Nothing could’ve prepared you for this.
Your grandmother, all 93 years of the woman, is balanced upside down on a solid ivory pedestal. Her mouth is at the base of the pedestal and her elbows are swaying back and forth for balance a bit higher up.
Turns out that grandma’s been practicing yoga.
Suddenly noticing you, she gracefully flops down, grins widely and announces: “Everything starts with a solid foundation.”
Wait, don’t go! You’re in the right article.
The scene above is my personal mnemonic device for remembering the kanji for 始める (はじめる) — to begin.
In this post, we’ll discuss the usefulness of mnemonics and delve a bit into how our memories work. Then, we’ll find out how to craft memorable kanji mnemonics in four steps.
Let’s leave grandma for the time being and take a trip inside our minds!
How Mnemonics Can Help You Remember Kanji
Remembering something is just a matter of not forgetting it. Easy, right?
Not quite. In fact, human beings are designed to forget things. It’s actually good to forget: Can you imagine remembering every single moment of your life? That’d be information overload! Forgetting things is so important, that it actually happens pretty much on a schedule.
That being said, the problem isn’t really creating memories, but rather accessing those memories.
That’s where mnemonics come in. The purpose of a mnemonic is to help you reliably access a memory.
Simply put, the art of memory is convincing your brain that a given piece of information is worth remembering. It’s essentially telling your brain: “Hey brain, remember this.” If you don’t make an active effort to convince your brain that kanji are worth remembering, then it’ll decide that you don’t need to know those random scribbled lines on paper.
Memory is complex. It’s compromised of many stages and there are even several different types of memories, but that’s beyond the scope of a 1200-word post. If you want to learn more about the power of our memories and the tricks we can use to remember things better, I invite you to go take a moonwalk with Einstein.
This particular post will focus on two ideas: chunking and association.
Chunking is a way to remember a lot of little things by bunching them together. That sounds great, but these chunks will also be forgotten if they aren’t meaningful to you. This is where the idea of association comes in.
Think of your most vivid memory. It probably involves many of your senses and might be shocking, painful or even vulgar. This one memory is connected to different places all over your brain.
Association is the process of making these connections between something you want to remember and your senses, places you’ve been or strong feelings—things that are tangible and meaningful to you—because better-connected memories are more memorable.
Understanding these two ideas allows you to remember more kanji, for a longer period of time. At a basic level, mnemonics connect kanji to a story that’s more memorable than a few random pencil strokes. The story is encoded in order to help us remember key information (chunks). Putting the chunks together in order gives you a kanji.
So, that in mind, here are a few concrete steps for creating solid mnemonics (plus a few pre-packaged programs you can follow that do the work for you).
Kanji Mnemonics, or How to Learn Kanji by Picturing Grandma Doing a Headstand
There are some pre-existing methods for learning kanji. Here are just a few that are out there:
- Some cut out anything potentially irrelevant while others are incredibly comprehensive.
- Some emphasize the importance of hand-writing kanji whereas others swear by digital Spaced Repetition System (SRS) tools like Anki or Memrise.
- Some are black, white and chock-full of discipline whereas others (literally) treat it like a game.
- Still others suggest that consistency trumps any single “method” because everyone learns differently.
How you learn depends on what works for you! Still, there are some essential steps you can take to remember kanji better.
The key to successfully using mnemonics is context. Before we get down to the details, there’s one extremely effective way to introduce context into your learning: the authentic videos of FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
You can see the kanji in the subtitles in real time and if you spot a character you don’t recognize, just hover or tap on it for an instant definition and even more context. It’s an entertaining method to immerse yourself in Japanese the way native speakers really use it, while actively building your vocabulary and kanji skills.
Now you’re ready for the four-step process to create and implement kanji mnemonics!
Step 1: Learn the Necessary Chunks
Though it may seem like it at first, kanji are actually not just random strokes on paper. They’re compromised of 214 unique chunks called radicals.
If that’s new information to you, Tofugu has a super post on exactly how radicals work and why they’re useful to know. Joyokanji also has another post that numerates and gives more detail about each radical.
It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with these radicals for the purpose of creating actually useful mnemonics. This step is important because it’s the foundation upon which any kanji you’ll ever learn rests.
Step 2: Create Associations Between the Relevant Radicals and Kanji
Someone who’s never studied Japanese probably won’t remember the eight arbitrary strokes associated with the kanji 始, as in 始める (はじめる) — to begin, but they can probably summon to mind an old lady balancing on her head and elbows on top of an expensive looking pedestal. That’s the power of association: It connects difficult-to-remember information to more memorable things.
