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How to learn Kanji: A Complete Guide

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Kanji are the most significant challenge for learners of Japanese. But since the 1970s this seemingly unsurmountable task has become easier as new tools and approaches have been developed that show you how to learn the kanji.

In this article we will look at three kanji learning resource titans. They are Remembering the Kanji, Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course and Wanikani.

But first we need to make sure we have a solid understanding of kanji.

Kanji Crash Course

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

Japanese has three scripts; hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. If you’ve haven’t learnt hiragana yet you should probably go and read my Complete Guide and come back when you’re ready to start taking on the kanji.

If you are ready, then we’ll get started.

What are Kanji?

Unlike the kana syllabaries or alphabets like ours, kanji contain both sound and meaning. For example, 飲 means drink and its sounds are の or いん.

As you can see a kanji may have more than one sound. This is because of how they came to Japan.

Before the 8th century AD the Japanese had no writing. Then China exported their system to Japan and other countries in the region over the course of a few centuries.

During this process the Japanese learnt these new characters with their Chinese pronunciation. This gives us one set of kanji readings called onyomi, literally “sound reading”.

However, it wasn’t all plain sailing as Chinese and Japanese are rather different languages. So, Japanese kanji also took on sounds used in native Japanese words. This gives us another set of kanji sounds called kunyomi.

Add a few more lessons on Chinese characters across centuries and many kanji finished up with an ungainly number of associated sounds.

Some kanji even went on to mother the kana. Like 世 which was simplified to せ and セ for the hiragana and katakana characters that inherited the kanji’s sound; se.

So, when do you use which sound? A good rule of thumb is that a kanji on its own will use its kunyomi, while a kanji in a group with use its onyomi. Thus 飲む(のむ)and 飲料(いんりょう).

While this general rule can be useful, it isn’t consistent and doesn’t help when there are multiple kun or on readings. To really be sure of the sound a new word makes, you’ll need to look it up in a dictionary.

Finally, since the 1940s the Japanese government has maintained an official kanji list. Since 2010 that list is 2,136 characters long. While there are many more out there, this official list is what Japanese students need to know by the end of compulsory education.

Why do I need to learn Kanji?

Simply, because 41% of written Japanese is kanji. Without them you can’t read Japanese.

It probably all sounds like a nightmare, so you may be tempted to just not bother at all. But this would be a huge mistake. After all, fluency comes through reading.

Learning the kanji is definitely a lot of work, but there are benefits that won’t be immediately obvious.

One benefit, is that it is often easier to remember vocabulary when you are familiar with its kanji. For example, earlier we saw 飲, which means drink. Now let’s say you knew the kanji for “thing”, 物. When you first saw 飲み物 you would probably guess that it means drink. You would be 100% correct.

This example also reveals another benefit. You don’t always need to know a word to be able to understand it when written. It can sometimes be hard to work out, but at the very least you can get a good idea as to the meaning of a new word using familiar kanji.

Thirdly, kanji are not just used in Japan. China exported them to other countries in the region too. While some have invented their own systems and done away with them, others have not.

So, if you want to learn Mandarin or Cantonese after Japanese, you’ll have done some of the work already.  

Even if you just travel to China, Hong Kong or Taiwan you will be able to understand some of the written language. You can’t do this with any other part of Japanese.

When should I learn Kanji?

For hiragana the answer is easy. It isn’t so cut and dried with kanji.

However, the general wisdom is to get started sooner rather than later. There are a number of reasons why this is the case.

Firstly, learning over 2,000 characters is time consuming. Starting sooner means gaining proficiency sooner.

Secondly, there is efficiency. Learning lots of vocabulary without kanji will mean you will have to go back over those words to learn their kanji.

Why not learn vocabulary and kanji together? This seems logical, but learning kanji in random order can cause problems. To illustrate this, look at these two kanji, 鳥 and 烏. These are two different kanji; can you see the difference? Will you remember which is which if you can?

When to start learning the kanji can depend on how you choose to learn them. This can be because of the different lengths of time needed for different methods or the details of the method itself.

