—even if it’s just one sentence—that last time was totally incomprehensible is really quite amazing!

Plus, it will steer your attention to more new kanji to learn. Oh, and there’s always more to learn…

Just keep taking those baby steps.

Start today.

You’ll be surprised how far those wee little baby steps can actually take you!

Enter your e-mail address to get your free PDF!

We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe