Tactics

How to Learn New Kanji Symbols

| Image credit: Pablo D. Flores |

Kanji: The Dreaded Monster of the Japanese Language!

Okay, not really. Actually once you start to understand and learn new Kanji symbols, you will begin to truly appreciate them for what they are and how they work. One of the things I like most is that it actually makes reading Japanese EASIER.

Really? How’s That Possible?

Since written Japanese doesn’t use spaces between words, it can be quite confusing when there is only Hiragana. But if you throw in a couple Kanji here and there, then it becomes super easy to know when one word ends and the next begins.

Here’s a sentence using only Hiragana and no Kanji. Notice how it can be difficult to pick out the individual words.

 

 

 

 

How easy is it to read that last sentence? Probably not that easy if you’re not familiar with with those exact words. The two particles を and か give hints as to where one word ends, but not enough to make it easy to look up. Let’s take a look at the same phrase with Kanji.

 

 

 

 

Okay, so now we can clearly see where the breaks are between each word.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It might just be my personal experience, but using Kanji makes reading easier. Of course you have to understand the Kanji being used. so let’s learn this one!

‘Songs’ and ‘to Sing’

Just like in English, in Japanese the same word can be used in different contexts to mean different things.

For example, the Kanji  (uta) means song when it is used as a noun. But when used as a verb, as in 歌います (uta imasu) it means to sing.

How to Learn It – Part 1

We want to use a couple different methods together to learn the Kanji (uta). The first thing we what to do is to memorize the meaning of the Kanji.

So first of all we know that this Kanji means song when it’s used as a noun and to sing when it’s used as a verb.  Pretty easy to remember since everybody sings songs!

So to attach “song” and “to sing”  to the Kanji , I use a visual picture that might work well for you too.

Let’s break this down. I’m sure you’ve seen the huge amplifiers that rock bands use to blast their music out into the crowd. Here’s a picture of two on either side of the rockstar:

This (at least in my mind) looks a lot like the left half of the Kanji . So when you see this Kanji, make sure you think “there’s the amplifiers (amps for short) that the rock star uses.

 

 

Now in the bottom right corner we have the actual Kanji for person ( <– means person). So I like to think of the entire right side of the Kanji as a person with crazy 80’s rock star hair.

Put those two together (amps + guy with 80’s rock star hair) and you have a rock star who is singing his song out into the crowd.

 

 

That’s a great way to remember the meaning, but not the pronunciation. So we will need to add to the story we use for it. Since the pronunciation is うた (uta), let’s say that he is singing in the state of Utah!

Now obviously uta and Utah are pronounced a little differently, but they are spelled in English almost identically. You just need to drop the H at the end of Utah. Why would you drop the H? Because the singer doesn’t like Hardcore music! He gets rid of it!

So first think “singing in Utah”
Then think “Utah is spelled U-T-A-H”
Drop the H because the singer doesn’t like Hardcore music
That leaves U-T-A which matches the Rōmaji spelling of the word
And there you have it: うた (uta)!

Does that make sense?

Here is the Kanji and the complete story I want you to think of when you see it so that you can remember it’s meaning and pronunciation:

 

 

 

 

 

This is a picture of a rock star with crazy hair from the 80’s on stage with his mic and his two huge music amplifiers behind him. He is going to sing his #1 hit song “I Love Utah” to all of his fans in the state of Utah.

How to Learn It – Part 2

It’s hard to remember words when they are isolated. It can be a good way to learn them initially, like you did above. But the point of learning new words it to use them. And it is in the using of words that they get ingrained into our memory. Let’s use a sentence that works with the story we used to learn 歌.

So we see this rock star up on stage, but he hasn’t started singing yet. We turn to our friend and say:

What kind of songs does he sing?
どんな歌を歌いますか。(donna uta o uta imasu ka?)

In this sentence the word for he is left out as the subject is often dropped in Japanese when the context of the situation provides that information.

どんな – What kind of
歌を – Songs (を is the direct object particle)
歌いますか。-Does (he) sing?

Now you have a new phrase to use that incorporates both of those meanings!

Lock It In With This

So now that you’ve learned what it means and you’ve learned a useful phrase to help you remember it. How would you like one more technique to help lock it into your memory? Does that sounds good?

It’s called… *drumroll please!* da da da da da da da DAA!!! The Scriptorium Technique!

I wrote about the Scriptorium technique in an earlier post that you can find by clicking here.

Here’s how to use it:

  • First, read the phrase aloud to yourself
  • Then, write it on a piece of paper and say each word aloud (again) as you write each Kana/Kanji
  • Finally, say the phrase aloud one final time

Make sure that you focus on QUALITY over quantity. It’s better to do it correctly one time than to rush through it five times and make mistakes.

You Can Do Anything, One Step at a Time

Good job! Give yourself a big pat on the back! Or a high five if you’re like me and can’t reach that far!

You learned a lot today. Let’s review.

1) You learned the Japanese words for:

  • What kind of
  • Song
  • To sing

2) You learned the Kanji for both song and to sing.

3) You learned and USED some advanced techniques to help learn new words faster and remember them longer.


If you took the time to read all of this and do the above exercises, then I want to honor you for your hard work.

This was only one Kanji out of the thousands that are out there. But don’t get discouraged. Remember to always stay positive while learning something new. A single Kanji each day will add up over time.

Nevertheless, come back here to learn more Kanji like this one in the future! Thanks for coming and leave a comment below to let me know how this method worked for you!

2 Comments

  • Byron

    Hi Nick,

    As someone who studied Japanese back in the day I was required to learn 110 Kanji to pass my first year. I got that fine, was best in the class actually, but then flunked the second year when it got a bit hard + outside school distractions. I really wish I had your method for memorising Kanji back then, would’ve been a great help! It’s is a bit unorthodox but if it works, who cares right?

    Thanks for the tip!

    Byron.

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