How to Kick Kanji’s Keister

by John Fotheringham · 5 comments

This is a guest post by John Fotheringham Author of Master Japanese: Self-Guided Immersion for the Passionate Language Learner

Foreign language mastery

I‘m often asked about my progress with Japanese and how I go about learning Kanji. I’m still learning and toying with different techniques, so I thought i’d bring in a real expert on the subject. John’s taught me a great deal, so I figured it would be best to have him teach the lesson that I’m still figuring out. Ok.. I’ll shut up now..over to John!

Since beginning my Japanese journey over a decade ago, I have come across a lot of Nihongo teachers, textbooks, and courses that advise learners to hold off on kanji until they already speak the language fairly well. I think this is absolute rubbish, but let me first give some of the common arguments before I tear them to shreds:

  • Argument 1: Kanji are really, really difficult; it’s easier to learn how to speak first.
  • Argument 2: Japanese children learn kanji more easily than foreign adults because they already speak the language and therefore have more to attach the characters to.
  • Argument 3: Most adult learners can get by without reading and writing; it is the spoken language that matters most.
  • Argument 4: Most signs in Japan have Romanized Japanese called Roumaji (ローマ字・ろうまじ), so foreigners can get around without knowing kanji.
  • Argument 5: It takes a really, really long time. If it takes Japanese children all the way through high school before they learn all standard use kanji (常用漢字・じょうようかんじ), it will likely take non-native adults even longer.

Okay, on to the shredding…

  • Rebuttal to Argument 1: Kanji are not difficult if you go about learning them in an un-stupid way that exploits (instead of ignores) the adult brain’s full potential for creative thinking and association.
  • Rebuttal to Argument 2: Japanese children don’t learn kanji easily.  They learn through pure rote memory (the same method Japanese teachers and textbooks expect us to use), arguably the most painful and inefficient way to learn just about anything.  The difference is that Japanese children don’t really have a choice. Learn kanji or fail school, let your parents down, and end up an unemployed looser drinking Ozeki One-Cup saké by the train station…
  • Rebuttal to Argument 3: The spoken language is indeed extremely important.  And yes, many learners (especially the Japanese themselves) focus entirely too much on the written word at the expense of their oral skills in foreign languages.  But I cannot tell you enough how important literacy is in Japanese:
    1. Reading opens up a massive pool of potential language learning material, including some of the world’s best literature.
    2. It allows you to read the transcript of things you listen to, a practice that creates new connections faster than a media whore on Facebook…
    3. Being able to read and write Japanese makes you far more employable than only speaking the language.
    4. And hey, nothing impresses the Japanese more than foreigners who can read and write kanji.  You shouldn’t let it go to your head of course, but you can channel that positive energy into acquiring more of the language.
  • Rebuttal to Argument 4: Roumaji is a false friend.  Yes, it may help you take the right exit off the highway or get on the right train before your kanji is up to snuff, and yes, it is what you will likely use to type Japanese on your computer or mobile device, but it is not a replacement for learning kanji (漢字・かんじ), hiragana (平仮名・ひらがな), and katakana (片仮名・かたかな).  Together, these three writing systems will allow you to read real Japanese, live and work in Japan with greater ease, and darn it, just flat enjoy Japanese a heck of a lot more.
  • Rebuttal to Argument 5: If you use the efficient, adult-friendly method I recommend below, you can learn the the meaning and writing of all standard use kanji in a matter of months, not years or decades as is usually the case with rote memory.

How to Learn Kanji

So now that I have hopefully convinced you that learning kanji is both worthwhile and not as impossible as often thought, let’s get into how to learn them as quickly, efficiently, and enjoyably as possible.

  • Use “imaginative” not “rote” memory. Despite it’s common use, rote memory is a terrible way to learn kanji, especially for adults who have better tools at their disposal, namely, what is called imaginative memory. The method, used in James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji, involves creating unique, vivid, emotional, altogether wacky stories that help you remember the meaning and writing of each and every kanji.  Instead of trying to remember a more or less arbitrary slew of strokes (ridiculously difficult) you just have to remember whatever story you created (waaaay easier).  This may seem like an extra step to those just starting out with kanji, but believe me, it will end up saving you heaps of time and frustration in the long-run.
  • Use spaced repetition. Back in the 1960s, cognitive psychologists, linguists, and memory researchers proved what every elementary school student has long known: we forget new information really freaking fast unless it is repeated.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is that we remember information for progressively longer and longer periods of time upon each re-exposure.  With this in mind, a number of language learning systems and flashcard tools have been developed (including Anki which I discuss below) that repeat target words, phrases, and yes, kanji, in increasingly longer intervals.  Just when you are about to forget a kanji, boom, the spaced repetition system puts it in front of your face, urging your brain to store it in ever longer memory.
  • Study kanji right before bed and upon waking. Studying new kanji right before bed is ideal because our brains consolidate new information while we sleep.  Whatever you see or think about right before this neural housekeeping session has a better chance of sticking.  Furthermore, I find it to be a rather relaxing practice that actually calms my mind and helps me fall asleep.  Studying first thing in the morning not only solidifies what you learned last night, but also ensure that you get in some study time that day no matter how crazy your day becomes.
  • Take it slow and steady. As in all skills (and tortoise-hare parables) slow and steady wins the race.  You may be tempted (especially in the beginning) to rush through as many kanji each day as possible.  But you will soon realize that studying more kanji everyday does not automatically equate to actually learning more.  Take your time with each kanji.  Make sure you have truly committed its meaning and writing to memory before moving onto the next.
  • Be consistent. Pick a set number of kanji to learn every day (I recommend 10 in the beginning moving up to 30 as you get into the flow of things), and stick to this goal like super glue.  Make a deal with yourself that you can’t go to sleep until you’ve learned your daily dose.  Or allow yourself that special naughty delight (beer, chocolate, an episode of Dexter) only once you have reached your daily kanji goal.
  • Take it bird by bird. It is all too easy to get intimidated (and depressed!) by kanji when you focus on how many you still have to learn.  The key is to focus not on the distance between here and your final goal, but just one (and only one) kanji at a time.  This psychological tool is put into words best by Anne Lamott in her must-read book on writing and life, Bird by Bird:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day.  We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead.  Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.”

Recommended Kanji Learning Materials and Tools

Last but not least, here are my recommended kanji learning tools.  Before spending any time or money on any of these, however, make sure you are properly motivated to learn.  Even the best tools in the world matter not if they sit on the shelf unused.

  • Remembering the Kanji 1. If you get only one kanji learning tool, this is the one to get.  The subtitle to James Heisig’s kanji classic reads “A Complete Guide on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters”.  And that is exactly what the book does; it provides a systematic, adult-friendly way to learn the the basic meaning and writing of all 1,945 standard use characters (常用漢字) plus 97 additional characters for common people and place names.  By design, book one does not teach you how to pronounce the kanji, a comparatively more difficult task covered in book two.  This is perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Remembering the Kanji system, but Heisig defends his approach well:

“One has only to look at the progress of non-Japanese raised with kanji to see the logic of the approach.  When Chinese adult students come to the study of Japanese, they already know what the kanji mean and how to write them.  They have only to learn how to read them.  In fact, Chinese grammar and pronunciation have about as much to do with Japanese as English does.  It is their knowledge of the meaning and writing of the kanji that gives the Chinese the decisive edge.”

$34.  460 pages. Available on Amazon.

  • Remembering the Kanji 2. Once you have learned the meaning and writing of all standard use kanji, it’s time to tackle their myriad readings.  Contrary to popular belief, this component of Japanese is far more arduous than learning to write the kanji themselves, but again, Heisig comes to the rescue with his second book, Remembering the Kanji:  A Systematic Guide to Reading Japanese Characters.

Most Japanese kanji have two kinds of readings: those of Chinese origin called on-yomi (音読み) and those of Japanese origin called kun-yomi (訓読み).  Kinder kanji have just a few readings, while other less friendly characters have dozens of variant readings, each with their own unique meaning.  I’ve looked far and wide for alternatives, but this book still represents the most efficient way to learn all these various readings without going crazy or pulling a wakizashi across one’s gut…

$27.  397 pages. Available on Amazon.

  • Remembering the Kanji 3. For the eager beavers who complete books one and two and are still hungry for more, check out Heisig’s third book, Remembering the Kanji 3:  Writing and Reading Japanese Characters for Upper-Level Proficiency.  This volume goes through the meaning, writing, and reading of 1,000 additional characters needed for university study and specialized academic or professional pursuits.

$32.  430 pages. Available on Amazon.

  • Remembering the Kanji iOS app. Until this app came along, I used to recommend James Heisig’s Kanji Study Cards, a complete (but enormous) set of cards designed for reviewing all the information covered in Remembering the Kanji 1 and 2.  But no longer with the introduction of this life (and back!) saving app, which covers all the same ground and then some.

$4.99.  For the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Available on iTunes.

  • Anki. Some people love flashcards, others think they are the root of all evil and should be banished to the whatever level of hell holds Hitler.  I personally find them a useful addition to (not replacement of) authentic content like podcasts, blogs, television shows, etc.  And when it comes to Japanese flashcards, there is no better tool than Anki (暗記・あんき) a name which literally means “memorization”.

Free for Mac, PC and Android.  $24.99 for iOS (WTF?). Download your preferred version here.

Alright folks, you now have the tips and tools you need to kick kanji’s keister.  Now get out there and accomplish in a few months what usually takes foreigners and Japanese children alike over a decade.  Happy Kanjing!

For more Japanese language learning tips, tools, and tech, check out Master Japanese: Self-Guided Immersion for the Passionate Language Learner, including my comprehensive language learning guide, video tutorials, and interviews with James Heisig, Jay Rubin, Khatzumoto, and more.

  • Santiago Madrigal

    Learn Katakana says: Yet another awesome post by John Fotheringham. Yup, definitively using Remembering The Kanji and Heisig’s method is (in my opinion) the single best method for mastering the kanji/hanzi. A great complement for it is a website called “Read the kanji”… but meh, I personally prefer just using Anki.

    Thanks for sharing! 😀

  • As someone fluent in Japanese, I agree that kanji are essential to learning the language, even if your only goal is to speak.  I also agree that slow and steady is the right approach.  If you want to get somewhere, you gotta go.

    But . . . I just finished watching David’s video about Dealing with Unrealistic Expectations.  Now, you say you can learn the meaning and writing of all the joyo kanji in a few months.  And that’s true.  But it’s a big jump from that to being able to actually do anything with them (such as read, write, or speak).  Yes, that Heisig-style method gets you started, but to actually learn to read does indeed take a really, really long time.  It’s misleading to say otherwise. 

    Again, I think learning kanji from the start is essential.  I write about studying kanji on my own site, as I think people deserve to understand the scope of the project before they start it.  A whole lot of people study for a year, year and a half, and then give up.  That’s a shame.  People should be aware of what learning Japanese entails before they embark on it, so they can decide for themselves if it’s worth the effort.

    • I’ll let John @LanguageMastery:twitter  answer this one 🙂 

    • Hi Ken. You are quire right to point out that there is a significant jump from knowing the meaning and writing of individual kanji and being able to read authentic content.

      But given the semantically transparent nature of many Japanese compound words, one can very often guess at the meaning of new words if they know the meaning of the individual characters that make it up. It’s akin to being an English learner well versed Greek, Latin, and French etymologies.

      Ultimately, my intent is not to oversimplify or mislead, but to inspire learners to get started. Once they get over the initial kanji hump, learners have so many more options for interesting, authentic reading input (which both greatly speed the rate of progress).

      • I certainly agree with you on all these points, John, and I commend you for encouraging people to learn Japanese. 

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