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.
“Three words,” I reply. “Paint my house. 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.