How to Learn Kanji, in 10 Steps

How to Learn Kanji, in 10 Steps

I don’t go to a lot of cocktail parties. But somehow when I do, I always meet people studying Japanese. Maybe it’s just me. Or more precisely, people who’ll eventually stop studying, only they don’t know it yet. Here’s how the conversation goes:

“Ken! I’m studying Japanese! I’m stoked! And I’m completely serious about improving. Just tell me what to do—anything—and I’ll do it.

“Paint my house,” I reply. “Nah, just kidding. You should learn the kanji.

“Ah, you know,” they begin to trail off, “I just want to speak Japanese, not read it.

“You’ll never have a conversation better than you could already have in English, without learning the kanji.”

And at this point I launch into an impassioned explanation of how common words like karate, sora, aku, kuukou, and suku are all related—but you’d never know it without the kanji—while the other person slowly starts backing up toward the hors d’oeuvres table. Something about kanji triggers an insatiable desire for toothpicks with tiny hot dogs.

The State of Japanese Language Education

If learning Japanese was building an airplane, we’d be sitting in a field in North Carolina with a couple of bike mechanics and some bailing wire. Theories and “methods” abound, but if 2 out of 100 people ever reached a decent level of ability, it’d be a miracle. The problem, simply put, is you have to learn the kanji, and that’s hard. You’d be better off gluing feathers to your arms and jumping off a cliff.

You Must Learn Kanji

I’ve probably stressed the importance of learning kanji to a thousand individuals, and the number who’ve taken my advice is about negative five. I’ve tried explaining it logically—would you recommend learning English without using the alphabet?—but that’s obviously is the wrong approach. People would much rather believe You can speak fluent Japanese in three months! than You’ve got to memorize a couple thousand kanji to even begin understanding the language. But that’s the truth. So if logic doesn’t work, then just Trust me. I spoke to God, okay, and in a deep, Morgan Freeman-like voice He said, Learn the fucking kanji. Hey, His words, not mine. I’m just the messenger.

Okay, so how do you do it? Just like this.

How to Learn Kanji

1. Get a flexible attitude

A lot of people will tell you that Japanese is a straightforward and logical language. But you know, a lot of people believe in aliens and zombies too, so there you go. One of the things you’re going to have to wrap your head around real quick is accepting that much of the language makes no sense. Seriously. Like you write 日本 and it means “Japan,” but if you reverse it—本日—and it means “today.” That’s like submarine means “under-water,” but marinesub means “Hey, isn’t that Tom Cruise over there?” So you’re going to have to be okay with some degree of ambiguity and nonsense, both in the language and the study materials, is what I mean.

2. Get a copy of Remembering the Kanji by James Heisig

You might think this book will teach you how to read kanji. It won’t. Or that you’ll learn what the kanji mean, or at least their pronunciations. That won’t happen either. Okay, well, at least it’ll teach you how to write the kanji, right? Eh, even that probably won’t happen. So what will it do? Give you magic glasses, it will. It’ll enable you to distinguish one kanji from another, in the same way you can distinguish an English “b” from a “d.” That’s all.

Honestly, it’s the world’s most half-ass book. Heisig just copied a dictionary, created a rash of horrible English “keywords,” either to avoid copyright infringement or because he was incredibly stoned, and then started making mnemonics but then gave up a few pages in. It’s the kind of book you could write in a weekend with a couple weak pots of coffee. But it’s arguably the best we’ve got, so whatever. Kitty Hawk.

Now, even if you could learn 20 kanji a day, it’d still take you well over three months to complete. So focus on that goal, and don’t waste time stressing over Heisig’s nonsensical keywords and mnemonics. Just plow through, working from kanji to keyword. That is, when you see a given kanji, if you can remember the keyword, then you’re golden. Trying to do the opposite (see the keyword and write the kanji) is far more difficult. So don’t do that.

For every kanji, you’ll break it down into some component parts (again, these don’t always stay consistent or make sense), then create a mnemonic that helps you remember their relationship. Finally, write the kanji a couple of times. And that’s it. Don’t get bogged down with the “meaning” of the kanji or waste time trying to make the mnemonics consistent.

All you’re trying to do is train your brain to recognize the difference between 末 and 未. And even if you can’t, who cares, just keep moving forward. It’s enough to know that the language contains these two similar shapes. Eventually, through usage, you’ll be able to distinguish them in the same way you can tell a “p” from a “q.” Don’t worry, nobody’s ever ordered a qeqqeroni qizza.

Just to reiterate: don’t be concerned with the “meanings” of the kanji at this point. It’s facile to think that a given kanji has a single definition. Sometimes they do; but mostly, they don’t. Just get a general idea of what part of the ballpark they’re in. So long as you can distinguish one from another, that’s enough, even if you can’t recall what they mean. All you’re trying to do is learn the ABC’s. “R” doesn’t have to mean anything. It’s just R.

3. Use Anki

Anki is a flash-card program that runs on PC and mobile platforms. It too is a bit quirky and has something of a learning curve. Again, don’t get bogged down with this. Just figure out some way to make it work, and then use it to learn and review the kanji on a daily basis. Once you get it set up, Anki will show you new kanji according to a schedule you set, and then help you to review what you’ve already learned.

4. Have rock-hard discipline

So, reality check time. Basically, you’re going to learn 2200+ kanji. That means that if you learn twenty kanji a day it’ll take you . . . well, I’m not real good with math, but anyway it’s a long time. On the other hand, if you don’t do those twenty, then it’ll take you forever. So you’ve just got to sit down and do it. And as you study, you’ll find kanji you know well, some you’re unsure of, and some you’ll be like, Nope, never seen that before in my life. It doesn’t matter. Just keep moving forward, every day; study and review. Shuck and jive. Stick and move. Wax and polish. What does that even mean? Who knows. Hey, isn’t that Tom Cruise over there?

And while we’re on the subject of discipline and sticking to a daily plan, let’s be clear. You don’t need another kanji dictionary. Or a set of laminated kanji cards, or a special kanji-writing pen or a new kanji study game for your iPad. Quit shopping, and quit screwing around on the internet, because none of that stuff helps you learn Japanese. Just study and review. It won’t even take you an hour a day. Pretend you’re in a Russian gulag or something. See, now you’ve got the right attitude.

5. Core 2000

Once you’ve got the magic glasses, and can recognize a lot of kanji, it’s time to put them on and start learning some actual Japanese. You’re going to need a couple thousand words just to get out of the gate, but fortunately you already know some, like one, two, three, and karate. See? Only 1996 more to go. One effective way to boost your vocabulary is to go through Core 2000, which contains 2000 common words. There are Anki decks for this. Again, you’re going to need that discipline, to shuck and jive yourself through 20 words or so per day. That’ll take you another few months, depending upon diverse factors such as whether your have a job and friends or just live alone in your mother’s basement. Aspire toward the latter.

So here’s what I did. First, I locked myself in my mother’s basement. Boy, was she ever pissed. Then I used a pre-made Anki Core deck, rather than creating my own, which would have been much more time-consuming. Then, I went through it, going kanji to English definition. That is, I had the kanji on the front of the card, and the meaning on the back, along with an example sentence in Japanese. Eventually, I emerged looking pale and emaciated, but I knew some Japanese. So that was a win-win. Lookin’ all good in them skinny jeans.

6. Get knowledge

I assume that most people wanting to learn kanji are already studying Japanese, and thus have a basic understanding of how the grammar works, along with the ability to read hiragana and katakana. But if that’s not you, then now would be a good time to stop, take a class, or read through a basic textbook like Genki.

7. Start reading

So at this point, you should be able to recognize a couple thousand kanji, even if the magic glasses are sometimes cracked and foggy. And you should be able to recall the meanings of perhaps a couple thousand words. That is, know them from Japanese to English, but not necessarily the other way round. Now it’s time to start reading. So here’s the hard way:

Get a book.

Okay, that’s going to suck, because every time you see a word, you’ll need to stop and look up its definition. So don’t do that.

Instead, use the Firefox browser with a Rikaichan plug-in like every other genius in the world who studies Japanese. Then you can read anything online, just by hovering your mouse over the word and seeing its definition and pronunciation.

Once you’ve got that sussed out, the key is finding things to read that aren’t going to melt your brain. Don’t try to be a hero and read “real” Japanese at this point. It’s too time-consuming. Instead, focus on improving your reading speed and ability to grasp overall meaning by using simple material, such as folk tales. By reading them with Rikaichan, you’ll start to connect the kanji with their pronunciations.

8. The 10,000 Sentences Method

After you’ve gotten somewhat comfortable with reading, it’s time to make the final push and broaden your vocabulary, so you can at least rival the average six year-old. This time, Core 10,000 is what you want. Again, there are Anki decks for this, to help you learn the next 8,000 basic, all-important Japanese words (in sentences, for context) that come after Core 2000, along with their pronunciations.

If that sounds difficult and horrible, then congratulations, you finally understand what it means to study Japanese, and why 99% of the people flame out. But if you really want to learn kanji, and Japanese, that’s what you’ve gotta do.

9. Keep Reading

After a few more words, give or take several thousand, you should be able to read some simple, authentic materials. NHK News Easy is tailor-made for this kind of thing. You can also start branching out into materials printed on actual paper, an exciting new portable technology.

10. Keep Going

After memorizing 2200+ kanji and studying 10,000 sentences, you still won’t be able to read much of the Japanese around you. A ten-thousand word vocabulary simply isn’t sufficient. But you’ll have enough foundation to enable you to learn from context. Which means you should be able to read Japanese Winnie the Pooh without looking up an excessive number of words per page. That is, assuming anyone still reads books anymore. It’s my understanding they were replaced by blogs somewhere in the year 2010.

The Best Way to Learn Kanji

So there you go, ten steps, easy as riding a bicycle. Assuming you’re riding it backwards and the handlebars have fallen off. And by now, you’re probably thinking, Isn’t there a better way to learn kanji? To which I will only reply, Eh, probably. I read a lot of Japanese-learning message boards, and what’s immediately apparent is that everybody thinks they have a better way. There’s absolutely nothing one person can say that won’t be contradicted two comments later.  What I’ve tried to do is capture some best-practices in the learning community that have worked for myself and others. But no doubt someone will weigh in with something that’s more best.

The Ken Seeroi Experience

For my part, I only ever wanted to speak Japanese. I would’ve been happy to use romaji, or nothing at all. Who wants to read and write? That’s just a lot of words. But when it finally dawned on me that kanji was the proverbial Rosetta Stone, I tried every tricky method I could to find some shortcut. All of that just delayed my learning, which is why I now tell people to start kanji from Day One. There’s a lot of darn kanji, and a lot of words, so the longer you put it off, the longer it’ll take you to learn Japanese. What, more hors d’oeuvres already? Thought you said you were full.

Really, nobody wants to tell you this truth, because there’s no market in it. It’s like advising an aspiring marathoner to lace up her Nikes and go out for a run. Who wants to do that? Shouldn’t you sit on the couch reading Runner’s World instead? As an aside, can I just ask who publishes a magazine about running for 48 years? Running? What on earth can you possibly say about it? But apparently I’m wrong. So maybe there is a market in people studying Kanji. Kanji Studier’s World.

The Final Word on Kanji

I don’t want to say that studying Japanese without kanji is unintelligent, so let’s just say it’s, um, not smart. There, that’s better. The kanji are the language, linking everything in an interconnected web. And until you can see that web, it’s just thousands of words floating in space. Or maybe an analogy? Learning Japanese without kanji is like trying to become a chef without understanding the ingredients. Whoa, you mean pork, bacon, and ham all come from the same animal? How was I supposed to know? They all sound so different. Sure, but if each word included a little picture of Wilbur the pig, you’d know. And kanji is that Wilbur the pig. You just haven’t learned to recognize him yet. So there’s your final word, Charlotte.



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147 Comments

  1. Hi Ken,

    I just discovered your blog and yes, I too am learning Japanese. I hope to be the 0.1% that succeed in becoming fluent in it. Great articles in this blog and great tips to learning. Keep up the great work!

    • Wow, that’s pretty much the perfect comment. Thanks for that.

      Certainly, you can succeed in learning Japanese. It’s all about establishing a steady pace and just sticking to it every day. People don’t abandon the goal because they lack ability; they do so because they start off thinking it’ll be fast and easy, and when it turns out to be a longer road than they thought, they lose interest.

      If you’re the kind of person who can practice a musical instrument, or exercise every day, then you can learn Japanese. Of that I’m sure.

  2. This post explains why I never learned Japanese, actually never really attempted it seriously because I was never willing to go WHOLE HOG on it… LOL!

  3. Word. I agree wholeheartedly. I personally don’t understand why people even try learning Japanese without Kanji. I doubt you would find many Chinese learners using pinyin. It looks like hiragana, katakana and the “official status” of the Latin alphabet as romaji is giving us the perfect excuse to be lazy.

    After a lot of hit and miss, I coverged to pretty much the same method that you described (bearing in mind I’m still only at Kanji n. 600 – albeit properly, with onyomi, kunyomi and vocab stemming from it), with the only difference that I didn’t use Heisig. I think if you start from the easy kanji you gradually learn how to see the patterns, and I had a semester of grammar before starting kanji, so I could do some basic textbook exercises from the get go to reinforce the use of words in context knowing what all those pesky particles mean.

    Anyway, thank you for the great post as usual and especially for the links! Those folk tales and easy news are going to keep me busy!! By the way, it looks like the path to follow to the intermediate level (~N2) is pretty easy to follow. But what do you do after reaching the 1000 kanji mark? I haven’t heard of popular books (like the basic and intermediate kanji series) to cover the remaining 50% (!!!) of the little monsters.

    • Well, this is probably overkill, but the Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary will certainly provide you with enough kanji to keep you busy for a while.

      As for learning kanji properly (i.e. anti-Heisig), I’ve often wondered which is better in the long run. Or the short run. What’s most surprising to me is that, with all the universities out there teaching Japanese, I’ve never seen a single study on this. Japanese professors, hello?

  4. Oh man that dude at your cocktail party sounds like a guy in my class. Yesterday he said in the first 5 minutes of class: “wait so we don’t use ichi-mai, ni-mai, san-mai for counting books only pages? we gotta use -satsu for whole books? C’mon sensei, this is gonna take forever” I was thinking wheres your positive attitude man? Leave your downers at the door!

    Great post mate! Really inspiring and trail blazing!!

    M

    • The whole counter thing cracks me up. How many are there? Probably not more than a dozen common ones, and it’s not like you’re going to confuse counting chopsticks with counting puppies anyway. If you can’t memorize 12 things, Japanese gonna be berry, berry hard for you.

      • Totally right! And when in doubt theres always hitotsu, futatsu … no one is going to be offended – even the 80 year old guy in the washi paper shop

        • Yeah, the crazy thing is we make errors right and left. That’s life as a non-native speaker. So why focus on the counters? Get those correct, and you’ll still screw something else up. I don’t mean this in a negative way, but rather just that it takes years of making every kind of mistake before you can even come close to getting it perfect.

          I meet Japanese people who tell me, “Wow, your Japanese is perfect!” and I’m like, “juuust wait.” Because if I keep talking, then eventually I’ll mispronounce something or misuse an article, or just make up some crazy word that nobody’s ever heard of. Drinking a lot of shochu doesn’t seem to help, strangely enough.

          So if the old guy in the washi shop is offended, that’s okay. I guarantee I can be far more offended by something he’s saying.

  5. I recognize you are being a bit tongue in cheek here. But I’ve had reasonable success memorizing kanji in order of frequency of use. That’s the way many of the textbooks are organized. So a Japanese menu is still incomprehensible unless there is lots of katakana. On the other hand, yes, I can read some versions of Momotaro, although there remains a high chance of still reaching for a dictionary…

    I also started down the ugly path of – speaking it will be just fine followed by OK, romaji is an official part of the language, followed by maybe I should learn hiragana and katakana, which inevitably lead to me learning about 10 new kanji and 20 words (onyomi and kunyomi) a week.

    BTW for Google Chrome users there is version of Rikaichan ported to it. It’s not quite as versatile as the Firefox version, but I prefer the Chrome Browser. Although in a pinch will use Firefox just for Rikaichan. Japanese learners owe a huge debt to Jim Breen who created the public domain Japanese to English (and other language) database that is used in many, many Japanese dictionaries.

    • It’s good to see Rikaichan finally making its way to Chrome. And I agree about Jim Breen—he’s the unsung hero of Japanese learning.

      As for being “tongue in cheek,” although I’m trying humor-up a bone dry topic, I’m also serious about these 10 steps. I really do believe they represent a solid and viable way to learn Japanese. Certainly not the only way, but you could do a sight worse.

  6. Thank you for your write up!

    After devouring your blog a few months back, and lurking for new posts since, I’ve been waiting for this write up as your attitude towards learning (and the snake oil sellers) is very agreeable.

    As a self-learner who isn’t sure they are going to stick it out for the long haul, I’m keen to find everything I can before taking that leap and spending money to help study.
    So far its been:
    * 7 months on Hiragana with Audio (https://ankiweb.net/shared/info/3000799930)
    * 6 months on the Katanaka with Audio (https://ankiweb.net/shared/info/1386189716)
    * 5 months on the Core 2000 Step 1 (https://ankiweb.net/shared/info/4271439873)
    * 1 month on the Core 2000 Step 2 (https://ankiweb.net/shared/info/3168472038)

    I’ve skipped Heisig Remember the Kanji (RTK) and my grammar is obtained from the context of the cards (its mostly non-existant so far).
    I think Genki will be next for grammar.

    I’ve found the core decks to be excellent.
    When you first start, just focus on recognising the single words that are presented in the sentence, and also speak the sentence out loud.
    Once the sentence starts getting up to the 10+ day review time frame I found that you should be able to read or recall the vague meaning of the sentence, so if you keep resetting that card back to relearn via “Again” the memory muscles keep building up until you will learn extra words that have not yet been introduced.

    I started at 5 cards a day, with the previous card reviews banking up you end up having a lot of cards to go through.
    I like your previous advice just to click “Good” on cards even if you dont know them yet just to keep going.
    That was good advice. Eventually you’ll get a feel for when you can push that card back to the start of the learning process to make sure you know it properly.

    After a while I found the review process easier and could ramp up the card counts.
    Now that I am on the second deck I’m doing 100 new cards a day and finding the recall rate still high.
    Review times are between 30 and 60 minutes.

    It’s great that those decks are built really well.
    They start with the individual words and then introduce them into sentences, and they re-use words across sentences so that you get more exposure to different contexts.

    And I think having a goal in mind will help keep you motivated.
    I’m still in the honey moon phase, so I’ll see if I’m still at it in a few years time.
    For me its reading some of the light novels that are available, I’ve purchase my first three – now its time to build an Anki deck to help me start reading them…

    Doing the morning reps help wake up the brain.
    And that’s useful been useful on the commute to work.

    p.s. I love your Anki review deck snapshot

    • You’ve definitely got the right approach. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up fluent in Japanese, and then what’ll you do?

      By “spending money to help study,” I hope you mean coming to Japan, because you can’t do a whole lot better than you’ve been doing on your own, for free.

      • Where’s our friend to Bud Martin to chime in here about your book!

        You’ll need to add in the “Official Ken Seeroi Izakaya Experience”, I’ll spend money on that.

        Being middle aged with kids does dampen that thought somewhat…

        • Ken,

          See what you’ve done, I’ve turned into a professional NAG…. OH well BANG BANG: write that book, clean that rice cooker and learn another 1000 Kanji you lazy bum… just because YOU CAN!!

          Ya know, ever since I went to my cousin’s slaughter house in Illinois, I have never been able to look a whole hog in the face…, powerful stuff that whole hog! FYI, I prefer the Wooly hogs of Hungary myself (Mangalitsa or Mangalica breed), but they cost a lot more than regular pork products. There were so few of them left after WWI that they almost went extinct. Class is dismissed.

          Chorus: Write Ken Write Ken Write on Hooooooo!

          • Yeah, I’m gonna have to do something about balancing my workload. Basically, it’s women, beer, Japanese, blog, book, shower, laundry. Something’s gotta go.

            See ya later, laundry. Shower, you’re next.

  7. Ken, you really are a brilliant writer! Okay, you’re just brilliant in general. 😀 The single best piece of advice I ever read about learning Japanese came from you – and that is to start studying the Kanji NOW. I learned the Kana years ago, but aside from a handful of Kanji (like the numbers, days of the week, months), I thought it would be too difficult to study without having a better foundation in the language first. Then I found your blog earlier this year and that totally changed my course of study. Suddenly, learning Kanji right away made total sense. So that’s what I did. I started learning Kanji every day along with the rest of my studies, and I made sure to use a variety of resources (another thing I learned from you. Gosh darn Ken, why are you so smart??). Right now, I am up to just over 700 Kanji. I actually don’t like RTK. I read a portion of the book and using mnemonics just doesn’t work for me. I’m actually “lucky” in that I have a very good memory (too good sometimes), especially if I write things out. I use P.G. O’Neill’s “Essential Kanji” and write out each Kanji while reciting the on- and kun-yomi.

    Some other things I’m using are:
    – Anki, using several pre-constructed decks. I particularly like the Minna no Nihongo decks.
    – Several books (Japanese the Manga Way, Japanese Step by Step, All About Particles, etc.).
    – Matcha Easy Web – this is an awesome website. I’m at the point where I can read about 80% of the articles, using Rikaichan to look up unfamiliar words
    – Japanese Pod 101 – not particularly good, in my opinion, but every resource always has something useful, so I listen to these just for the Japanese dialogue portions.
    – various learning websites and YouTube videos
    – sumo and NIJI
    – JLPT practice resources

    Looking back to when I started, I really never thought that I’d make it as far as I have. I always thought that I started too late to ever achieve anything beyond a step above tourist-y Japanese. But every day, I do my studies and little by little, it all adds up. Now, I’d say that I’m in the upper beginner/lower intermediate category. So here’s a BIG Thanks, Ken. 🙂 Maybe I would have figured this stuff out on my own (or maybe not), but it certainly would have taken me a lot longer and I wouldn’t be where I am now.

    • Seriously, thanks. For years, I also avoided Remembering the Kanji. It’s really an awful book. I even went to a writer’s workshop just to meet James Heisig and personally tell him what a piece of shit it is. (I pussed out at the last minute. He’s actually a pretty nice guy.)

      But then a friend of mine turned me on to the method I’m describing, which is: forget how horrible the book is, and the mnemonics, and the parts that make no sense. Just keep moving forward. If you learn 100 kanji and forget 50, you aren’t failing—you just learned 50 kanji. That changed my approach from “get it right or do it again” to Sherman through Georgia.

      Now, whether that has anything to do with the book, I don’t know. To his credit, Heisig did simplify things a lot, which speeds you up. (Although it’s a rare writer who gets credit for copying a dictionary and then erasing most of of it.)

      I’m sure another method would work just as well, so long as it took you through all of the commonly-used kanji fairly quickly. It really is like the ABC’s. Kids learn those long before they learn the words that can be made with the letters. It’s just unfortunate that Japanese has a really long list of ABC’s. Maybe Japanese just needs a better alphabet song.

      So honestly, you’ve taken the right approach. The deeper you get into the language, the more connections you’ll see between the kanji. That’s what’s going to give you the foundational vocabulary, so you don’t have to spend the rest of your life in the “genki desuka” phase.

  8. 日本 and 本日 is kind of weird, isn’t it?

    Kind of like how 外人 means ‘foreigner’ and 人外 means ‘evildoer’.

    …Although, that one might make perfect sense from a Japanese perspective.

    • Heh. From the perspective of a lot of Japanese folks, I’m not sure 外人 (foreigner) and 人外 (evildoer) are all that different . . .

  9. Great post Ken.

    I had read somewhere (was it here?) that the problem with English people learning Japanese and Japanese people learning English is that they focus on the wrong aspect of the language.

    In English, the spoken language is fine, but the way words are written makes little sense. For this reason, many native English speakers will instinctively approach other languages — such as Japanese — with a major emphasis on the spoken aspect.

    Apparently the reverse is true for Japanese people, but I can’t say if that’s true or not.

    Anyway, as someone who has completed Remembering The Kanji, I completely agree that the book gives you “magic glasses”. Can I read? No. Can I write? No. Do I even understand thoroughly understand the meaning of the characters? Well, not really, but at least they don’t look like scribbles anymore.

    • Yeah, I wrote something like that. Thanks for quoting me, to me. I like that.

      Okay, the bit about “understanding the meaning of the characters”–that’s what kept me from going through RTK for so long. It’s clear from a mile away that the “keywords” in Heisig’s book aren’t the meanings of the characters (and certainly many kanji couldn’t be tied one meaning). I thought that was the point of the book: learn the meanings, and you’ll understand Japanese. I’m pretty sure Heisig himself had that in mind when he first wrote it.

      And because the book clearly isn’t doing that, I tossed it out. It wasn’t until years later that I understood how the book could be useful.

      Going through the RTK, all you’re doing is creating a temporary place-holder in your brain for each kanji. You see a kanji like 太, and you give it a temporary spot, by linking it to something, anything. Doesn’t matter what that is. Just say 太 = pizza pie. Fine. Once you’ve got that, long enough to use recognize it, then later when you see that kanji, you can be like, Oh, there’s pizza pie. And once you recognize it, then you can tie it to all the words in which it appears: fat 太る, sun 太陽, drum 太鼓, etc. Eventually those will be what you remember, and you can forget about your silly “pizza pie” keyword.

  10. Looks like we took pretty much the same road. I used pretty much all of what you’ve suggested here. Good old days. 🙂

    I absolutely agree! I can see why so many people don’t want to sit down and study kanji. I’ve been there, too.
    But TRUST all the people who’ve been down the road and take their advice and freaking study your kanji! A whole new world will open up!

    When I moved to Japan the first thing I did was study kanji using Heisig and it was the best thing to do. I already could speak basic Japanese, but I wanted to understand the world around me … all the signs.
    Thus far I always studied kanji the “standard” way and forgot them immediately. And it was also no fun.
    With Heisig it was so much fun and I also learned how to write them.

    I second what Ken suggets here because it also has worked for me back then.
    I don’t know if there are any newer methods out there nowadays, but these are great!
    If you don’t live in Japan, I also recommend outputting in some way, e.g. by using Lang-8. 🙂

    Thanks for this post, Ken.
    Oh, and the koohii forum, so nostalgic. ^^;

    • Good to hear from you again, Jasmine. How’s the traveling going? I agree that the “traditional” method of studying kanji—learning the readings, and the words that they are used in—didn’t work well for me.

      When you think about it, that’s not how we study the ABCs either. We don’t explore all the ways you can pronounce “A,” and the styles in which it can be written (upper and lower case, in a variety of scripts), followed by a list of words that feature the letter A. We do all of that, but it comes later. First, we just learn the ABC song.

      • Taking a break from travelling at the moment. I have to take care of all the work that I’ve neglected recently, thus the lack of blog posts etc. ^^;
        But thanks for asking.

        Yes, although you can’t really compare learning the alphabet to learning kanji. 😉

        • I kinda think I just did. Sorry, yeah, I get what you’re saying. I mean 26 letters versus 3000, who wins? Who loses? You decide.

  11. Haven’t commented in a while, mostly because I have been too busy studying and banging Japanese women.

    When I first found this blog Ken told me to climb up into a pine tree and give up on learning Japanese. Or something like that. It was a year and a half ago.

    I’m glad to see his advice hasn’t changed too much, except now there seems to be a more coherent path toward fluency than climbing mountains.

    A year and a half ago, I didn’t speak any Japanese. Now half my girlfriends don’t speak any English and for a lot of the day … neither do I.

    I basically followed the same path Ken did, which is basically most of the best tools and advice you’ll find around the language learning community distilled into a few handy steps. And although it looks easy in step-by-step form, let me throw some numbers at you to really highlight the step about discipline:

    Straight from my Anki, whole collection, deck life:

    Days studied: 90% (531 out of 590)
    Total study time: 1490 hours
    Study time per day: 2.8 hours
    Total reviews: 330,600 (or, as I like to think of it, ONE THIRD OF A MILLION)
    Average reviews per day: 622
    Total cards in Anki: 24,000 and counting
    Total words: ~8000

    At work? I study. Hung over? I study. Caught the flu? I study. Girl begging me to come to bed? Just 20 more reviews, baby.

    Learning kanji was the single best step I made. Kanji give you a framework of connections and memory hooks which make learning most new words as easy as forming a new memory connection between shit already know. If I told you that there are actually blue elephants in Zambia, you’d remember it pretty easily — you already know what blue, elephant, and Zambia are. Kanji let you do that with most of the Japanese language.

    Compared to most people I learned Japanese pretty fast. But then again, most people don’t study 3 hours a day every day for 1.5 years. I also speak and listen to Japanese for 5 hours a day everyday at work, and drunkenly tell everybody I see about my 半立ち on the weekends.

    So what level am I at, after ~1500 hours of dedicated study and ~3500 hours of dedicated listening/speaking practice every day at work? Based on the practice tests for the JLPT, level 2 is not so bad and level 1 is a bit hard. In terms of real speaking and listening ability, I’d say I’m on par with a 6 year old with a speaking disability. Or maybe a really smart 4 year old. Which is pretty awesome. So like Ken says, reality check.

  12. What has helped me the most is iknow.jp , which has those 6,000 most common words — in sample sentences – read to you, so I got the listening and exposure to natural use/Japanese sentences really quickly. It was a long year or so of devotion but I know it is the same thing I would do if I ended up learning Mandarin.

  13. I Ken Seeroight through this article.

    Im not sorry.

    • That rates somewhere between Ugh and Wish I’d thought of it. Not bad, actually, but remind me not to use it in a moment of drunken weakness.

  14. Hi Ken,

    I’m trying to add another way to study kanji – I’m working on a music rhythm game that uses the lyrics of songs in Japanese to study the Kanji. I’m calling it “Beat the Kanji”. I just launched it on Kickstarter. I’m hoping it can be a motivational way for people to keep at it.

    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1783078906/beat-the-kanji

    • You’ve clearly put a lot of thought and effort into that, so I hope you get it produced and marketed. Music and game-play are exciting areas for education, and I’ll be interested to see how effective your approach is.

      • Thanks! I feel the more ways there are to stick with it and keep exposing oneself to kanji the better. I’ve found that the temporal nature of listening and speaking forces one to take in a continuous stream of exposure to the language, but for reading it’s easy to get caught up in the kanji you don’t know and only slowly challenge oneself. With the music plus visual lyrics you get the same sort of continous stream of exposure. Beginners can focus on picking up new kanji bit by bit whereas more advanced players can work on comprehension of the whole song’s lyrics, picking up any kanji they don’t already know. If the music is good and the game is fun it should motivate learners to keep coming back regularly. Basically I’m creating something I wish I had when I started out.

  15. Hmm, I seem to be in minority here, but I totally hate those Heisig books. Like you said, it’s the most half-assed book in the world, probably. And besides, I don’t see how this book can help except when you already are more or less familiar with hundreds of kanji or so. But then, old good Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary is sooo much better. , those kind of books can be used only as reference, in my opinion. Or for something I call “boosting” – it’s like when I am kinda stuck and don’t know a way to improve my japanese, I just look up some random kanji or try reading all the names that appear in the movie credits. But if you a new person to Japanese – Heisig will definitely work as a quagmire. Of endless, similar and utmostly abstract petroglyphs which are detached from the real usage contexts as far as possible. Well, that’s just my opinion anyway. After all, I did manage to learn those couple of thousands without that book 😉 After all, if someone needs that kanji reference book so much, there are excellent kanji dictionaries for elementary schoolers (can’t remember any name, but I see them constantly in the book stores here). They are much more vivid, has pictures, visual mnemonics, some simple explanations etc. Oops, you will have to know how to read japanese of course, but it’s definitely simpler that Winnie the Pooh or Momotaro.

    • I actually agree with you, for the most part. The only thing Heisig really did right was not include too much. No readings, no stroke order, no five-different-meanings-for-the-same-kanji. If the book were a box of Cracker Jacks, there’d be no popcorn and no prize. Just a bunch of nasty peanuts.

      But here’s the key: you don’t actually learn any kanji with RTK.

      Once I understood that, everything got better. All you’re doing is creating place-holders in your brain. You can simply recognize the characters. That way, when you do finally learn a Japanese word, you can tie it to the characters that you’ve seen before. That’s all the book does. But it’s enough, if you keep going afterwards and start learning vocabulary.

      • Yeah, I kinda understand this “creating placeholders” thing you are talking about, but I have a question – why can’t you create those kanji placeholders by looking at actual words? Like, written in kanji ) Leaving out some rare cases when popular words use some rather unpopular kanji (in this case you can just ignore them), it seems a better approach to me than rummaging through those damn Heisig books (or any other similar books). So it pretty much as two birds with one stone – you remembering how those kanji look and get used to them, and you create additional links in your brain – with actual words – and some of them might even remain there for a long time. Anyway, this worked almost perfect for me.

        • Well, I don’t want to defend RTK too much, since I’m positive you could come up with a better way—and maybe what you’re describing is that.

          I tried to do the same thing originally. I think a lot of people go that route. I took a kanji like 貨 and studied it in common words like department store 百貨店, cargo 貨物, coin 硬貨. That was good, because it gave me a fairly complete understanding of what 貨 meant, along with the readings.

          But later, when I saw rent 賃貸, the two kanji got jumbled together, and then I’d get 賃金 and 金貨 confused.

          So I didn’t need to understand the meaning of 貨 so much as I needed a way to distinguish 賃 from 貨. And from 貧, 貰, 賀, 貿, and 債.

          Again, RTK isn’t trying to teach you the meanings of the kanji. It’s just exposing you to the various shapes, that’s all, just like you’d notice that a G differs from a C. Later, yes, you have to go through and learn words in which those letters (or kanji) are used. But initially, all you’re trying to do is just learn the alphabet.

          It’s hard to learn the word for Cat when you’re still confusing it with Gat.

          • Maybe this is why I don’t like RTK – to me, Kanji doesn’t look like a bunch of squiggles or arcane symbols. If I learn how to write the kanji and practice it for a couple of days, with a bit of spaced repetition after that, I’ll remember it. Then when I come across it in a new word, already knowing the kanji in the word helps me to remember the word. Even with similar looking kanji like 未 and 末, I can see them as distinct characters and don’t get the mixed up.

            What about having a grasp of the radicals? When I learn new kanji with a lot of strokes, I’ll break the kanji into “parts”. These parts may or may not correspond to the radicals, but for more complicated kanji, that me helps a lot when learning them. When I’m committing them to memory, I’ll be like, oh this one is written with X, Y, Z, parts. After some time, I see the kanji as a “whole” rather than just a collection of “parts”.

            • I think you just described RTK. It teaches you to break kanji into several component parts so you can understand them. Then once you know them, you naturally come to see the kanji as a whole, just like sight-reading in English.

              I personally don’t like RTK either, but it doesn’t matter, because the process yields results. The book could be vastly improved, but I’ll leave that for somebody else to do. The fact that it’s on its sixth edition maybe tells you something.

              So I think you and I are talking about a using a similar methodology. You certainly don’t need the book itself to use such a method. From what I can tell, a lot of people who “do RTK” don’t actually use the book, but rather just an Anki deck of the same kanji.

          • Oh yeah? I only read a bit of the book on a preview in Amazon. From the examples I read, I thought it was more about telling yourself a “story” about the kanji to help you remember what the kanji is about. I seem to remember some silly one about imagining two oysters engaged in combat or something like that. Telling myself some convoluted story about the kanji didn’t seem like a very efficient way to learn. Plus, one of the big turnoffs for me was the lack of any readings. That’s like learning to recognizing the ABCs but not knowing how to pronounce them. Why not just learn both at the same time? In O’Neill’s book for example, for each kanji, he provides short explanations of the character etymology, including identifying the radicals, gives a few readings, and provides a couple of words in which the kanji are used.

            • Agreed. The “stories” are what kept me from even approaching the book for years. They’re mnemonics, a way to remember which parts constitute a given kanji, and pretty much everyone agrees they’re awful. It would be a great improvement to simply remove them from the book. Anyway, Heisig himself stops making mnemonics after about kanji 300, if I recall correctly, which is just as well.

              As for the readings, examples, and any additional information, I think it’s debatable whether or not to include or omit them. The thinking with RTK is that, by omitting them, you can focus only on remembering the components of the kanji, and how to write them, which should allow you to go through the kanji faster. You learn the readings later, as you go through Core, and see the words in actual usage. I’d like to see some research conducted at the university level as to which is more effective. At any rate, if Heisig had included them, then he’d be back to just having created a half-ass copy of the dictionary, and wouldn’t be able to sell any books.

          • In my experience, knowing the readings helps me to remember and recall the Kanji. Sometimes if I’m having a block and can’t recall the Kanji after seeing the English, if I can remember the pronunciation, then the Kanji will come to memory too, almost like sounding out a word you can’t remember how to spell. In my mind, I’ve linked the kanji with the pronunciation. This is especially true where the kanji contains a radical and also has the same on-yomi as the radical.

          • The research for this was done in Greece and Rome a couple of thousand years ago. Heisig is teaching us to build (a variation on the theme of) a memory palace ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Method_of_loci ): learn new things by linking them to things you already know very well. That’s why you start by joining the kanji shapes to words in your native language: you want your memory palace to be stable and tidy before you start putting more things in it. If you try to kill two birds with one stone (learn readings or Japanese words with the kanji), then you end up with a half-built palace cluttered with dead birds.

            As for whether it *actually* works this way, ask me about three years from now…

  16. Oh, and by the way, I have a personal advice for kanji learners. Well, for intermediate level kanji learners, maybe, but anyway, there are learning slumps awaiting you during the learning on any level, I can tell from my own experience. Learn chinese. No, I’m not kidding. When you have gained more or less stable ground in japanese (say, JLPT N3-N2?), but you have some problems with understanding and remembering kanji on, say, deeper level – learn chinese. That’s what I did (and still doing). Suddenly, so many japanese worlds and kanji quirks will become logical. I bet you know that silly way some japanese can retort when you say “yeah I know kanji”. So they say, “oh, can you write バラ?”. Very stupid, since ability of writing that world doesn’t advance you japanese knowlede at all, so I always said “no, and you most probably cannot too”. But when I started learning chinese and got this epiphany about kanji I metioned earlier, I found that 薔薇 is pronounced as cheung mei (I’m learning cantonese, actually). And actually there is a very common chinese word 墙 (cheung) which means “wall”, and 微 (mei) which means “tiny”, then throw in some grass top radicals, and the word 薔薇 stuck in my head this way. Sure, this rosy example is a bit artificial, but I managed to remember how to write 醤 in 醤油 the same way, for example.

  17. Hi, I read your blog from time to time since my wife is Japanese and it feels mandatory to be able to boast to people we meet about how I’m more connected to Japan than them and I have to back it up. Anyway, I won’t ramble about how you are right and you have absolute power and shit, I’m just gonna leave a quick comment about two points :
    3. Use Anki. I don’t say it’s bad or that I have a better one, but I do have another one. Only works for iphone or ipad, sorry to give info about locked systems, and it’s called… wait for it… “Kanji Flip”. What I like about it is that the repetition algorithm seems relevant to how learning works (or maybe that only works with my specific brain), and also it’s a smartphone stuff so I can use it when I take a shit (and if you’re a westerner in Japan you probably take pretty long shits, at least at the start). Maybe Anki can do it also, I’m not trying to sell it, it just helps me a lot so I thought I’d share.
    7. Start reading. Of course, how else is it gonna work. Like you said books are frustrating for beginners, and reading websites allows you to see the translation in almost real time. Personally I found great pleasure and made great progress in reading with an electronic reader, which looks more like a book (although not as much as what manufacturers are saying) and are pretty sweet. You can select words and look them up in the dictionary, and in at least some of them you can install japanese-english dictionaries. The sony versions don’t seem to handle it, which is sad because on the other hand they seem to have the best screen. The amazon kindles can use a dictionary you’ll have to purchase on the amazon store, though I haven’t tried it myself. And you can install some custom dictionaries to kobo systems, although it’s not an officially supported feature, without much hassle, and there’s a dictionary based on jmdict (the basis for imiwa?). It’s working great on a kobo touch I purchased about a year ago at big camera, here are infos about the dictionary: http://www.mobileread.com/forums/showthread.php?t=197828

    That’s all, not sure anybody’ll be interested in that but if somebody got any help from that I’m glad. I’ll also take this chance to thank you for this blog which I obviously find interesting since I’m reading it.

    • Thanks for the comment. You mentioned e-readers, and I think there’s a huge potential there. I wish lookups were as easy as Rikaichan, but they’re still miles better than paper. I’ll probably pick one up this year.

      I also agree that a smartphone is the way to go for SRS reviews, regardless of which software you use. I’ve used Anki Mobile for years, and it was the best 25 bucks I’ve ever spent. You can probably learn 20 words a day just by taking your phone to the bathroom. Depending upon certain factors, of course.

  18. I have to thank Linda for providing that link.

    As I’ve just started using it, and the long wait before more stuff unlocks is painful, it’s hard to tell.
    But I like the fact I have to key things in so that I can’t lie to myself that I know the answers.
    I suspect I’m willing to pay the $8 a month to keep going on it.

    It appears to be suffering from a lack of love though, its been beta for 2+ years.
    It still looks slick and functional so not enitrely sure why they haven’t gone live.

    • Ha, here’s a recent tweet:
      we’re in closed beta now! open beta’s next, but then again, maybe we’ll stay beta4lifeyo

    • That’s a good point about how it doesn’t let you fool yourself about whether you know something. You don’t even get partial credit if you use the right vowel but forget if it’s long or short (which makes me want to weep and rend my garments).

  19. Heh. Welcome to Japan.

  20. I learned Japanese more that 20 years ago when it was fashionable, and I am still conversationally fluent, but I am really annoyed with myself that I’ve forgotten how to read and write. I end up messaging people in romaji. I’ve been avoiding installing a romaji-to-kana input extension to try and push myself into installing a kana/kanji input system.

  21. Yokoso! Now go away.

  22. Hi Ken, I have been following your blog for a few months and I find it very interesting (and quite funny)

    I decided to post here to ask you for advice, I currently live in Shanghai and I have been learning japanese from chinese for quite a while with bad results and very slow progress. The thing is that I already knew chinese, so because I could read chinese I though japanese would be a walk in the park, I was so wrong… since the kanjis have several readings for each character, while in chinese you only have one per kanji, it is very messy.

    My question is, if you were given the meaning of the kanjis from the beginning but not how they sound, how would have you manage to use that ‘advantage’ for learning japanese?

    • I’d guess you’re somewhere between steps 5, 6, and 7. That is, your biggest challenge would be that you don’t actually know a lot of Japanese vocabulary, although you can “read” many of the characters.

      It’s certainly an advantage to have a thorough familiarity with kanji, but you’ll still need to spend a lot of time listening and reading. Even the kana (hiragana and katakana) take quite a while before you can read them smoothly, and then you’re still going to subject yourself to a healthy dose of grammar before you can make sense of things.

      If I were in your shoes, I’d start steadily working through the core 10,000, read something like NHK News Easy, and get a ton of listening practice, preferably through videos with subtitles.

    • I actually did the opposite of you: Learned Japanese first and then Chinese. After Japanese, Chinese was a breeze for me and for the reasons you said exactly—one pronunciation per kanji, plus grammar that is far more simplified than Japanese. Japanese is by far the more difficult language.

      The best advice for Japanese I can think of is trying not to learn the ‘kun’ (Chinese) readings character by character. Rather, try to memorize how they are used in frequently used character combos. 旅行、銀行、行進、etc

      Good luck! Ken’s advice is spot on for learning kanji—if I could do it all again I’d definitely give his method a try.

      • Thank you both for you advice and encouragement, right now I am looking into add the 10000 core together with the method I am following in Chinese and a grammar book I am using (Oxford japanese grammar, sometimes the way the explain grammar seems unecessarily confusing and misleading; if you have a title you may consider better please let me know). Let see how results come in the future.

  23. Back in the dark ages when I was in university (2004-2008), we had none of these high-tech app doodads (definitely no Anki) and we learned Japanese the old school way: write, write, write and repeat. It’s hard for me to remember any other method.

    One of my ex-boyfriends (a Korean) passed Kanji Kentei Level 1. Instead of be impressed I was more freaked out–that’s a little *too* far.

    Anyway I asked him how he did it and he said that he carried a notebook around with all the kanji he didn’t know and reviewed them every chance he got. Bathroom break, on the train, before bed, etc.. And every time he saw a kanji that stumped him, he added it right back to the book. Basically, it was the analog version of Anki. I love Anki dearly, I wish we had smart phones back when I was in college (man, that makes me sound old).

    I’m not a huge Heisig fan, because I think once you learn the old school way for so long it’s hard to jump into his methods. Plus, I remember in 2nd year Japanese we had this crazy otaku that stood up and proclaimed to the teacher, “with Heisig’s book, I know ALL kanji. I can read over 8000 kanji now, sensei, and I’m the shit.” Basically after that I wanted nothing to do with him or the book. Bad PR.

    Whether it’s Heisig or the old school way, one thing is for certain: Kanji takes FOREVER to learn. There’s no way around it. Anyone that says they memorized 2000 kanji in a month is a liar. It’s just not possible. It takes hard work and diligence to learn Kanji.

    I recommend not trying to remember how to write the kanji after you get to a certain point. Of course, the simple ones like 人 or 時 should be memorized, but beyond that knowing how to write them is irrelevant (who write with a pen and paper nowadays?). Just learning to read (and type) is enough.

    Also, I recommend reading Murakami Haruki books in Japanese. While it may sound like a feat, his books are mostly just modern day conversations and musings. I read through his latest book in Japanese “the colorful Tatsuki Tsukuru” and it’s way easier than a newspaper. Might be better entertainment or a level up after mastering the children’s books.

  24. Hi, I’ve recently found your blog, and I must I say I find it very informative and often times quite funny. You’ve inspired me to take on this language, so thanks for all your help.

    I do have a question if you don’t mind. I haven’t even begun yet, so should I be studying the kanji now, or should I look through Rosetta Stone first or some other program. I have a large amount of cash saved up, so money is not a problem. Thanks for your help.

    • Good choice to start I think is experienced private tutor or class at local adult education center/community college. You can get their recommended text, probably Japanese for Busy People or something. Start with phrases in romaji and practice writing words in katakana and hiragana. 頑張ってね!-> Gambatte=[you can] do it 🙂
      Personally I didnt think Rosetta stone great value, but that could be because I get motivated more by human interaction. Another resource I like is http://l2mastery.com/ which itself refers to many other resources.

      • I agree with Yuki. If you’re starting from scratch, you really need a trial period before you dive in and start conquering everything in the language—of which there’s a lot (kanji included).

        Taking a class is a good choice, and you might also want to read through this short primer, which will get you up and running. And yeah, ganbatte.

        • Okay, thanks. Do you have an idea of where to find a class? I live in the country, and the only college within 60 miles is the local community college, and I really doubt they have a Japanese language class.

          • Well, maybe the good thing about living in the countryside is that you’ve got lots of time for studying? Just trying to think positive. But I’m sure chopping wood and battling wolverines are pretty time consuming too.

            Online Japanese classes are certainly an option. There’s no end of people who want to sell you services on the internet, so you might want to proceed with a bit of caution. Research twice and buy once.

            One site that looks pretty good, and free, is Erin’s Challenge. You might take a look a that.

            Also, are there any Japanese people in your area? You might be able to work out something with a private tutor. I’ve done that a couple of times, with good results.

