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Learning Japanese Kanji Individually

Learning Japanese Kanji Individually post image
Individual Japanese Kanji

So, which one means underwater basket weaving again?

Japanese is unique in that it uses 4 different writing systems. 3 systems that represent just sounds (hiragana, katakana, and romaji) and one that represents both meanings and sounds (kanji). Japanese is the only language that has that and so when you first start learning the language you are faced with a problem that is uniquely Japanese.

So, how should you go about studying them? Should you study them each individually? Or study them in compounds and words that you learn?

Learning them individually is actually how a lot of kanji learning systems are setup. Remember the Kanji, aka the Heisig method, walks you through each kanji individually. Kanjidamage.com is designed in roughly the same way. Even my old friend Memrise has plenty of Japanese Kanji courses to choose from.

This all gives you the impression that studying the kanji individually is a good choice. I mean its similar to how you learned your first language. And everybody is doing it, so why not?

Of course it is not that simple.

To be considered fluent, you need to learn all of the jouyou kanji (common use kanji). There are 2136 according to the last specification. Most of those kanji have one or more on’yomi (Chinese reading) and one or more kun’yomi (Japanese reading), although some kanji don’t have kun’yomi, every kanji has at least an on’yomi. So let’s say, on average, you need to learn about 3 different pronunciations per kanji.

That’s around 6408 sounds you need to memorize.

Then, there are the meanings. And if you really force it, you could probably narrow it down to the point that each kanji has one meaning, but that’s a little difficult to do. So let’s say you need to know about two meanings per kanji. So, about 4272 meanings.

Keep in mind that to be conversational in any language, the general rule of thumb is for you to know the 2000 most commonly used words. To be fluent on the other hand, a general rule of thumb is around 20,000 words, but that is highly debatable to be honest and depends on your conversation skills.

So, 6408 sounds and 4272 meanings to memorize is a lot of work. And incredibly hard to do without context. So, you can’t obviously expect to learn all the kanji first and then set about learning the language. That’s not to say it can’t be done. I’m sure some people have done it this way, and some people will do it this way in the future, but it isn’t the most common thing to do.

In conclusion, purely learning all the kanji individually in a vacuum is next to impossible.

If you are going to learn kanji individually, you need to do it with at least some exposure to the real language and how it is used.

What I learned from Studying Kanji individually

Up until around N3 level, I actually didn’t bother to learn kanji individually at all. I simply learned kanji along with the words I learned. This system worked fairly well actually and I generally scored pretty well on the kanji section of the JLPT.

Things started to change when I started working with more native materials and gearing up for the harder levels of the test. I started studying kanji individually because it helped me to guess new vocabulary when I saw it for the first time. In this way, I could learn more vocabulary ‘naturally’ instead of drilling and drilling.

At the beginning of this year, I set about finishing off all the N1 and N2 kanji. I learned about 550 kanji in a little over 3 months. It was pretty hard work, but it was great to have it all done.

I learned a few things along the way. First, as you move up in the levels of kanji you need to learn, they get more and more useless. I would say you need N5 through N2 kanji to be able to read most of the material you’ll see in Japan. There is some useful N1 kanji of course, but by the time you get to this level, you will have learned all the most useful ones from just regular reading (or at least I did).

The N1 kanji that remain are rarely used to be honest. And it isn’t all that useful to study. Learning new kanji at this level though is pretty easy. You are probably use to recognizing radicals and building mnemonics, so you can learn more kanji faster than you did at lower levels.

By the way, if you want to see a brilliant visual representation of how to really lock in kanji, check out this recent TED talk by Chineasy founder ShaoLan Hsueh:

These are, of course, Chinese characters used in native Chinese, but a lot of them overlap with Japanese kanji.

What Studying Kanji Individually does

If you study kanji individually along side learning words with their native kanji, you will be able to guess words more accurately. This comes in handy, when, at about the N3 level, you start to really dive into native materials and do a lot of reading. Also, with newspapers and some other difficult texts, there will be words that aren’t in your dictionary, or even in a Japanese to Japanese dictionary. These words are newly minted by smashing together several kanji to create a new term.

Another advantage is if you know how to pronounce a kanji, it will be a lot easier for you to look up words that contain that kanji, but you don’t know how to properly pronounce. You can type in each individual kanji with say the kun’yomi and still look up a word that is pronounced using the on’yomi.

What Studying Kanji Individually doesn’t do

It doesn’t allow you to read anything and everything without difficulties. It will make it a lot easier to read something because you are more familiar with the kanji, but you will still need to take a break every once in awhile and look something up for clarification.

What’s your Thoughts?

How do you study kanji? Separately or with new words? Let me know in the comments.

{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Isaura June 2, 2013, 11:05 am

    I can memorize Kanji only with new words. A lot of words I can memorize only with Kanji. For example “genshiryokuhatsudensho”, “kokusaikouryuukikin”, etc.

    • Clayton MacKnight June 3, 2013, 3:21 pm

      yeah, for a lot of the longer words, it is a lot more useful to learn them in context instead of individually.

  • Chad June 2, 2013, 11:35 am

    I do not study kanji individually. I read (textbooks, NHK Easy, and bi-lingual books), use programs like anki in order to memorize words, etc. The only time I dig into kanji directly nowadays is I am repeatedly getting two of them confused, usually because they only differ by one radical. Even this doesn’t often matter in the real world, as the two different but similar kanji would be unlikely to appear in the same context.

