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:
- 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.
- 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 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:
- Human Realm
- Natural Realm
- Material Realm
- 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.
- The Kana Code
- The Phonetic Code
- 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:
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.
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: