When a student is taught kanji, one of the first thing that is explained to him is the concept of stroke order—the one and only correct way of writing kanji characters. Unfortunately, the reason behind it as well as the main rules are often left undiscussed.
Most students are left wondering about why they are supposed to learn one more characteristic for each of the already complicated character, and some of them decide not to follow any of the well established rules at all. In this article I'll try to explain why it generally is important to use correct stroke order and what are the basic rules that should cover the majority of the kanji characters.
Why is kanji stroke order important?
First of all, unlike the Latin alphabet (or Cyrillic, for that matter) the Chinese characters and their Japanese deviations are always monospaced—each character occupies the same amount of space. When you combine this typographic rule with the often incredible amount of strokes involved, it becomes clear, why writing nicely looking characters may be so difficult.
Shodō (書道, Japanese calligraphy) is an art that was practiced for centuries in Japan and thus, the proper way of writing kanji is a very well researched topic. You may not believe it at first, but try writing the same kanji with different stroke orders and you'll see the difference. Moreover, in Japan, an opinion about you may be formed based on your calligraphy. In the same way as by speaking improperly, your bad handwriting may make a bad impression on the others.
Secondly, stroke order is a great learning aid. Especially for some of the more complicated characters, one may forget how precisely a it character look, yet remember how to write it by following the correct order. This phenomenon is called motor memory and you probably already experience it in your every day life. Actually, neuromuscular facilitation is involved even in basic task like speech—one doesn't think about complex tongue, lips, and other movements—and is the primary cause of accents.
At last, traditional paper kanji dictionaries are often organized by stroke order, and even if one decides to use computer handwriting recognition—be it a Tablet PC, a smartphone, or a dedicated denshi jisho (電子辞書, electronic dictionary)—it will work best if you use the correct stroke order.
Ok, so what are the guidelines?
1. Top to bottom
2. Left to right
3. Center strokes are written before wings
4. Center strokes connecting to other strokes are written first
5. Center strokes passing through other strokes are written last
6. Frames that enclose other strokes are written first, but closed last
7. Right-to-left diagonals are written before left-to-right diagonals
Although there are many exceptions, you generally won't go wrong if you follow these rules. As you'll learn kanji, the stroke order will become more natural and—with the exception of tricky kanji like 凹 (おう, concave) or 凸 (とつ, convex)—you won't have to think about it, or learn it kanji by kanji.