  25. Thank you SOOOO much, I have been stuck in a roadblock for about 2 months. This had a lot of helpful resources to speed up my learning. I plan on attempting fluency within 3 to 4 years. Or enough comprehension to study abroad.

    • No worries, I’ve been in a rut for about a decade. I wonder how you’d graph that? Like if you plotted my progress, it would just be one long droopy line. But you know, we just keep moving forward. Some day, I’ll finally master this language, English.

  26. Great advice – but flashcard practice with Anki can be pretty dull, which is why I made the games/apps at http://www.kanjigames.com, which get you processing and analyzing the kanji in a more active way. Enjoy!

  27. Remember, all the Japanese people have to go through the process of learning kanji in school, and it’s not easy for us (well, at least for me) either. I really sucked at kanji, and I’m glad that, being an adult, I don’t have to learn kanji any more!
    But the good news is you don’t need to be able to write kanji. Just reading–well not even reading, just being able to guess what it means — is usually enough. At least that’s how I survive 🙂

  28. > Like you write 日本 and it means “Japan,” but if you reverse it—本日—and it means “today.”

    that’s a funny coincidence, mate. but why don’t you think that any other language doesn’t have a joke like this?

    “NO” means 拒否, いいえ, etc in Japanese.
    “ON” means 作動して, 進行中で, etc.
    “AND” means ~と, そして, また, etc.
    “DNA” means デオキシリボ核酸.

    Kanji is not a kind of alphabets?
    I don’t think so. Kanji is an alphabet – which never ends.

    • It’s not the reversing that’s of interest, but rather that a given kanji can mean one thing in one word, yet something else entirely in another word.

      At first glance, it looks like you could learn kanji by assigning a meaning to each character, but it’s not that simple. Kanji have meanings, but they aren’t reliable. So if you want to call it a never-ending alphabet where each character has a variety of meanings, then I’d agree with that. Not sure that’s exactly a selling point though.

  29. This post has inspired me to go back to learning kanji seriously.

    About a year ago when I started, I read all the popular sites and methods, namely AJATT and Koohii, and I was sure that I was on my way to learning Japanese in no time, at least in the mythical 18 months.
    I changed all media to Japanese, and fell asleep to Japanese podcasts.

    Unfortunately, somewhere along the way I lost momentum, and I have had the worst time trying to get back. Like, I read a lot of books, and all of them are in English. So, I definitely must master kanji.

    Haha. The point of my post is to ask you to share you deck, or recommend one, that has the Kanji in the front card, and the keyword and other notes on the back. I can’t seem to find any deck with the Kanji first, and I can’t figure out how to modify a deck to let me see Japanese first.

    That was the trigger for me, in this post. I understood that the recall was going the wrong way. All decks have the English keyword first, and you must try to perfectly recall the kanji from that. However, like input theory, my goal is to understand the Japanese, to translate FROM Japanese, not the reverse.

    So, I really hope that I either figure this out, or that you can direct me to a good deck.

    Thanks. I have discovered an excellent blog.

    • I’m probably not the best person to ask on this, but you might take a look at this deck: https://ankiweb.net/shared/info/4271439873

      Personally, I went through this one: https://ankiweb.net/shared/info/3629073626

      But it’s large and of a fairly high level, so I’m wary of recommending it.

      As for getting the cards to look the way you want, that’s one of the pain-in-the-butt things about Anki. Sometimes it feels like you’re reprogramming the software. But you’re right, you definitely want to work Japanese–>English.

      Also, I get the sense that this whole approach might not be a good fit for you. Anki’s about the most boring thing in the world. You read about people who succeed with it, and with self-study in general, but that’s a self-selected group. It doesn’t include the legions of people who dropped out. I’d encourage you to take a class or at least work with a tutor. When it comes to communication, meeting actual human beings can occasionally be a good thing.

  30. Qeqqeroni qizza! Man your funny! Great read. I was debating ether Chinese or Japanese. I’ll go with Japanese first because you made it interesting!
    Thanks!

    • Well I’m glad to hear that. Good call, betting on Japan instead of China for the future. 20th century, here we come.

      • Man, haven’t you heard? Japan is -back-! All those Sino students will be sorry when we’re frolicking in the warm glow of Abe’s soon to come success.

        • Yep, the future is indeed rosy for Japan. We’ll all be livin’ in style. I think everyone’s in agreement about that.

  31. …hello,
    what s your opinion about to have a base before to start with Kanji?
    Would not be better? I mean, all the basics: Hiragana, Katakana, basic grammar (how to build a sentence, particles, etc), a few hundreds words, understand the pronunciation, basic useful phrases with: Nanni, Dare, Doko, Dono, Nan de, etc; know to count, the days, months, etc.
    If you start with zero knowledge you do not know how to do with a Kanji…

    -Also, is it good to learn Kanji following Kyouiku Kanji? like the children and so on?

    Thanks

    • Those are good questions. I laid out a simple curriculum in Why no one Helps you Learn Japanese. So yes, I think you should have a bit of a base before diving into kanji. Probably about 3-6 months of learning hiragana/katakana, some fundamental grammar, and enough phrases to order a hamburger, fries, and a beer and still find the train station again. Even then, I’d encourage you to use kanji with furigana over it, since Japanese written in all hiragana is nuttily hard to read.

      But after a few months, you just gotta learn the alphabet, same as any person learning English. The language makes way more sense once you know your ABCs.

      As for the order in which you should learn kanji, I would recommend against using the method that schoolchildren use. That starts with the simplest kanji and builds up to gradually more and more complex characters. Virtually all schools use that method, but it’s a recipe for burnout. (Schoolkids don’t have the option of getting burned out, because they’re essentially little prisoners. p.s. You probably shouldn’t tell them this.)

      I mean, the schoolkid-way makes sense on the surface, right? Start with the simplest, and work your way up. But practically, what happens is that everybody learns about 300 kanji, and then they hit this massive wall when they start to see more complicated characters, and characters that have vague meanings. Suddenly everything gets confusing. And at that point they give up. Methods like Heisig tend to group kanji based upon their shapes, showing how one kanji is built from the parts of others. That ends up introducing very complicated kanji early on. So with the Heisig method, you can give up sooner, which is good because you really didn’t want to learn this crazy language anyway. Of course, if you’re foolish enough to push on to the end, you’ll eventually know the alphabet, at which point you can actually start learning the language. Good luck, seriously.

  32. Thanks for the info and inspiration. And your last response answered the one confusion I had– should I know hiragana and katakana, before jumping on the kanji bandwagon? So, If I understand correctly, I should spend 3+ months digging into hiragana & katakana before I pick up RTK. So desu ka? Again, thanks for the post!

    • So desu yo.

      Yeah, if you said you wanted to train for a marathon, but you’d never run before, I wouldn’t start you doing 10 miles a day. Walking to Starbucks instead of driving might be a good step.

      So it’s the same thing with Japanese. Get some gradual exposure to it, learn a bit of how the language works, before you dive full in and try to memorize a couple thousand crazy stick figures. Just don’t put it off forever, because you’re surely going to need it. A lot of folks approach kanji as though it were optional, or actually some hindrance that keeps them from learning Japanese, only to wonder years later why they’re stuck at the level of a retarded five year-old.

      Okay, so the really important thing—regardless of whatever else you do—is to establish a habit where you study a little bit every day. 15 minutes in the morning when you first wake up. 10 minutes on your daily commute. 10 minutes after school or work. That stuff pays off massively over time. You’ve just got to make it part of your life. Probably help if you didn’t have much of a life right now. That’s a great starting point for learning Japanese.

      • arigato m(_ _)m

        I have a couple resources for the hiragana and katakana and will begin today. will start out walking, as you suggest… 10-15 minutes here and there, and try to add more time throughout the weeks and months. will plan to pick up RTK in time for Golden Week. 😉

        • That’s great. And even when you do get serious with RTK, don’t go all ape wild on it. Just continue with 10-15 minutes here and there. Don’t pressure yourself into thinking you need to spend hours every day. That’s a recipe for burnout. You’ll get the payoff simply by keeping going.

  33. So I read your blog to practice my English reading and, by the way, get some tips for my Japanese learning. I’ve been studying kanji for like 3 months now and I’m taking it easy, just 62 kanji so far. Man, I’ve learning the damn kanji the hard way. I mean I try to remember the on-yomi and kun-yomi and the meaning and everything else and I write them all every day and then review them all over again! Dammit!!

    • Well, there’s no easy way to study kanji, only some ways that are harder than others. So try different things and see what suits you best.

      You might re-think reviews, however. I actually stopped doing them entirely about a year ago. I learn a new work, review it 3 times the day I’m studying it, once again the next day, then bye-bye. If I don’t remember it in 3 months, well, too bad. But that’s allowed me to encounter far more new material. So there’s a trade-off.

      Over the years, I’ve started to question whether spaced-repetition is really that effective for learning Japanese. It’s pretty good for a closed number of items, say 2000 kanji. But if you add multiple readings, then you’ll naturally fail more cards, which will pile up your reviews. And for learning vocabulary, where the number of words is in the tens of thousands, I’m not sure it’s good at all. Anyway, I could write a whole post on this, but the long and short is, you might want to make sure that doing reviews isn’t consuming the time you’d otherwise spend learning new material. Good luck, seriously.

  34. Seeroi先生、 (See what I did there?)

    I’ve been reading your blog for a long time now and seeing how I’m slowly running out of new posts, it’s time to finally make an apperance in the comments section 🙂 First things first: the best blog about Japan ever, and I’ve seen quite a few. I’ll leave a more detailed comment when I finish reading everything so far, now I’d like to focus on Japanese.

    Your method is very similar to Japanese Level Up (JALUP), which I’ve been following for more than a year now. I’m currently somewhere between point 7 and 8 now and, to my own surprise, still having fun learning the language. Admittedly, I’m a bit more motivated given that I’m going on a 2-year research stay in Fukuoka starting this April 🙂 And I learned the hard way on a tourist visit there that speaking English is not so much an option in Kyushu.

    I followed the Heisig method far more thoroughly than what you recommend. The book as such is crap, of course, but the order of learning kanji is good and I like how they were divided into lessons with motivating commentaries. As for the stories and mnemonics, there is a great community at kanji.koohii.com that follows the same order and comes up with excellent stories. The most pervert-…um, the most memorable ones as voted by the users are displayed on top, you can pick one up or write your own. That really speeds things up and makes the process far more enjoyable. The only side effect is that I still grin uncontrollably seeing kanji with particularly…memorable stories.

    As for learning kanji->keyword, this does seem like a faster method, but for me keyword->kanji meant that, firstly, I learned the right stroke order for every kanji really well and can now guess how to write most that I encounter for the first time. Secondly, I’ve always found writing things down an essential part of learning anything. Not sure if there is a biological mechanism for that or it’s just reinforced in schools so much it becomes necessary. So I have many, many, many pages covered in hand-written kanji, which I find very aesthetically pleasing by the way – and this again helps me stay motivated. And the kanji translations are not actually that bad. Synergy bonus: not having to think about the right stroke order makes writing really fast. Oh, and whenever someone sees you reviewing and writing those signs like crazy, they take you for a genius. Or a weirdo. Showering helps.

    Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks for the comment. I really believe that handwriting is overlooked as a method for learning Japanese. I used to try to avoid it, but now I write everything in Japanese. What you’re doing is excellent.

  35. Hey Ken, in two earlier posts (http://japaneseruleof7.com/the-best-way-to-learn-japanese/ and http://japaneseruleof7.com/why-you-must-learn-kanji/) you wrote that you like Kanji ABC better than Remembering the Kanji. But now you write that one should read Remembering the Kanji and don’t talk about Kanji ABC anymore. Did you change your mind or does it just not matter or what is the reason?

    • That’s a good question, and thanks for actually reading the stuff that I write.

      Probably the best answer is that it really doesn’t matter. You’ve got 2200 kanji or so facing you, so anything that gets you moving through them doing 20 a day is good. What book you use isn’t that important, so long as it groups the kanji into some sort of logical order, and the meanings are fairly accurate. (I say “fairly accurate” because kanji tend to have a range of meanings, rather than a simple 木 = Tree relationship.)

