How to Learn Kanji: 7 Tips from a Guy Who Did It and Survived

It wasn’t exactly an auspicious start.

I started learning Japanese at age 27, a monolingual Midwestern American who barely passed my high school German classes and retained absolutely none of the material.

In other words, I was among the world’s most linguistically challenged.

The dreaded kanji characters were a serious struggle for me.

But now, about ten 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.

And also, remember that in terms of linguistic ability I was among the bottom 1%.

There’s no way to make learning Kanji easy, so I won’t tell you that.

But I do have some tips that I think could have saved me time, and I’d like to share them with you.

Well, first things first – why subject yourself to learning Kanji?

Why You Should Learn Kanji

Of course, you don’t need to learn kanji in order to speak Japanese fluently. Many Japanese learners don’t bother with it at all. You could just learn Japanese by watching dramas. But I think it’s important to learn kanji for several reasons.

First, learning to speak any language involves learning to read it as well. 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. Unfortunately for Japanese learners, this means getting your head twisted around by the confusing world of kanji.

Second, learning kanji helps you better understand new 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.

Finally, if you ever plan to live in Japan, learning kanji is more than just a language skill. It’s a survival skill. You’ll need it 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.

How to Study Kanji – The Overall Approach

I wish I could share with you a simple, easy, idiot-proof kanji learning method that you can do in your sleep, but that’s just not the case. Learning kanji involves a two-pronged attack: 1) Drilling and rote memorization and 2) real-life interaction.

Drilling isn’t any fun but it gets the job done. I learned kanji mainly by using flashcards. I would spend a half an hour a day where I would learn seven new kanji characters and drill ones I’d learned previously. I would drill meanings and readings. It’s easy to remember the meanings but much tougher to remember readings, especially considering that most have two (some have more). When there was one I knew completely, I took it out of the deck.

The most popular flashcard app is Anki. Learning Kanji with Anki  has been covered remarkably in this epic step-by-step post by Nihongoshark and this series by JapaneseLevelUp, so I won’t go into further detail here.

You also need to balance your daily drilling with some real-life kanji study. Rote memorization isn’t enough to make it stick. When Japanese kids learn kanji, they’re not just drilling characters in a vacuum. As they learn new characters, they’re surrounded by them. You should do this too, as much as you possibly can. You’ll also get an idea of exactly how each is used and this will reinforce the meaning for you. You’ll make connections and this helps you learn.

One great way to learn kanji in real-life contexts is FluentU, a site for learning Japanese through real-world videos. On FluentU, you’ll be able to learn kanji through quizzes which include video context. It’s an entertaining way to make Japanese stick in your head.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

You can try FluentU for free for 2 weeks. Click here to check out the website or download the iOS app or Android app.

  FluentU Ad

It’s good to study writing as you learn kanji but I didn’t. I’m lazy and I live in an age where we communicate via computer keyboard. I keep saying I’ll get around to it someday. I can’t speak from experience, but from what I’ve heard, it really helps you to remember the characters and their finer details when you write them yourself.

There are about 2,000 kanji characters in common use and once you get them down, you’re officially literate. You can then read newspapers and most books. There are thousands more and even Japanese folks don’t know them all, but knowing 2,000 characters more or less gets the job done. So, I recommend setting a future goal and breaking it down. Do the math and figure out how many new ones you should learn per day.

7 Other Tips on How to Learn Kanji

There is no easy way to learn kanji but there are some ways to make it easier on yourself that I’ve learned through experience.

Learning kanji is all about getting into a daily study habit. Even if you can only spare 15 minutes of each day to studying, 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.

Learn Radicals
Complex characters are made up of smaller parts called radicals. If you get acquainted with these radicals, it’s much easier to tell similar characters apart. You can also guess at pronunciation sometimes. Often, characters with a certain radical in common will be pronounced similarly.

Associate Images
Some people find it easy to remember characters when you make image associations. For example, the character for “person” looks like a person. The character for “stop” looks like someone extending an arm in front of them. The most famous book about this is Remember the Kanji by James Heisig. Another book about image association is Kanji Pict-O-Graphix by Michael Rowley. I personally didn’t find image association helpful, but many people do.

Use a Great Dictionary, Book, or Online Resource
Whenever you learn a new character, consult your dictionary and find words that use it. This will help the meaning stick and show how it’s used. Most kanji learning materials offer a few common vocabulary items for each entry as well. The go-to online resource for many Japanese learners is Jim Breen’s WWWJDIC, which you can access for free online.

Another great resource is Kanji Damage: A very practical and context oriented online kanji book. Contains around 1700 Kanji. The irreverent style (check out the Eazy-E mnemonic) with the focus on examples might be exactly what you need.

Forget the Order
Japanese students learn kanji in an established order. There is a set of characters for each grade to learn from first through the end of high school. There is certainly some reason why Japan’s education system teaches kanji in this order, but it’s useless for you. Some books or classes use this order and some use another order. Don’t get hung up on order; just start somewhere and stick to your routine.

Read Something Interesting
When you’re studying something fun and interesting, it gives you the motivation to keep pushing on even when things get tough. Choose real-life study materials that interest you, like magazines, comics or books that you’d enjoy even if you weren’t studying Japanese. You can also watch cartoons and movies for the subtitles.

Practice with Pen Pals
Another good way to learn in real life is to exchange emails with a pen pal. There are many websites where you can easily find them. Through daily conversation, you’ll learn the characters that are most commonly used in everyday life.

Native Check
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.

It’s one thing when you slip on your goals and let yourself down. But it’s something entirely different when you’re letting all of your friends down. 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.

Technology Is Your Friend
When I set about this herculean task a decade ago, I had a thing made of paper we called a ‘book’ and I had to flip through it each day when I studied. There’s a thing called a ‘bookmark’ that you use to mark your place and… well, suffice it to say that things have changed a great deal since then.

 Other Resources on How to Learn Kanji

How to Learn 2,000 Kanji in 3 Months: Mission Possible: Great post by John Fotheringham where he goes into a bit more detail about some of the tools mentioned here, as well as how establishing S.M.A.R.T. goals can set you up for success.

Learning Kanji: Using Shorter Sentences to Study more Efficiently: Terrific post by EAS Student which explains the importance of learning with sentences which provide context.

5 Ways to Learn Japanese Kanji: Nice post over at JLPT Boot Camp. They mention some other tools, like the Kanji Poster.


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