Essential Kanji Review

Today I’m going to give you my Essential Kanji review. This is a book that helps people learn how to read, write, and understand kanji.

The full title of the book is Essential Kanji: 2,000 Basic Japanese Characters Systematically Arranged for Leaning and Reference and it’s  written by P.G. O’Neal.

He wrote it while he was teaching Japanese at a London university.

I first heard about this book when a fellow learner of Japanese told me that it was the only thing he used to learn kanji successfully.

Naturally I was intrigued, so I picked up a copy for myself and now I’d like to share it with you.

What’s Inside The Book

The book opens with an explanation behind the format of the book, and how to understand each part.

It’s highly advisable that you go over this section first so that you’re not confused when it comes time to learn each Kanji. I say this because after you’re done reading the instructions, it’s just page after page of kanji!

Here’s what a typical kanji entry looks like:

As you can see, there is an incredible amount of information packed into each and every section. This book teaches you some of the following things for each Kanji:

  • What it looks like
  • Correct stoke order
  • On’Yomi
  • Kun’Yomi
  • Common compound words
  • And there’s some auxiliary stuff as well

This pattern repeats for Kanji 1 – 2,000 and comprises the main body of the book.

After that, there are two different types of indexes so that you can look up kanji fairly easily. One is by the reading of the kanji, and the other is by the number of strokes.

The nice thing about this book is that it is so jam packed with information that you won’t need to buy any other books on kanji for a long time (if ever).

But just how long does it take to learn kanji with this book? And what exactly is the method?

Let’s take a look a that now!

How To Use The Book

I don’t know if I mentioned it before, but this book is pretty old. The first printing was back in 1973!

That being said, they’ve reprinted it over the years and the version that I own came out in 2014.

Anyway, it’s probably not a surprise that the primary method you use to memorize the Kanji is through a process of:

Step 1: Thoroughly reviewing each kanji’ meaning and readings

Step 2: Learning the correct stroke order and writing them down several times

Step 3: Reviewing previously learned kanji by testing you knowledge on each part of it

There is nothing new or fancy about this method, but it’s one of those things that has been working for people for hundreds of years, so there’s ample evidence that it is effective.

And in fact, there are even some benefits to memory that you can only get when you write something down by hand. I believe this is due to the muscle memory, or motor skills.

What’s nice is that the book uses a systematic approach to teach you all 2,000 kanji by starting with the more simple kanji first, and then moving on to more complicated ones later.

This is way different from how Japanese children learn. The get kanji that are easy to remember meaning-wise, but might actually be complicated to write out.

An example for this book would be that you learn the kanji for moon 月 first before you learn more complicated ones that contain it as a radical, such as the kanji for 崩 (to collapse).

All in all, I would say that it’s totally doable to learn a single page per day, which amounts to a total of eight kanji per session.

If you used this schedule to progress through the book, then you’d be done in about 2/3 of a year’s time.

Not too bad when you consider Japanese people take all of grade school and middle school to achieve the same thing!

Or you could take it slower and do just a couple kanji each day. The important element in learning is consistency.

But also there were some things that I learned in the book that I wasn’t expecting to. Let me tell you about them now.

Unique Things In The Book

Remember when I said there was some auxiliary information contained for each kanji? One of those things is that the book provides the Mandarin Chinese reading for each kanji too!

So if you are planning on learning Mandarin at some point in the future, then this book will have some information that you’ll want access to.

And when it comes to writing the kanji down, this book does more than just teach you the correct stroke order. It also has an entire section that teaches you how to have clean and presentable looking handwriting!

I’ve talked a little bit before on how to improve your hand writing for Japanese, but this book had some tips and tricks that even I didn’t know about before.

It’s pretty cool if being able to write Japanese is something you want to do.

The last thing I thought was unique is that the author says at one point that he expects that the people who use this book are also reading lots of Japanese material in their spare time.

It’s kind of a perfect blend of both using the book for an intensive learning process of written Japanese, and also reading lots of interesting Japanese books and manga for more of an extensive learning process.

When you learn a kanji from this book, and then encounter it naturally in a manga or something, you feel super excited since you now understand what it means and how to read it!

It’s a very rewarding feeling that is also great for motivating yourself to study and learn even more.

Where You Can Find It

This book is a good resource to have for learning how to read and write Japanese.

It uses a systematic method to teach 2,000 basic kanji.

You can find it on if you’d like to get it for yourself.

Leave me a comment and let me know and questions or thoughts you might have!

5 thoughts on “Essential Kanji Review”

  1. Hello, thanks for the review. I have just bought this book as I feel the need to finally learn kanji properly.
    Did your friend say how he used the Book? Did they follow the method as describes in the book? This being the method outlined and reviewing using the card system as described?
    I plan on just going through the book as the author describes but also having some form of basic SRS but not anki.
    Also, one great thing about this book is its size. It’s very compact and not bulky.

    • Hi Stephen!

      Yeah, he said that he just followed the process laid out in the book:

      1. Lean new kanji and write it out
      2. Review it regularly (flashcards, SRS, etc.)
      3. Read Japanese material every day (news articles, short stories, etc.)

      The great thing about using a book like this one is that it provides the structure to learn the most important kanji systematically. Once you’ve got a pretty good grasp on the process, it’s easy to apply it to new kanji you run into later when reading and such.

      Good luck!

  2. I actually own this book. Technically it’s my mother’s but I ended up having a hard time reading through it because my attention span as a child wasn’t all that great.

    To be honest, I’ve always wanted to learn Japanese and, back when I was younger, I got really good at Hiragana and Katakana but I fell out of it and now I don’t remember a single one. So I guess you could say I have to start from scratch.

    • Yeah, I feel that one of the hardest parts of learning a new language is a person’s habit’s during the study process. It takes a lot of focus and daily consistency in order to see any sort of results. Perhaps it would be useful to help people learn those skills at the same time they decide to learn Japanese. 

      Yeah, I took a break from Japanese about six months after I first started learning it in college, and didn’t really touch it for a few years. But you’d be surprised how quickly it comes back to you with a little practice. 


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