Now that you’ve started learning how to read Japanese by memorizing both the Hiragana and Katakana syllabaries, it’s time to move on to the third and final part of the Japanese writing system trinity. A lot of people take on the challenge of learning Kanji without really using an effective method, and then they give up after weeks of hard work with little results.
I don’t want that to happen to you. So I’m going to show you how to learn Kanji in such a way that that will help you to remember the meaning and pronunciation of them fairly easily and without going crazy.
Taking on the challenge of learning all 2,136 Jōyō Kanji (常用漢字) in order to be considered literate in the language is definitely the biggest and the scariest (jk lol), part of learning Japanese. And after talking with dozens of other people about leaning Japanese, I can say that Kanji is generally the hardest part for most people.
In fact, a lot of people decide that Hiragana and Katakana are enough and they just give up all together on learning Kanji.
But to truly understand the Japanese language and culture, you really do have to get good at Kanji. There’s just too many nuances and jokes that you’ll miss out on if you don’t know the Kanji that they use. And there are also times when a Manga artist takes creative license and creates a new word by using a particular Kanji’s meaning, but altering the way it sounds. You won’t really understand the significance of it unless you know the basics of Kanji
Bottom Line: If you’re serious about learning Japanese, then you gotta learn Kanji too. I’ll show you how.
But before we get into the methods that you can use (and in particular, the one that I feel works the best) let’s take a look and some Kanji facts so that you can get a bird’s eye view of it before drilling down into the nitty-gritty details.
Did You Know This About Kanji?
I mentioned that you have to know a little over 2,000 Kanji in order to read the commonly used ones. But if you want to attend a Japanese University, then you will actually have to know and be able to write closer to 3,000 different Kanji!
So that begs the question, just how many Kanji are there?
OVER. FIFTY. THOUSAND.
Yeah, I don’t think that anyone alive knows all of them since most of these Kanji are archaic and aren’t really used anymore. But you get the idea. There’s a *bleep* ton!
Why are there so many? Ahh, because they originally came from China! You see, the Japanese didn’t have any sort of writing system (that we know of) until around the 4th or 5th century AD. Then missionaries came to Japan through South Korea and taught them how to read and write Chinese.
The Japanese people then adapted these Chinese Characters to their own language so that they could be used for Japanese as well. That’s also why they had to create Hiragana and Katakana – to fill in the gaps that Kanji created.
Generally speaking, Kanji are known as ideographs. That means that they are a picture of the thing or idea that they represent.
They are broken down into three different types of ideographs:
- Pictorial – a representation of a physical object
- Indicative – a representation of an abstract concept
- Compound Ideographic – Several Kanji are combined to create a new meaning
(1) Pictorial Kanji make a lot of sense when you see the Kanji for tree 木. It looks just like a tree, right? But they don’t always make a lot of sense when you see the one for fish 魚.
What the heck happened? Well, the original Kanji did indeed look like a fish, but it just took too long to write it all out. So they abbreviated it into a smaller, and easier to write version. Then at some point in time they “squared” all Kanji so that they would all fit together in a much more coherent way on parchment.
This is why some Kanji still look like a pretty good picture of a real life thing, and others look nothing like them.
(2) Indicative Kanji are needed to express the idea of things like numbers 1, 2, 3 (一, 二, 三) or the concept of above/below(上 / 下). These ones are also fairly easy even though they don’t actually have a physical form. Not too much more to say on this one.
Now let me ask you a question, what does love look like? Yeah exactly, it doesn’t “look” like anything. So they had to create a story with the Kanji instead. That brings us to the third type:
(3) Compound Ideographic Kanji were created by the Chinese in order to tell these kinds of stories. These used several different Kanji in combination with one another to convey these types of abstract concepts. For example, they took the Kanji for woman 女 and combined it with the Kanji for child 子 to mean love 好. Now that makes sense, right! A mother loves their child.
This method of creating a story in order to represent a concept or meaning, is actually one of the techniques that I’ll be teaching you to use in order to help you remember the meaning of Kanji from an English speaker’s point of view.
As a final note in this section, a single Kanji can represent several different meanings (or slight nuances of one meaning) and tons of different pronunciations.
生 can mean:
- To be born
This is also a reason why they are harder to learn than both of the Kana, which only represent a single sound and no meaning.
- か only means the sound “ka” and nothing else.
What Methods Are Used?
Much like learning the two Kana scripts, there are several different ways to learn Kanji.
- Writing it out
- Flash Cards
But the difference is that they don’t quite work the same way this time around.
You can of course learn the correct stroke order of each Kanji and learn them all by repeatedly writing them out. This is the method that I recommended when leaning Hiragana and Katakana and it is how native Japanese people learn Kanji in school.
But Japanese people also see and read Kanji every single day, so they aren’t really “just writing it down” while they are learning it. Combine that with the fact that they already know the pronunciation and meaning of Japanese words, just not the Kanji that each one uses, and you can see why it’s much easier for them to lean it.
If you’re a native English speaker like myself, then you have to learn both the meaning AND the pronunciation of it, from scratch.
