How to Learn Kanji: 9 Tips from a Guy Who Did It and Survived

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.

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.

Contents

Why You Should Learn Kanji

Of course, you don’t need to learn kanji in order 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.

9 Tips on How to Learn Kanji

There is no one way to learn kanji but there are some tips that can work for everyone 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 study, 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.

1. Learn Kanji Radicals

Complex characters are made up of smaller parts called radicals. And learning just a few of these radicals 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. You can also guess at pronunciation sometimes. Often, characters with a certain radical in common will be pronounced similarly. Check out this thorough guide to get you started on kanji radicals

2. Associate Images with Kanji

Some people find it easy to remember characters when you make image associations. For example, the character for “person” (ひと)looks like a person. The character for “tree” (き)looks like a tree. 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. Many people find image association helpful to study kanji.

3. Use a 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.

4. Don’t Worry About 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 for children, but the order doesn’t matter as much for adults. Some books or classes use this order and some use another order. For instance, the popular application WaniKani seems to order the kanji based on complexity. Don’t get hung up on order; just start somewhere and stick to your routine. 

5. Read Something That Interests You

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. 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.

6. Practice with Pen Pals

Another good way to learn in real life is to exchange 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.

7. Have a Native Speaker Check Your Writing

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.

8. Be Accountable

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.

9. Make Use of Technology

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. Nowadays, there are hundreds of apps and websites to choose from to learn kanji. Check out this article with some great apps that can get you started. 

How to Study Kanji – The Overall Approach

Learning kanji involves a three-pronged attack: 1) Drilling and rote memorization, 2) real-life interaction, and 3) writing practice.

Drills

Drilling isn’t any fun but it gets the job done. I learned 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 meanings and readings. It’s easy to remember the meanings but much tougher to remember readings, especially considering that most have two or 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.

Real-life Study

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.

A good way to get started is sites like NHK’s News Web Easy, where you can try reading simple news articles in Japanese and see where your kanji level is at. 

Writing

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. 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 KanjiQ to practice stroke order when learning new kanji. 

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.

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.

FluentU: A language-based learning program that uses videos to teach Japanese–you can use it to learn kanji in context. On each video, there are interactive subtitles. Just click on a word to see the translation and pronunciation, as well as the kanji used. You can then add these words to your own personalized vocabulary lists and flashcards to help you remember every kanji you come across.

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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