5 Ways to Learn Japanese Kanji

Learn Japanese KanjiJapanese is a very unique language for several reasons. It has a different sentence order (subject object verb) than most other major languages. It has several dialects, some of which, don’t even sound like Japanese. And, oh yeah, it has three different writing systems, too – hirgana, katakana, and everyone’s favorite kanji. (Some people even say Japanese has 5 writing systems if you include romaji and kaomoji [Japanese emoticons])

For some people, kanji is fun, I mean who doesn’t like 2000+ symbols to memorize just to read a language? But, seriously, they can be fun to learn, read, and write them. Some people even like to tattoo funny ones on their bodies.

Or for other people they are a necessary evil that must be dealt with in order to progress in the language. Much like when you were younger and your mother made you eat your peas before you could go play Super Nintendo.

Whether you are in love with kanji, hate kanji, or are in a complicated relationship with kanji, here are some tips on making the whole Japanese kanji learning thing that much more easier.

#1 Learn the Ways of the 部首(ぶしゅ)

Kanji can be pretty formidable beasts if you try to take them down all at once, but if you break them down into smaller pieces they are a lot easier to learn. A lot of kanji (but not all kanji) can be broken down into smaller pieces called kanji radicals or 部首(ぶしゅ) in Japanese. Textfugu.com has an excellent kanji radical cheat sheet to help you recognize the different radicals. You can also check out my article on Learning Japanese Kanji with Radicals as well.

#2 Learn Kanji in Compounds

It is a lot easier for you to internalize a kanji’s meaning if you learn it through compounds (two or more kanji used together to form a word). This way it will give you a general feeling of how that kanji is used. This is especially true for more complicated (N3+) kanji that have more abstract meanings. Hopefully though, you are already doing this with a service like Anki, Memrise.com, or Readthekanji.com right?

#3 Learn Kanji Separately

Huh? Wait you just told me to learn them in compounds. Yes, I did, but taking a little bit of time to learn them separately and study their general meanings can also be beneficial. This is because it will help you be able to recognize words that you haven’t learned yet in the reading sections of the test.

New words that you have never seen before are very common on N2 and above. These words are typically glossed with a definition in Japanese, but it will be quicker and easier if you can glance at them and give a best guess. Time is really important in the reading sections of the higher tests, so any time you can shave off some time, it will pay huge dividends.

#4 Practice Calligraphy or Simply just Writing Kanji

This technique is not for everyone. There are a lot of people that pick up kanji relatively well and have little need for writing the kanji because they will be using a computer or cell phone to write Japanese most of the time. It really has the biggest benefit for those who want to be able to write Japanese as well as read.

Having said that though, it can be beneficial in that it will help you see the difference between similar looking kanji or 似ている漢字, which you’ll be tested over in the second kanji section of the test.

You can go to a real Japanese calligraphy class if you happen to be in Japan. Or if you are outside of Japan, you can go to Skritter.com, which is an online resource for practicing how to write kanji (Japanese or Chinese). There is also Tadashii Kanji Kakitori-kun for DS (for any region) that does something similar for all 2000ish of the joyo (common use) kanji.

#5 Get a Kanji Poster

Recently, I became the proud owner of a kanji poster. I bought mine from kanjiposter.com and it has all 2000+ joyo kanji on it. I like this particular poster because it is laminated so that I can write on it with a white board marker. This makes it useful to make notes on.

An alternative to the Kanjiposter.com poster is the White Rabbit Press Kanji Poster. I almost bought this one because all the different levels of the kanji are color coded. Also it has all the pronunciations on another poster, so that you can quiz yourself by looking away. It’s only drawback is that you can’t write on it, but that’s not really that big of a deal.

If I were to buy another poster, I would probably most likely pick up the White Rabbit Press one instead because it seems more useful.

You might be wondering, why in the world would I want a giant poster with just a bunch of kanji on it? But these posters do come in handy. They can be used as a quick reference or simply just something to take a peek at every once in awhile so that you get familiar with the different characters.

How about you?

That’s it for the first part of this series. Next week I’ll be going over some other ways to study kanji. In the meantime, I’d like to hear from you. How do you study kanji? Can you recommend any other ways to practice kanji?

P.S. If you are a big bad kanji learning machine, great! Sign up for the newsletter to get more awesome tips like this sent directly to you along with exclusive discounts, sneak peeks, and some overall cool stuff.

