Today I’m going to show you how to learn kanji. But before I get into the nitty-gritty details, I’m going to talk a little bit about kanji’s history.
By doing so, you will get a better understanding of why a single kanji can have multiple meanings and multiple readings.
Once we’ve gotten that out of the way, I will share with you four different methods that you can use to learn kanji.
I’ve personally used them all, but only managed to stick with two of them.
That being said, I’ve talked with a lot of people over the years about learning kanji, and all of them have pointed to one of these four methods as their method of success.
They all work, so the good news is that you get to select the one that’s best for you!
The History Of Kanji
The word “kanji” is spelled in Japanese as 漢字 and means “Chinese characters.”
Way back in the day when Japan was a young country, they didn’t have any written language. So some people (I think monks or scholars) came from China and taught the Chinese writing system to Japanese people.
Of course the Japanese people started using the Chinese writing system for the Japanese language and things didn’t work out very well due to the differences in the two languages.
This is why kanji can have multiple meanings and readings. Because some of the meanings and readings were from the original Japanese language and the others were imported from the Chinese language.
This creates a unique problem for people learning Japanese as a foreign language.
You not only have to learn several thousand kanji in order to read Japanese texts, but you also have to be able to identify when a character is using one meaning or reading instead of another.
That being said, it’s just one of those things you have to do if you want to be able to read Japanese.
I’m going to help you out by going over some strategies that you can use to learn all 2,136 jōyō kanji (常用漢字) or “daily use characters” that the Japanese government has mandated people learn in order to be considered literate.
Writing It Out
The first method is also the most common: writing out kanji dozens and hundreds of times until it sticks in your memory.
This is how Japanese kids learn kanji in school and it’s also how a lot of non-Japanese people study it too.
Basically what you do is learn about the correct stroke order of each part of the kanji. These parts are called “radicals” and they usually represent a meaning or a reading.
After you’ve done that a number of times, repeating the meaning and reading to yourself, you should be able to lock it into your memory.
The advantage of this method is that there are a ton of resources for you to draw upon. There’s lots of books, tracing paper, and more to help you learn.
There’s also an advantage to writing out kanji since you become intimately familiar with each piece of the kanji and how to create it.
This helps you avoid mixing up similar looking kanji later on since you will be able to spot the small differences easily.
The disadvantage of this method is that it’s slow. If you do the math of how many times you typically need to write out a kanji before you learn it, times all two thousand plus kanji, you get a huge number.
For me, I could only learn a couple of hundred kanji using this method before I got too board with it and gave up.
Having said that though, I’ve spoken with a couple people who swear by this method.
Interestingly enough, they both recommend the book Essential Kanji by P.G. O’Neal.
I picked up a copy myself and wrote a review on it that you can read by clicking on the link above.
When we talk about “etymology” we’re really talking about the origin of words.
So when it comes to learning kanji through etymology, the idea is that you can trace each kanji back to how it was written originally when it was first invented and then learn its meaning from that.
When I first heard about this technique, I thought it sounded super cool!
I mean, who wouldn’t want to look at a kanji and be able to trace each part back to it’s origin?
Because of that, I think that this method really appeals to two types of people in particular:
- People who love history
- People who learn visually
Since this method spends a lot of time talking about what each part of the kanji originally meant, how it was first written, and then how it’s changed to today’s form, I think that people who love history would actually really enjoy learning this way.
On the other hand, if you’re the kind of person who can see patterns in art or pictures easily, then this method might also be a good one for you since you can identify what the pieces of kanji mean, which then leads to its meaning.
But even though I tried this method and learn a couple hundred more kanji, I ended up stopping again because I ran into two problems.
The first problem was that a lot of kanji don’t look like their original versions anymore, so I felt like I was doing additional work that was unnecessary, since modern day kanji look different from their origin.
The other problem, which was actually the bigger of the two, was that I had a lot of trouble actually finding resources that used this method!