    I can recognize over 1500 kanji in context. However, if you gave me a test of isolated kanji, or threw in fake kanji that look like the real thing as does the JLPT, I wouldn’t be confident in more than half those. And I doubt I could write much more than a couple hundred correctly. However, what matters in the real world? The only time I ever seem to need to write kanji is for filling in my address on forms. I’ve got those memorized just from habit. As for reading, you don’t often see one kanji just sitting there by itself – it is in a context. This context then guides you to the correct meaning of the kanji and away from confusion with similar kanji with different meanings.

    • Clayton MacKnight June 3, 2013, 3:24 pm

      You made some really valid points Chad. Great comment. It’s true, what does one radical really mean in the real world?

      I guess it would come up when you go to write the kanji though. You might occasionally flub it up and put the wrong radical in. But, I think as a second language learner of Japanese, being able to write it is useful, but not essential. I haven’t really ran into too many issues, other than writing my address. I occasionally have to use when filling out customs forms and things like that too. But in those rare cases I usually end up whipping out my trusty iPhone.

  • Matt June 3, 2013, 3:07 pm

    I use http://www.wanikani.com/ which does a mixture of both learning individually and with context. It’s pretty similar to RTK and other methods, but it uses some different mnemonics and has a somewhat different order of content, and it has a built in SRS. Once you learn 30 or so kanji for a level individually, you learn around 100 vocab words using those kanji and previous levels’ kanji in context. This usually sets you up pretty well for knowing at least one on’yomi and kun’yomi per kanji. It’s in beta right now, but the end goal is to teach at least 1700 kanji with the stretch goal being all Jouyou. Plus, you’ll know around 5000 vocab words by the end, with varying degrees of usefulness. It’s worked great for me so far (around 600 kanji in), so I recommend it to others here who are relatively new to kanji learning.

    • Clayton MacKnight June 3, 2013, 3:25 pm

      Yeah, WaniKani! That’s the new site from Koichi (Tofugu.com) right? He generally has a good knack for putting together useful lessons and teaching things. I’d love to try that out, maybe I’ll try to get in on the beta.

  • gakusei107 June 8, 2013, 1:27 am

    Clay, you ought to get in on the beta. The first two levels are free.
    Give it a try.

  • Louise June 8, 2013, 8:29 am

    I learn each Kanji individually, and use mnemonics made up of the radicals, much like in the TED talk. I buy the grid style kanji notebooks that Japanese children use and write out each kanji about a hundred times over the course of several months. I find writing the kanji is absolutely vital for me to accurately remember them, because my brain learns best through writing.

    At the same time as I learn the core meaning of the kanji I also learn words which contain the kanji, making cards using Anki. I find using the cloze type of card best for learning the onyomi and kunyomi.

    I reason I love to learn the individual core meanings of the kanji is that some of the kanji compounds are so beautiful. It really brings alive the Japanese language to me. So along with neat intuitive words like 火山 volcano, there are also words like 星座 which means constellation, or in the literal kanji – seat of the stars – which I think is lovely.

    • Clayton MacKnight June 9, 2013, 3:39 pm

      Good point, there are a lot of poetic, and somewhat sarcastic kanji compounds so it is fun to know that individual meanings.

  • Sarah McMillin November 17, 2013, 2:35 pm

    I’m also studying for the JLPT1 and although my method is probably quite strange it works for me. I bought 1945 of the commonly used kanji on index cards printed by white rabbit press. They have the kanji and then 4-6 vocabulary words on the front. The back has all the readings and meanings of those on the front. Slowly I am working my way though all of them. I force myself to remember all of the pronunciations and the words with asterisks because they have appeared on previous JLPT exams. I take them with me and study a few minutes at a time whenever I have the chance. For example during my commute to work on the train, or right before bed. After I finish 20 cards I label the batch (as well as the cards) with a number. After 6 months or so I study them again to ensure retention along with whatever cards I am studying at the time. I do kanji that look similar together so that I remember the differences as well. For me it works well because once I encounter them during my reading practice I then have a context to associate with the word. I pretty much use index cards for everything… Its just how my brain works. Hope my input is helpful to someone else out there. Everyone is different and none of us are alone 🙂

    • Clayton MacKnight November 18, 2013, 8:17 am

      I don’t think that is that strange. I use to use the white rabbit cards myself for N2. I just got a little bored of them once I go to N1. I also found that most if the kanji you need to learn is at the N2 level and you pick up a lot of the rest naturally with reading. But, it’s kind of whatever works for how your brain is organized and what keeps you motivated.

      I could see where physically seeing cards you learned can be really motivating in a way that some computer program can’t.

  • Alex August 1, 2014, 9:35 pm

    I need to prep for the N2 exam by December and although I’ve studied Japanese for 3 years, I don’t know what to do to prep myself in time…

    What should I do to prep in 4 months?

    • Clayton MacKnight August 7, 2014, 12:30 am

      What is your starting point? Have you taken the N3? What was your score? If you haven’t, what about a practice test to see what your level is like? Have you done any kind of prep? Started with any of the Kanzen Master or So-Matome books?

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