      That being said, I still prefer Kanji ABC, because it’s a little more straightforward and dispenses with the sort of goofiness that pervades Heisig’s book.

      So why did I recommend Remembering the Kanji? Simply because it has a much larger following, and the mnemonics on the site http://forum.koohii.com/index.php are useful.

      But at the end of the day, it still comes down to you just sitting there with a pen, paper, and some book, plugging away at those kanji. So get going, and keep going, is what I’d say.

      • Alright. Thanks a lot for clarifying this!

      • I’ll second this. I bought both Kanji ABC and RTK. But there are lots of online resources that back up RTK, not so much with Kanji ABC. I started RTK in earnest two months ago and am now up to about #1400 or so. I drill with Nihongo Shark’s RTK Anki deck and there are similar decks in Memrise that I also use. I don’t claim that I remember everything perfectly but having both Anki and Memrise to reinforce RTK helps a lot. In fact I consider these two support tools essential.

  36. Hey, Ken!
    I discovered your blog today and read like 5 articles in a row (with almost all commentaries included). I like the way you write and portrait the difficulties of learning Japanese and living in Japan. Thank you for your great work, man!
    I started learning this language back in 1997 and added myself to the ranks of the 99% who leave in 2001. I then came back to it in 2009 and am still striving to reach a decent level… I failed the N2 exam from December for literaly ONLY 1 POINT. *sigh* I guess I will at least get a good mark in June. It is indeed a damn hard language to learn.
    I just want to make a brief comment on kanji matters… I do agree that they’re a MUST for any foreigner who want to achieve any serious profficency in the language. No question about that. Having said that, I dissagree with the notion present in many of your posts about kanjis being a part of the language. Kanjis are not a part of the language, they’re a writing system. Harsh as hell, sure. But it’s just a writing system, completely independent from the spoken language… You’re completely right about the relationship between words like 空手 karate, 空sora, 空港kuukou, of course. The example (in another article) about 車輪sharin and 輪wa is also a very good one. But in both cases, an illiterate native speaker would have no difficulties using them correctly. For this same reason, an illiterate foreigner could (at least theoretically) learn to speak Japanese fluently without knowing any kanji at all. That’s because, as I said above, spoken languages and writing systems are two different things. Related, yes. But different AND independent.
    The explanation to the waaaay many readings they’re out there lies in the gradual and differentiated waves of cultural imports from Korea and China, and how this new technique was “adapted” to the indigenous language… there you have the explanation for other of your examples: 犬 read as inu AND ken.
    Greetings from Osaka. (If you happen to be here, let’s have a beer; I love that stuff too).
    Manuel

    • I see the kanji as integral to the language, much more so than the alphabet is to English. But I appreciate your well thought-out comment, even if I don’t agree.

      Be that as it may, could someone learn to speak Japanese without using the kanji? Absolutely. But that’s taking the hard way, not the easy way. Trust me, I tried, thinking that avoiding the writing system was a shortcut. That’s why I’m so insistent now that it’s a dumb thing to do. I spent years not understanding the most basic things, like that 食事 shokuji and 食べる taberu are related. It’s insane to handicap yourself in that way.

      There’s a reason that Japan has a 99% literacy rate, and it’s sure not the educational system.

  37. Hey, don’t knock the laminated flashcards! I’m using public transport to get to work, and I use that time to log some study time. I love them. They’re independent of battery power, and I can stack the current deck exactly the way I need.
    (But I get your meaning – make a choice and move forward, stop procrastinating by shopping for “useful” things.)

    I’m taking classes with a friend at the community college, and there’s always a couple of kanji that we have to learn, as in really learn – meaning and reading and all. So I just mix those that I need for class with the new/next ones in the set. (I’m using the White Rabbit Press sets, since they are designed to prepare for the JLPT.) Ever since I bought those I never touched an app or software. Stacking the deck(s) also helps me with the discipline and pacing. I have the must-learn deck and a smaller extra deck for when I need to look at something new and different. My daily schedule varies a lot, and the cards, more than any electronic device or book that I have to lump around, help me with a flexible but constant routine of study and revision.

    But it’s good to see someone addressing the common misconception about a quick & easy way. My friend is also very impatient and easily disappointed. It took me 15 years to get to C1/C2 in English, and that was without learning the alphabet. I know I’m in for a long run with Japanese.

    • Yeah no, I used paper flashcards for years and I still like them. I see no need to unnecessarily involve technology. Although now that I’ve switched, I must say it’s nice be be able to search for phrases electronically (which is pretty hard with 10,000 little pieces of paper). Also, having flashcards on my phone makes it pretty convenient, since I have to carry that anyway.

      But I think I get your point. I always tell people to start with physical flashcards. Going electronic adds some complexity, which distracts you from the actual learning. Nothing wrong with paper.

  38. Will kanji ever disappear? when i first started learning japanese i couldn’t wait for it to happen. But having stuck through it to the end the thought somehow makes me sad.

  39. The link to Core 10,000 is broken. It looks like the package has been removed.

  40. Yesss, this post. Preach on, Seeroi-sense. Preach on.

    Srsly tho, characters are murder at first but if you power through for about a year, they eventually stop being hard. I remember way back in the day when I first started learning Chinese (and nigh-concurrently Japanese) that I was super proud of myself when I could recognize 女, and 食べる was like the hardest thing I could imagine.

    And then I moved to Taiwan and had to learn traditional Chinese. Now I’m focusing my energies on Japanese again and it’s a walk in the park in comparison.

    As an aside, 本日 being “today” and 日本 being “Japan” make perfect sense to me at this point. I’m going to take that as a sign that all my years of effort and study have truly paid off, and not that I have been in Asia for far, far too long.

  41. Heisig’s approach (break the kanji into units, give each a name, and make up a mnemonic) is useful but (a) he doesn’t give a clear index of the mnemonics, and (b) kanji are introduced sequentially structure by structure, so some very frequent kanji first appear deep into the book (eg the kanji for ‘come’ at number 2029 – if you can remember all the kanji up to that one). Clearly, Heisig expects you to learn 2000+ kanji or die trying, but I wonder how many people have got even close.

    The Kanji ABC book adopts a similar approach and seems to be better laid out, but is unfortunately out of print.

    • Hi Ken,

      Some comments from 2014 seem to have ended up posted around here in 2015.

      I’ve actually become something of a late convert to Heisig – reading here has convinced me to go back and have another look at his book. Yeah, I hate his stories and the way he turns a perfectly good element into an Americo-fascist mnemonic – eg “nine” becomes “baseball” (how many players on a cricket team, Professor Heisig?).

      But he does do some things right. (1) He’s always there, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background, but always urging you on; (2) he breaks down the element shapes of kanji in a way no-one else comes near to; (3) he has achieved the very difficult task of sequentially arranging kanji to be learnt in a way which is different to and faster than the Japanese school order; (4) although the book uses Mincho font for kanji entries (see below), script font is used to explain the elements.

      Considering fonts, for learners, Mincho (used by most texts) is not very helpful. It is a stylized version of script, but learners need to learn the script version before the stylized version. Stylized font often masks the brushstrokes kanji are based upon.

  42. Just want to thank you for your blog. I am from the US and live in Mexico, and the ability to speak Japanese here is in great demand because of the many Japanese businesses and automotive plants that have moved here in recent years. People who can speak Spanish and Japanese at the N1 and N2 level can earn a ridiculous amount of money. Like, in my state of Guanajuato, about $3,000 USD a month. For comparison, most people with college degrees here earn about $1,200-$1,700 USD a month. And the minimum wage is about $90/month. So it has been really tempting to begin learning Japanese. Everyone on Youtube says I can learn it in 12-18 months. But I stumbled upon your blog, and after reading many of your articles and then going back to those same videos, I started to realize things in those videos that I had not seen prior to reading your articles. Japanese is still very tempting to learn because of the salaries Japanese companies are paying. But, because of your videos, I understand that the only reason I want to learn Japanese is because of the present job opportunities, and that I have no independent internal motiviation that will keep me studying for years. So it seems probable that I will fizzle out after a year or two. On behalf of all the people who read your articles and who do not write you (like me for the past couple of weeks), I just want to thank you for stopping me from making a significant mistake. Thanks.

    • Hey, thanks for writing in.

      As a get-rich-quick scheme, learning Japanese probably leaves a bit to be desired.

      Unfortunately, a lot of folks online are lying, either to themselves or others. In fact, you’d have to wonder why anyone would turn to some random dude on YouTube to learn anything significant. Card tricks, how to pick locks, sure, but something as extensive and well-established as foreign language—why believe someone in a t-shirt talking at a video camera in his kitchen over thousands of language schools, professional teachers, and universities? Seriously, you’re constructing a rocket, not folding a really nice paper airplane. Let’s see, so first step for my backyard space shuttle is…well, maybe I’ll just check and see what YouTube says.

      Anyway, I can’t tell you if Japanese is the way forward for you or not. It certainly bears thinking about the cost-benefit as well as the opportunity cost. (Unfortunately, those are the only two Economics principles I ever learned, since I spent all my time studying Japanese.) Is it fun? Sure, kind of, if you’re into active pursuits like stamp-collecting and watch repair. Is it practical? Yeah, I don’t know, there may be quicker ways to realize your dreams. Have you thought about raising cacti and starting your own tequila brand? ‘Cause I’m pretty sure that’d be easier.

  43. Hi Mr. Seeroi, longtime fan and reader, first time comment-er.

    I’d like to raise the question about how you managed to have “negative 5 people” taking your advice to learn kanji. I’ve given it some thought – and even though that statement was meant to be witty and sarcastic, I couldn’t help but wanting to make sense of it – to somehow rationalize it.

    So let’s say a guy tried to convince 1,000 people to learn kanji. In real world, the worst possible outcome is that he didn’t manage to convince any of those 1,000 people. So that means his score is 0 out of 1,000. Now the question is, if he managed to get a score of -5 out of 1,000, what does that mean, exactly?

    Logically speaking, if a mathematical equation results in a negative number, that COULD be interpreted (among other ways) as you not having enough amount to complete the equation. So e.g. 10 – 15 = -5, which means you need 5 more to break even, i.e. it’s a deficiency of 5.

    In everyday usage, a negative number is also used to e.g. indicate that you’ve overdrawn your bank account (i.e. you owe the bank money), or that you made a loss instead of profit on your business.

    So back to the question: what does “convincing -5 people” mean? Here’s my guess:

    By saying that you have a negative 5 rejections, you somehow “created” the opportunity of having 5 more people OUTSIDE your sample audience of 1,000 people for rejecting your advice to learn kanji. I.e., 5 more people came to you out of nowhere and rejected the idea of learning kanji EVEN THOUGH you never asked them to, i.e. you’ve somehow made 5 more people outside the 1,000 to DEVELOP a disinterest in learning kanji as a direct result of the 1,000 rejections that already happened.

    Am I right? I do hope you care to enlighten me. Thank you very much!

    • Taken literally, your guess would be correct. Of course, I think it’s obvious to more than everybody that I was was simply being hyperbolic. I know that’s unusual, but try to keep your knickers on.

  44. Mohammad Sharififard

    Hi Ken , Loved This Article , Just Wanted To Say For Those Guys Who Use Google Chrome Like Me , There’s an Extension Called “rikaikun” which does the exact same thing “rikaichan” does for firefox.

  45. Wonderful article. I agree and yet, I could never do as good a job selling learing the kanj to peoplei as you did. And even though you are propertly and completely skeptical about James Heisig saying how easy Japanese is to learn, you don’t hold that against him and recommend James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji anyway. It’s definitely a standard, my flash-card software has downloads that are “The Heisig Kanji” for a reason. Maybe that’s a good way to answer people who wonder why you are skeptical about learning japanese as fast as he says you can/should. “Why wouldn’t you be able to learn just as fast as the guy who created an international standard for Kanji-learning?”

    • I really hesitate to recommend Remembering the Kanji. It’s just that it’s popular and some folks have made some progress with it. Guess that’s not much of a pitch, actually.