{ 21 comments… add one }
  • vivzilla September 1, 2011, 11:37 pm

    I would recommend getting a flashcard app like stickykanji or an anki deck for your phone/pad/whatever. Its good for when you have a spare 10 minutes on the bus or waiting for a friend to quickly do some drills. All these little bits of time can add up quite quickly.

    • Mac September 4, 2011, 2:49 am

      Are you talking about StickyStudy:Kanji? That looks like a really great app. I’ll have to give the lite version a whirl and see how I like it.

      I also personally like to bring along old fashioned paper flashcards to practice with too because they don’t require me to boot up my ancient iPhone 3G, hopefully soon to be replaced by the new iPhone whenever they manage to get that out.

      • vivzilla September 8, 2011, 11:20 pm

        Yep that’s the one. I didn’t think it was that expensive considering I can use it until I pass N1 which seems like forever away.

        Paper flashcards on the go for me are no good. I would forget to put them in my bag, on the other hand I never forget my phone.

        • Mac September 9, 2011, 12:33 am

          I’ve definitely forgotten my cards a few times which is incredibly frustrating. Nowadays I usually switch out my cards at the end of the day and put them with my phone so I don’t forget them.

          Anyway, thanks for the recommendation, I’ll have to check that app out.

  • andrew g October 23, 2011, 1:41 pm

    From my own experience, I can not reccommend anything more than the Remembering the Kanji Series by James Heisig and the website to go along with it http://www.kanji.koohii.com.

    If you have a basic understanding of Japanese (or even close to nothing), this book is great. It allows you to go through the book learning all of the 2000+ kanji an average high school student is required to know that are included in this book. The method of learning is to create your own images and stories and learning the parts 部首 in a unique way. The website has a flashcard system that enhances this.

    I tried standard methods and regular books that go over strokes, flash cards and even show pictures here and there and it took me more than 1 year to learn about 350 kanji. Then i started Heisig’s book and learned a total of 2000+ kanji in about 15 months.

    Everyone has their own method, but this book made it fun for me and if you are willing to start from scratch and try out this method I think it will be a success for at least 4 out of 5 people that truly give it a shot because it includes your imagination in the process which makes it easy to remember and fast! Even if you dont have a great imagination like me the website has plenty of stories that are rated from most popular to least to help you quickly find an easy story to remember the kanji and the stroke order!

    Mac, out of curiousity, what impression have you had from this book?

    I have been in Japan for 2 1/2 years now coming in with no ability to speak the language, working a full time job and taking about 40 hours of lessons privately a year and no other schooling and have passed the N2 test last december 2010 and will now take the N1 test this December 2011. Very exciting to see progress!!

    Ganbarou ne!


    • Mac October 25, 2011, 6:30 am

      I always hear good things about Hesig’s Remembering the Kanji book. I should give it a try but I haven’t given it a try yet.
      I’ve only leafed through it at the bookstore and it looked a little bit interesting but haven’t picked it up yet. I might try it for N1 though because it keeps getting recommended to me and probably for good reason.

      • Dustin Henrich November 4, 2012, 3:19 am

        Hey Mac!

        Thanks for the website!

        Where did you see RTK? I’m in Ikeda-city, which is about 20 minutes north of Umeda station. I want to buy the book! I had a pdf, but I would like a hard copy.


        • Mac November 7, 2012, 11:55 pm

          It is available at most large bookstores. Kinokuniya in Umeda is probably the best for you. It’s in the Hankyu Terminal station/building. You can also just order it from the states, the shipping is generally fairly reasonable from Amazon.

  • Lenz October 23, 2011, 4:03 pm

    Confusion between similar looking character was my greatest enemy, not anymore.. Finished Heisig’s RTK for 3 months (might be long for harcore learners). I just have to learn the reading of the kanji. Remembering the reading is a lot easier, and able to give roughly correct guess of meaning of posters with Kanji where I never encountered the reading yet.

    Above all that, remembered writing for each kanji without having to write, as what traditional method does. But yes, I have to work on making my writing beautiful.

    • Mac October 25, 2011, 6:33 am

      Similar looking kanji always gets me too. I have a new poster from Kanji poster that looks really nice and helps me out with that. I typically circle the kanji that look very similar and make sure to write on the poster what the meanings of the kanji are. The poster’s laminated so that makes it really useful for stuff like this.

