Learn Kanji: 13 Tips from a Guy Who Did It and Survived
Kanji characters were a serious struggle for me.
But now, several years later, I can read Japanese well.
It sounds like a long time, but remember that it takes Japanese students from kindergarten to the last year of high school to attain this basic fluency.
After my own kanji journey, I have some tips that I think could have saved me time, and I’d like to share them with you.
- What Is Kanji?
- How to Learn Kanji Efficiently
- 1. Learn Hiragana and Katakana First
- 2. Get to Know Kanji Radicals
- 3. Don’t Worry About the Order
- 4. Associate Images with Kanji
- 5. Do Regular Flashcard Drills
- 6. Learn the Kanji in Vocabulary Words
- 7. Don’t Neglect Writing and Stroke Order
- 8. Read (or Watch) Something That Interests You
- 9. Make a Kanji Phrasebook
- 10. Practice with Native Speakers
- 11. Force Yourself to Be Accountable
- 12. Set Realistic Goals
- 13. Track Your Progress
- Why You Should Learn Kanji
What Is Kanji?
Kanji are Chinese characters that are part of the Japanese writing system, which also includes katakana and hiragana. They’re the trickiest part of learning how to read in Japanese because there are so many!
Here are 75 common Kanji characters:
To become 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 you’ll find used in newspapers, magazines, novels, advertisements and so on.
That number might sound intimidating, but I’ll show you the study techniques I used to get there below.
How to Learn Kanji Efficiently
The traditional rote memorization method doesn’t really work for many people.
These learning techniques come from Japanese primary schools, where students already speak fluent Japanese. If you try it out as an adult learner, it can be pretty frustrating and inefficient.
There is no one way to learn kanji, but there are some tips that can work for everyone that I’ve learned through experience:
1. Learn Hiragana and Katakana First
Ideally, you should learn hiragana and katakana—the two sets of Japanese phonetic alphabets—right away. When you need to translate a kanji into something more readable, rather than using the Roman alphabet, use one of the two sets of kana.
In Japan, every foreign word (yes, even the McDonald’s menu) is going to be written in katakana. Learn to read it now.
Hiragana are used for some Japanese words that lack kanji or have overly difficult kanji that are falling out of use. They also serve as particles and as part of verb conjugations, making them an essential part of overall Japanese grammar.
The number of hiragana and katakana are few relative to kanji—just 46 of each. You can easily memorize them in less than a week with regular repetition.
There is an abundance of free and premium resources and apps on the market to help you out with learning them. Just get it over with and let the sense of accomplishment carry you into kanji feeling empowered.
2. Get to Know Kanji Radicals
Once you’re confident with your hiragana and katakana, you can move on to kanji—and learning about radicals.
Kanji are made up of smaller parts called radicals. For example, the kanji for “autumn” is 秋.
Notice how it contains two clear parts:
- 禾 — This is the radical for “two-branch tree” or “grain.”
- 火 — This is the radical for “fire.”
There are around 200 radicals, but learning just a few of these will give you clues to a surprising amount of kanji. If you get acquainted with these radicals, it’s much easier to tell similar characters apart.
Sometimes you’ll be able to guess the pronunciation too. Often, characters with a certain radical in common will be pronounced similarly.
Check out this thorough guide to get you started on kanji radicals. You can also watch this playlist of video tutorials:
To increase your chance of remembering kanji using radicals, you can look at groups of kanji that all use the same radical. 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
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
漫画 (まんが) — manga
Just like learning the hiragana and katakana, just get it out of the way early. Use the feeling of accomplishment gained from memorizing this small list of radicals to propel you forward again!
3. Don’t Worry About the Order
Traditionally, Japanese students learn kanji by advancing difficulty in meaning (not image). There is a set of characters for each grade to learn from first through the end of high school. This means that you may be learning some really complex kanji early just because they have simple meanings.
This isn’t always the most effective, which is why some books or classes use another order.
In any case, don’t get hung up on order. Just start somewhere and stick to your routine:
- If you’re already using or planning to use a guided system like James Heisig’s playlist of video tutorials book or apps like WaniKani, just go with the order presented. It’s already there, so why not? Less to worry about.
- Another road you may be taking is the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). You would start with the lowest level kanji (N5) and work up to the highest (N1).
- You could also simply learn by number of strokes. Start with the kanji with the fewest parts and work up from there. This method has the advantage of not overburdening you with really complex kanji early on.
Whatever method you choose to use, just be consistent.
4. Associate Images with Kanji
Another great way to get this stuff into your head (and back out again!) is to use mnemonics.
Mnemonics is a learning technique that uses stories and associations to learn and store a new skill or memory. A mnemonic can be anything (a word, a story, a picture, a song, an acronym), as long as you can associate it strongly with the kanji that you’re trying to learn.
The brain is really good at remembering stories, and the stories themselves can help your brain to recall the character.
- The character for “person” 人 (ひと) looks like a person.
- The character for “tree” 木 (き) looks like a tree.
The most famous book about this is “Remembering the Kanji” by James Heisig. Another book about image association is “Kanji Pict-O-Graphix” by Michael Rowley. Many people find image association helpful to study kanji.
I tend to make up funny, and often totally absurd mnemonics, because I find that I can recall them much faster than serious associations. This is personal, so just go along with what seems to pop up most easily in your brain!
5. Do Regular Flashcard Drills
Drilling isn’t any fun but it gets the job done. I learned a lot of kanji mainly by using flashcards. I would spend half an hour a day learning seven new kanji characters and drill ones I’d learned previously.
I would drill both meanings and readings. It’s easy to remember the meanings but much tougher to remember readings, especially considering that most have two or more.
The most popular flashcard app is Anki. Here’s a step-by-step guide to learning kanji with Anki—you can even download readymade kanji flashcard decks for free!
What’s great about Anki is that it goes beyond showing you flashcards. It actually optimizes your reviews based on spaced repetition. If you do your flashcard reviews regularly with Anki, you’ll likely remember most of the kanji characters long-term (until eventually you won’t need to review them anymore).
6. Learn the Kanji in Vocabulary Words
In high school, we learned thousands of Japanese words for our speaking and listening exams, but only about 200 kanji. It seems so 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!
To structure your kanji learning with vocab, try to learn the kanji involved every time you pick up a new word. Then you can look at other vocabulary words with that kanji. This should help you get your head around the nuances of the character.
Most kanji learning materials offer a few common vocabulary items for each entry as well:
- Jim Breen’s WWWJDIC — This is the go-to online resource for many Japanese learners, and you can access it for free.
- imiwa — Type in a kanji character, and this iOS dictionary app will spit out several different words with that character. Learning this way will help you understand how kanji is used to indicate meaning, which should really pick up your learning speed.
- Kanji Damage — This practical and context-oriented online kanji book contains around 1,700 kanji. The irreverent style with the focus on examples might be exactly what you need.
7. Don’t Neglect Writing and Stroke Order
Writing is an important step as you learn kanji. There have been so many studies proving that when you write something down by hand, you remember it easier. Add this to the fact that stroke order can be an important part of recognizing kanji and writing practice becomes essential.
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 isn’t going to help you to remember the character. However, I have used stroke order to memorize several characters that just wouldn’t stick in my mind because they look similar.
Don’t neglect writing just because we live in a digital world, it will give you the leg up you need to learn kanji more concretely. Try out Japanese Kanji Study for Android or Learn Japanese Kanji for iOS to practice writing out new kanji.
8. Read (or Watch) Something That Interests You
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. Find everything that you love about Japanese language and culture, and use it to make study exciting!
One popular manga “Yotsubato” is a great starting manga that will help you early on in your Japanese reading practice.
You can also watch cartoons and movies for the subtitles on sites like Crunchyroll.
There are sites too like NHK’s News Web Easy, where you can try reading simple news articles in Japanese and see where your kanji level is at.
Alternatively, you can try a language learning program like FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
9. Make a Kanji Phrasebook
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 if I ever forget a character later.
Here’s a handy trick: look out for Japanese advertisements whenever you see them and take note of the kanji. 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, so you can use this to your advantage!
Translate and memorize the catchphrase, then write down some of the kanji on your phrasebook. 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.
10. Practice with Native Speakers
If you’re learning to write kanji, have a Japanese friend check for you. Although I’ve never formally studied writing, I’ve tried writing some of the characters I have stored in my brain, and each time it elicited laughter and furrowed brows.
There are many subtleties to writing kanji and you learn these best when you have a native speaker point out your mistakes to you.
