Using Japanese Kanji Learning Resources Effectively

Using Japanese Kanji Learning Resources Effectively post image

Japanese is unique in a lot of ways, but one way that seems to give people fits is learning kanji. I tend to get numerous emails asking about how to master kanji and what steps people can take to learn it all quickly and easily. It is incredibly frustrating to literally not be able to read a language that you are learning. In other languages that use roman letters, you can simply start reading and trying to puzzle out native materials from day one, but that just isn’t the case with Japanese.

Instead you have to learn 3 writing systems – hiragana, katakana, and Japanese kanji. Kana can be simple enough, it is just matter of linking the symbols with their sounds and there are not a lot of irregular pronunciations that you have to worry about. Not the case with kanji. With kanji you have to learn a whole bag of things.

First, the general meaning of the kanji, which could include some weird, somewhat unrelated meanings. Second, you need to learn the pronunciation of it which differs depending on how it is used. And there are a lot of irregular readings of kanji even with the first few simple kanji for the numbers. After all that, you need to learn how to write the thing. And, for bonus points, you can learn the stroke order as well.

Being that learning kanji can be a complex beast, there are several ways you can go about learning this writing system. One method is memorization with the help of mnemonics. Some will spend a year working through Hanzig’s famous books to learn the entire system before moving on and learning the language. If you have the motivation to do so, this can be quite effective because you are then able to read any material with relative ease.

But most of us take other paths. I personally didn’t drill kanji individually, instead I always studied it with vocabulary in context. It made it a lot easier, for me, to learn the kanji and use it effectively. But results will vary. If one method doesn’t work for you, no worries, try something else. We are all a little different in how we learn.

Another popular way to study is brute force writing drills. These can be effective if used correctly by doing things like saying the word out loud as you are doing it. The main reason why this can be effective for production of kanji is because it trains your muscle memory to automatically write the kanji ‘without thinking.’

Another method involves reading text with kanji while listening to the audio of it. JapanesePod101 has a massive library of material at several different levels that you can use for this. It was my go to source for just raw input practice when I was first studying and I still go back to you because of all the material they give you.

There are also kanji drill books. If you have been studying Japanese for any length of time, you have probably quickly realized that there is no shortage of kanji drill books out there. There are the famous Heisig books (JPN, other). There is one of my personal favorite reference books – Tuttle Kanji Picto book that can be used for mnemonics and such. There is also a new book that Tuttle just released that seems to combine a lot of elements from other books into one thicker book.

Mastering Japanese Kanji – Volume 1

This is a good thick book that covers roughly 200 kanji. It seems to cover most of the kanji that you would see on the N5 and give you a good start on the N4 kanji. Each page has numerous details to help you with learning the kanji like irregular readings and some example words.

In addition it has some unique activities that you don’t find in your typical kanji drill book. For example, there is a place for you to write down your own mnemonic for helping you to remember the kanji. I like how it specifically asks you to take the time to do that instead of doing a drill and kill.

This is volume 1 (US), which leads me to believe that there will be a whole series covering all Japanese kanji.


  • I really like how this book includes numerous unique activities that I haven’t seen before.
  • It includes irregular readings which commonly come up on the kanji part of the JLPT.

Don’t like

  • This might just be me, but the interactive CD seems a bit outdated to me.  Maybe this is simply the best way to deliver the product, but my DVD burner blew out a few months ago, and I simply haven’t had a need for it because everything is delivered digitally these days.  I would like to have seen this as a downloadable with a code, or some other form.


White Rabbit Kanji Poster

White Rabbit Press is well-known as the source for pretty much any Japanese study book you need delivered worldwide, but they also have their own line of some cool products.  I have personally used their Kanji flashcards Vol 2 to help conquer N2 kanji.  They make some clear, easy-to-understand materials that make studying easier for you.

Their kanji poster, now in its third edition delivers more of the same.  It gives you a clear presentation of all the kanji in common use in Japanese.  It is even color coded by JLPT levels so that you can see how much you need to study.  I should note that the levels are sorted into 3 colors (N5 & N4, N3 & N2, N1), but those are pretty much the major levels anyway (N4, N2, and N1).

The poster is actually two posters.  One that lists all the kanji, numbered.  And then a corresponding poster listing all their meanings and pronunciations.  You can put the posters on opposite walls or apart from each other and quiz yourself by simply looking between them.  This is a pretty cool feature that I haven’t seen other posters incorporate.

Now, you might be asking yourself, what is the big whop of having a giant poster with all the kanji on it.  And I first I was a bit skeptical myself.  But after picking one up it has come pretty useful because you can spend down time taking a look at it and familiarizing yourself with each of the characters, seeing how many compounds you can come up with.  It can also start conversations with fellow learners or natives.  I have found myself quizzing others and making a game of it.  Sometimes I even catch a native off guard that has been out of the country for too long (yeah, they forget kanji, too.)


  • It’s made of good quality paper that is going to last the years.
  • It’s color coded so it just doesn’t look like a massive intimidating block of characters.
  • There are two separate posters that make it pretty easy to quiz yourself.

Don’t like

The posters, as far as I can tell, are not laminated or don’t have a protective coat to allow you to draw on them with a whiteboard marker.  This isn’t a biggy, I mean you can just use good stickers are something else to mark your progress.  But, it is cool to be able to slash out characters as soon as you have mastered them and visually see your progress as you move across the poster.

Do you use these?

How do you make use of a kanji poster?  Do you have any recommendations for good kanji drill books?  Let me know in the comments below.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Anna September 9, 2016, 4:49 pm

    Hi there,

    Thanks for some new resources. I would definitely add both WaniKani and Memrise apps to Kanji Learning.
    The only downside for Wanikani that I have found so far is that it does not list the on’yomi in Katakana (which makes it confusing) but the method of learning is great.
    I also use Anki Anki and Kanji draw for Kanji and stroke order.

    • Clayton MacKnight September 11, 2016, 5:34 am

      I’ve heard a lot of great things about WaniKani. It seems to be very well-built site.

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