Kanji books are a dime a dozen it seems. There are several varieties out there depending on how you want to tackle the problem. There are the perennial favorites like Heisig, but that doesn’t link up to the JLPT levels very well. There are also free resources out there like KanjiDamage. A pretty useful site, but again not organized by JLPT levels and some of explanations and mnemonics might not be for everyone.
It’s hard to do something different because there are so many that copy the same old formula. One option of course, is to create a book that combines all the old elements and organizes them in a clear format.
ALC Publishing who is behind the So-Matome series of books has created a pretty good kanji book for the N5 and N4 levels (roughly 200 kanji). They seem to have combined most of the features that I like to see in the other books, but organized it for the JLPT, making it a pretty valuable tool for passing the exam.
Each chapter starts with a little exercise to get you thinking about all the kanji. These are not simple quizzes, but activities that force you to digest what is in front of you. I really like this part because it gives you an opportunity to figure the kanji out for yourself instead of simply studying a list of words and symbols.
For instance, in the first chapter, they show a picture of a landscape and insert the kanji that symbolize the different features into the drawing. There is a river, where the river kanji is. There is a mountain where the mountain kanji is and so forth. There is a simple quiz at the end that helps you sort out which is which.
This kind of “guided discovery” is something that a lot of good language teachers strive for these days. No more drill and drill until everyone falls over with exhaustion, thankfully. The reason for this change is pretty obvious. It is going to be a lot more memorable if you “discover” it instead someone just handing you the answers.
After this initial introduction, the chapter lists the kanji that are covered in that chapter. The kanji listings cover all the basics – on and kun readings, mnemonics for the character, and some common words that the kanji is used in. The mnemonic is even written in Japanese (as well as English, Chinese and Thai), so that you can use that to be totally immersive in your language learning.
This is followed by a few writing exercises or matching activities to give you a feel for each of the kanji. And finally every chapter wraps up with about 20 JLPT-style kanji questions. These questions seemed to be up to snuff as well, going over a lot of the common misreadings that the test likes to prey on, especially with the number kanji.
Every so many chapters you get a review quiz to bring it all together. Of course, you will need to continue to study and review it regularly in order to really lock this stuff in, but it does provide a good method of study.
What I like about it
This book makes you think. There are a few drill books that just present you with the facts and expect you to do the rest. This book does a great job of walking you through some exercises and makes you puzzle out what each kanji means. Even if you are a generally pretty lazy studier, this book will do a lot to help you remember the kanji.
It provides a good reference after you have completed the whole thing. It’s easy to look up kanji, so that you can pick out a few of the stubborn kanji that you are having trouble with and practice the mnemonics for that particular kanji.
I also felt like the JLPT-style questions are very realistic. They look very much like the kinds of tough questions you are going to see on the real thing. So I think they would offer anyone a lot of good practice before the real thing.
What I don’t like
This isn’t such a big deal, but I think at least a few people would like to see some kanji drill sheets that step through the stroke order of each kanji. For a lot of people this isn’t that big of a deal, but I know a good number of people like to actually practice writing the kanji.
There is not a lot of testing of real use, just a lot of test questions. There aren’t, for instance, any questions asking you to write a sentence about something using the kanji. This is tough to do at this level, but it is possible and would allow you to get into some good practice.
There also isn’t a lot of reading practice in the book. There is a small section at the back of the book, but nothing really substantial, and this is a key skill for using the language – being able to recognize the kanji in context.
The English in the book can be patchy in some places. For instance, in one situation they ask you to write the ‘meaning’ of some kanji, but, according to the Japanese, they are actually asking you to write the readings in. Not such a big deal, but slightly unprofessional.
There is some use of mnemonics, but there is not a lot of stress on creating your own mnemonics, which can potentially be more powerful and helpful for you to remember the kanji that more easily.
Maybe it is just me, but I would like to see a book that makes use of spaced repetition tools a little more. These kinds of books could have easily been published 10 or even 20 years ago. It would be good to see something that is more aware of the newer tools that are available to allow you to study more effectively.
Having said that however, I feel like this book does the basics incredibly well and in a clear way that allows you to smoothly work your way through the book. The guided discovery at the beginning of each chapter is useful to pique people’s interest and get them motivated to study through the chapter. This is a pretty good book for anyone struggle with kanji for the N5 and N4 levels.
What do you think?
Have you used this book to study for the N4 or N5? Was it effective? Were you able to get a good grasp on the kanji with this? Let me know in the comments.