To apply the kanji that you’ve learned, try exchanging emails with a pen pal. You can find some conversation partners to exchange emails with on conversationexchange.com. You can also use ChatPad, which is a site that randomly pairs you up with a Japanese partner to chat with.
Through daily conversation, you’ll learn the characters that are most commonly used in everyday life.
11. Force Yourself to Be Accountable
Learning kanji is all about getting into a daily study habit. Even if you can only spare 15 minutes of each day, it’s consistency that counts. Stick with it and take note when you start to see results, because your successes will keep you motivated to reach further successes.
A good way to keep yourself on track is to go public with it. Post about your progress on social media or start a blog chronicling your journey to Japanese literacy. You’ll be too embarrassed to not meet your learning goals.
You can even set up a competition with other Japanese learners to motivate yourself to learn kanji. You could agree on a date in several months’ time, and test yourselves to see who has learned the most by then.
Another option would be setting 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!
12. Set Realistic Goals
As much as studying kanji should be a habit, it’s still important to set achievable goals. How quickly do you want to do this? Is it realistically feasible?
Let’s say you want to master all of the 2200-ish kanji you need to learn to be “newspaper fluent” in one year. That means you need to study about six to seven new kanji every day.
With your current schedule, can you learn seven new kanji completely every day including the meaning and the readings? If you can, great!
If you can’t, you may need to set a more realistic time frame. Maybe two years is more realistic for you.
It’s not a race. Remember, don’t push it. If you set too big a goal early on and can’t meet it, you may find yourself wanting to quit.
Avoid that pitfall by not aiming for too much too soon to begin with. There’s the added benefit of making learning a part of your life, but not allowing it to consume your life to the point where you start to hate it.
13. Track Your Progress
There’s nothing more motivating than finding out just how far you have come in your study. Test your kanji ability at the start to get an idea of what level you’re at, and then test yourself periodically as you learn.
There are various online tools for testing your proficiency, including:
- JLPT Level Check — There’s a section that’s specifically for kanji.
- MLC Kanji Level Check — This quick test gives you an estimate of how much kanji you know.
- Japanese Level Up — This blog includes several posts on how to gauge your proficiency level.
The great thing about learning kanji (or learning Japanese 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!
There’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!
Why You Should Learn Kanji
Of course, you don’t need to learn kanji to speak Japanese fluently. You could just learn Japanese by watching dramas. But it’s important to learn kanji for several reasons.
Reading Helps You Learn to Speak
You don’t really know the language unless you’re literate in it. This is taken for granted with languages like Spanish or German that use the same alphabet as English.
But learners of languages that don’t, like Arabic and Korean, also need to put in the time learning to read. For Japanese learners, this means getting your head twisted around by the amazing world of kanji.
It Teaches You Vocabulary
When you learn new words, you can guess at meanings if you know the kanji.
Kanji is similar to the affixes we have in English. For example, if you see a word starting with “re-” you know it means “again.” A word starting with “un-” means “not” and a word ending with “-able” means “can.”
Kanji characters are like these affixes. Each has its own meaning and if you know these meanings, it’s easier to understand new words.
Reading Is a Survival Skill
If you ever plan to live in Japan, you’ll need to learn kanji to find your way around. You’d be surprised at how few signs there are in English, especially once you get outside of major cities. Not to mention, you’ll want to be able to read the entries on restaurant menus (they won’t always have pictures) or the descriptions on products you buy.
Even if you’re just traveling to Japan for a visit, being able to read basic signs and instructions in the language will make you feel a lot more confident.
Learning kanji will take time, but as you learn more and more, you’ll be able to ride that high of prideful accomplishment to persevere through.
Keep at it and eventually, you’ll be identifying all of the kanji that looked so mysterious before!
And One More Thing...
If you love learning Japanese with authentic materials, then I should also tell you more about FluentU.
FluentU naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You'll learn real Japanese as it's spoken in real life.
FluentU has a broad range of contemporary videos as you'll see below:
FluentU makes these native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts. Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
All definitions have multiple examples, and they're written for Japanese learners like you. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.
And FluentU has a learn mode which turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples.
The best part? FluentU keeps track of your vocabulary, and gives you extra practice with difficult words. It'll even remind you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You'll have a 100% personalized experience.
The FluentU app is now available for iOS and Android, and it's also available as a website that you can access on your computer or tablet.