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’ve saved me time, and I’d like to share them with you.
Kanji are Chinese characters that are part of the Japanese writing system, which also includes hiragana and katakana, the two sets of Japanese phonetic alphabets.
I think most Japanese learners will agree that kanji are the trickiest part of learning how to read Japanese. Not only are there so many of them, but some kanji have as many as seven possible readings!
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). These are the ones that often pop up in newspapers, magazines, novels, advertisements and so on.
That number might sound intimidating, but I’ll show you the study techniques I used to master them below.
I’ve mentioned hiragana and katakana earlier, and I strongly believe that before you even think about learning kanji, you should master these two writing systems (collectively called “kana”) first.
For example, kanji in Japanese would be 漢字 (かんじ). If you read that with a native English accent, you’ll probably sound something like “kahn-jeeh.” In Japanese, however, you don’t roll your vowels the way you do in English: all of the Japanese vowel sounds have only a single pronunciation.
In case you need a refresher on what hiragana and katakana are:
Luckily, hiragana and katakana both have only 46 characters each. They’re also basically different ways to write the same set of sounds, so you can easily memorize them in less than a week with regular repetition.
Once you’ve mastered the kanas, you can move on to radicals. Radicals are smaller parts that make up most kanji.
For example, the kanji for “autumn” is 秋. Notice how it contains two parts: 禾, which is the radical for “two-branch tree” or “grain,” and 火, the radical for “fire.”
Learning the approximately 200 radicals in Japanese is important for a couple of reasons:
While radicals aren’t magic bullets that can smash all of the obstacles to your kanji mastery, they can still make learning kanji much more of a cakewalk compared to, say, rote memorization.
After you’ve got the kanas and radicals down, your next question would probably be along the lines of “Which kanji should I learn first?” or “In what order should I learn kanji?”
If I’m being honest, there’s no “right or wrong” order to learning kanji—not for non-native Japanese speakers anyway. (Japanese students typically learn kanji from the least to the most complex in terms of meaning or definition.)
In the next few sections, I’m going to walk you through some possible systems you can use to learn kanji. Again, these methods aren’t prescriptive: just go with whatever works for you, even if it’s not mentioned here!
With that out of the way, one method is to start with the 75 most common kanji below:
But if you want to learn much more than these 75 characters (and trust me, 75 won’t even get you anywhere near basic literacy), you can also use frequency lists like this one from Wiktionary.
If you’re already using or planning to use a guided system like Andrew Scott Conning’s “The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course: A Step-by-Step Guide to Mastering 2300 Characters” or apps like WaniKani, you can just go with the order and method presented.
After all, learning Japanese is already tough enough as it is. Why make it even more difficult by trying to devise your own study system from scratch?
Besides, you can always use forums like /r/LearnJapanese on Reddit to see what other learners have to say about these systems—positive or otherwise.
Another way to figure out in what order you should learn kanji is to check out Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) textbooks. Chances are you’ll find kanji grouped from the easiest or lowest level (N5) to the highest or most difficult (N1). It’s not a perfect system, but it’s better than starting from nothing at all.
If you’re still undecided on what order to learn kanji in, you can also go by the number of strokes (lines that make up the characters) per kanji. Start with the kanji with the fewest parts and work your way up from there. This method has the advantage of not overburdening you with really complex kanji early on.
Most kanji textbooks and print Japanese dictionaries have an index of kanji according to stroke order, such as “The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course” I mentioned earlier. They also order kanji according to other criteria like the radicals used, so have fun with it!
Speaking of strokes, you might think that stroke order doesn’t really matter when you’re learning kanji. After all, what’s important is that the characters are readable once you’ve written them down, right?
Not quite. There are a number of reasons stroke order is crucial to mastering kanji, as tedious as it is to study:
So don’t neglect writing just because we live in a digital world. It’ll 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 typing new kanji on your phone.
In other words, learn kanji using mnemonics.
Mnemonics is the use of stories and associations to learn a new skill or create a new memory. A mnemonic can be anything (a word, picture, song or acronym), as long as you can easily link it to the kanji you’re trying to learn.
For example, the character for “person” (人) looks like a human without arms. Likewise, the character for “tree” (木) has horizontal and diagonal strokes that look like branches and one vertical stroke that looks like a tree trunk.
I tend to make up funny (and often absurd) mnemonics, because these help me recall kanji much faster than more serious associations. This is personal to me, though, so just go along with what seems to pop up most easily in your brain.
If you’re not too confident in your ability to form mnemonics, don’t fret! You can also pick up books like “Remembering the Kanji” by James Heisig (possibly the most famous book on learning kanji aimed at non-Japanese speakers) and “Kanji Pict-O-Graphix” by Michael Rowley, and use the mnemonics they recommend instead.
I’ll grant that drills aren’t the most entertaining way to study, but it gets the job done. I learned a lot of kanji mainly by using flashcards, as follows:
Whenever I learn a new vocabulary word, I always try to learn the kanji for that new word. I also look at other vocabulary words with that kanji to see it in context and better understand the nuances of the character.
Luckily, most kanji learning materials offer common vocabulary items for each entry, such as:
Let’s be real: Japanese textbooks aimed at language learners can get a little stale over time.
To switch things up, you can always read things like:
All reading and no watching makes studies duller than they need to be.
Why not maximize your Netflix subscription and switch on the Japanese subtitles for that J-Drama you’re watching? Alternatively, check out other websites where you can legally watch shows with Japanese subtitles.
You can also 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.
Here’s how a kanji phrasebook works (the way I use it anyway):
There are many subtleties to writing kanji, and you learn these best when you have a native speaker point out your mistakes to you—and encourage you when you’re doing something right!
For example, you can try exchanging emails with a penpal. You can usually find these on places like Conversation Exchange or ChatPad, the latter of which is a site that randomly pairs you up with a Japanese partner to chat with.
A good way to keep yourself on track with your kanji studies is to go public about the fact. Post about your progress on social media or start a blog chronicling your journey to Japanese literacy.
Better yet, try to write these posts entirely in Japanese. This way, you’ll have solid proof of how far you’ve come and how much you still need to learn.
A competition with other people learning kanji may also boost your motivation to study. You guys could:
Let’s say you want to master all of the 2200-ish kanji to be “newspaper fluent” in one year. That means you need to study about six to seven new kanji every day.
This goal is specific (“newspaper fluent”), measurable (“2,200-ish”), achievable (“about six to seven new kanji every day”) and timely (“in one year”).
But is it realistic? Can you learn six to seven new kanji completely every day including the meaning and the readings?
If you can, great! If you can’t, you may have to tweak your timeframe a bit (like extending it to two years, for example).
Don’t try to set a goal that’s too high early on. Otherwise, you’ll get demotivated if you don’t meet that goal. It’s okay to make learning a part of your life, but not to the point that it’ll consume you and make you end up hating it.
There’s nothing more motivating than finding out just how far you’ve come in your studies. Test your kanji ability at the start to get an idea of what level you’re at, then test yourself periodically as you learn (e.g., every few weeks or months).
There are various online tools to test your proficiency, such as:
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 was totally incomprehensible before is really quite amazing!
Of course, you don’t need to learn kanji to speak Japanese fluently. But it’s still important to learn for several reasons.
This may sound obvious, but you don’t really know a language unless you’re literate in it. It’s easy to take this for granted in languages like Spanish or German, which use the same alphabet as English.
Languages that don’t use the Roman or Latin alphabet (e.g., Chinese, Korean and Japanese), on the other hand, require learners to really put in the time to read them. Japanese learners, in particular, need to get used to getting their head twisted around by kanji.
When you learn new Japanese words, you can figure out their meanings if you know the kanji.
Even if you’ve never seen or heard of a certain kanji before, you can break it down by its radicals and make an educated guess as to what it means. And most of the time, your guess would be correct!
If you ever plan to live in Japan, you’ll need to learn kanji to find your way around. Very few signs are in English, especially those outside of major cities.
Also, kanji helps you read the entries on restaurant menus (which won’t always have pictures) as well as 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 an ever-growing high of accomplishment throughout your journey.
Keep at it and eventually, you’ll be identifying all of the kanji that looked so mysterious before!
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.
Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)
I am enjoying FluentU. I have been using this site for a couple weeks and I have definitely noticed a huge improvement in my vocabulary. I love that it uses a lot of relevant clips like Norman fait des videos to practice REAL French, and it is presented in such a fun way that it makes it easy to practice. Using this site has become part of my daily routine.
- Rachel Hollars
I really like learning with the videos. I have studied using other methods and it was very hard to put what you were learning into context. With the videos, not only are you learning new vocabulary, you are seeing how it is used. For example the tone which is used, the body language of the person using the phrase and the reaction to the phrase being said.
- Frederick Calestini
I love how I get to see videos, listen to music and learn about real and relevant aspects of the Chinese culture. I enjoy seeing faces in those videos of actors and people that I can recognize from other programs outside of Fluent U - which again tells me that the materials I get are relevant in the real Chinese/Taiwanese culture!
- Aileen Raquel Araúz