There are a lot of books out there that teach people kanji, but there’s one in particular that is probably the best known. Today I’m going to talk about it and give you my Remembering The Kanji review.
The full title of the book is Remembering the Kanji 1: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters by James Heisig.
A few things to point out right away is that this is the first book in a three book series.
Number one teaches people the meaning of all “general-use” kanji (a little over 2,000 of them) and how to write each one.
Book number two teaches the readings of said kanji, and then book number three introduces 1,000 new kanji with their meanings, readings, and how to write them.
This review today will just be over the first one, because it’s the one that I used.
How Do You Learn Kanji?
This book teaches kanji in a systematic way, starting from very simple kanji and progressing to more complicated ones, by using what the author calls “imaginative memory” in creating stories with the individual parts of the kanji (so called “radicals”).
You may have heard of this technique before, using mnemonics to create crazy, silly, and weird stories with the kanji’s radicals that help to remind you of its meaning.
It’s actually a really intuitive and effective process, and many times it’s was so effective that I was able to quickly memorize the kanji, and then with a little bit of reviewing here and there, remember them easily.
Of course, some of the kanji are so simple that you just have to straight up memorize them.
I found that these ones weren’t really a problem since a lot of them look like the things they represent, such as 木 for tree or 口 for mouth.
In these cases your visual memory gets used, and then when you run into more complicated kanji like 親 for parent, you can use the story creation method.
Let’s use an example of this method now.
First you have to learn that the kanji for sun is 日.
Then we get to the kanji 晶 which means sparkle and is comprised of three separate radicals (all of them being 日).
Now we have to come up with a story that incorporates the fact that there’s three 日 in this kanji that will lead us to remembering its meaning of sparkle.
Since this is an earlier example, the book provides a story, which you can see directly below:
The book gives you stories for kanji in the first half, and then once you’ve got the technique down, you will create your own for the second half of the book.
This is a useful skill to have, since you can then use it for any new kanji you encounter in books, magazines, the internet, or wherever you encounter new kanji.
Although it may seem a little weird to spend all this time memorizing a story in order to recall the meaning of the kanji, it is actually a much more effective method once you realize that you’re going to be applying it to thousands of kanji.
The keywords for each radical will be used again and again, so instead of remembering 2,000 complete kanji, you only have to remember about two hundred keywords (each radical), and from there it is easy to remember the stories that the radicals tell, which then leads to the kanji’s meaning.
Reviewing Kanji You’ve Learned
The beauty of this book is that it teaches you the most common meaning of each kanji in a way that is quick to memorize, and easy to recall.
But in order to get the most out of the system, you will want to combine studying new kanji with a system of reviewing the old ones, to truly lock in what each one means and the stories associated with each.
There are really two ways that I know of that you can do this.
What I liked to do was open up to the index in the back and just start recalling the meaning of each kanji.
This was a quick way of looking through all the kanji I had learned and recall their stories which lead to their meanings.
The only problem with reviewing kanji this way is that there is a small risk that you will memorize the order of meanings, rather than each kanji’s individual meaning (kind of like how young kids can memorize a book without knowing how to read the words).
But the solution to this problem is to recall the keywords and story associated with each kanji.
It’s kind of like when/if you took an advanced math classes in school where you had to show how you came to your answer by listing out each step in the whole process.
As long as you can identify each keyword associated with each kanji’s radical, and then tell yourself the story that leads to the kanji’s meaning, then you can be confident that you truly do know each kanji’s meaning and you will be able to recall it later when it appears in a book, on the internet, or wherever.
The other method that you can use for reviewing is to create flash cards, physical or digital, of the kanji that you’ve learned and then review them that way.
I tend to think that digital flash cards, especially with a spaced repetition system (SRS) like Anki works best.
How Fast Can You Learn?
I’ve listened to a lot of people talking about this book and how many kanji they learned each day. Based on the math and consistent study, people have been able to make some impressive progress through the kanji.
Some people I talked with learned all the common kanji in as little as two months (about 40 kanji/day) and others took their time with it and memorized about 20 kanji per day (much more doable), which was still pretty quick – just over three months!
Even if you did as little as 10 each day, which would probably only take about 30 minutes when you also add in time for reviewing, you could complete the entire list of kanji in less than a year.
At any rate, it really just depends on how much time you decide to put in each day.
As a final note, people don’t talk about it too often, but this book also teaches you the correct stroke order of each kanji.
Some people feel that this is vital to know, others think it’s useless since 99% of everything is digital now, but no matter how you feel about it, the book shows you how to write Japanese as well.
I’ve always felt that writing out kanji helps with memory, but it does increase the amount of study time dramatically.
Is The Book Is Incomplete?
The primary drawback of this book is that you do not learn the pronunciation of the kanji (how to read them).
This is actually intentional since on the author’s part since it is far easier to learn only one piece of information per kanji (the meaning) instead of trying to learn several things all at once (the meaning and each of the readings).
As you may know, the way you pronounce a kanji can change depending on how it’s used in a sentence and if it’s by itself or part of a compound word.
The intention of this book is to lay down a solid foundation of understanding the most common meaning of each kanji so that you never forget them, and from there you can easily add the different readings each one has, and any lesser used meanings as well.
So what this means is that once you’ve completed the book, you will have to pick up the second one to learn the readings, or you will have to read a lot of Japanese material and just look them up at that time.
Something else that I should mention is that kanji often have more than one meaning, so that’s also something else that you’ll have to be aware of in case you are reading and run into one of them.
Here’s the point: this book will help you become familiar with all of the important kanji, and you will learn their most common meaning and how to write them.
But once you have completed that, you will still need to work on learning the kanji’s readings and any lessor used meanings.
Think of this book as a way to jump-start your kanji abilities, but be aware of the book’s limitations as well.
Where To Find it
By using Remembering The Kanji I was able to successfully learn the most common meaning of all 2,136 “daily kanji” in just three months. It made leaning new kanji quick and easy.
It’s the best book I’ve ever used for learning the meaning of kanji.
I’d love to hear your feedback on this book. Let me know what your experience has been.
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: