The Best Books To Learn Kanji (2020)

Learning kanji is tough, am I right? Maybe I just wasn’t that good at it, but it took me years to learn all 2,136 常用漢字 (jōyō kanji). I used a lot of books in the process, and I still like to check new ones out to see how good they are. That’s why I created this list of the best books to learn kanji in 2020.

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.

Hey, nobody’s perfect!

After that, I’ll show you where to get them in case you find one that feels like a good fit and can help you achieve your goals.

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. Then when you encounter the kanji 昌 which contains the sun kanji twice, the story the book 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. Thanks goodness, they work!

I was actually pretty amazed at just how easy it was to remember what a kanji meant just by using the techniques that are taught in this book.

That being said, the book doesn’t teach the readings of kanji at all.

As it turns out there are three books in this series and in book #2 it goes overs each kanji’s pronunciation.

So if you just get the first book, then you will understand what all of the kanji mean when you see them, and you’ll be able to write them, but you won’t be able to read them out loud.

Something else is that this book 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 sense when you look at the process as a whole, but if you only learn the first few hundred kanji or so and then stop using the book, then the ones you know might not be ones that you see and use most often.

Basically, if you start leaning kanji with this book, then 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 or books with furigana to learn kanji readings along with this book.

You can choose to go at your own pace with Remembering the Kanji, 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:

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 direction “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!

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 and then how they changed throughout time to make them easier to read and write.

If you’ve ever wondered why a kanji barely looks like the thing that it represents in modern times, then this book will explain exactly why that is.

So, if you’re a history buff when it comes to learning Japanese, then this might be 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.

I have not taken those tests myself, but if you’re looking to take them any time soon then this book might be a great way to prepare (and pass) them.

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 English alphabet only contains 26 letters.

The book 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 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, plus it helps avoid unnecessary study since some readings are only used 1% of the time anyway.

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:

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 “learn Japanese books” written by the same author, Kanji in MangaLand teaches you Japanese through the medium of actual manga examples!

Can you say, “Super Cool!”

In fact, this first volume has 21 full-fledged manga panels (1 at the end of each lesson) that illustrates how the kanji that it teaches are used in actual practice.

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 lock in the information.

The picture for 里 in the book shows an actual rice field on top of a plant rising out of the soil.

The book teaches the different possible meanings of each kanji and it also shows the correct stroke order, the different on’yomi and kun’yomi readings, and common examples of compound words that use each kanji.

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.

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.

I wasn’t wild about that part, but I guess it doesn’t hurt to have it in there.

Some other downsides are that it only has 240 kanji that it teaches you explicitly.

There is a second book, however, that follows the exact same process as the first one but with must 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.

If you like to read manga in Japanese like I do, then it’s pretty cool to be able to learn the language using the exact things that you love. 

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:

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:

  1. First you learn each kanji’s meaning and how to write it.
  2. Then you fill out the provided spaces by writing it out a few times.
  3. Finally you answer some text questions at the end of each chapter.

This book very much feels like a textbook that you would use in a traditionally classroom to learn the language.

What really makes this book unique is the details and explanations that it provides.

For example, did you know that there are up to eight different categories of strokes that kanji use?

I didn’t, but this book goes over each of them and even teaches their names!

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.

So even though it might not be as fun as the manga method, it actually provides a much more thorough education.

If you are particularly interested in the written part of Japanese, the calligraphy aspect of it, then this book might be what you’re looking for since that’s the main way it teaches kanji.

After the different types of strokes, it then goes 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 that’s done, it moves on to learning 250 basic kanji, their meanings, readings, and common words that they will appear in.

That’s also one of the down sides: it only teaches 250 kanji.

Thankfully they made a second book that continues off of the foundation laid out in the first book and covers much more kanji using the same methods.

All in all, I would say that this is the book for those who want to write kanji correctly, have a deep understanding of strokes and radicals, and feel that it would be an good 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:

Essential Kanji

Essential Kanji by P.G. O’Neil is 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.

It was created before the Japanese Ministry of Education updated the list of required kanji from 1,850 to 2,136 so it’s just a tad outdated now.

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.

Although, it does tell you how to use a self-testing method with the book and come cardboard that I found interesting.

The book itself says that it expects people who use it to actually read Japanese stuff daily which will help them remember the new kanji, and I think this is a really good point.

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 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:

The World of Kanji

The World of Kanji by Alex Adler was actually a Kickstarter project that I backed when it was just getting started.

This book uses a method similar to the second one that I covered earlier, where the origins of each kanji are explored and then used to learn and remember its meaning.

What’s nice about the book is that it covers all of the kanji needed for literacy, unlike some of the other books in this list.

It also uses a unique method for organizing each character. 

It breaks down each primitive pictorial into four catigories:

  1. Human Realm
  2. Natural Realm
  3. Material Realm
  4. Territorial Realm

These are broken down even further in each, but I won’t go into that now so that I can stay focused on the book’s points.