This is critical not only for helping you remember kanji but also for distinguishing similar kanji. The characters 録, as in 記録 (きろく) — recording and 縁, as in ご縁 (ごえん) — fate/connection might look similar at first glance but if you know your radicals, they’re as hard to confuse as a few drops of water and a hunk of pork.
There are thousands of kanji, so creating a special mnemonic for each isn’t feasible. But remembering 214 unique images is much more doable. Once you have the radicals memorized, remembering kanji is just a matter of stringing the images together into a story to form specific kanji.
How to go about making these mnemonics isn’t an exact science and will vary from each person, but I can offer you two guidelines:
1. Connect the radicals to the target kanji as concisely as possible, because extraneous information might confuse you. If I’d emphasized that Grandma’s legs were in the air and then tried to remember the kanji based on the mnemonic, I might think her legs were significant and end up trying to fit the legs radical 儿 into a kanji where it doesn’t exist.
2. Be silly with it. These are your own stories and the more shocking, bizarre or humorous you can make them, the easier they’ll be to remember.
Imagining a woman holding her elbows above her mouth does put things in the right order but it’s much less memorable than your grandmother balancing upside down (someone you have a connection to and probably wouldn’t expect to ever see in such a position).
Step 3: Use an SRS Tool to Root Kanji into Your Long-term Memory
SRS stands for “spaced repetition system” and it’s directly related to the concept of the forgetting curve, which is basically our tendency to forget things over time if we’re not using them.
SRS Flashcard programs like Anki and Memrise show you flashcards at progressively further intervals, right before you’re about to forget them. Getting a card right increases this interval while getting one wrong decreases it. This allows you to study more efficiently by ensuring that you spend more time with difficult material and less time with stuff that you know well.
Tools like Anki allow you to create your own decks, which means you can apply your crazy mnemonic stories to your flashcards. Of course, you can also make your own flashcards by hand, which will allow you to add details like drawings to better associate the mnemonic with the kanji. You can then scan them in and input them into a flashcard SRS device.
Use these tools to memorize the radicals or learn whole kanji and add flashcards to the deck as you encounter new kanji.
Make sure to make use of your mnemonics when reviewing with whatever resource you end up choosing; we made them for a reason, after all. Each kanji is sort of like an ambiguous point in the distance that we want to get to, while mnemonics are like the street lamps that help us find the right path to it.
Step 4: Give Your Learning a Boost with Pre-created Mnemonics
It’s better for your memory if you do the work yourself but it can take a lot of time and effort to create flashcards from scratch. If the idea of learning more than 2,000 kanji from hand-made flashcards is daunting, you can take the easier way out and use some pre-made decks.
Many SRS programs allow you to modify or add to flashcards, so you can still use the mnemonics you came up with to learn with these decks. But having somewhere to start will make it easier for you to jump in and start learning.
Here are a few great ones to be aware of:
This Anki deck has tons of information about each kanji. Every card comes with readings, stroke information, vocabulary words, a JLPT rating and then some. The deck follows the order of the book “Heisig: Remembering the Kanji.”
A super helpful guy named NihongoShark has also put together his own Anki Kanji Deck following Heisig’s book. His deck’s organized a little differently and features a walk-through of exactly how to use it on his website.
If you want a wider selection of mnemonics or would like to get some community support, consider signing up for free at this community website.
Prefer Memrise over Anki? This deck introduces over 100 basic kanji for absolute beginners, as well as some radicals.
Japanese learning and culture site Tofugu has a comprehensive program called WaniKani for learning kanji. It’ll hold your hand and guide you from zero knowledge to knowing (almost) all the kanji you’ll need for daily life, as well as around 6,000 vocabulary words in a little less than two years.
When I say “hold your hand,” I mean that all the work (except the actual studying) is done for you. The website first gives you a few radicals to learn. After seeing them a few times through the SRS, you’ll unlock some kanji which are composed of those radicals, repeat the process, then unlock related vocab words.
After finishing enough of this content, you advance a level and get new radicals.
Everything you learn comes with pre-made mnemonics. That means that all you have to do is log in each day (on their website or mobile app) to learn what’s been put in front of you and you’ll eventually be a kanji whiz.
Use these concepts of chunking and associating when creating kanji mnemonics and you’ll find that it becomes much easier to learn and actually remember kanji. Work smarter, not harder!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.