      And to be completely clear, I really doubt James Heisig “learned” Japanese, at least to any appreciable level. He just created a compelling story and marketed it. Even if you could memorize how to write, read, or make sense of all of the joyo kanji, you’d still be miles away from understanding written, much less spoken, Japanese. Although, for sure, it’s a good start.

  46. I decided that I was going to start taking the 漢検 tests with my 7 year old son…I was gonna stick to the DS game, but I’m going to take some of your pointers here to make sure I avoid the crippling embarrassment of losing to a 7 year old…even one that came from my b@lls…

    • Beating a young person is easy. Beating a motivated young person, forget it.

      So your strategy should be to de-motivate your 7 year-old as much as possible.

      • I’ve tried that, telling him that maybe it’s not right for him and waste of his time…he just comes back p!ssed off and more motivated, mumbling 「負けられない。。。」 under his breath. I guess I need to get him to play more video games; too bad I’m using his DS studying for the 漢検…

  47. Oh sweet jeebus, your response time is impressive. Anyway, just wanted to say that I’m making my way through your blog and I’ve told my son to just take a video of me nodding my head in agreement at pretty much everything (I want to make a bobblehead of myself so it’ll serve as a good model).

    I’m back in California, but reading your blog brought back many “pleasant memories.” I remember one time I cussed someone out who played the whole switch to English thing…and I just went off about how I spent years learning her godforsaken language and that it was the height of insults to just take a dump on all that and just assuming that I could speak that godforsaken language spoken in the US. She started to tear up and ran into the back…I felt a little bad, but just because it’s 10:35 AM I SHOULD STILL BE ABLE TO GET A SAUSAGE EGG MCMUFFIN!!!

    Anyway, you probably mentioned it in an earlier post that I’m too drunk to read now…why Japanese Rule of 7?

    • Hopefully McDonald’s all-day breakfast will prevent any further cross-cultural disasters.

      Because there’s only two things Ken Seeroi can’t understand: why it seems like a good idea to treat people differently depending on their skin color, and why you’d want to deny anyone his or her rightful hash browns.

      Yeah, the world’s just full of mystery.

      • Oh I got it…you didn’t have to be all mysterious and Zen Master about it.

        Japanese Rule 1: Ken-sei is a jerk.
        Japanese Rule 2-7: See Rule 1

        Seems about right…anyway keep the posts coming!

  48. Learning Kanji isn’t a great achievement for Japanese language. It’s not going to magically make you literate and fluent (although it will certainly help). If kanji was considered advanced Japanese, the JLPT’s N5-N2 would be strictly or mostly kana. Kanji just has a very difficult learning curve for those with no background learning the script.

    I’m not a big fan of the Remembering the Kanji system, but it has helped a lot of people cross the hurdle of reading and writing kanji… which allows them to discover that there are many more hurdles to cross in order to achieve functional use and understanding of the language. I wouldn’t recommend Remembering the Kanji wholeheartedly, but I wouldn’t turn anyone away from trying it.

    • Can you read and write Kanji?

    • “I wouldn’t recommend Remembering the Kanji wholeheartedly, but I wouldn’t turn anyone away from trying it.”

      But what would you recommend instead? Because that seems to be the big empty space…

      • There’s a certain “Bean-curd-blowfish” (ahem) guy who has an online site with levels and staged repetitions that I have not tried.

        In terms of old-fashioned paper books, two sets that I have found useful are “Kanji Look and Learn” (Text and Workbook – sold separately) (Japan Times) and “250 Essential Japanese Characters” Volumes 1 and 2 (Tuttle). Each of these sets covers a total of around 500 basic characters, but they don’t completely overlap.They both use the elements-pictures-story mnemonic method.

        That’s enough to provide a good basis for N3 reading level, and the learner can take control from there.

  49. Hi Ken! I stumbled onto your blog a couple of weeks back and ended up reading through every one of your posts in my down time. I’ve found them all quite eye-opening and entertaining.

    I actually finally got around to visiting Japan somewhat recently (a year ago at this point, but that’s pretty recent) and figured that it’d be a good chance to put my Japanese to the test to see how far I could get. It was only then that I realized just how little Japanese I knew and was useful in not looking like an idiot. I studied it for a little informally through Pimsleurs and about a year of classroom studies in college. This got me far enough to be able to decipher Japanese and recite common phrases useful for basic survival.

    The blessing (or curse) that I have is that, while I grew up in the US, I’m of Taiwanese descent, which means I can read basic traditional chinese characters, which is a big help in recognizing and deciphering kanji for Japanese. This helps greatly for when I need to parse a Japanese sentence or road sign with Kanji and being able to be somewhat accurate in understanding what it means. But the flip side is that I can never read it out loud. This means I can’t really take what I’ve read and recycle it into something useful for conversations. The other problem with this is that, when I am in Japan, I don’t get to play the gaijin card, and I can feel the disappointment whenever I reply back with kindergarten level Japanese. (I also got to disappoint tourists that come up to ask for directions to some place in Japanese and I had to respond with English and the fact that I had no idea.) I thought it’d be useful to try to talk in Japanese with Japanese friends, but then none of them are particularly eager to correct me if I say something incorrectly (which is something you touched on in a different post).

    So that was kind of depressing, but after reading this blog, I have a sudden desire to try again. No idea if this is going to go anywhere, but at least if I try, it might go somewhere someday if I get serious enough about it. With that said, I’m trying to figure out where to pick back up. I think a big hole in my knowledge is just vocabulary and common phrase components. I know a few and what they mean, but it never sounds right (e.g. 〜することができる I think is supposed to mean “can do” but I find myself using that way more than what sounds correct, or 〜しなければならない is supposed to be “must do” or “have to do” but what a mouthful). I suspect the problem might be I keep trying to directly translate something I would say in English into Japanese, and I suspect there are better ways of saying the same thing. I also suspect the amount of grammar I know is insufficient to form more complicated thoughts, which is a bit frustrating.

    So I guess my question is whether you have any suggestions on good resources for commonly used vocabulary and phrases or grammar references. I know a lot of speaking it is down to practice, but I think I’m still at a point where my lack of knowledge of the basics is holding me back from learning naturally from conversation (that and Japanese people talk REALLY fast).

    • Welcome back to the fold. We’ve missed you. Now, get to work.

      I don’t really have any specific resources, but what strikes me is that you really need someone to practice with. Learning thousands of words and phrases is great, but they’ll evaporate pretty speedily unless you find someone to converse with (or possibly if you read a lot, I don’t know). Ideally, you could make some Japanese buddies, or if worst comes to worst, get a Japanese girlfriend. It’s a lot to pay to learn a language, but hey, sometimes life demands sacrifice.

      • Makes sense. I talk with Japanese friends over the net, but typing Japanese is easy compared to speaking Japanese, mostly because of time. I have as much time as I need to decipher what they’re talking about and I have as much time as I need to form a response. In the heat of spoken conversation, all of that goes out the window, and I now have at most a couple of seconds to parse the question and form a response before I start getting broken English, and no amount of えと… or あの… stops that.

        But I think you’re right in saying that I need somebody to actually talk to regularly, preferably in a way that I can’t retreat to English if things go south.

  50. Hello Ken –

    Following up on our FB exchange, I wanted to reach out to say ‘hello’ as a fellow Japan enthusiast. I really enjoy your blog – having lived in the US for about 20 years now (I’m originally from England, and lived in Japan for a few years), I especially appreciated the most recent one about the US. (‘Appreciated’ in the sense of finding it to be scarily true.)

    I also agree very much with the points you’re making in this post about learning kanji. I think kanji are essential to learning Japanese vocabulary, as well as to living functionally in Japan. I also personally found learning kanji to be a tremendously rewarding experience. Reading novels in Japanese still gives me a tremendous kick, even though I’m pretty I’ll never get to the point where I truly ‘know’ all the kanji and vocab. (But have I really got to that point in English, anyway?)

    I wanted to let you know about a kanji learning system I have created called Kanshudo. Kanshudo’s approach is based on mnemonics (about 3500 of them), but with the twist that all mnemonics are expressed directly in terms of a kanji’s components. So learning any individual kanji helps reinforce all kanji contained in it as components. I evolved this method myself over about 20 years, having originally started with Heisig, and found that mnemonics were by far the best way for me to remember kanji, but that Heisig’s mnemonics didn’t work so well for me, as they didn’t consistently refer to a kanji’s components the same way, or by referencing the real meaning. You can see this concept in action here: https://www.kanshudo.com/search?q=茶

    Kanshudo is also a complete kanji learning system, with many features designed to help you learn kanji quickly and effectively. Here’s a quick overview of some of the key features:

    * A tool we call the Kanji Wheel for visualizing your progress learning all 2136 Joyo kanji (and beyond), and providing study recommendations based on your level: https://www.kanshudo.com/kanjimastery
    * An integrated rewards scheme we call study points which enables users to earn increased access to the system: https://www.kanshudo.com/studypoints
    * An integrated spaced repetition flashcard system, with ability to import flashcards from various Japanese dictionary programs, as well as to create cards automatically based on a student’s level: https://www.kanshudo.com/srs
    * Six fun and entertaining learning games, which can be customized for different levels of student – for example Kanji Match (https://www.kanshudo.com/kanjimatch_first) and Word Match (https://www.kanshudo.com/wordmatch_first)
    * A course of 20 lessons for absolute beginners (covering the first 100 kanji, plus 50 grammar points, and about 200 words): https://www.kanshudo.com/beginnerlessons
    * A course of 55 intermediate lessons covering 1000 kanji: https://www.kanshudo.com/mylessons
    * A feature called the Textbook Companion which allows a student to use Kanshudo with an existing textbook. We support Adventures in Japanese, Genki, Minna no Nihongo, and Japanese for Busy People: https://www.kanshudo.com/tcompanion
    * A kanji Quiz, which provides an accurate assessment of a student’s kanji knowledge up to about 3500 kanji: https://www.kanshudo.com/quiz
    * A series of ‘how to’ guides, including one on Getting started learning Japanese (https://www.kanshudo.com/howto/getting_started_learning_japanese), and one on Mastering the kanji (https://www.kanshudo.com/how-to-master-the-kanji)
    * A comprehensive search system for about 13,500 kanji (of which about 3500 have mnemonics), 220,000 words, 150,000 example sentences, and about 600,000 names: https://www.kanshudo.com/search_advanced
    * Daily and weekly study emails to help students make steady progress: https://www.kanshudo.com/study_update

    Not sure if doing a review is really your thing, but if you are interested, I’d be delighted to set you up with free Pro access. (You can try most of the site for free, but a subscription is needed to get to get the full benefit of tracking your progress over time.) Either way, I would be really interested in your feedback.

    Cheers,
    Jonathan Kirk
    Founder, Kanshudo
    https://www.kanshudo.com

  51. Hey there, Ken. What do you think about the site “NihongoMaster” assuming you’ve heard of it? If not take a look, I think it’s not so bad for learning Japanese, though I’m not sure 😀

    • I’m tryin’ hard to be positive with this, but, ahh, I dunno…

      The name alone—Nihongo Master. It’s almost physically painful. Followed closely by the site design, and the unbridled optimism…but maybe I missed the page that says you’ll need to spend a few years studying your ass off.

      Eh, now I’m just feeling jaded. Probably should’ve passed on this one. Sorry.

      • im pretty sure the optimism side of things is just for advertisement, although if you ask around they do tell you that it’s gonna take you a long time to study and actually be able to understand any Japanese at all, they don’t offer anything like “BECOME FLUENT IN A DAY” kinda stuff that you see on other sites.

  52. Seeroi Sensei,

    Okay so yesterday I eagerly tore open my Amazon parcel containing Kanji ABC. I ordered this instead of Heisig’s book because I remembered from another of your posts that you said you preferred it.

    So I opened this eagerly awaited tome only to find a scant few pages in the beginning explaining how the book is organized, followed by grapheme and kanji charts and indexes. Nothing really explained to my satisfaction how to actually study these charts in order to learn or memorize them.

    If you bought this book as a rank beginner to learn kanji from scratch, how would you go about using and studying the material?

    • Wow, I could write a book about how to study kanji. But since I’ve gotta run to work this morning, let me just start you with one thing. Let me know if you need more.

