How to learn kanji?

7 minute read

Everyone, who ever tried learning Japanese, faced a difficult task -- they have to learn at least 2136 characters that are called kanji. Why 2136? That is exactly how many kanji a Japanese school graduate have to learn according to the Ministry of Education of Japan. And if your goal is a minimal understanding of written Japanese, you should learn at least a thousand, which is already quite a mountain to climb.

In fact the process of learning kanji can be very simple if you use the right approach. It must be noted that reading the same kanji for 100 times and hoping that you will learn it this way is definitely not the most effective way of learning. Methods that we use on Kanjiway are based on techniques employed by world memory champions. We also adopt some ideas of James Heisig, a philosopher, whose book "Remembering the Kanji" is one of the most popular books about learning kanji. Let's begin by looking at some examples

Radicals

Initially, kanji characters were just drawings, that referred to some objects. For example, 人 means "human", 火 is "fire" and 山 is "mountain". For some of the kanji we can see its initial, 'historical' meaning, but unfortunately, for most of them it is impossible. The good news is that complex kanji may consist of simple ones, so we can memorize it by simply using the combination of meanings of its elements. For instance, 町 ("village") consists of two elements: 田 ("rice field") and 丁 ("street"). There are about 200 'elementary' kanji characters in Japanese, the rest are different combinations of those 200.

Memorization technique

Understanding radicals makes the task of memorizing easier, but to find the most effective method we should discuss human memory in a little bit more detail. Usually we just try to review the material as many times as possible, but when you have 2136 different characters this approach doesn't quite work. On Kanjiway we use a few different memorization techniques to help you ingest new information. Let's get back to the kanji 町. Instead of memorizing the equation "rice field + street = village" we can use our visual memory and create a story that would help us reconstruct the kanji we need. Imagine that you go along a STREET and reach a huge RICE FIELD, where you see peasants from the nearest VILLAGE. Take a few seconds to recreate this scene in your head. Next time when you see 町, you will notice that it consists of two familiar elements and the story we just created will come to your mind to help you remember the meaning. Here is another example: 則 ("law / rule") consists of 貝 ("shellfish") and 刂 ("sword"). Imagine a SHELLFISH who came into your village with a huge SWORD and started to make up its own RULES.

Here are the principles that you should follow when you create such stories:

  1. Your story should be hyperbolized. Instead of an ordinary shellfish you can imagine a huge tyrant shellfish with a giant sword. The stranger and funnier your story is the better.
  2. Your story should contain small details that would help you memorize it. Like a bunch of helpless little children, screaming at sight of your tyrant shellfish.
  3. When you imagine your story inside of your head, try to include other feelings like smells or sounds. Imagine how a 20 feet tall shellfish would smell. I bet it is not that easy to forget, right?

You may say that it sounds silly, but that is exactly why this method is extremely powerful. It is easier to memorize things that evoke emotional reaction even if it is a reaction to something silly. That is what contestants at world memory championships do when they have to memorize a sequence of 100 random digits, the order of the cards in a deck or a speech that you are going to give on stage

Information + emotion = memory

This technique helps you memorize kanji a lot faster, but you still have to revise kanji that you've already learned, otherwise you will forget them in a couple weeks.

Repetitions

In school when we have to learn a new word we just read it 10 times and hope that we will "just memorize it". We don't know how exactly it is supposed to work so we mainly blame ourselves when we fail to learn new vocabulary as fast as we'd like to. This method may work, but it is very inefficient. It works well if you have to recall the word in the next two hours, but in a month you will most likely forget it. Kanjiway solves this problem with the help of spaced repetition system. It is a simple, but rather powerful concept that allows you to learn any kind of information quickly and efficiently. Basically, it is an algorithm that tells you when exactly you should revise any particular kanji. For example, today you've learned a kanji. Kanjiway automatically picks a time when you should revise this kanji in order to make the most out of your revision. The algorithm makes a decision based on the complexity of the kanji, a number of revisions, an average time you need to recall a kanji, your general progress and so on. This way you can simply visit Kanjiway and every day you will have a list of words/characters that you should revise.

Order of learning

It's worth mentioning that you shouldn't learn kanji in random order. Rather you should order them to make your learning process as efficient as possible.

Kanjiway is following these principles to decide which kanji you should learn next:

  1. How often would you meet this kanji in Japanese? That means that common words such as "money", "today" or "food" will come first, and rare ones like "powerhouse", "princess" or "bamboo tree" will be left for later.
  2. Which kanji have you already learned and how well have you learned them?
  3. Which kanji are taught in Japanese schools and in which order? We try to make your learning process similar to how Japanese people themselves learn their language.

Readings

Another challenge is to memorize different readings (or pronunciations) of a kanji. Historically kanji came to Japan from China, but it just so happened that Japanese people have already had their own language. That is why many kanji have two readings: onyomi (how a character is pronounced in Chinese) and kunyomi (a Japanese reading). In day-to-day life Japanese people can use both readings1. A common mistake is to try to memorize meaning and reading of a kanji at the same time. If you try learning kanji like that, you will simply overload yourself with information.

When you are learning words of a European language like English, Spanish or French you can memorize its spelling and reading simultaneously because they would be closely connected. If you're dealing with kanji, the way the character looks gives you no information about how the it should be pronounced. That is why you should begin with the meaning of kanji. This way you are able to look at a Japanese sentence and have a rough idea of what it is about, without knowing how it sounds. After that you should start learning words, which would be much easier for you because you have already learned kanji characters these words consist of. And while you learn words you will also memorize their reading without any additional effort.

How long does it take to learn kanji?

We have discussed main technical issues you might face while learning kanji. But the biggest problem is that learning kanji is a large task. Japanese language is rightfully considered to be one of the hardest to master. Even if you were going to learn 50 kanji a day (which is already a lot), you would have to spend at least 42 days to reach the cherished 2136. An important thing to remember is that you don't have to rush, because in that case you may quickly get overwhelmed and give up learning. It is very common, and the main reason for that is an information overload. Techniques that we use on Kanjiway make your learning process easier and more fun. We all have things to do besides learning Japanese. Try to work at your own pace. There is absolutely nothing wrong with slowing down a little if you feel tired. Try learning first 50 kanji to get yourself familiar with the process. Then choose your tempo and begin your journey towards mastering Japanese.

Learning Japanese is a marathon, not a sprint

Is 2136 really enough?

2136 joyo kanji would be enough to achieve a very good level of understanding and pass the final level of the official Japanese-proficiency exam. Of course, people from Japan usually know more than that. If you would like to learn more than 2136 kanji, Kanjiway will help you with that. Since by that time you will be much more comfortable with Japanese, this task becomes even easier.


  1. There is also the "nanori" reading. It is mainly used in Japanese names. Right now you should not think too much about it.


Read our articles


Try Kanjiway
This will only take 5-10 minutes