One thing that I really love about the book is the visual nature of it. Not only are there tones of illustrations and pictures to help lock the information in, but there are also a lot of colors used to help categorize things.

Downsides to the book are that it doesn’t teach how to write the characters, and it also doesn’t provide example words that use the kanji it teaches.

I guess that’s the trade off you have to choose when picking a book.

You can get a book that teaches all of the daily use kanji, or you can get a book that only teaches a few hundred, but prides a lot of helpful information like stroke order, example words, etc.

If The World of Kanji by Alex Adler is something that you are interested in, you can see it on Amazon by clicking the link below:

The Kanji Code

The Kanji Code by Natalie Hamilton is a little bit different from all of the other books that I’ve talked about so far because instead of focusing on learning a kanji’s meaning, it focuses on learning it’s reading.

This is actually a pretty cool thing since very, very few books are devoted to this aspect.

It also uses a very visual approach, but it does so with the radicals of each kanji since a lot of times these element can provide information on how to correctly pronounce it.

It’s broken down into three separate parts because each one uses a different strategy for deciphering the character’s reading.

  1. The Kana Code
  2. The Phonetic Code
  3. The Visual Code

The Kana Code talks about how both hiragana and katakana were originally created from kanji themselves.

It then shows you the connections so that you can use what you know of the kana readings to apply them to certain kanji.

The Phonetic Code talks about how certain radicals in a kanji will function as the reading for the entire kanji.

These same radicals will appear all over the place in different kanji, but if you remember their reading from before then you can apply it later on a different kanji that uses one of the same radicals.

This is actually something that I noticed happening in my own studies of kanji. So if you read a lot, then you’ll probably use this method naturally, but it’s still nice to read about it and gain an awareness of it.

The Visual Code takes an artistic approach by attaching certain meanings to visual aspects of a piece of kanji.

These meanings help recall the readings which are then used for the character.

The biggest strength of of the book is that it provides effective methods for quickly learning and memorizing the readings of kanji that utilize reoccurring elements.

Obviously the downside is that it doesn’t help with the meanings, stroke order, or anything else like that.

If The Kanji Code by Natalie Hamilton is something that you are interested in, you can see it on Amazon by clicking the link below:

Final Thoughts

Although there are many way to learn kanji these days, I’ve always liked having a good book or two that I could sit down and go through systematically to learn new characters.

Perhaps the best way to learn this part of the written language is to combine one of the books with a review method such as flashcards or extensive reading.

Either way, I hope you found the information here to be useful for finding the right kanji book for you.

16 thoughts on “The Best Books To Learn Kanji (2020)”

  1. I’m brand new to Kanji so discovering these books has been a real eye-opener for me – and a super helpful resource.

    I like the look of the “Remembering the Kanji” book, especially as you can learn 2,000 kanji from it in less than three months. That one looks like a really good starting point for a newbie like me 🙂

    Thanks for the great write up, it helped a lot!

    – Les

  2. This is great to have a breakdown of the plusses and minusses and advantages for each of these books. It is hard enough to learn all the hundreds of kanji without having to figure out what books is going to help me get to my goal. Thank you for this clear presentation of what each offers.

    • My pleasure! There are tons and tons of different books that teach you kanji, and a lot of them have their own special flavor of teaching it to you. 

      It can be a little hard to figure out which one is the best for you on an individual basis when you’re not really sure the methods thought by it. So I figured that I would share my experiences with the ones that I own and have used myself.

      Hopefully one of them will be the right fit!

  3. I really enjoyed reading this book review article. Until I got to number five, I had already decided that book number would be my choice.
    Ultimately, for a serious student book number five is the winner.
    I learned Japanese many years ago, with the words printed in English. I guess I got to about a third grader level of speech.
    There were no books available that taught Kanji, none at all!
    I think all of these books have some use, and you have explained their differences well.
    It should be easy for any reader to make a decision about which book would be best for them, based on your review.

    • Dang, learning Japanese back in the day must have been rough! I’ve heard from other people who started learning 10 years or more in the past that the available resources for learning the language were pretty hard to come by.

      Even my very first phrasebook was written entirely in English, as it was published 1985 (older than me, lol!)

      Due to the advances in technology, and the growing number of people who are interested in learning the language, Japanese resources have gotten a lot better (thankfully!). Although it’s still not at the level of more popular languages like Spanish and French.

      If you go to Duolingo’s courses page for example, you can see that there are 107-Million people learning Spanish, but only 3-Million learning Japanese. So it makes sense that companies would have better Spanish courses than Japanese ones. 

      Still, I think that we are going to see a lot more people wanting to learn Japanese in the near future!

  4. Hi Nick,
    I like the way you described these books, you made it easy for one to pick the one that will be suitable. I like the “Kanji in Mangaland” because it sounds visual, I do not like boring books. ” Lets learn Kanji” also looks good since it provides you the opportunity to read and write. when you learn something and write it down, it sticks to your brain faster. Thanks for the review.

    • Hey Stella, I completely agree with you on both points! 

      The Let’s Learn Kanji was actually the first book I ever got on kanji and it really taught me the intricacies of Japanese kanji at both a radical level, and further down at the stroke level. Even though a lot of people today knock learning how to write Japanese, I am still glad that I learned how to do it correctly.

      That being said, I’m also a HUGE manga fan! When I picked up my copy of Japanese in MangaLand, I fell in love with the way that it taught, and I especially enjoyed the manga panels at the end of each chapter that illustrated what I had just learned in the lesson.

      Both of them are fantastic books. That’s why they both made the list!

  5. Learning kanji is not too hard for a Chinese person like me. The reason is because kanji originated from China. However, I still have to look into it a little bit because apparently, some kanji doesn’t have the same meaning as the Chinese character it is derived from. For example, you mentioned the character villlage, 里。 In terms of Chinese, it does not actually mean village. It means mile. It is a measurement. Other than some exceptions, the rest are not hard to learn like 雷,电,雪 which is simply thunder, electricity, and snow. The books you mentioned do seem very interesting, because I probably have to review on some of hiragana, katana, and Japanese grammar also. What do you think?

    • Yeah, Chinese people like yourself definitely have an advantage over Americans (like me) when it comes to learning Japanese. Especially when it comes to the written part of the language, which is probably what people struggle with the most.

      And yeah, as for that kanji for village/Chinese mile, it’s one of those cases where the Japanese usage is a little different from the original meaning. There’s some great details on it that you can see in this online dictionary.

      Yeah, it would be a good idea for you to review the two kana scripts before really diving into one of these books on kanji. Most of them use both hiragana and katakana to show the different readings of each kanji.

  6. HI Nick! I have always wanted to learn Japanese because of it’s really unique culture and people! I really liked your comparison of all the Kanji books here and I think I will get the book, Kanji in MangaLand because I really can’t read boring books and I feel this is the right one for me! Thanks for your comparison and really found it useful!

    • Hey man, sounds good! If you’re just starting out, you might also find the Japanese in MangaLand series helpful since it teaches the Japanese language as a whole, as opposed to the one you mentioned that primarily focuses on learning kanji.

      Read About Japanese In MangaLand Here!

      I’ve got both of them, and I really like them. They are able to take education and make it a lot of fun, which is great for motivation.

  7. Hey, great info here. I like how each book has its own unique way of teaching that can appeal to a certain audience. I’m not a massive manga or anime diehard, but I’ve been thinking for many years about trying to learn some Japanese. It’s such a cool-sounding and pretty language, isn’t it! 

    I think it would be an interesting exercise for me, even from a purely linguistic/orthographic perspective (I’m a huge linguistics geek). No idea where I would find the time to focus on all this, though… 

    Have you used any of these particular books to learn the kanji or did you already know it beforehand?

    Arigato gozaimasu for these reviews 😀

    • Hey Tal, yeah I actually own all of these books and some of the additional ones in a few of the series. The first one I ever got was “Let’s Learn Kanji” and I enjoyed it, but I kind of struggled to remember kanji from it since I didn’t really do the home work or write them out (I basically half-assed it). You really need to do the work in order to get the results, you know?

      The most recent one I got was “Remembering the Kanji” and I was pretty impressed with how well the mnemonic stories worked to help remembering each Kanji’s meaning. It doesn’t teach you how to say each kanji, so I figure the best way to compensate for that is to read lots of Japanese material with firigana.

      But I realize that different people have different learning styles, so I figured I’d share all of these different options with everyone.

      So yeah, glad you liked the reviews! If you end up using one of them at some point, come back and leave a comment with your thoughts on it. I’d love to hear your feedback on it.

  8. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on these books to help someone learn Kanji! It is very useful information, especially if someone is serious about learning in a shorter amount of time. In one of your book reviews, you mentioned it wasn’t uncommon for someone to learn all of the 2,000+ kanji in just under three months! Reading that made me feel as though it was a very doable, and to not feel so intimidated.

    Having the links to purchase each book conveniently available is very helpful as well. Thank you very much for providing such thorough information. 

    • Yeah, there’s been quite a few people who use the methods taught in the books to learn about 25 kanji per day (which isn’t too much) and that adds up to learning them all in about three months! 

      It’s pretty crazy when you think of how long it used to take non-native students to learn them back in the day. I know that a lot of them that I’ve talked with said it took several years. 

      Although there’s not any kind of race to learn kanji as quickly as possible, it really helps you to improve your reading comprehension since it basically unlocks your ability to read native manga and light novels.

      Once you are able to read Japanese, then the next step is to learn How to Get Better at Reading Japanese by repeated reading, and using a few other tactics.

      Even though I did mention my personal preference out of all of them, I felt that is was important to give people a wide variety of choices and methods so that they could find the one that they think is right for them. 

      It’s like the saying “there’s more than one way to climb the mountain,” right?


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