So you want to learn some Kanji, do ya? Well you’re in the right place! Whether you’re reading this at the end of 2017, or the new year has already begun, you’re probably looking to kanji up your brain. So I’ve created this list for 5 of the Best Books to Learn Kanji for 2018 based on my own collection of materials and what I think of each one.
Each of the below sections will give a brief explanation of the book, followed by the things that I really like about them, and also some of the things that I think they could have done better.
After that, I will provide you with information on where you can get each one in case you end up finding one that you feel is the right fit for you and your goals.
So without further delay, let’s begin!
(1) Remembering the Kanji
Remembering the Kanji by James Heisig is one of the most well-known and popular books used for learning all 2,000+ of the daily use kanji that are required to be known in order to be considered literate in Japanese.
The process it uses to do this, is to teach you the correct stroke order and meaning of each kanji. This book really shines when it comes to learning the meanings of kanji since it uses a systematic approach of teaching you what one kanji means, and then later on using that same meaning to create a story to teach you a new kanji’s meaning.
Here’s an example: you learn that 日 is the kanji for sun in Japanese. So when you encounter the kanji 昌 which contains the sun kanji twice, the story he teaches you to remember is that “sunny, sunny days are ahead” which is another way that us English speaker would say prosperous in our own language.
That story helps you to remember that 昌 means prosperous in Japanese!
What I really like about the method is that the stories he uses are simple, easy to remember, and they work. You will be amazed at just how easy it is to remember what a kanji means just by using what is taught in this book.
That being said, he doesn’t teach the pronunciations of kanji at all in this book (book #2 covers that aspect of it) so you will understand what all of the kanji mean when you see them, but you won’t be able to read them out loud.
It also only teaches the most commonly used meaning of each kanji, even though there are occasions where a single kanji can have multiple meanings.
And the last thing is that he doesn’t teach the kanij in order by frequency, or common kanji first. Instead, the kanji are taught in such a way that is easiest to learn the next one, and then next, and so on.
It makes the most sense when you look at the process as a whole. But if you only learn the first hundred kanji or so and then stop, they might not all be ones that you see and use every day.
So if you start leaning kanji with this book, you should have the intention of finishing it completely!
Personally I like his approach, since you can focus on just one thing (the meaning) and you can learn the correct readings of them later when you encounter them in another place. My recommendation is to read lot of manga with furigana to learn how to say them.
You can choose to go at your own pace with this book, but it is not uncommon for people who use it to learn about 25 kanji per day, which equates to learning all of the 2,000+ kanji in just under three months.
If Remembering the Kanji by James Heisig is something that you are interested in, you can see it on Amazon by clicking the link below:
(2) Read Japanese Kanji Today
Read Japanese Kanji Japanese by Len Walsh is a really interesting book. The method that it uses to teach you kanji is to first teach you the etymology of words (their origins) as pictographs of the things that they represent.
So for example, the kanji for the east in Japanese is 東 which the book explains is a picture of the sun 日 rising into the sky from behind a tree 木. The only way that you could see the sun rising into the sky from behind a tree is if you are looking east.
So as you can see, there was actually a lot of logic behind the construction of kanji way back in the day when they were first invented and used.
What’s really cool about this book is that it goes into depth on the birth and transformation of kanji throughout time as things were originally created, and then slowly changed to make them easier to write.
If you’ve ever wondered why a kanji barely looks like the thing that it represents, this book will explain exactly why that is. So if you’re a history buff when it comes to learning Japanese, then this is the book for you!
The good news about this book is that it focuses on teaching you the most commonly used, and therefore useful kanji, first. In fact, the latest edition of this book is actually geared at helping you to pass the JLPT Levels N5 + N4 and also the AP Japanese Language & Culture Exam.
If you are looking to take those tests any time soon, then this book should be an invaluable resource.
All that being said, there are a few drawbacks to this book. The first is that it only teaches you 400 kanji. I know, “only 400” right?! That’s still a lot when you consider our alphabet only contains 26 letters!
It also doesn’t teach you the stroke order of kanji. That might be something that you want to know, if you plan on doing any sort of calligraphy or letter writing. But if you don’t care about it, and you only plan on typing and texting kanji, then it shouldn’t be a problem for you.
Another thing that is really nice about it is that it gives you the readings in it for both the kun’yomi and on’yomi of each kanji. It’s not “every single reading, for every singe kanji,” but rather the most commonly used ones for each.
Again, this will be important for you if you want to pass any of the above mentioned exams.
If Read Japanese Kanji Japanese by Len Walsh is something that you are interested in, you can see it on Amazon by clicking the link below:
(3) Kanji in MangaLand
Kanji in MangaLand by Marc Bernabe is the first book on learning kanji in the MangaLand series of Japanese language books.
Just like the basic Japanese books written by the same author, Kanji in MangaLand teaches you Japanese through the medium of actual manga examples!
In fact, this first volume has 21 full-fledged manga panels (1 at the end of each lesson) that illustrate how the manga you’ve learned so far are used in actual conversation.
The method of learning each individual kanji is kind of a combination of the last two book’s methods. That is, it uses pictographs for each kanji’s individual parts (known as “radicals”) and then it uses those pictures to tell a story that helps you to remember it.
So for example, the kanji for village is 里 which has two radicals in it: 田 which means rice field, and 土 which means soil. So the story it uses is “a village is a place where fertile soil can cultivate rice.”
It’s not just a story though, the book also provides a very visual picture of it to help you lock it in. This last example shows an actual rise field on top of a plant rising out of the soil.
The book itself will not only teach you the different possible meanings of each kanji, but it will show you the correct stroke order, the different on’yomi and kun’yomi readings, and show you common examples of compound words that use the kanji you just learned.