      You’ll almost certainly need to make flash cards, either electronic or paper. Basically, your goal is to memorize 2000+ kanji and their meanings. So on one side of the flash card, you write (or type) the kanji, and on the flip side, the meanings. Don’t worry about the pronunciations for now. That’d be too much to memorize.

      Group the cards by “graphemes” and study them as a group. You should probably create mnemonics, and write each kanji a few times. Anything you forget goes into a pile to be re-studied. It’s a big job.

      It’s worth noting that your ultimate goal is not to just complete these 2000+. That’s just Step 1. You simply need to get through this book with a rough understanding of what most kanji mean. Then the real work begins, Step 2, which is memorizing vocabulary built from those kanji.

      To summarize:

      Step 1: Memorize 本 = Book, Origin. And 日 = Day, Sun. Do this for every kanji in the book.

      Step 2: (After Kanji ABC) Memorize that 日本 = Japan and 本日 = Today. Do this for every word in the language.

      Let me know if that helps.

      • Thanks Sensei. That does seem to point my disoriented head in the right direction.

        Yeah, I’m the proverbial stone cutter taking down Mt. Fuji one chip at a time. So basically I need to start by manually transferring everything in Kanji ABC to flashcards. (I wonder if there’s an app or download for that? I’ve heard there’s a Heisig Anki deck for RTK.)

        I’ve read elsewhere that it doesn’t work well to study RTK (or presumably Kanji ABC) at the same time as other J-language materials. I suppose that doing so would overload one’s ability to memorize. Rather, it’s recommended that one learn the Kanji (and Kana too, I suppose) on their own first, before complicating things by learning to speak or read the language. Do you agree with this position?

        I’m also new to the concept of mnemonics for flashcards. Do you have any suggestions for a time-efficient way to develop mnemonics that are also effective? Or a good set-up for an Anki deck? (I tried using Anki for Polish but found it hard to use. I ended up using Duolingo and Memrise instead. But I also found Polish to be often unpronounceable and the grammar too complex. So I’m shelving that project for a while. But if I can memorize 2000+ Kanji and 92 Kana, then learn a (grammatically simpler) language based on these characters, learning Polish later should be doable (except maybe for the pronunciation).

        There’s a website (Nihongo Shark) that recommends what it calls “The Ultimate Kanji Tool Trio” to get the most out of one’s Kanji studies. The author promises that the student will learn the 2136 general-use Kanji in 97 days if faithfully studied for an hour every day. (That’s just for the kanji, not learning the whole language.) The trio consists of RTK, Anki and Reviewing the Kanji (a web app for RTK). While I’m skeptical about the 97 days, the recommended learning trio seems like a good idea.

        So in attempting to organize a study plan, I’m thinking along these lines:

        Use the study trio mentioned above to learn the Kanji (and maybe Kana). Maybe I should switch to RTK to take advantage of the ready-made decks and apps?

        AFTER learning the Kanji, begin study of other materials such as Genki, Memrise, Rocket Japanese, Pimsleur, etc.

        Continue absorbing Japanese media throughout this process.

        Am I on the right track with this?

        • Hard to say, honestly.

          To give you a bit of perspective, when I was younger, I ran some full marathons. I was just naturally born kind of thin and athletic—I didn’t do anything to get that way. Like, thanks Mom and Dad. Plus, did I mention I was young? Okay, right. Anyway, if you asked about running a marathon, and were built like me and around that age, I could give you a reasonable training plan. And still, who knows if your knees and ankles could handle the regimen? Or mentally—not everybody’s cut out to run for an hour plus a day.

          But what if you were older, or heavier, or actually had something better to do than running all the time?

          So when it comes to learning Japanese—we can’t just look at you and say, Yep, you’re built like a language learner. Now, if you’d said, “I mastered Polish in three years,” that would indicate that you have both the aptitude and determination to learn a foreign language.

          And of course, it is generally helpful if you’re younger, with fewer time commitments, some money, and are driven by a really, really freaking good reason why you must devote several years to learning Japanese.

          Now, just addressing one point you brought up: So there’s some website that “promises” you’ll “learn” 22 kanji a day. How’s that work? So in five days, can you effectively memorize 110 new and unfamiliar things? I guess you could try. I’ve repeatedly attempted similar stuff, and can conclusively say there’s no way I can. But maybe you were born with a good visual memory. Then I would hate you. But good for you though.

          As for utilizing more than one learning approach at a time, I think it’s okay to do so, but only if you’ve got the stamina for it. If you’re gung-ho to spend a few hours a day on Japanese, then hell yeah, do a bunch of different stuff.

          A more realistic plan might be to spend a little time on listening and speaking, a little on reading, and a little on kanji. You won’t knock out all the kanji as quickly, but you’ll get a more well-rounded understanding of what you’re trying to do, and lessen the possibility of burning out.

          • Well as for whether I’m physically and mentally up to the task, let’s just say I’m something of an old fart (57), a bit overweight, and do not have a photographic memory. Memorizing anything, let alone Kanji, is work. I have no illusions that I can learn the kanji in 97 days. Heck, I’ll be thrilled if it only takes me a year. I just don’t want my brain to explode in the process.

            I will say that I think it will help to divide things up a bit as you have suggested. I can manage to focus on one thing for a little while, say, a half hour or so. Then if I take a short break I can focus again if it’s something different. I do have several free hours in the afternoons and evenings.

            So maybe what I’ll do is spend a couple of hours each day, broken up into half hour blocks, using different tools: A half hour on Kanji ABC or RTK. A half hour on Pimsleur. A half hour on Memrise. A half hour on Rocket Japanese. A half hour on Genki, etc. Okay that’s a bit more than two hours. Maybe I’ll use the breaks in between to watch Japanese TV or anime. I think it will be a while before I’ll be able to read anything much though.

            Anyway thanks for your pointers. And by the way, I really like your Wilbur Pig analogy. That right there gave me a better understanding of how Kanji works and why it’s necessary than just about anything else I ever read on the subject.

            • Thanks much.

              And just to touch on a couple of other things, since you seem determined to go through with this:

              I created my own mnemonics, because other peoples’ didn’t usually match the way I thought, and (most importantly) sometimes didn’t include the definition of the word. Take a kanji like 厚, which, according to Kanji ABC and Heisig, means “thick.” There are three elements: a child 子, the sun 日, and an angled part that resembles a cliff. So a mnemonic might be “a child lying in the sun gets crushed by a thick cliff.”

              But then I took it a step further. I looked up every kanji at Jisho.org to see how it was actually used. Yeah, that took a long time. But there, you’ll see that it is indeed found in words such as “thick make-up.” But what the eff? It’s also used in 厚生. The second kanji means “life.” So Thick + Life, equals what? It’s a common word, but in a million years, you’d never guess that Thick + Life = Welfare.

              In other words, knowing that 厚 = Thick and 生 = Life are actually of no use. So…I just changed the definition of the word. To me, 厚 now means both “thick” and “welfare.” And I changed the mnemonic accordingly: “a child lying in the sun gets crushed by a thick cliff and has to go on welfare.”

              Does 厚 “really” mean Welfare? Maybe not, but I don’t care, since having that definition helps me read the language.

              So in short, and this is kind of my point: realize going in that a single kanji doesn’t have a single meaning. If they did, you could memorize all the kanji and then be able to read Japanese. But it doesn’t work like that. I’d argue that it’s worth taking the time to look up each kanji, see how they’re used, and if necessary, change the definition. But again, that takes a long time. Good luck, man.

          • Thanks Sensei for the mnemonics tips.

            Yeah I figure learning the kanji through RTK is just a foundation only. Today I downloaded Nihongo Shark’s custom Anki deck, which is basically the whole RTK book, plus popular mnemonics, and each character has a link to the Reviewing the Kanji site too. For this reason I’m switching to RTK and ordered the book on Amazon as reference material to accompany the Anki deck. For now I’ll use the included mnemonics to save time initially. I figure I can always add my own mnemonics for those characters that I find difficult to remember.

            I also started using Pimsleur and the official Memrise Japanese 1 course. If I have time I may also add Japanese Pod 101, Genki and Rocket Japanese to my repertoire of learning tools. Earlier this week I started practicing handwriting Hiragana on practice matrix sheets.

            I’m actually surprised because my initial efforts have been easier than when I was learning Polish. But I also anticipate it getting a lot harder once the hole in my brain labeled “Nihongo” starts to fill up. Right now it’s pretty empty.

  53. Hi Ken,

    Just reminding myself of your wise words today, which seem even wiser now that I’m well into my kanji learning adventures. Actually, Christmas 2015, I guy I met in Beppu said to me, “Dude, you need to learn kanji – it unlocks the whole language”. So, that’s when I read your post and

    I started with Heisig’s book … three months later (about halfway through Heisig’s RTK-1 book) I started to learn shitloads of kanji and vocabulary words that use em … and of course, making all kinds of “oh … I see … doh, I’ve know that word for ages … of course that’s how it connects with the kanji … derr!!!). I also read Star Wars books in Japanese because – hey, I know the stories inside out and backwards, can guess shitloads of new words because Heisig’s method gives me a rough idea of what the character represents … the furigana often reveals a word I know already but didn’t know the kanji reading … and theres loads of loads of loan words in Star Wars … which act as little markers of the context.

    Now, about a year and a half into my quest; the funny thing is the amount of bad advice I receive on a regular basis. I think it’s because many of my friends speak Japanese seemingly well and must think, “Wow, you can read that notice outside the convenience store … god, your Japanese must be good!!!???” … but the moment I begin speaking, I’ll screw up the grammar or can’t recall a word (amusingly, when I’m reading, all those vocabulary words are sitting in my ROM and not in the RAM … passive vs active) – so my friends are probably more surprised that my spoken Japanese sucks than if I couldn’t read anything. So that’s when the advice starts being dished out … and I’m like … er … cheers, but I’m perfectly happy with what I’m doing.

    Sure, learning to become literate in Japanese is gonna take a few years … but it’s something I can do whilst living in Japan, teaching English and having occasional spoken practice … with Kanji, I can do it everyday … and even when I feel I’m not getting very far with my spoken Japanese, I’m reminded that actually I am getting quite far with my kanji and general reading skills. At the same time, I’m quite old (48) and saving up money to spend about six months to a year immersed in Japanese – that’s when I feel my spoken Japanese will really improve (rather than my couple of hours spoken Japanese practice I fit in these days).

    Then it occurred to me … hopefully I’ll reach retirement age … and isn’t it going to be great to travel around Japan being able to visit historic sights (I’m kind of into studying Japanese history) and be able to read the Japanese texts and then discuss the history with local experts!

    Doesn’t really matter how long this whole becoming literate this deal is … it’s good fun and when I get the opportunity to spend time talking in Japanese, I reckon my spoken Japanese will be more eloquent if I’m well read 🙂

  54. I love your site, and your suggestions on the why and how to learn Kanji have kept me motivated to do so. I decided to return to studying Japanese after over 20 years (life interrupted) since college level courses and quickly came came across Heisig’s name and RTK 1. Since then I decided to put everything else on hold and “learn” the Kanji first. My frustration with RTK1 then lead me to Google and your site. Which leads to a couple of questions:

    1. Am I correct in inferring from your suggestions and comments here that one should not bother with RTK 2, but instead go from RTK1 directly to learning core vocabulary?

    2. In regards to once one reaches the reading stage, are you familiar with The Japanese Graded Readers? Any thoughts? They are fairly pricey, but look like they may be helpful.

    https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/4872176243/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=httpwwwjapa0f-20&camp=1789&creative=9325&linkCode=as2&creativeASIN=4872176243&linkId=35080353ab19a7a056c09675d847a898

    • I’m glad you’ve found my suggestions useful. To answer your questions:

      1. Yes. It’s never seemed reasonable or practical to me to try to memorize the readings of a couple thousand kanji in isolation. In fact, it seems crazy. Vocabulary is ultimately where you need to go anyway, so the sooner you can start learning it, the better. Is what I think.

      2. I love the Graded Readers, and have read many of them. They’re a useful introduction to reading Japanese. Thanks for reminding folks about them.

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