  • Shi January 19, 2012, 5:14 pm

    Kanji is awesome. It’s probably the only thing I got going for me on these tests. I’m taking N4 because my grammar is AWFUL. It gets frustrating too because sometimes the words used in the sentences are in hiragana but I learned the words in kanji. One book I thought was pretty good was “The Key to Kanji: A Visual History of 1100 Characters”. I agree that knowning the history or origin of the character REALLY HELPS. If we know the meaning (or understand the image) of one kanji, we can get an idea of newer kanji that we don’t know. These are some apps that I have on my iPhone that I’m constantly using.

    KANJICHECK This is good when the kanji in some books are too tiny to ready. We can blow up the image to get a closer image of what different characters are used.

    KOTABA! My favorite. It shows how meanings and stroke orders.

    KANJI WORDSEARCH A fun game that helps with kanji memorization

    Another thing that helps is kanji that is written on places we see everyday. I used to ride the bus for 2 hours everyday. With nothing to do, I’d just look at the names of the stops (they were in kanji) and listen to the woman to say the stop. Taking the same route all the time, I could pick up on a lot of kanji and pronounciations.

    Oh, and writing kanji really helps with remembering too. Even though it can be typed, there are times when we can’t use a computer or our smartphones. Like filling out forms or documents or whatever.

    Gosh, I can go on…Kanji is just so AMAZING. They’re like endless puzzles…okay…I’m going to stop now. Sorry! 😛

    • Mac January 22, 2012, 4:08 am

      I think smartphones are a major boon for kanji study. It is so handy to have the ability to learn by physically writing out the characters instead of just reading them, and you don’t even have to waste any paper!

      I’ve done almost all my raw kanji study with iKanji. It’s a bit old, but it does the job pretty well. Another app that is a little better is Kanji LS or so I’ve heard. I haven’t been able to try it out yet.

  • Ytter January 13, 2014, 2:18 am

    I’m just warming up for learning the kanji now, since getting the pronunciation and kana and basic vocabulary still get most of my time. But there’s a Firefox add-on that keeps me from forgetting about them completely – it’s called Characterizer and what it does is convert the first letter of selected words in whatever you’re reading on the Web to a related kanji. For example, your paragraph I comes out as “#1 覚earn the Ways of the 部首(ぶしゅ)

    Kanji 可an be pretty formidable beasts if you try to 占ake them 下own all at once, but if you 壊reak them down into smaller pieces they are a lot easier to learn. A lot of kanji (but not all kanji) can be broken down into smaller pieces called kanji radicals or 部首(ぶしゅ) 中n Japanese. Textfugu.com has an 豊xcellent kanji 根adical cheat sheet to 紹elp you 認ecognize the different radicals. You can also check out my article on 学earning Japanese Kanji with Radicals as 然ell.”
    You can set the frequency to get a greater number of “characterizations” per page.

    This won’t help anyone pass a test, but it’s a painless introduction and/or way to practice.

  • Lim March 8, 2014, 4:19 pm

    After reading this article, I feel grateful to live in a multi-language country. To be honest, Japanese is my fifth language (with Chinese being my native language), and kanji comes naturally to me since it is similar to Chinese characters, even though not all of them is in simplified Chinese. I still have the tendency to write simplified ones though. 😛

    I agree writing them out would be the best way to at least recognize their “shape”. And I find it quite useful to associate pictures with kanji for beginners. In fact, kanji was derived from pictures thousands of years ago. For example, 火 looks like campfire burning on a bunch of firewood, and 水 looks like water running out of a broken faucet. That’s how my mum taught me Chinese before I went to kindergarten.

    There are also a bunch of related apps on smartphones, still I prefer writing. Seeing them forming under my pencil is just fun. 😀

    • Clayton MacKnight March 10, 2014, 2:40 pm

      I know quite a few Chinese native-speakers that have a lot easier time with the JLPT than most. I think learning a language that you can at least read a little bit is a lot easier than one you can’t read at all.

      When I try to Spanish every once in awhile, it seems so easy, because I can just read anything I want to. 🙂

  • muwanguzi patrick June 9, 2014, 1:31 pm

    This has been very use ful information in my contiuous search to learn kanji . thanks fof all.

  • KanjiGuy November 28, 2017, 4:19 am

    Thanks for the advise! I’m taking a JLPT myself too this December! My personal favourite of your advise is to learn kanji in compounds, I think it’s the best way to understand the origin of the kanji!

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