You have photographic memory. Kanji? Pfft. No big deal. That list of Jouyou Kanji —the 2000 that are used in everyday life and prerequisite for reading newspapers? Done… yesterday.
Most of us have dreamed of this in the face of one of the most daunting aspects of the Japanese language: kanji.
If this is you, WAKE UP 😝
Kanji, just like any other aspect of your Japanese studies, can be learned systematically and through due diligence. LinguaLift provides you with a great foundation for basic kanji. To help you make even more progress in your path to kanji mastership, though, we’ve put together this guide to efficient kanji learning.
The Problem: How to remember and recall kanji
The process of learning kanji involves two steps: remembering and recalling.
Remembering is how you memorize the kanji; how you lodge it in your memory.
Recalling is how you keep it there. 🤔
Let’s say you come across a new kanji, say 川（かわ）or ‘river.’ You’ll need to first commit it to memory: this usually happens by associating the character and its pronunciation to things that you’re familiar with. For instance, you can think of the three lines as streams of water in a ‘river’, and remember the pronunciation from the fact that ‘kawa’ is the name of a river in Indonesia (you’re a geography buff 😉).
Now you can remember 川- great! But, if you never see this character in use, it will vanish from your memory. “Use it or lose it,” as they say. To prevent losing it then, you’ll need to be repeatedly exposed to the kanji, so that you get practice recalling it.
Let’s say, one day, you read a friend’s Facebook post about 川遊び (playing in a river). Then while walking around Kyoto, you see a sign in front of a river that says 鴨川 (kamogawa - the name of the river). You’ve also been reviewing your deck of flashcards, and have gone over the kanji a few times. Each time you see this character, you need to recall it. The more you recall it, the more familiar it becomes… until one day, you no longer need to work to recall it--you automatically recognize 川.
The two elements of this success story are that:👇
- Through association, you lodged the kanji into your memory.
- Rather than letting your memory of the kanji sit idle, you put it to use.
The resources in this piece will help you remember kanji and give you chances to recall it.
The Solution Part I: Remembering Kanji
What exactly do we need to remember? The form (what the kanji looks like), the function (its meaning), and the pronunciation. We'll introduce both resources that help you practice these aspects in isolation and altogether.
Even if your ultimate goal is to boost kanji recognition, there is still no better way to remember the form of a kanji than by forcing yourself to write it out ✍️ An artist will draw the same subject in different ways to gain a better understanding of it, and we must practice writing a character if we wish to better recognize it.
Students usually learn kanji by tracing characters stroke by stroke, and then reproducing them on their own. Thinking this way we risk getting too caught up in individual strokes. If you had to remember a phone number, say 9063519025, wouldn’t it be easier to break it down into chunks like: 906 351 and 9025?
By the same logic, kanji like 歌 are easier to remember as a sum of their components (可可欠).
So, when you practice writing your characters, consciously write them out component by component. Not stroke by stroke.
Chibi Musu, a website for Japanese schoolchildren, provides free printable worksheets to practice. You can work your way through the different levels: first grade (80 kanji), second grade (160 kanji), third grade (200 kanji), fourth grade (200 kanji), fifth grade (185 kanji), and sixth grade (181 kanji). Click on the long buttons that say プリント (print-outs) followed by the number of pages. A disadvantage of this site is that it does not provide the meanings of the kanji, but the pronunciations are provided, so you can easily look them up.
Practice in writing kanji is not limited to pen and paper. You can try some digital tools too. One app that has become especially famous is Skritter (weeklong free trial, then subscription-based). Commonly touted as one of the most efficient ways to learn to write characters, it allows you to practice writing characters on your mobile devices, and tells you when you make a mistake. On top of that, it quizzes you by repeating characters you get wrong.
Caveat: Don’t worry if you can’t write each character with 100% accuracy! Practice writing the characters, but don’t kill yourself over the details. 👉 Remember, writing is ultimately just a way to help you recognize the shapes.
If you have classmates from countries that use Chinese characters, you might have noticed they learn kanji a lot faster 🙈 They may not be able to pronounce each kanji, but knowing form and function, pronunciation is just one more step. This is the thinking behind many kanji learning materials that provide learners with a systematic way to learn both form and function.
For a more systematic approach, two popular books are Remembering the Kanji (refer to this extensive sample) and Learning Kanji through Stories (sample: click on cover, then 最初のページ). Neither teaches readers how to pronounce the kanji or how they appear in real words. Instead, they introduce the kanji with explanations of their origins or together with mnemonic aids. By helping learners associate form with function, the books enable to better predict the meanings of kanji you come come across – a key skill in reading comprehension ☝️
Learning Kanji through Stories introduces 300 most frequently used kanji, whereas Remembering the Kanji teaches many more kanji (including some more obscure ones), but orders them by component parts to make them easier to absorb.
If the idea of learning kanji as a symbol isolated from its sound disturbs you, rest assured – there are still options for you!
Japan Time’s Kanji Look and Learn (see reviews) provides illustrations and mnemonics for 512 kanji while introducing 3,000+ common vocabulary words that use those kanji.
WaniKani, is a website that teaches 2,000 kanji and 6,000 vocabulary in just over a year.
Head to Kanji Damage for a less reverent approach to the world of kanji 😆 Hint: their tagline is “where you can learn 1,700 kanji using Yo Mama jokes.”
Dr. Moku: originally a popular app to learn hiragana and katakana, the same company has released a version to teach kanji. Each kanji is introduced using stylish visuals.
There is also this free printable workbook by Nihon Ichiban that provides copious space for writing practice along with helpful mnemonics.
Caveat: Whichever program you decide on, keep in mind that not all the mnemonics will work for you 😬 Each system was developed by an individual with specific tastes and experiences, so not every mnemonic will click personally with you. When this is the case, try to come up with your own.
What’s important is to make the kanji relatable to YOU.
The Solution Part II: Recalling Kanji
It’s not hard to find materials to practice recognizing kanji — they are everywhere. Do you have specific materials that you want to read in Japanese? If there’s something that particularly motivates you, start with that. This can be anything — from news articles to recipes, from road signs and Haruki Murakami novels to Japanese pages on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram 🤳.
If you’ve immersed yourself in this authentic material, and feel lost in the whirlwind of kanji — don’t panic! There are many tools that can show you the pronunciation and meaning of a kanji at the click of a mouse 🙌
The most basic thing to do is to use a text glossing tool. For instance, on Jim Breen’s dictionary website, you can paste in entire texts and his program will produce, sentence-by-sentence, a list of vocabulary displaying the pronunciation and meaning.
For a cleaner interface that allows you to display possible meanings word-by-word, paste your text into Denshi Jisho.
If you prefer to stay on the same page, install Rikaichan, a browser extension available on Firefox and Chrome. With this tool, once you hover your mouse on a kanji, a window appears listing possible pronunciations and definitions 😲
If even after using these tools, you still feel overwhelmed, it means that you need reading materials appropriate to your level of Japanese. For easier, but still interesting, materials, check out NHK Easy News, a branch of Japan’s main broadcasting service that writes news articles with children and Japanese learners in mind. Every kanji comes with furigana, that is, the pronunciation of the kanji in hiragana. The site itself provides no way to turn off the furigana, but there other many options for those who wish to do so! You can install this Chrome extension to toggle the furigana on and off. Depending on your mobile device, you can also install apps that let you browse the website and toggle the furigana on and off.
Read the Kanji is more specific to kanji-learning, whereas iKnow teaches you the 6000 most frequently used Japanese words, some of which include kanji too.
Both programs, rather than testing you on kanji in isolation, present real sentences. They therefore simulate real-world reading 📖 when you are expected to deduce the meaning of an unknown kanji from the context. You can try Read the Kanji for free up to JLPT N5 level, but will need to pay $5 a month to unlock the other levels. iKnow gives you a free 5-session trial, after which you need to subscribe.
There are also advantages to drilling yourself on kanji in isolation. When you can’t resort to context to guess the meaning of a kanji, you will be forced to focus on the kanji itself. If this sort of study interests you... try a flashcards app.
Two popular ones are Anki and Flashcards Deluxe. Both use spaced repetition system (“SRS”), a program designed to speed up learning by showing you cards you forget more often than those you’ve mastered. With the aid of such programs, you can learn hundreds of kanji in a very short time ⏰ This is also what we use on LinguaLift to help you with scripts, vocabulary and grammar!
Anki is free to use on computer and on Android, but must be purchased for $24.99 for iOS. Flashcards Deluxe costs $3.99 on Android and iOS, but requires a combination of Dropbox and Excel spreadsheets for use on desktops.
At the end of the day...
The path to kanji mastership will be long and full of challenges.
How not to trip?
- Keep your ultimate goal in mind (do you want to read celebrity blogs in Japanese? Recipes? Murakami’s novels?)
- Focus on remembering and recalling the kanji, and …
- Make sure to pick learning materials and methods that keep you interested.
Some learners love SRS, while others find it tedious, preferring to bombard themselves with real content. Ask yourself, “Would I want to use this book/app/website even after a day at work?”
Find a method that works for you and stick to it!