The best book I could get a hold of at the time only taught 400…
That is a far cry from the two thousand that’s needed for literacy!
But thankfully for you, it’s a lot more common nowadays to get books or tools that teach this way.
I was actually a part of the recent Kickstarter for The World of Kanji by Alex Adler which uses this method for all 2,136 common kanji.
You can read my full review of it by clicking on that link.
The word mnemonics is a weird one (just like etymology was) but all that this new word means is “a memory device.”
When it comes to learning kanji through mnemonics, the basic idea is that you break each kanji down into its individual pieces (or radicals) and then you create some sort of story out of them that reminds you of the meaning.
So to give a simple example of this, the kanji 明 means “bright” and it is composed of two radicals:
- 日 (sun)
- 月 (moon)
So the story for 明 is that “the sun’s light reflects off of the moon and is bright.”
The advantage of this method is that it uses your imaginative memory to recall a kanji’s meaning from the pieces of the kanji.
They are a lot of simple kanji that you just have to remember, like both 日 and 月, but since the vast majority of kanji contain several radicals, this method is a good one.
This mnemonic technique was really made famous by the book Remembering The Kanji by James Heisig and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested.
This is the technique that I personally used to learn all 2,000+ daily kanji, so I’m partially biased towards it, but I’m still objective enough to point out some of its weaknesses.
In addition to the one drawback I mentioned earlier concerning simple kanji, this method also has something lacking from it: the kanji’s readings!
So if you do use mnemonics to learn the meanings of kanji, then you’ll also need to supplement your studies with something that specifically teaches readings.
I recently check out a fantastic book that does this exact thing. It’s called The Kanji Code by Natalie Hamilton and it uses several different approaches to leaning the readings of kanji.
The other way that you can learn readings is covered in this next and final method for learning kanji.
(image credit: Vulphere)
The term “extensive reading” really just means reading tons and tons of text for pleasure or enjoyment, without really worrying about understanding every single thing that’s written.
This is what you normally do in English when you pick up a new book that looks interesting and that you want to read.
How it comes into play with learning kanji is simple: Find interesting things to read in Japanese, and then when you encounter a new kanji, look it up.
This method is great because it doesn’t feel like you’re doing a lot of study and work, but rather it just feels like you’re doing something for fun and you’re discovering new kanji along the way.
When you encounter new kanji like this, you simple look up its meaning and how to read it, and you then read the entire sentence that you found it in and try to get a general idea of the overall meaning.
Then you continue on without trying to remember it at all.
The next time you encounter it, you start the whole process over again and before you know it, the kanji’s meaning and reading just “pops” into your mind!
That biggest problem however, is actually the process of looking up the kanji.
If you’re reading a physical book, then you have to try and find the word in a dictionary through the use of either stroke order, or the radicals.
Both of those methods take a lot of time when you’re looking up a new kanji every couple of sentences, and it quickly becomes a drag.
But thankfully there are people out there who understand this problem, and have created tools to eliminate it.
The website LingQ does this exact thing.
It allows you to read Japanese books or the dialog from shows in a digital format and every time you run into a new kanji, all you have to do is click on it to see both the meaning and the reading.
This is actually what I use everyday to read Japanese, so if that’s something that interests you, you can click here and read my review on it.
What I Recommend
I think that the best way to learn kanji is actually to do a combination of one of the first three techniques in combination with the fourth one.
So that means choosing between writing it out, etymology, or mnemonics, and then using that alongside extensive reading.
The reason why I feel this way is because those first three methods are going to give you a logical progression through all the 2,136 “daily use kanji” that’s needed for literacy.
However, learning how kanji are actually used and when to use each reading is something that comes best from reading lots and lots of material.
If you think about it, it’s a nice combination of both study and practice.
That’s what I found to be most effective for leaning kanji, and I encourage you to give it a try yourself.
Let me know if you have any questions or comments.
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: