Why You Must Learn Kanji

For a lot of people, kanji is about on par with natto.   A huge sticky mess, difficult to consume, and not nearly as tasty as it is troublesome.  Plus it makes your breath smell like the wrong end of a dog, which is rarely a good thing.  I mean natto, that is.  Kanji does nothing for your breath.  Anyway, me personally, I never wanted to spend years studying kanji; I just wanted to speak well enough to communicate (read “drink beer”) with people.  Funny how things work out.

Hiragana?  Fine.  Katakana?  Piece of cake.  There’s not that many of them, so whatever.  But kanji?  Yeah, let me get back to you on that.  I mean, who wants to take the long route to learning Japanese?  I was determined to find a shortcut.

If you, like me, love shortcuts and have the approximate attention span of a gerbil, then let’s jump right to the conclusion:

1.  Kanji is the shortcut to learning Japanese, even if you only care about speaking.

2. If you know the kanji, you can make sense of every word in the Japanese language.

3.  Every word.  Think about it.

How can kanji be the shortcut when it’s so impossible?  First of all, you’re trying to learn an entire freaking language here, and that’s a huge task.  People say learning Japanese is easy.  Yeah, like swimming the English Channel is easy.  It’s just swimming.  How hard could it be?

Microwave and Light Bulb, Not Friendly?

But anyway, okay, think about a Japanese person learning English.  They’re going to need everyday words like

microwave oven                              telephone                           light bulb

Sucks to be them, because those words bear no relationship to one another.  “Light bulb” looks and sounds nothing like “microwave oven.”  Learning English requires remembering a ton of unrelated stuff, using only letters and sounds.  It’s like a pure memory exercise.  You know how many words there are in a language?  Okay, well I don’t either, but I’m sure somebody on Wikipedia does.  For now, let’s just use the term “a shitload.”

If only there were an easier way.  Welcome to Japanese.  You learn a couple thousand kanji and Boom, you’re done.  Okay, not done, but you’ve got great leverage.  Check out the same three words in Japanese:

電子レンジ                     電話                                     電球

Everybody’s friendly.  It’s clear they all use 電, which means “electric.”  That’s because, unless you’re using two tin cans and a string, they’re all electrical appliances.  And there’s the shortcut.  With a six-degrees-of-separation-like magic, knowing one word immediately helps you understand and learn other words.  Learn five kanji and you can make sense of ten words.  Learn ten kanji and you can make sense of thirty words.  That’s leverage, and Japanese is cool like that.  Since all the appliances in Japan use electricity/電, you’ve just learned a big chunk of Japanese vocabulary.  You’re welcome.

We Need to Talk in the Den

Let me be honest with you.  If you’re trying to learn Japanese without learning kanji, you are making a huge mistake.

I’m telling you this as a friend.  That’s why we’re all gathered here in the family room, with your mom, the friends who care about you, and your Uncle Frank.  If you won’t listen to me, maybe you’ll listen to him.  Cause, you know, Uncle Frank had to go away for a couple of years.

Okay, right, I know.  It doesn’t seem efficient to memorize a couple thousand complicated kanji when you just want to have a conversation with the attractive person on the barstool next to you.  All you want to do is learn to speak.

Yeah, that’s not going to work.  Here’s why:

Daily-conversation Japanese doesn’t cut it.  You’ll be out of material in five minutes, at which point the other person will either excuse themselves to go the bathroom and climb out the window, or start speaking English.  You need vocabulary.  And to learn vocabulary, you’ve got to remember stuff, somehow.

Japanese Homos

But Japanese has a bunch of homonyms, which means that everything sounds like everything else.   You know how English has three words for one sound:  “to,” “too,” and “two”?  That’s nothing.  Japanese has like fifty words for the sounds “sho” and “shou.”  You can’t understand the language based upon the sounds.  You have to see it written.

Japanese people make the opposite mistake when learning English.  They focus on reading and writing when they should invest time in listening.  English is an impossible language to make sense of through the writing system, because it doesn’t have enough letters.  Or maybe it has too many, whatever.  I don’t know.  “Guess” and “Scene”?  Please.  You’ll never figure out how to say them by reading.  To make the sounds of the English language, the letters are forced into double-duty or mashed into peculiar combinations.  Then you’ve got phonics, where someone has essentially reinvented the alphabet so that it might make more sense.  And you’d still probably mispronounce “epitome.”

Japanese people learning English would be well advised to put down their books and focus on listening.  For English speakers learning Japanese, it’s the opposite.  Both groups are trying to use the method that works best in their own language, when the languages are constructed differently.  That’s a problem.

Some Monk on a Mountaintop

Japanese is first and foremost a written language.  The sounds are secondary.  Some monk a million years ago sat down in a temple on top of Mt. Fuji (or such is my understanding) and worked out a thorough relationship between all of the visual characters, so that they all relate to one another in a reasonable fashion.  All of the words are networked.  Using that network is how you build vocabulary and learn Japanese.

English is the opposite.  People just started speaking it, like in caves a thousand years ago.  And then somewhere around the Middle Ages somebody said, Oh, maybe we ought to start writing this shit down, and then they came up with some letters in an attempt to represent the sounds they were making.  But the letters don’t really even matter.  That’s why you’ve got all those extra letters cluttering up so many words.  It’s the sounds that matter, not the letters.

As an oral language, Japanese is hard to parse, partly due to all the homonyms.  You said “sho”?  Oh, I thought you meant “sho.”  But it’s a breeze to understand once you see it written.  And from the sounds, you’d never know that “kuruma” and “sharin” were related, but see them on paper and it’s immediately obvious:  車 and 車輪.  “Car” and “wheel.”  Well, there it is.  Again, Japanese speakers learning English don’t get this advantage.  They just simply have to remember stuff.  Yeah, sorry about that.

Two Jews Walk into a Bar

One extra, challenging aspect of Japanese as an oral language is that it doesn’t lend itself very well to mnemonics, at least for English speakers.  The sounds are so different that it’s difficult to come up with good mnemonics.  Like how are you going to remember “nyuukokukanrikyoku”?  Yeah, good luck.  Don’t fool yourself into thinking that hiragana and katakana are going to help you either.   It’s the same problem.  にゅうこくかんりきょく isn’t any better.  You need kanji to make any sense of the words.

Even sounds that can be easily represented in mnemonics are problematic.  Because of all the Japanese homonyms, the same sounds have to be used over and over again.  You’ll have Kens and Jews running around everywhere.  Worse, you’ll end up making the wrong connections.  If you use the image of a Jewish person for the sound “jyuu” (sorry, but really what other association are going to make?), you run the risk of mentally connecting “veterinarian” with “carpet,” since they both begin with the sound “jyuu.”  But if you saw them written in kanji, you’d never make that mistake, because they’re clearly different characters.

There is no Try

Here’s the deal with learning kanji.  It’s not easy.  But it’s the only way to learn Japanese.  Books can help a bit, like Remembering the Kanji by James Heisig, or Kanji ABC (which I prefer).  You can also put sentences into Anki, and start writing things out.  But anyway you approach it, it’s going to take you a long time.  Which is why you should start today.

Don’t spend time learning how to speak and think you can learn kanji at a later stage.  You’ll only hit a wall and realize, a year later, that if you’d started kanji a year ago, you’d be much further ahead. Even if you memorize a couple thousand words of vocabulary, it won’t be enough.  You need more words.  And words, in Japanese, are kanji.  Enough said.  Now go eat some natto, and get busy.

58 Replies to “Why You Must Learn Kanji”

  1. Great post! I wonder where Uncle frank went huh.. for a few years too.

    Anyways! Kanji, Idk why but I seem to love Kanji, writing it and seeing it. Despite the fact I’ve been doing it for a year plus, some Kanji don’t stick in my head.

    Most people who start to learn Japanese, start off with Hiragana and Katakana, fair enough and go piece of cake! But then after that, they come across “Kanji” They think it’s too hard and eventually, stop learning Japanese all together. There’s only 2000 joyo kanji you need to know. If they add 5 Kanji a day or even 1, they can get over 300+ kanji over a year. That’s even faster than elementary students learning Kanji in one year.

    If I may ask, do you know most of the 2000+ joyo kanji? or are there some that still don’t want to be friends with you

    1. Well, I’ve learned all of the joyo kanji; whether I “know” them or not is a different matter. Sometimes I’ll know a kanji in one word, but not know it in another word.

      For example, you might look at 物 and know that it means “thing.” And you might know that 理 means “reason.” But put them together (物理), and what do they mean? Maybe then you don’t know. So do you actually “know” those two kanji? It’s not a simple problem.

      This is really what I was addressing when I wrote https://www.japaneseruleof7.com/the-3-phases-of-learning-kanji/. One can’t just memorize all of the kanji and then be finished, right? That’s only the start. I’ll give you an example of something that happened to me recently.

      I write a lot of notes to myself in Japanese– schedules, places to go, to-do-lists, etc. I’ve written some of the same kanji scores of times, maybe even hundreds. Well, the other day I was walking around town and I saw a word in kanji (a combination of 2 kanji) and I was like, “Hmm. Looks familiar. What does that mean?” and I just blanked on it. So I looked it up in my dictionary, and it turned out to be a word I write every single day. That I could have forgotten it is amazing. To me, that underscores how important context is. I could remember a word perfectly in one context, yet be unable to recall it in another context.

      It’s also a matter of memory load. While you might be able to recall a kanji perfectly when you see it all by itself as part of your studies, it’s a whole new ballgame when you suddenly see a poster full of words as you’re stepping off the train. You don’t want to come to an untimely end because you’re so fixated on trying to read some ad for green tea.

      1. I was thinking of the sense in just the individual Kanji meaning and not so much adding it together to form a word.

        I see, makes much more sense that you were addressing that particular post.

        Yup, very true. Especially some Kanji like, 命 which has the keyword for “fate” in Heisig but then can also mean “life” which I always get mixed up with, いのち。And the meaning is not wrong for both.

        緑茶= green tea. How amazing is Kanji.

        Yeh, I agree with the context. Some words I see all the time, like 親 the other day. When I was doing my reps, I was like what’s that? and when I read it in a sentence, I know it’s 親 for parents.

        Yup, I agree. I guess knowing the Kanji is just really just the beginning

      2. I’ve actually had an experience similar to this.

        Recently, I’ve been working on learning sentences in my SRS app (Surusu). To help me remember some of the more kanji-heavy words, I decided to pluck them out of their sentences, and make a deck just for them to work on. Oddly enough, those words sitting all alone are harder for me to remember, rather than when they’re cluttered in and amongst a sentence.

        I’m not really sure why this is, but regardless, I’m glad that I’m not the only one experiencing it!

        1. I’ve heard the same thing from a number of people. Kanji in isolation are difficult to remember, and their usefulness is limited. By the same token, it would be difficult to remember isolated components of English words. Imagine trying to learn English by memorizing the meanings of “pre,” “post,” “un,” “in,” “er,” and “est.” That would be nuts. Yet people still try to do it with kanji.

          It is important to get a basic familiarity with the most commonly used kanji, probably in an RTK-esque fashion. But beyond that, I believe you get more mileage out of words in the context of sentences.

      3. Your comment re: ‘the impact of context on learning and recognition’ is very apt and could easily be the basis of another article (perhaps it already is ;).

  2. I’m with you on the whole Kanji natto thing, and have found Heisig and Anki to be very helpful in this regard. I mean, for the Kanji. As for natto, you might try soda water and salt. And if that doesn’t work, maybe steel wool. Otherwise, just cut it out. It’ll grow back.

    1. Thanks for the advice. I’ve been experimenting with soda water and salt as per your suggestion. So far my results are as follows:

      1. Kanji. No measurable improvement.
      2. Natto. Slight improvement, although possibly just a placebo effect.
      3. Tequila. Tremendous improvement! Even better with the addition of lime.


  3. A great argument for inclusive study! And entertaining to boot. I just finished writing next monday’s post and sure enough those homophones can make big differences in meaning… Take my name for example… ben.

  4. Does that mean every Japanese person in all of Japanese history was literate without execption, seeing as how they can’t get along without knowing Kanji? I am only asking this because in lots of cultures, historically education had only been accessible to those living in urban areas who were from the middle class and rich families. Those living in the villages knew how to speak the language but not write it (although they usually did know how to read numbers). Japanese women in the past were denied education so how did they know which “sho” one was talking about?

    1. Those are good questions—thanks for asking them. Let me give you my take.

      Now, one can certainly survive without being literate. However, that means living cut off from reference sources, asynchronous communication, and a good chunk of media. Announcements, warnings, letters—they all go away, and the only way to get a message to others is to run over and speak with them. In the past, and even today, there were and are undoubtedly illiterate people, particularly among the poor and underprivileged. So can you survive without being able to read? Sure. But that wouldn’t be an existence you’d choose if you could avoid it.

      But perhaps that’s getting a bit off from my original point, which was that just going by sounds alone is missing the essential element of the language. If you’ve ever seen a book written entirely in hiragana, you know what I’m talking about. Instead of being easier to read, it’s insanely harder. (At least once you know the kanji.)

      As for “how did they know which ‘sho’ one was talking about?”, there’s actually a manga and anime series called Shiro Kuma Cafe that uses that ambiguity as it’s comic center. One character will say something that another character misunderstands, leading to a string of puns on the original word. It’s funny. Sort of the equivalent, in English, of mixing up “carrot” and “carat,” or “carrot” and “ferret.” So yes, this type of misunderstanding can occur. In such cases, you just need to add extra context and explanation to communicate your point. For example, when ordering at a sushi restaurant, the word “sake” in Japanese means both “booze” and “salmon.” So to avoid getting fish when you wanted a drink, you’re going to need to be a little more specific as to which “sake” you want.

      Also bear in mind that people who grow up having Japanese as their native language don’t have to “learn” it. It’s just what they are exposed to as children, and it forms the basis of their thoughts. People learning Japanese as a foreign language don’t have that advantage. We have to make connections and be able to recall words, and kanji helps to do that. Without kanji, you might never know that the words “tofu” and “natto” were related, and you’d certainly never guess that “edamame” was. But when you see them written in kanji (豆腐、納豆、枝豆), it’s plain that there’s a connection.

      1. Fair enough…

        I guess there are far more homophones in Japanese compared to English I suppose since it gets as far as deliberately adding context in order to make it clear which one is being talked about. Both the “sake”s have different kanji right?

        But the “sake-sake” thing got me thinking…. Could this particular example (and others possibly) have happened because of the association of sake the drink with sake the fish over the years (where one of them was the original sake and the other one was named after it). I’m just guessing that they are usually taken together in restaurants or bars, I could be completely wrong though, in which case my apologies. Does Japanese allow such naming by association? If yes, I could understand why they would have so many things sounding the same.

        1. Yes, both “sake”s have different kanji (鮭: salmon, and 酒: booze). The number of homophones in Japanese is truly enormous, probably due to the limited number of sounds in the language, and the way they can be arranged. There are certainly hundreds.

          Word etymology is really interesting, and you do find naming by association in Japanese. “Tama” for both “ball” and “bullet” would be a likely candidate for a word with 2 different kanji but a possible sound association. On the other hand, associations are more commonly made using the kanji, rather than the sounds. Take “izakaya” and “booze,” respectively: 居酒屋 and 酒. The sounds are pretty different, but you can see the connection.

          Also, if you look at the names of some common fish, you’ll see a similarity: 鰤、鮪、鯖、鮭. Buri, maguro, saba, and salmon all contain the kanji for fish: 魚. That’s why kanji are so important—because that’s where the connections between words happen. Sounds don’t play as big a part in word associations.

          It’s possible that the two “sake”s are related because you find them together at a sushi restaurant, but it’s also possible that they just randomly share the same sound. Guess I’ll have to spend more time at my local sushi restaurant investigating.

          1. Ken, I gave some kudos to you via your post on the Anki site but better to pay the fiddler where he plays his best. (I poked around, and was pleasantly surprised to find your hit the right notes and not just the same ones, again and again — very refreshing!) Here’s what I said (and should have said here — a few humble suggestions to follow your “Kanji ABC”‘s suggestion. “…your article “Why You Must Learn Kanji” was awesomely salient [rhymes with “けん” ! ].

            It was also fun to read –and hey, at 48, I could be that uncle! Though you are (lightyears) beyond my kanji ken, my own faves for Grokking the basics underpinnig the “why” and beginning “how to’s” of Kanjj are “Read Japanese Today” (Walsh), and Tekeba’s “Kanji Isn’t that Hard (Kanji Can Be Mastered with the ’24 Rules'” –a generous lie of a title that nevertheless has excellent foundational principles I haven’t seen elsewhere. (I’m eager to try your suggestion of Foerster’s “Kanji ABC’s”; also, I’m intrigued by (2013) newcomer “Learning Japanese Kanji” (Grant / Tuttle) that links the 音読み and 訓読み into 1 single “creative memory” link (story) for each kanji –thereby getting around the homonym problem you mentioned (since having both of these readings be identical to other words is far less likely).
            the words is far less likely).

            End of amazing quote by me. Having said all that, I’d add that it’s humbling to have been an on again / off again damned neophyte — since oh, 1985 (with a short 25 year hiatus).

            Then again, that’s certainly given me perspective. It seems that if we’re willing to do the work, the tools and resources (SRS, great books) seem better than ever. I personally use Skritter.

            I also take simple comfort in knowing time-honored adage, “Age and treachery beats youth and enthusiasm”. Ok, not (entirely) true. Still, up against the current “me”, my 20 y.o. lazy punk-self wouldn’t stand a chance. I know where he sleeps, I fight dirty, and — even better — I keep showing up!

            1. Thanks for visiting! I appreciate the kudos.

              I think you’re right, we’re living in a golden age for language learning, and it’s only going to get better. I can’t imagine how people learned Japanese 30 years ago, watching DVDs in black and white and ripping phonograph records to their iPads. Must have been hell.

              There’s a lot to be said for being organized and disciplined. Not that I am, but there’s a lot to be said for it. That’s certainly one way in which age provides an advantage.

  5. I think learning Japanese is simply something that many of us have an interest in following. People believe they can succeed trying to understand Japanese from watching jdramas. Thus there’s interest in ways to learn. All of this is very helpful.

  6. I’ve basically only started learning Japanese. I’ve been focusing mostly on sentence structure and pronunciation. Sometimes I feel like “man” I can’t do this, I will never learn it” and now I read this blog and I remember Kanji. Great -.- haha, now I’m at an even larger wall. I’m not usually one to give up, but now I have this feeling of “anguish” into thinking I will never be able to learn it now. Any tips on where I should actually start? I would love some. Thanks.

    1. Well, you can do it. You really can. It’s just going to take a long time. If you’re cool with that, then yeah, let’s do this thing.

      So for real, you need kanji. It’s not optional—it is the language. So how do you learn it? Well, okay, I really will tackle this in a later post, but let me just give you a quick overview here.

      Basically, you need to learn both individual kanji and word compounds. Like, for example 豆 (mame) means “bean,” and 枝豆 (edamame) means, well, edamame.

      So to acquire kanji, there are two approaches, and they both arrive at the same point:

      1. Learn the individual kanji (there’s about 2000-2500), and then begin piecing together compound words. Or . . .

      2. Learn whole words (there’s, you know, a lot), and use that as a basis for creating an understanding of the individual kanji.

      I tend to favor #2, which involves learning real words that you can apply right away, and then later, #1, where you go through all the kanji and learn them individually. Jumping straight in to learning individual kanji (#1) lacks context and seems error-prone to me, but I know other people who favor that method.

      To learn whole words, I’d recommend learning sentences with Anki, and light reading. Do easy stuff. Either approach will work fine. Actually, just about anything you do in Japanese will be good so long you make sure that you’re learning the kanji and not just hiragana. Do that and you’ll be fine.

      1. Ok, I think I’m starting to understand. I already knew when I took it up that it would be a long process. I am more than keen to learn the language. I’m just lost at where to start.

        I have also had some people tell me that it’s ok to learn the spoken side first then learn Kanji, but that actually contradicts what you wrote in your post doesn’t it? What do you think about this?

        Also, where would I go to learn kanji? What would be the best approach?

        And just out if curiosity, how long have you been learning Japanese for and how fluent are you? How long did it take for you to get to the stage you are in kanji at the moment and how long did it take to speak and understand at the stage you are?

        Thanks, once again.

        1. I think it’s okay to learn spoken Japanese at first, up to a point. What I really want to get across is:

          1. You’re going to need kanji eventually, for basically the same reason you need the alphabet in English. There’s just too much stuff to keep straight in your brain, and cutting yourself off from written language is a huge handicap.
          2. Kanji makes connections that you wouldn’t know otherwise. When you see edamame 枝豆 and tofu 豆腐 written, you can understand that they’re both talking about beans 豆. That’s super helpful. You wouldn’t know that just from hearing the words though.
          3. If I’m right, and you do need to learn kanji, then you’re just delaying the very thing that will help you the most. If you wait a year before starting it, that’s a year you could have spent learning kanji.

          I’ve been learning Japanese for about 11 years now, actively studying an average of 2 hours a day, in addition to countless hours of passive exposure. I’ve missed exactly one day in that time. I’m completely fluent in conversation. That took me about 4-5 years. I can read a newspaper and most of the stuff I come across, although my reading can be slow, depending upon the subject matter. That took me another 3-4 years. I learned how to speak before I learned kanji, and it was a huge mistake. So don’t do that. If the Japanese language was a pizza, kanji wouldn’t be the pepperoni. It’s the freaking crust.

          As for how best to learn kanji, I really need to write a whole post about it, because it’s a suuuper lengthy subject. You might want to take a look at Remembering the Kanji by James Heisig. That’s one way that I used, although there are some important improvements that I’d make to his method.

          Depending on where you’re at, however, I might avoid diving in to a major project like trying to learn a couple thousand kanji right now. It’s important to pace yourself and not burn out. It could be enough just to learn some spoken Japanese and hiragna/katakana. I’d say that’s good for the first six months or so. But beyond that, at every opportunity, make sure you’re using the kanji, even if it’s in addition to hiragna/katakana.

          1. To be honest I’m not even completely sure what hiragana and katakana are. I only started about a week ago, I’ve been watching anime for about 4 years and I’ve Learnt a lot from there (how to say things and what they mean) ever since then I fell in love with the language and am determine to learn it. So for the last week I’ve been in intense studying. Hired out many books from the library and downloaded many things like Ebooks and videos from the net. Is this a good start? Thanks

          2. If you ever did a post on the best way to learn Kanji – please please let me know. I completely want to learn Japanese but at the same time I feel completely overwhelmed. How do I memorize these symbols? I’m hard of hearing and would just be happy learning how to read it but… how do I?


            1. That’s an excellent question, and I really should write a detailed answer about it. Short answer is, it’s pretty complicated and takes a lot of work. But okay, here’s a one-minute guide.

              I’d recommend either Remembering the Kanji or Kanji ABC to learn the individual kanji. There are over 2000, so that’ll take you a few months.

              Don’t get too hung up on the meaning of the kanji. And don’t worry about how to pronounce them. That comes later.

              Then start building vocabulary by learning actual words. You’ll need somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 to be able to read most things. At that point, you should also learn how the kanji are pronounced in sentences.

              My main advice would be not to get hung up on precision. There’s a ton of information that you need to acquire, so if you can get anything 80% correct, that’s good enough, move on. Keep moving forward and learning more.

              Anyway, it’s a huge topic, but there’s my quick take on it. Good luck!

      2. if you learn Kanji individually and then try and apply them in language do you end up sounding like Yoda speaking words out order? It seems like almost common sense to learn them via sentences first so you know what order they appear in. Also the order of the kanji completely changes the word. Does this also apply to how kanji is ordered in sentences? Say for example one set of kanji appears at the beginning of a sentence, if the same set of kanji come at the end of a sentence can it change the words meaning or the word itself?

        1. Yes, you definitely want to start learning sentences right away, although (like the English alphabet), it’s possible to learn the letters first and then how to use them later.

          Kanji are words, or parts of words. And many of the same rules for words apply generally to both English and Japanese. So sometimes you can change the word order and the sentence retains the same meaning.

          Finally, in the case of compound-kanji words (of which there are many) the order of the kanji usually changes the meaning somewhat. 行進 for “march” and 進行 for “proceed” come to mind.

          Finally, hiragana is sort of the glue that holds a Japanese sentence together, so that has to be factored in as well. It’s a pretty complicated language, honestly.

          1. I saw a video recently that showed how Katakana, Hiragana and Kanji are all used in conjuntion. Mainly so they can separate words since there are no spaces in japanese sentences. (why that is behooves me. Seems like it is common sense). In a way i see why they do it, but it only seems to be more confusing. Is this what you mean when you say that hirigana is the glue that holds a japa ese swntence together?

  7. You totally hit the spot. I was wondering for the past two days why i was starting to learn kanji all alone on top of my mountain, and is it necessary, and what’s really the connection with communicating, and shall I not focus on hiragana vocab, and what if I made more crepes instead of learning this super-duper-silly-ammount-of-strokes kanji to say ‘next to’, and you’ve just totally answered my doubts. I owe you a drink, cheers.

  8. Hi,
    I’m re-learning Japanese right now after abandoning it for about a year. I’m determined this time because I’m moving to Japan next year. Anyway, I used to learn kanji by writing them as much as possbile. I find it so, so pointless and it was the least effective way to remember kanji. Because I haven’t been exposed much to the real Japanese society, I’d like to ask:

    Is it possible to learn how to read kanji only and not know how to write them?

    I mean you don’t even need to know strokes to write a kanji on a computer and writing only helps to pass the test. So, experienced Japanese learners, please tell me if I could learn kanji like this and what would be the ups and downs of this method?

    Thanks in advance.

    1. Short answer to a really complicated question would be “yes.” A lot of Japanese learners only learn to read the kanji, and not how to write them. I think that’s a good compromise, actually, considering that learning the 2000-or-so kanji is only Step 1, with Step 2 being that you have to learn the compounds, which often have little to do with what you learned in Step 1. Yeah, like I said, it’s complicated.

      What I mean is that you have to memorize that 食 = eat (Step 1), and then (Step 2) memorize that 乞食 = beggar.

      So the shortcut is that you don’t bother writing 食 a billion times; you just learn to recognize it. The exception would be easily-confusable kanji, such as 未 and 末. It might be a good idea to write them to help cement their differences.

      But as with all shortcuts, this will eventually come back to bite you, because you’ll be unable to take notes in Japanese, other than using hiragana/katakana, which is far from desirable. So whenever you need to write down an appointment, your shopping list, or notes from a meeting, you’ll be reduced to a scribble of kana or—gasp—English.

      Still, as a building block, I think yeah, learn to recognize the kanji first, then worry about writing them later.

  9. You make the idea of putting in the effort to learn kanji sound a bit more attractive, but I think the real problem with learning Japanese is simply that you can’t get hold of a decent amount of reading material in romaji. I’ve always found with languages that I learn fastest by getting hold of parallel texts (or by working with a book in the language I’m learning alongside an English translation of the same book), and I focus on trying to understand without worrying about speaking the language at all. This enables me to learn languages more like a child does when learning their first language, getting a deep understanding of the language before trying to speak it and leaving the speaking side until after success with understanding the language has already been achieved. By that point, the language is irreversibly mine and all I have to do is learn to speak it, which is enormously easier to do once you already know the language from the listening/reading side. With Japanese, and Chinese, I run into a brick wall here because I am expected to learn an unfriendly writing system before I can learn to understand the language, and that barrier simply makes me stop and go off to work on another language instead where progress is not blocked in the same way. (I’m a linguistician, so I learn languages primarily to study their structures and don’t need to go all that far with any of them, but having learned the basics I like to keep going with many of them to the point where I can read books in them.) Japanese children do not depend on reading kanji to learn to understand and speak their language, and we should not need to do so either. What we need access to is words in lots of interesting contexts so that we can learn them in phrases by meeting them repeatedly. The best reading material is dialogue-rich novels (preferably written for children), and these provide you with the most important words and phrases the most often, guaranteeing that you pick them up in much the same order as a native speaker does as a child. So, while your advice is good, I think you’re only right about it not being a good idea to try to learn Japanese without learning kanji because it’s so impossible to get good reading material in romaji. If just a few decent books were put out in romaji form, ideally as parallel texts with English alongside, I think that would change the whole game and make Japanese ten times more accessible to learners. Hiragana and katakana would not suit this purpose, partly because of the lack of obvious word boundaries, but also because I know from experience with languages like Hindi and even Russian that working with a new script slows down the learning far too much. However, once you own the language (meaning that you understand it well enough to read books in it if they’re written in a script that you’re familiar with) it is then much easier to learn everything else, such as how to speak it and how to read it through the script or writing system that is normally used for that language. Your advice is correct, but only in an environment that is wrong. I would rather see the environment change, and that is why I’m not going to take my Japanese any further until I can get access to Japanese books written in romaji; I see absolutely no point in wasting many years learning something that should only take a few months (which is how it works with other languages), because some day everything will be available in romaji at the press of a button, and I’ll be able to get on with taking my Japanese to an advanced level then in a fraction of the time.

    1. I appreciate your comment, and I know where you’re coming from. I think everyone’s first thought is to use romaji. I tried it too, for a week or two. Japanese simply makes no sense that way, or with only hiragana/katakana.

      Japanese isn’t constructed out of discreet words in the same way that English is. Many “words” are formed by combining other words. English has a few of these: sub-marine, under-wear, inter-state, etc. But Japanese has thousands.

      For example, here’s one simple “word” that would be easily readable if you knew kanji:


      That’s one mighty long word.

      Learn 2000 kanji and you’ve unlocked the entire language. But don’t believe me– try romaji Japanese for yourself. Use Google Translate, and select Japanese for both sides. There’s a “Read Phonetically” button. Push that, and it will convert any text into romaji. Try learning that way for a few days and let me know how it goes.

      1. Thanks for that great tip – I’d never have thought of translating Japanese to Japanese! Now you’ve opened the door wide for me to start making progress again, and yes, I’ll let you know how it goes. I’m confident that romaji must be sufficient for learning the language to a high level as it’s little different from a Japanese child learning to understand Japanese from nothing but phonemes (though they don’t get the word boundaries to help them). My attempts to learn to read Chinese have left me very wary of trying to learn more characters as they simply don’t stick in my head, added to which they hurt my eyes. I think it would be easier if I could get my Chinese to a much higher standard first, and the same with my Japanese, because it just takes too long to get anywhere when I’m bogged down trying to do two slow things at once instead of just learning to read after learning the language first. It may work very differently for different people, of course, so I would suggest for now that everyone should try doing it your way first and gives it a proper go, seeing as your experience is extensive and I’m merely doing an experiment which may fail. Thanks again, and thanks too for the great insight you’ve provided in all the other terrific articles you’ve written here – it’s been quite a find for me. People like you are rare.

        1. Thanks much for the encouragement. I’m also very supportive of your Japanese learning.

          And just to expand a bit, I’m certainly not anti-romaji. I’ve read numerous articles that advise Japanese learners to avoid it like the plague, but I think those are off-base.

          Romaji’s great for a vacation to Japan, when you want to order a beer and then find your way back to the station. It doesn’t make sense to spend months memorizing kana and kanji just for a ten-day trip.

          But for anyone wanting to actually learn the language, my experience is that kanji is indispensable. In fact, I’d say the real thing to avoid isn’t romaji. It’s hiragana. But that’s another story.

          Personally, I spent the first few years of my Japanese studies listening, speaking, and using hiragana and katakana, with minimal kanji. That worked fairly well, and my spoken Japanese is pretty good because of it. It’s only now, much later, that I can see how much my vocabulary-building was hampered by that avoidance of kanji. It seems like you might be doing the same thing.

          I certainly respect your thoughts, but let me give you one more thing to think about. You’ve mentioned a couple of times about learning like a Japanese child. I think it’s worth remembering that children don’t take notes. They don’t try to “memorize.” They just exist.

          But adults have to write down information and review it. Man, I go to the store for five items and can’t remember three. So then how you write it down is critically important. Because if you write romaji or hiragana, you’ll have notebooks full of words that look like this:

          densha, densetsu, denki, dengon.

          They sound similar, and in fact two pairs are related, while two are not. But without kanji, you can’t see the connections, and in fact you risk making mistaken connections. Here they are with the kanji: 電車、伝説、電気、伝言.

          Even without “knowing” kanji, it should be pretty clear which words are related. In this way, romaji isn’t making the language easier; it’s actually making it harder.

          Japanese is kind of fun, if you’re into that sort of thing, but it’s not easy. If you do develop a shortcut, I’d sure love to hear about it.

          1. Well, I don’t write any notes, but rely instead on more natural vocabulary acquisition akin to the way a child learns. I make no effort to learn words but allow them to write themselves to my memory when they’ve run through my head often enough to store themselves there. Children don’t set out to learn words, but merely try to understand what’s being said to them. If they can guess at the meaning of a word from the context, that will do for them and they move on. Over time though, correct meanings attach to words and they become fixed in their heads without them deliberately learning them. So, I try to learn the same way. I look for interesting reading material and try to read it in the language I’m learning while glancing at a translation whenever I need to find out what an unknown word means, or to make sense of an idiomatic expression that doesn’t make obvious sense. Over time, I find I can read more and more of the text without having to look at the translation, and I get to read interesting books along the way which I want to read anyway, so it’s always rewarding and never feels like work.

            Typically when I learn a new language, I spend about twenty hours reading through a language course of the kind that takes you through most of the grammar and which introduces you to a thousand words. I focus on on understanding it and don’t do any exercises that ask me to create sentences in the language I’m learning. All I do is try to understand the texts and the grammar. I don’t try to learn grammatical rules either because I rely instead on phrase structures lodging in my head over time and serving as models for the creation of new phrases. Again, this is how children learn their native language.

            Step two is to get hold of a novel written in the language I’m learning plus a copy in English if possible, though sometimes I just rely on a dictionary and have to look up lots of words. By the time I’ve reached the end of that book, I find I can often read whole pages without having to look at the English or use a dictionary at all. With Japanese, I haven’t been able to do that, but I’ve tried to do the same kind of thing using the Bonjinsha-Oxford Basic Japanese-English Dictionary which contains an enormous number of example sentences in romaji, but but the randomness of the sentences on offer makes you feel ill pretty quickly, so it isn’t rewarding trying to work that way.

            I downloaded Miyazawa’s 銀河鉄道の夜 from Aozora a year ago and tried to read it with the help of Rikaichan, but it took so much effort to get anywhere that I gave up after only three or four paragraphs, and I really wasn’t able to make any sense of those. Now though, I’ve read the first chapter by using your Google translate trick to get it into romaji and I can follow it all properly at last. I’m still using Rikaichan with it though because I don’t have an English translation of the story to refer to (and Google translate’s attempts at Japanese to English are next to useless – they’d do better just to give people a literal translation instead). The romaji is helping me to line up the mouse cursor in the right places within blocks of contiguous kanji, and by showing me word boundaries it’s helping me find my way around the hiragana too, though the biggest gain is simply that I’m able to recognise all the words I already know without havingtopickthemoutofacontinuousstringlikethisone). So, I’m now finding Rikaichan enormously more efficient to use. I did consider buying a translation of the story to speed things up further, but romaji plus Rikaichan is working so well that I think I’ll just stick with, and it’s helping me learn to read the hiragana and Kanji at the same time. For example, I’ve made no effort to learn to recognise 先生, but already I recognise it whenever it appears. This accidental learning has come out of the need to be able to find the right place to put the mouse cursor in order to use Rikaichan. I really like accidental learning because it doesn’t require the same effort as trying to learn something on purpose. Accidental learning is really my whole approach, because I try to let all the learning happen in the background while I’m focussed on trying to follow a story, and I know from experience that it works.

            On the issue of the links between syllables in words like den, I think the main value in noticing them comes when learning to write Japanese, helping you find the right kanji to use. I doubt there’s any great gain in the other direction, because you can learn the word and its meaning without caring about the components. You may well notice connections between some words along the way and might guess that the den in denwa, densha and many other den- words has something to do with electricity, but it isn’t important to do so for speaking the language. When I learned Chinese (this was limited to reading through an introductory language course and I have taken it no further due to the lack of pinyin texts to work from), I met a lot of familiar words like dianhua and began to see lots of connections between Japanese words that I’d missed before, aided of course by looking at the chinese characters, but this extra knowledge didn’t make it any easier to understand words like denwa – it just provided interesting background on them, just like learning the origin of English words and finding out what various components of them mean in Latin, Greek, French, Old English, etc.

            It’s important to note though that my Japanese is still at a low level. I probably only recognise two thousand words, and many of those are not robust. So I haven’t run into the difficulties that may appear at a later stage. It may be that learning kanji after a certain point will accelerate vocabulary-building to the point that it’s the most efficient way to advance your ability to understand and speak Japanese. I’m pretty sure though that it slows you down instead if you switch to learning kanji too early. What I need is an easy path to learning five to ten thousand words through rapid reading, and if I can get there fastest through romaji, then that’s the way I want to learn. If I get to a point where some inherent difficulty of Japanese slows my progress to a crawl and if the solution is to learn kanji, then it would clearly be a mistake not to change tack and start putting in a serious effort to learn to read kanji. I very much doubt that there is such a point, but there certainly would come a point when I’d want to learn kanji anyway in order to be able to read proper Japanese writing. I would just prefer to learn most of the language first if that’s possible, and then approach the task of learning to read kanji from a position of power where I’m already completely at home with the language.

            You gave me the word “gasshukuukokudaitouryou” earlier, and my Japanese dictionaries have been unable to help me to make sense of it beyond an unlikely airport in the middle of it and a president at the end, though in the light of the president part, the koku part now looks as if it’s more likely to be the same as in Eikoku, leaving me stuck with the gasshukuu part. But would a Japanese child who can’t read yet not be able to learn to understand this word? This looks a lot like the difficulty in spotting morpheme boundaries in the long words that can be constructed in languages like Finnish and Turkish. Writing them with Chinese characters could help learners of those langauges to spot the components and to determine the meaning in the same way as it can with Japanese, but Finns and Turks manage fine without doing that, and so they should, because languages are designed to be spoken and heard, and I haven’t seen anything that makes me think Japanese is an exception. I suspect that Finns and Turks could read their languages more efficiently if they used Chinese characters. I wonder how it works with Korean – I suspect that South Koreans are able to read more efficiently than North Koreans because Chinese characters show up some of the word and morpheme boundaries better than using a purely phonetic script, but they will have no advantage when interpreting speech.

            1. I like learning from parallel texts myself, so I’m right there with you on that.

              I think your approach is exciting, and I really want to hear how it goes as you progress through the language. If you can become competent in the language through accidental learning and the use of romaji, I’d consider that a remarkable success.

              By the way, “gasshukuukokudaitouryou” is President of the United States. 合衆国大統領. I think I left out a “u” somewhere in the romaji. Sorry about that. I was just trying to point out that Japanese words are often built up from smaller words.

              Anyway, I’m happy to table the discussion of whether one needs kanji or not in order for you to continue learning in the way that works for you. This might be of help to you: http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/japanese/genji/roman.html . It’s “The Tale of the Genji” in romaji. I’m pretty sure you can find an English translation as well, which would enable you to read it in parallel.

              Keep me posted!

  10. Thanks for another lead – I see that http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/japanese/texts/index.html provides a huge number of other texts which should be well worth exploring, and I’ve found out how to get google translate to turn a whole text into romaji in one go instead of having to do it in small chunks. Genji Monogatari looks a bit too ambitious for me at the moment in its original form, though the modern version of it (the middle frame of http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/japanese/genji/frames/index.html is easier to work with, so I think I should work through the whole of that before tackling the older form of the language. I like the multiple frame approach used on that page, but it’s not quite there. The ideal way to display things would be to have four or five frames scrolling in sync with each other to make it easy to keep the place in all the different versions of the text at the same time. The first frame would show full Japanese, the second might be a furigana version, the next would be romaji, the next would be a literal translation, and the last would be a full translation. If lots of texts were made available in that form (someone should make an app for it), I think it would radically change the way people learn Japanese, and other languages too (many languages would need a phonetic version to show pronunciation – much quicker than working with audio, and it avoids the risk of mishearing new words and ending up filling your speech with mispronunciations like “skellington”). The learner needs to be able to find texts that are likely to interest them, starting out with things written for the general reader before moving on to select ones likely to expose them to all the technical vocabulary they need to cover their specific interests – for example, I’m currently reading Jean Bobet’s book “Demain On Roule” along with the English translation in order to pick up all the vocabulary in French that’s specific to cycle racing (while at the same time allowing it to fill me in on some of the history of the Tour de France). The key things about this way of learning is that none of the time is wasted because you’re always reading something that’s worthwhile in itself, it’s never boring, it isn’t hard work, the input is of high quality and keeps coming at you at high speed, and you learn vocabulary in the order of greatest need – words that come round less often don’t need to be learned as urgently as the ones you meet more often. Once you get more on top of a language, you spend more time thinking about the rarer new words when they appear, and they stick in your head more easily by that time because the learning load has gone right down.

    The other problem for learners is in identifying the right texts for them to read, because a list of titles doesn’t serve as an ideal guide. Someone would need to arrange them in categories with a paragraph or two of descriptions of the content in English. I think I’ll get in touch with the UVa Library Japanese Text Initiative people and suggest that they get someone to do that for their collection of texts, or make a wiki for it to allow people visiting the site to do it all for them.

    Anyway, you’ve opened the path for me and I’m making progress with Japanese again at last. I’ll continue reading Miyazawa for now, then try some of the UVa Lib texts. By the time I’ve worked through three or four of those, I’ll know if this approach is going to work for Japanese as well as it has for European languages.

    By the way, I’ve found “gasshuukoku” as “America” in a dictionary now and it does ring a bell. There’s a whole extra “kuu” in gasshukuukokudaitouryou, so I’m now wondering what its role is, if it isn’t just a mistake (the u in front would be silent, so it’s only really an extra k that you’re adding in speech terms).

    [For anyone else who wants it, Wikipedia led me to an English version of Genji Monogatari at http://www.thosewhogo.net/download/Murasaki%20Shikibu/The%20Tale%20of%20Genji%20%2883%29/The%20Tale%20of%20Genji%20-%20Murasaki%20Shikibu.pdf ]

  11. Hello Ken,

    Great job on the blog, it has been a great source for me to assist me with learning Japanese or when simply wanting to know about the actual Japan which seems to be different from what we think of.

    I must say that is the best thing to find about learning Japanese as you simply revealed the mistake that many of us were doing when aiming to learn the language, as Japanese should be approached in a different way from what we do learn other European languages.

    You mentioned before that many people (About 6 as you have said) encouraged you to write a book, I think maybe you should consider it, or maybe think about teaching Japanese.

    Best of luck in your journeys in Japan.

    1. Thanks very much.

      Yeah, I’ve studied years of French and Spanish, so I have some idea about how European languages work. My take on them is that they’re basically English with different words.

      Japanese, on the other hand, is constructed completely differently from the ground up. It’s a language based upon symbols, and the sounds are rather secondary. Thus, an over-emphasis on the spoken language will leave gaping holes in your knowledge about how the language works.

      Simply put, kanji are the key. With it, everything makes sense, and without it, you’re just wandering blind.

      As for the book, yeah, well, one of these days. But thanks.

  12. After finishing the RTK by Heisig, one knows Kanji pictograph, but in English. Is there a source to learn the Japanese words for Kanji. For example, I know the Kanji pictograph for mountain, oneself and trust. In Japanese though, they are called zan, ji, shin. How does one go about learning the Japanese words

    1. As Kanji can have various readings, you are better off moving towards thinking about “words” rather than “kanji” as soon as possible. Some words are constituted by a single kanji. Some words are constituted by two. The reading of the kanji is learned along with learning the word.

      A site like iKnow can provide material for learning a few thousand core words to get you going, and from there you can expand mostly via reading and listening. A lot of texts for adolescents come with the phonetic script above the kanji, giving you lots of opportunities to get used to harder words.

  13. First of All Sorry for my rip English… I just want to ask on how can I learn Kanji fast. Do you have
    any tips and tricks. Because i want to learn kanji So Badly. I need to study here in japan so please
    give me an advise. And seriously I dont know where or when to start this freaking kanji By the way
    I love your post tho. 😀 thanks again 😀

    1. Gaaaaa! The day I hoped would never come has finally arrived. How to learn kanji? Yeah, no problem, just sit down and carefully write each one, five thousand times. Sure you wouldn’t prefer to learn something easier, like how to kill a wolverine with your bare hands? That’d probably be more useful too.

      Unfortunately, it is kind of a good question. Let me write a post about this. It may take me a couple of weeks though, since I’ll be writing it in kanji.

  14. Hi Ken,

    I have just stumbled across your site while trying to look up what ‘public servant’ is in Japanese (google just gives me a flat stare then barrages me with various news articles on the Japanese government).

    Anyway, fantastic advice to be found and I really find your writing style humourous and easy to read. Big Kudos.

    As far as learning KAnji, my Japanese pretty much stalled at ‘learning basic sentnece structure and grammar but unable to memorise any substantial vocabulary’ until I started learning Kanji. 8 months down the track and I am now able to hold reasonable amounts of conversation.

    I found using the WaniKani website and supporting app has helped me no end. It starts with associating radicals to their meanings and then employs SRS until you have a good grasp. At a point where you are comfortable with that, it introduces single kanji made of radicals you know and teaches you the meaning and a pronunciation via mnemonics. Then it hits you with the SRS again until you nail some kanji at which point it introduces full words based on the kanji you have learned and/or supporting kana.

    In 8 months I have learned 183 radicals, 239 Kanji and 547 vocab words and am in the process of learning another 140 (ie have just learned them).

    My suggestion for learners would be to get on to a forum or something like ‘HelloTalk’ and just start writing messages to people and utilise as many of your kanji as you can. Memorising is one thing, actually recalling it and trying to fit it into a sentence will make it embed in your noodle so much faster!