Side note: Chinese people who learn Japanese Kanji only have to learn the pronunciation, since they already know each Kanji’s meaning since it is the same (more or less) as the meaning in Chinese. Pretty interesting.
A second way to learn Kanji is through the use of flash cards, hopefully combined with SRS. But in my experience, that only tends to work a little better than writing it down by hand.
That leaves mnemonics as the method to use when it comes to learning over 2,000 Kanji.
This is actually pretty great as it can be used to learn Kanji at an incredible rate (like all 2,000 in only three months) and in such a way that you store the information into your long term memory so that you never forget them.
Basically, you are going to be taking the way that a Kanji looks visually, and then you will create a story about it that reminds you of what the Kanji means (and how to say it too). We’re going to do this by focusing on the Radicals (parts) that a Kanji is composed of and creating memorable stories based off of that.
Why Radicals and Mnemonics Work
First of all, what is a radical? Simple put, it is a part of a Kanji. See below for example of the two radicals that are used to create the Kanji for the word “bright” 明.
This is different from a stroke, which is a single line in a Kanji. There are three strokes in the Kanji for “three” 三.
As you can see from the example, radicals can actually be a stand alone Kanji with their own pronunciations and meanings (the Kanji for “bright” is composed of the Kanji for both “sun” and “moon”). This is actually a bonus for you, because it often times hints at either the new Kanji’s meaning, or its pronunciation.
Check out what I mean with these pictures:
Examples of Kanji with related meanings because of identical radical on the left side.
Examples of Kanji with identical pronunciation because of identical radical on the right side.
So the left side holds the meaning and the right side holds the pronunciation. Not 100% of the time, but it is still a useful rule of thumb nonetheless.
Remember the Kanji for love? That’s an example of using the individual radicals in a Kanji to create a story that helps you remember its meaning. Remembering how to pronounce it is a little more difficult, but if you had to only pick one to remember (meaning or pronunciation) it would be better to remember the meaning.
Let’s say that you’re reading a Japanese book and you come across a Kanji in it. It would be better to understand the sentence and not be able to read it out loud, than vice versa.
But not all Kanji need elaborate stories!
The really simple ones (mainly pictographs) can usually be identified off of the way that they look. Let’s take a look at how this particular way works.
Here is the Kanji for sun. Originally it looked like this form way on the left, and as time went on it got morphed into the one that is used today.
Here is another one, the Kanji for tree. Looks like a tree, right?
You don’t really need to come up with a story to remember these little ones. It’s only when we get to the abstract and complicated Kanji that mnemonics are necessary.
For example, to represent the concept of East 東 (as in the direction East) the Chinese took the Kanji for tree 木 and the Kanji for sun 日 and they combined them because the only way to see the sun rising into the sky behind a tree is if you are looking east 東.
So these are the two methods to use to learn and remember the Kanji:
- Use the original picture if possible
- Create a story based off of the radicals
Some Kanji to Learn With This Way
It’s one thing to understand the techniques intellectually, but it’s a whole other thing to actually do them! So let’s do them right now with these next Kanji so that you can learn the method AND learn these particular Kanji!
Here are 3 Pictorial Kanji:
These Kanji are probably the easiest to learn and remember as long as they still look like the thing they represent. Take a look at the Kanji for tree 木. It looks like a tree! The vertical line represents the trunk of the tree, the horizontal line represents the branches. And finally, the two angled lines represent the roots of the tree.
Now, a single Kanji can have more than one meaning, for example this same Kanji can also mean wood, but I don’t want to throw every possible meaning at you while you are first learning it because that would lead to confusion. It’s much better to learn the commonly used meaning of it, along with its pronunciation, and then come back later to learn other possible meanings.
The way you say this Kanji is “ki.” Hey, that rhymes with tree! This one is super easy to remember!
The next kanji to learn is 本. It looks exactly like the Kanji for tree, except that there is one extra horizontal line on the bottom to emphasize the roots of the tree. Guess what, the meaning of this one is root. The pronunciation is “hon”, but let’s put it on hold for memorizing and come back to it in a minute.
This Kanji 日 means sun, as in the sun in our sky. It used to be a circle, but it took on the rectangular look when all Kanji were modified in order to fit next to each other better when written down. The way you pronounce this one is “ni.”
Guess what? If you put 日 and 本 together you create the word 日本 which is (nihon) the Japanese word for Japan! And that’s how I like to remember the pronunciation for these two.
I would guess that pretty much every person who is learning Japanese knows the words nihon (Japan) nihon-go (Japanese language) and nihon-jin (Japanese people) so we can use that prior knowledge to our advantage when learning how to pronounce both of these Kanji.
Here are 3 Indicative Kanji:
These Kanji can be really hard, or really easy depending on what idea they represent. Today I’ve got the three easiest ones ever. Are you ready to learn them?
- 一 is the Kanji for one. As in the number one (1).
- 二 is the Kanji for Two. and…
- 三 is the Kanji for Three.
Piece of cake!
Of course that was just the meaning of them. You will probably never forget them since all you have to do in count the number of horizontal lines to figure out the meaning. Unfortunately this pattern ends after three. The rest of the numbers look different. Oh well, take the easy road when you can!