In my case, I learn kanji alongside other aspects of Japanese, but followed a consistent strategy. For me, this was effective. Learning grammar and vocabulary alongside kanji kept me motivated to push on with the kanji.

How you do it will depend on you and your method, just make sure you have a method.

A Kanji Glossary

When talking about kanji there can be a fair amount of jargon. As you now have a basic understanding of kanji, here is a glossary of common terms.

Readings: Kanji readings are the sounds that they make. There are two categories onyomi and kunyomi. The term “readings” comes from the yomi part of these categories, which means reading.

Kunyomi: This is the native Japanese pronunciation of a kanji. It is typically used when a kanji is alone with hiragana sticking out the end. By convention these readings are written in hiragana.

Onyomi: This is the Chinese derived reading(s) of a kanji. It is typically used when two or more kanji are used for a single word. By convention these readings are written in katakana.

Compound: Words written with two or more kanji are known as compounds. For example, 勉強 is a compound word meaning study.

Radical: This refers to a part of a kanji that is used for ordering kanji in a dictionary etc. For example, 休, 体 and 作 all have a shared element on the left that is used to help find them within reference resources.

Joyo Kanji: This is the Japanese name for the general use kanji. That is to say the official government list of kanji everybody is meant to know by the end of compulsory education.

Furigana: This is the name given to hiragana that float above kanji to illustrate its reading. This is done when a non-Joyo kanji is used, if a non-standard reading or rare word is used or in writing for younger audience who haven’t learn the kanji yet.

Okurigana: Certain words like 飲む have hiragana that stick out the end. This is to give grammatical information. Okurigana is the term for these hiragana poking out the end.

Approaches to learning Kanji

Now we’re clear on the basic facts it’s time to consider how to “learn” kanji.

Kanji the Japanese Way

For many the first stop is to consider how the Japanese learn kanji. The simple answer is rote memorisation.

Japanese people start to learn kanji at around 6 years old. They drill the form and readings by writing and writing the same character hundreds of times. They finish the general use kanji by the age of 15.

That’s nine years of drilling. That’s with hours of learning and practice each week.

While there are good reasons why this works for children, it is terrible for adults. Not least because a foreign adult needs to gain proficiency in a fraction of the time.

Luckily, there are better ways for foreign adults to go about it.

Kanji all in one

This is more or less the same as learning like Japanese children. You can choose kanji based on school grade, frequency or just when you meet them. Then you drill the form, learn the meaning and memorise the readings.

This may sound logical, as you will have to complete these steps if you are to use a kanji. But attempting to memorise all the information a kanji holds at once is overwhelming.

Take 生 as an example. First it has 5 strokes to learn, plus if you want to write the character you need to learn the order of the strokes. Next it has 3 meanings, life, birth and genuine. Worst of all these are its readings; せい(先生), しょう(一生), じょう(誕生日), う(生まれる), い(生きる), ふ(芝生), あい(あいにく), は(生える), き(生地), なま(生), ば(芽生える), きつ(生粋), な(生る), うぶ(生), き(生成り), おい(生立ち). That is 16.

I hope you agree that is all way too much.

Of course, you can lighten the load by just learning the form and major meanings and readings. For 生 that is its 5 strokes and their order, 2 meanings life and birth and 5 readings.

At best this all-in-one approach means going from knowing nothing to learning 17 pieces of information. Don’t forget, one down, 2135 to go…

Kanji as needed

Since the all-in-one approach isn’t practical, the natural conclusion is to learn what you need, when you need it.

This logic would allow us to jettison learn how to write a character and just train our visual memory. The meanings and readings are reduced to a specific vocabulary item.

This definitely gets everything down to a more manageable size. The fly in the ointment is that common kanji aren’t always simple kanji. So that means learning 議 before 言.

However, it ignores the fact that learning to write the kanji can help you to remember that kanji. This intimate knowledge of the character also makes it easier to differentiate between similar forms.

But the real inefficiency needs you to look a little closer. Take another look at 議 and 言. You may have noticed that 言 is in 議. By knowing 言, you are part of the way to knowing 議. This is a life changing insight.

Dividing and Conquering the Kanji

As we have seen, kanji have lots of elements.

Most accept that trying to learn all these elements at once is too much. So, the elements are divided up and tackled separately.

Meaning and form are the easiest to learn. That’s because you can learn them without any Japanese knowledge.

The readings and compounds can be added to this foundation as you continue to study Japanese.

This divide-and-conquer approach was devised and popularised by James Heisig. We’ll look at his method first.

Changing the Game: James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji

Heisig’s method is far from new, having been first published in 1977. Heisig developed the method for his own Japanese studies, but since then it is fair to say that it has revolutionised the learning of kanji for foreign adults.

The core of the method is to beak kanji down into chunks, but without breaking them all the way down to individual strokes. This is possible because while there are thousands of characters, they all share a much smaller number of common elements.

To illustrate this let’s look at this kanji 聞. To the uninitiated this may look very complicated. However, the trained eye sees 門 and 耳, which are both separate kanji in their own right.

If you learn 門 and 耳 first, the fourteen strokes of 聞 are transformed into only two parts. The remaining challenge is to remember how these parts are arranged.

Heisig seeks to use this fact to maximum effect by careful ordering of the kanji. The course presents the simplest kanji first, followed by kanji formed from these simpler characters until all the kanji have been covered.

Deconstructing a kanji can also be used to help memorise its meaning. Let’s look at the example again. It contains the門, meaning gate and 耳, meaning ear. 聞 means hear.

An image may have already formed in your mind. Heisig formalises this into his ‘imaginative memory’ method.

For this you will be asked to imagine a story using these elements and then to isolate a particular image in your mind for this character. It is essential to focus on where each element falls within your picture to ensure the form is recalled accurately.

Back to our example. Perhaps picture someone crouching with their ear below saloon doors to hear what’s going on inside. Finally, isolate the image of an ear beneath saloon doors.

What it does

Remembering the Kanji is designed to help foreigners with no knowledge of Chinese characters to gain some of the advantages of a learner who does have knowledge of Chinese characters.

Though it may sound strange, theirs is a significant advantage. For instance, a Chinese learner of Japanese for the most part knows the kanji forms and meanings. Their main task is to learn the readings.

Therefore, by associating an English word with each kanji, Heisig seeks to replicate that advantage for all learners of Japanese. In my experience, he achieved that goal. Before RTK the characters felt like alien glyphs, after they are like old friends.

While it can’t be relied upon forever, it is a boon to the beginner.

To illustrate the point, let’s look at 消火器. These characters mean the following, 消 (extinguish) 火 (fire) 器 (utensil). Knowing that, can you guess the meaning of this word? If you guessed ‘fire extinguisher’ you would be correct.

Useful if you are reading in Japanese, but especially useful if you are visiting or living in Japan and it becomes inexplicably hot and you can smell smoke.

All of this is achieved using an approach that can be replicated for kanji not contained in this course.

What it doesn’t do

Most conspicuously, Remembering the Kanji does not teach you Japanese. By that I mean, you will not learn any grammar, vocabulary or any kanji readings.

Arguably it does something far more useful. It lays the foundation that will help you to achieve more, quicker.

Secondly, it does not make learning kanji easy. Nothing can do that. No matter the method, acquiring kanji proficiency takes a lot of work and dedication. RTK is a companion that will ease you through the initial steps.

Costs

As with most study resources there are both time and financial costs.

The financial cost is simple. Remembering the Kanji Volume (Volume 1) is a standalone book that costs around £30.

The time cost is harder to quantify. As a rough guide, if you dedicate yourself full-time to the study of kanji, you can be through RTK in 4 to 6 weeks. If you study for 2 hours a day, you will learn around 20 – 25 kanji, so 176 hours to finish.

If this sounds good you can pick up a copy from bookshop.org not only will you be supporting local bookshops, but if you use this link I’ll get a small commission, so you’ll be supporting me too: get it from bookshop.org

Side Note

Remembering the Kanji is in fact a series of three books. I don’t feel that it is worthwhile going through volume 2 and 3 here. But keep an eye out for a future piece covering them.

Beyond Form and Meaning

Now let’s imagine we have learnt the form and meaning for the core kanji. That just leaves the hard bit. Getting the readings and compounds down.

It has already been said, but it is worth reiterating. Do not attempt to learn all of the readings for a given kanji.

There are several reasons why this is a terrible idea.

Number one, there are a lot of rare readings. Taking the time to learn for the sake of knowing them simply will not provide a sound return on investment. At worst a rare reading may only help with a single vocabulary item.

Number two, for the most part kanji readings are parts of words, not the whole word itself. Knowing half a word is no better than not knowing it at all.

Number three, you will still need to learn real vocabulary. That brings us to learning in context.

Learning vocabulary will lead to a build-up of kanji knowledge over time. That means you learn the readings in the context of usable vocabulary.

Unfortunately, this can be frustrating as your rapid progress with the form and meaning grinds down into a slow acquisition of readings through vocabulary.

Consider yourself warned of this pitfall.

Reintegrating the Kanji: Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course

While this resource does re-tread the old ground of RTK, it also builds on it. The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s course is a more complete compendium of kanji knowledge.

The Similarities

As mentioned above, this course will feel familiar. It breaks down the kanji into their parts and encourages imaginative tricks to cement the form and meaning in the memory.

While the order is different, it has been considered just as carefully as Heisig’s was.

The Differences

Unlike Remembering the Kanji Halpern doesn’t attempt to come up with a single approach. He himself admits that instead he treats each kanji as its own unique challenge.

For example, for 落 Halpern directs the reader to visualise the water (the three drops on the left) falling off the grass (top) roof of a cabin (a trick used for the centre). However, for 汽 a more logical formula is followed; water (left) plus gas (the rest) equals steam.

However, by far the most significant change is how the kanji order was chosen. Halpern used frequency to inform the order in which he presents the kanji. Thus facilitating simultaneous study of kanji and the rest of the Japanese language.

For those who balk at the idea of learning over 2,000 characters with RTK before much else, this is sure to be a welcome change.

Integration and Scope

While RTK takes three volumes to cover the same information, the Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course does it in just one thick volume.

This is necessary because Halpern has reintegrated the elements of the kanji. Students are encouraged to learn the form and meaning using imagination, but also to learn one or two common readings through example vocabulary.

This is far to close to the all-in-one approach, for my liking.

Of course, there is nothing stopping you from using it the way you want to. This flexibility is a significant attraction for this resource over RTK.

Personally, I completed RTK1 before using the Kodansha Course to inform my choice of vocabulary to learn in order to acquire the major readings of the kanji and some foundational vocabulary.

This route wasn’t planned as I only discovered the Kodansha Kanji Learner’s course after I had finished Remembering the Kanji. So, I hope this may save you some time and money depending on which you feel more drawn to.

Costs

The Kodansha Learner’s Course costs around 34 dollars and can be a bit harder to find than Remembering the Kanji.

As for the time cost. It is essentially impossible to quantify as it depends on your approach and time commitment.

Wanikani courtesy of Tofugu LLC

Wanikani

Arguably Wanikani combines both elements from RTK and the Kodansha Kanji Learner’s course. With an added dose of technology.

In essence Wanikani is a flashcard app that will teach you kanji and vocabulary.

The cards are split into 3 types, radicals, kanji characters and vocabulary cards.

Imaginative images and stories are used to learn the radicals and the kanji characters, similar to the last two resources.

On top of that, Wanikani implements a Spaced Repetition system popular in many modern educational flashcard apps. Just as with those, this is the key advantage to Wanikani.

Similar to the Kodansha Course Wanikani comes close to an all-in-one approach. However, internal restrictions are imposed to help mitigate some of the problems caused.

Radical knowledge is grown in kanji knowledge which is then grown into vocabulary knowledge. Spaced repetition ensure efficient learning.