  15. “Japanese people learning English would be well advised to put down their books and focus on listening. For English speakers learning Japanese, it’s the opposite. Both groups are trying to use the method that works best in their own language, when the languages are constructed differently. That’s a problem.”

    THIS. This, right here, is the bitter truth of every unsuccessful language education system on the planet. I may or may not be making sweeping generalizations based on limited experience, but dammit I’m *right*. Or, well, you’re right. Whatever.

  16. What a bunch of bullshit.

    But I need to believe this in order to learn the kanji, as I know it’s difficult to learn something you hate and you know is, frankly, stupid.

    I have been studying kanji for a year and a half on different intervals but I always run in to the problem: kanji is idiotic, time consuming and confusing way to write.

    So if you have some helpful tips for this kind of self suggestion to get me to believe in these lies such as “without kanji you could not read due to homonyms.” or “you need it to learn Japanese.”, please help me. I need this skill if I want to work in a regular job in the country.

    1. Hi Maatta,

      They aren’t lies – you need to learn kanji to progress through intermediate Japanese. I guess in some situations where you were in frequent contact with Japanese speakers you could learn speaking without writing, but then you’d be an illiterate – not much use in a regular job. My tip is that it is up to you to change how you think about kanji. If you can’t, you must think of some other career path.

  17. All, I’m a bit late to this party, but I love this discussion. Great insight, and good advice. Nice!

    As for me, with no cultural heritage (my people are white as chalk), I learned Japanese in college, grad school (Cornell Japanese is awesome!) and then in Japan, and could read the Nikkei Shimbun in Japanese by the end of having lived there for five years, and I passed the Ikkyuu.

    Here’s my two cents worth on Kanji.

    1) If you want to live and work in Japan, you just have to be able to read and write Kanji. Maybe not an 1-kyuu level , but at least 1000 characters, IMHO.

    2) Learning 1000 characters is a HECK OF A LOT OF WORK. If you can’t find a way to love the work, then you don’t have much of a chance – you have to be internally motivated.

    3) So, if you have that motivation, I will tell you about how I did it. I used Heisig’s books – Remembering the Kanji 1, 2, and 3. Learning them as pictographs, creating mnemonics that weave the radicals and components into the Kanji meaning is what it’s all about. I have a few thousand flash cards showing the Kanji on one side, with vocab and readings (kun-yomi, on-yomi) on the other side. Heisig tells you exactly how to do this in his books. Don’t buy the Heisig flash cards. Make your own.

    4) Make it fun! I used to go to sushi bars and have competitions with the itamaesan (sushi chefs). I would name a fish and he would write the kanji, then he would name a fish and I would write the kanji until one of us failed to me able to with write or name another fish. I always lost, but typically after 25-30 rounds. These games make the Kanji fun. Every radical is an opportunity for a new game: Tree, water, fish, grass, love, … have fun.

    Having studied Japanese a very very long time, I can tell you that this method worked best for me..

    5) One more tip – once you’ve been in this a year or two, pay a calligraphy teacher (mine was Chinese), to give you lessons on brush calligraphy an hour a week for a few months. It will completely change your ability to write well. Your characters will be balanced and even beautiful! Your japanese friends will say ‘YOU wrote THAT?” And it will enable you to read much more difficult fonts and scripts because you will understand how the strokes were modified or simplified in writing. This will really blow away your Japanese colleagues! And it will open up ANOTHER whole new world of things you can understand.

    Having been back in the US for a decade, what I miss most about Japan is what I call “living in the fog.” The “fog” is the fog of understanding. The “fog” works your brain out and helps you learn so fast! Embrace the “fog”, don’t let it turn your brain off – let it supercharge your brain.

    1. Yes, absolutely. Kanji is the language, so if you learn the kanji first, then every word of vocabulary you later learn will make more sense. If you take that approach, I’d try to learn only 200-300 of the most common kanji, and only focus on the meaning of the kanji, not the pronunciation(s). That’ll give you a good start on the language.

      On the other hand, there are only 47 hiragana, so you could memorize those in a couple of weeks. They’ll help you to more correctly pronounce the kanji.

  18. Actually, English words are made of root words from other languages. Science uses a lot of Greek and Latin words to name things, and thanks to the Norman conquest, English contains a lot of old French, which is mostly Latin. Telephone is tele and phone – at a distance, and sound in Greek. So, now it’s obvious what television is. Kanji are just slightly divergent Chinese characters. As Ken says, they contain visual roots.

  19. Im taking college level Japanese for one year. I’m not sure how much is going to be taught. I’m trying to learn hinagana and quite miserably failing. All the letters look so similar to each other and some look so similar but sound so differently. I’m really worried I won’t be able to understand Japanese and memorize all these kanjis when I can’t even remember Hinagana. How do you know how the word will pronounce one Kanji when it seems like there so is many pronunciations?!? Any tips?

    I took German for 4 years and I was awful at it in high school. It seemed to be western languages never stuck so I’m trying Eastern now after a long break from Korean. Scratch that- I just suck at learning new languages.

    1. I feel your pain. First of all, you’re gonna to have to get your mind right, in that you’d do well to adjust your expectations. It’s not that you suck at learning languages—it’s that learning any language is hard as hell.

      And learning Japanese is really, really, really hard. So you’re going to need some really, really, really good study habits. Don’t even think about kanji yet. Like, you say you’re having trouble remembering hiragana. Okay, sit down and write あ、い、う、え、お on the side of a piece of paper. Then fold the paper over so you can’t see them, and try writing them again. Then fold, and do it again. Fold, and again. Fold, and again. Remember the Karate Kid? Yeah, not so funny any more, is it?

      Spend 20 minutes just writing the same five characters: あ、い、う、え、お. Then before bed, spend another 20 minutes. Tomorrow morning, write them again. Then write the next set: か、き、く、け、こ. And write them for 20 minutes. Fold, and again. And so on. It took me about 10 days of steady work to memorize hiragana—and quite a few months before I really internalized it.

      You see where I’m going with this, I’m sure. It’s a lotta hard work. Japanese especially, because of the crazy alphabets. Anybody who tells you it’s easy is lying. Okay, for some people, sitting around writing hiragana all day is fun. And if that’s you, great, then it won’t feel hard. P.S. get a life. For normal, socially well-adjusted people it’s mind-bendingly hard. That’s why virtually nobody can do it.

      So realize that. Like I know a dude who gets up every day at 4:30 a.m. to spend an hour studying Japanese, which he’s done for years. His Japanese? Fucking amazing. But that’s what it takes. I know a girl who paid thousands of dollars and enrolled in Japanese school full time for two years. Her Japanese is impressive. Are you willing to do that? I’m not. I put in my sporadic 60 minutes here and there during the day, every day for 12 years now, and I’m just okay.

      So decide how much you want to invest into this crazy project, because that’ll determine the results you get. And be okay with that.

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