So how can you remember the way to pronounce them? Well again, these are words that almost every student already knows and so they don’t need to do extra work to remember the pronunciation. But if you don’t know the Japanese numbers 1-10, I wrote a post on a way to remember them here.
Let me give you the gist: it’s story time!
You want to come up with a funny, crude, sexual, or crazy story in your mind to help you remember it. Why does it have to be extreme? Because if it’s plain, then it’s easy to forget. One, two, and three in Japanese are pronounced “ichi, ni, and san.” A simple story to remember just those three is:
- Scratch your ichi (itchy) ni (knee) with your san (sandle).
The keywords in this story aren’t perfect matches to the sounds of numbers 1-2-3 in Japanese, but they are just meant to remind you of the correct words. Try it out if you’d like! Or you can always come up with your own that works for you. Alright, moving on!
Here are 3 Compound Ideographic Kanji:
Now we get to the part where radicals (parts of Kanji) become vital. Basically, the individual Kanji are combined together to tell a story. This is exactly what we’re doing to help us remember Kanji, so it works out pretty well. Here’s the first one:
林 is the Kanji for woods. Check it out, they just put a second tree Kanji in with the first! Makes perfect sense, right?
The pronunciation for this one is “hayashi,” and I like to think that “if there are two trees next to each other, one of them is the higher tree.” and “higher tree” rhymes with “hayashi.” That’s how I remembered it at least.
Then we get to the Kanji that means forest which looks like this 森. They just added a third three, LOL!
In fact, “they added one more tree” and “more tree” rhymes with “mori” which is how you say this one.
Now the words woods and forest are often times used interchangeably, but generally speaking a forest is larger than the woods. That’s also in line with the way the two Kanji are formed.
And for the last one, we have the Kanji for east 東. This is a picture of the sun 日 rising up into the sky from the viewpoint of it being seen from behind a tree 木. Think about that, the only way to see the sun rising from behind a tree is if you are looking east. At least, that’s the mnemonic to help you remember it.
How’s it pronounced? The Japanese word for the direction east is “higashi.” And how do you remember this last one? You just do. Sorry… 🙁 I learned this one through route memorization and I haven’t found a good story or trick to help remember its pronunciation.
So if YOU know of one, please let me know with a comment below!
Wow, that was a lot! I know that some people have used these techniques (I didn’t invent them) to learn 50 Kanji a day! That’s pretty awesome, but you only have to learn 6 Kanji a day to become literate in one year. Bump it up to 12 and you’re done in six months. Kick it into overdrive at 25 and you’re done in three months!
I think that there’s really no need to rush when it comes to learning Kanji. I mean, the primary reason to learn how to read Japanese… is to read Japanese! Am I right?!
So find some good manga in Japanese that you’d like to read and combine reading it with learning these Kanji. In that way, you will have created a positive feedback mechinism where you feel rewarded by all your hard work with being able to better understand and read the new manga.
This brings us to a second part of reading Kanji, and that is the fact that a lot of times the way you say a certain Kanji changes when that Kanji is combined with another. For example, 東 is actually pronounced “tou” in the word 東京 (toukyou) which is of course the city of Tokyo.
Unfortunately, you will have to learn several hundred Kanji before you will be able to read Japanese manga and novels without looking up a new word on every page. But I think that locking in the new Kanji that you’ve learned with meaningful, written dialog is a great way to understand the information in context and make it real to you. In other words, it’s how the Kanji are used in real life and how you can use it too.
So focus on learning some Kanji, and then try reading a book that you’re interested in. Preferable something that’s aimed at younger Japanese children who would also be learning Kanji at that point in their education. That will also let you read Furigana that’s written over the Kanji to show its pronunciation. The Furigana is common in books for kids, but not for adults.
You could also use these techniques on all of the new Kanji you run into while reading, and thereby avoid having to learn 500 or 1,000 Kanji first. It’s really up to you, but the main point I’m trying to make is that once you’ve learned some Kanji, be sure to use it to help reinforce your memory.
Generally speaking, when you use mnemonics to learn Kanji you will have to repeat the story that you associated with it each time. But as you do so more often, you will tend to rely on the story less and less until one day you drop it all together.
At least, that’s how it’s worked for me, and for most of the people who’ve also used these tricks to learn.
(1) Read Japanese Today and Kanji in MangaLand are how I learned. Click on the pictures below to check them out.
Use this book to learn Kanji based off of their original meaning:
Or you can use this one to learn Kanji based off of the radicals and mnemonics:
(2) Want some flash cards to help learn? Try Anki out.
(3) Still want to learn Kanji by writing it out? Here’s the book that I recommend:
Time to read some Japanese!
And learn even MORE Kanji!!!
Just kidding, but no… really. You can continue to use these methods to learn more and more Kanji at your leasure.
I will also be adding more pages that are soly intended to continue from where this one left off. The stories for these are the ones that I’ve found useful, but it they don’t work for you then you can always switch them out for another that you’ve heard or ones that you’ve come up with yourself.
I’d love to hear from you now! What methods have you used to learn Kanji? Would you be interested in using these kinds of mnemonics to help pick up Kanji quickly? Let me know with a comment below!