When you first start studying Japanese, you are faced with a pretty big hurdle right at the start – you can’t read most of the language. That’s a pretty big problem because it closes off a huge pool or native materials which can be the best sources of learning materials, and obviously the most natural.
Your brain isn’t even really set up for something like this (unless your native language is Chinese), so it is a bit hard to grasp at first. Instinctively, you want to be in control and there’s nothing more out of control than not even knowing how to read a language. So almost everyone starts with romaji, roman letters, for the first few steps.
But it is important to start learning the native writing systems as early as possible. Ideally, you should try to learn hiragana as soon as you can and then katakana. If you are still having a little trouble with hiragana, you might want to check out my introduction to Japanese course.
Ok, you got that mastered, but now what? Now it is time to start learning kanji, the Chinese characters that Japanese has borrowed for its writing system. If you are unfamiliar about how Japanese writing became so, um, unique, you might want to read up on the history of Japanese kanji.
The N5 level contains around ~100 kanji that cover most of the basic vocabulary you’ll need when you are first starting out. Unfortunately, at this level you can’t make use of kanji radicals that much because a lot of the kanji are radicals themselves. You are going to have to learn them from scratch.
I try to think of these kanji in 6 major groups – nature, directions and locations, humans, numbers and time, adjectives and actions. I kind of cheat with a few of these to match a particular category, but for the most part you can group them this way.
Nature Elements Kanji
This includes everything from 山(yama, mountain) to 川(kawa, river). These are kanji that represent something that exists in nature. A lot of these kanji look very much like the thing they represent. 山 looks like a mountain, 川 looks like a river, and 木 looks like a tree. Of course, 空 doesn’t really look like air, but you can imagine a little guy jumping on a spring into the air. The 工 is the spring and the top part is the little guy.
山 川 天 日 空 月 木 水 火 魚 生 気 雨 金 電 花
Directions and Locations
These can be a little bit more difficult to be honest. For example, 北 doesn’t look much like north at all. There are definitely some mnemonics that can come in handy here when you practice. I also put 後 and 前 in this group as well even though they can be used for time. I also put some common locations into this category as well.
上 下 中 北 外 右 左 西 東 先 前 南 後 間 校 国 店 社 道 駅
This is a bit of a stretch for some of these kanji, but I think you can group all the family kanji together with body parts and tools (like 車). All of these kanji basically involve humans in some way. For example, you can include 女 (onna, woman) and 男 (otoko, man) because they are only used with humans. There are actually different, much more complicated kanji used for the sex of plants and animals.
人 女 男 父 母 子 友 名 目 耳 足 語 本 車
Numbers and Time
The first few numbers are pretty easy (一, 二, 三), but then it gets a lot more complicated after that. Keep in mind that the first 10 numbers are hardly used. You will see them in fancy Japanese restaurants or other places like some shops that sell omiyage (edible souvenirs Japanese give to co-workers or family). 千 and 万 tend to show up at ATMs and some stores more often though.
一 二 三 四 五 六 七 八 九 十 百 千 万 円 午 今 半 年 毎 時 週
No language would be complete without some adjectives to add color to what you are saying. The N5 kanji doesn’t give you too much to work with, but you have the basics, big and small, long but not short (短), old and new, and mysteriously, only the color white.
大 小 長 高 多 少 新 古 白
The final category is actions, which again cover a lot of the basic actions you do on a daily basis – entering (a place), leaving (a place), eating, drinking, buying, coming, going, etc… I also think 何 (nani, what) belongs to this group as well, because you will probably want to ask about what someone is reading, eating, etc..
入 出 行 来 休 食 飲 学 書 言 読 話 買 立 見 聞 何
A Good Start
As you can see, N5 kanji don’t exactly cover everything, but they can help you get around and understand a few simple things. One thing to note is that for the JLPT, these are the kanji that will probably appear on the test, and N5 vocabulary that contains non-N5 kanji will appear in kana. For example, 警官 (keikan, policeman) will be written as けいかん not in kanji, even though in native materials it would be written in kanji, 警官.