The Time Cost

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

You get what you pay for and you’ll certainly pay for Wanikani. Due to the spaced repetition system and restrictions Wanikani is also a not insignificant time commitment.

While gaining a basic acquaintance with the general use kanji with RTK takes only a few weeks, with Wanikani it will take a year to get through the full list.

But that isn’t really comparing like with like. Wanikani seeks to build a knowledge of readings and vocabulary.

In fact, this is a major selling point as it helps you learn 2,000 kanji and 6,000 words conveniently.

The Figures

In the Wanikani system all cards need to progress all the way to “burned”, by which it should be solid knowledge.

To get a card from new to burned takes almost 6 months. Of course, you don’t need to wait that long to unlock further lessons.

All you need to do that is to get kanji cards to a high enough score. However, as radicals comes first this means each level has two parts that have to advance sufficiently to unlock the next level.

However, the first two levels are faster, only taking a combined 152 hours of real time for the cards to level-up and unlock the third lesson. Provided you complete your reviews on time.

In total there are 56 levels representing 9,408 hours of real times. To round it off is the final lesson which takes 84 hours to unlock the second part.

But don’t forget to get a card to burned it takes 3,948 hours.

Adding all this up revels that getting from new to burned for all Wanikani kanji card takes around 1.5 years.

Is that good or bad?

Now we know that, is that good or bad? A year and a half sounds like an awfully long time.

But consider that after that period you should have learned and retained all the Joyo kanji along with 6,000 words. Not bad progress for a year and a half.

Could you replicate that yourself? Honestly, yes. If you have the time and motivation to do all the study and all the preparation all by yourself it is possible.

In terms of real time, you may not save a huge amount of time, but in terms of study time you will.

The Monetary Cost

Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

Wanikani actually offers a generous try-before-you-buy scheme. All the features are free until you have unlocked lesson 4. Given that is around 6 weeks of actual time it is easily long enough to learn a lot and decide if it is working for you.

After that? That’s when your wallet will feel the bite.

Wanikani is accessed through one of three pricing structures, 9 dollars per month, 89 dollars per year or 299 dollars for life.

Assuming a 1.5-year completion rate that breaks down as follows. The monthly option would cost 162 dollars. Mixing months and years it could cost only 143 dollars.

If you need much more time buying life access for 299 dollars may pay off in the long run. But it would take just over 3 years for that.

Is it actually worth it?

Let’s say you are cash rich, but time poor, is this option a good one?

Put it this way, for JLPT N1 you need to know all the general use kanji. For N2 you need around 6,000 words.

If you managed to learn everything on Wanikani alongside all the required grammar, you could get to an N2 to N1 level of Japanese.

No matter how you cut it, that seems a pretty good deal.

However, a word of caution if you are not a beginner in Japanese it may be rather frustrating. No matter what your kanji level beforehand Wanikani will always take 18 months to complete.

This also means going over known content. It is for that reason I feel if you’re going to use Wanikani, do it sooner rather than later. That way you’ll get the most for your money.

Conclusion

Phew, that brings us to the end of this kanji resource review.

As you can see there are plenty of method you might use to learn kanji. But on balance I feel the divide and conquer approach is the most effective.

Remembering the Kanji not only gives you a roadmap to learning the Joyo Kanji, but an approach that can be taken beyond.

Having said that The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s course is the most flexible, comprehensive and cost-effective tool, while Wanikani is the least time-consuming method (in terms of study time).

Evidently, there is no one killer method for “learning kanji”. Partly because kanji can’t really be learnt. Instead, they need to be acquired gradually through experience and use.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t tools out there that can help with the different stages towards kanji mastery.

So, the choice if yours, just do make sure you make a choice. It is best to commit to a method and get going as soon as you can. Bouncing from one to the next will waste time and money.

Though keep in mind that all three of these resources agree that the key to conquering kanji is to break them into component parts not strokes. That way alien symbols will soon become old friends.

Whatever you choose, good luck in your Japanese journey.

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