Plus it’s got a small section that shows similar looking, but different kanji so that you can be aware of common misunderstands that new students make. For example, the kanji for snow 雪 sometimes gets confused with 電 or 雷.
And as if that wasn’t enough, it also has a section for each new kanji that shows several different (but common) fonts that the kanji is sometimes written in so that you can still recognize it when it looks a little different from the normal version.
Now, what is the downside to this book? Well, for starters it only has 240 kanji that it teaches you explicitly. That’s not a whole lot when it comes to the common goal of learning the basic 2,000+ kanji, but it makes up for this fact in two ways.
The first is that it shows you lots of compound words for each new kanji so that you will actually learn about 1500 total words if you memorize them all.
The second thing is that there is a second book that follows the same process, but just adds more kanji to learn.
Personally, I feel that the greatest strength of Kanji in MangaLand is that it not only teaches you kanji, but it then uses those exact kanji that you just learned in the manga examples at the end of each chapter.
There’s just something super cool about looking at a page, or even just a single panel, of native Japanese manga and actually being able to read and understand it all.
Bottom line: this book makes it fun to learn new kanji. I don’t know about you, but when I’m having fun at something, I don’t want to stop!
Image if you always felt like “oh, I’m just gonna learn one more before bed. No wait, I’m not done just yet. One more from now! OK really, this is the last one!!!”
It’s like when you “accidentally” binge-watch a great new anime. It doesn’t feel like work, but you learn kanji while doing it.
All that being said, it’s time to wrap it up for this one.
If Kanji in MangaLand by Marc Bernabe is something that you are interested in, you can see it on Amazon by clicking the link below:
(4) Let’s Learn Kanji
Let’s Learn Kanji by Joyce Mitamura is not only a textbook on how to learn Kanji, but it is also a workbook that provides spaces for you to write them out, and testing sections to help you lock in what you’ve learned.
These are the primary ways that it teaches you kanji: first you learn each kanji’s meaning and how to write it, then you fill out the provided spaces by writing it out a few times, and finally you answer some text questions at the end of each chapter.
What really makes this book unique is the details and explanations that it provides to you. For example, did you know that there are up to eight different categories of strokes that kanji use?
Most books will explain to you what radicals are and how they function, but this book does that and then goes further yet so that you can gain a deeper understanding of kanji the way that native Japanese people do.
If you are particularly interested in the written part of Japanese, that is the calligraphy aspect of it, then this book is the perfect fit for you.
After you’ve learned the different types of strokes, you then go on to the next level up which is learning the most commonly used radicals in kanji and what their respective meanings and readings are.
Then once you’ve completed that, you move on to learning 250 basic kanji, their meanings, readings, and common words that they will appear in.
The only two things that I wasn’t all that excited about were that it only teaches 250 kanji out of the 2,000 you need to know for fluency, and also that you have to learn the meanings of kanji through rote memorization.
They actually made a second book that continues off of the foundation laid out in the first book, and you are then able to learn more kanji using the same methods.
And once you’ve got a good understanding of correct stroke order and how different radicals work together to create new kanji, there’s no reason why you can’t take that knowledge to continue learning more kanji on your own.
All in all, I would say that this is the book for those who want to write kanji correctly, and feel that it would be an enjoyable way to learn.
If Let’s Learn Kanji by Joyce Mitamura is something that you are interested in, you can see it on Amazon by clicking the link below:
(5) Essential Kanji
Essential Kanji by P.G. O’Neil is the fifth and final book in the list, and it’s kind of like the ultimate book on kanji for the self-learner. You’ll understand why as I explain the aspects of the book.
The book will teach you how to read, write, and understand 2,000 kanji characters in a logical and systematic fashion.
The simple structure is that it will show each kanji on the left, along with numbers that illustrate the correct order of strokes for the kanji, and then all of the other information such as on’yomi and kun’yomi readings and the meaning of the kanji, will be to the right of the kanji’s picture.
There are a few compound word examples that show when the highlighted kanji is used with others, but that’s it.
There’re no stories to help you remember the meaning, there’re no sections to practice writing out the kanji, and there’s no testing to help lock in what you’ve learned.
It’s a really basic overview of each kanji, and then it’s all up to you to memorize how it’s written, what its meaning is, and how to pronounce it correctly.
That might be a little tough for people who are brand new to learning kanji, but the bright side of the story is that it contains 2,000 kanji so you won’t need to get any additional books!
If you want a single book that will teach you a couple thousand kanji, and you’re cool with writing them out on a separate piece of paper in order to lock them in, then this book might be what you’re looking for.
If not, there’s always the other four books with alternative teaching methods that you can check out and use.
If Essential Kanji by P.G. O’Neil is something that you are interested in, you can see it on Amazon by clicking the link below:
Which One is Right for You?
All five of these kanji books are great. But in order to pick the best one for you, you need to decide what you want to be able to do with kanji.
If you are looking to take the JLPT N5 and/or N4 Tests, then Read Japanese Kanji Today is probably the one you want since it’s designed to give you the kanji knowledge you need to successfully pass those tests.
But if you actually want to learn how to write kanji, then you’d be better off with Let’s Learn Kanji or Essential Kanji since they not only show you the correct stroke order for each kanji, but (one of them) also has practice sections so that you can get started right away.
All that being said, if you want a my personal recommendation on what I think is the single best book out of the group, then Remembering the Kanji is what I would say is probably the right one for you.
After all, you can learn 2,000 kanji from it in less than three months! 🙂
I’d love to hear from you on this!
What are your thoughts on any of the above mentioned kanji books? Do you have any other recommendations you can share?
Leave a comment and let me know!