The Ultimate Guide to Learning Japanese Kanji

By Abdulai Lateef | Updated October 10, 2019

This article is part of our series of articles on how to learn Japanese.

Japanese Kanji 1

Have you tried to read any Japanese books yet? Have you walked down the streets and seen posters and company names in letters unfamiliar to you? Well, those unfamiliar characters are called Japanese kanji

Japanese kanji can seem intimidating, but it's essential if you're seeking full language comprehension. Why? Japanese kanji is one of the three main scripts used in the Japanese language, along with hiragana and katakana. Hiragana is a phonetic lettering system. The word hiragana literally means "ordinary" or "simple". Hiragana is used to write various grammatical and function words including particles, as well as miscellaneous other native words for which there are no kanji or whose kanji form is obscure or too formal for the writing purpose. Some example of hiragana are あ, い, か, き, く, and many others.

Katakana on the other hand is primarily used for words of foreign origin. The katakana syllabary usage is quite similar to italics in English; specifically, it is used for transcription of foreign-language words into Japanese and the writing of loan words for emphasis; to represent onomatopoeia; for technical and scientific terms; and for names of plants, animals, minerals and often Japanese companies. Some examples of katakana are ア, イ, カ, キ, and many others as well.

Being able to read kanji will take you from an intermediate level to an advanced level of Japanese comprehension. Altogether, your Japanese vocabulary will multiply, and gateways to a deeper understanding of Japanese culture will open. If your goal is complete literacy in Japanese, kanji is essential.

This article will break down the steps you need to be able to master Japanese kanji, provide resources for efficient study, and most importantly - tips to actually remember them.

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    All About Japanese Kanji

    Japanese kanji are the adopted logographic Chinese characters that are used in the Japanese writing system. They are used alongside hiragana and katakana. The Japanese term kanji for the Chinese characters literally means "Han characters". It is written with the same characters as in Traditional Chinese to refer to the character writing system.

    Japanese kanji has been part of Japan's culture for more than a thousand years and is a primary language skill for all speakers, both native and non-native. Before kanji was introduced from China in the 5th century, no official Japanese writing system existed. Changes to the Japanese writing system began in the 5th century and ended in the 8th century. Few of the original Chinese pronunciations were kept; the Japanese people gave the characters to their own words and pronunciations and even created new ones during this period of development.

    Japanese kanji are made up of various radicals to form an individual, whole kanji. Many kanji are ideographs: pictures that represent real-life objects, like hieroglyphics. For example, 山 (yama), represents mountains. When you understand the building blocks of Japanese kanji, it can be really enjoyable to break them down and study them.

    Types of Kanji

    Kanji can have two readings: a native Japanese reading known as kun-yomi (訓読み), and a traditional Chinese reading known as on-yomi (音読み.) For example, the Japanese kanji for river (川) is commonly read as かわ (kawa); this is the kun-yomi reading. On the other hand, in the on-yomi readings, it’s 河 (Hé). Some kanji only take the on-yomi reading, and some only take the kun-yomi reading.

    Also, some common kanji have ten or more possible readings; the most complex common example is 生, which is read as sei, shō, nama, ki, o-u, i-kiru, i-kasu, i-keru, u-mu, u-mareru, ha-eru, and ha-yasu, totaling eight basic readings.

    Kanji is Important to Japanese Culture

    Japanese calligraphy, known as shodo, is the artistic writing of the Japanese language. Current estimates indicate that around 20 million people practice shodo, and it’s a skill that's been passed down since the Samurais.

    Shodo creates Japanese characters and symbols by hand using a brush dipped in ink. Traditional calligraphy specifically requires a bamboo brush and sumi ink. The symbols are drawn with a series of vertical, horizontal, and angled brush strokes.

    Japanese Kanji is Essential Outside the Big Cities

    In Japan, understanding kanji is a survival skill. If you venture outside of the major metropolitan areas, you'll find that hardly any small towns have English signs. Understanding Japanese kanji will be the best tool in your belt when navigating these native villages.

    Japanese Kanji 2

    Japanese Kanji Makes Japan More Interesting

    Japanese kanji has been around for nearly two millennia. Understanding this writing system is the gateway to Japan's long and proud history, all the way back to the 5th century. When you understand Japanese kanji, you’re fully immersed in the bright Tokyo billboards and the countrysides shop signs.

    Japanese kanji can be particularly interesting when you start learning the real meaning behind common Japanese words. Did you know that most Japanese companies actually have a name in kanji and that while those kanji's are often used in Japan, they're rarely ever used elsewhere? The same applies to Japanese places and people names. Once you understand the kanji, you can understand the origin of the place and name, even though it may not match with the modern look of the place.

    Japanese Company Names

    if you check your car parts, you can sometimes see the Japanese kanji of the Japanese car manufacturer printed on them. Many of the names relate either to the location they came from or the brand image of the company and its products. For example:

    日産:Nissan means both sun/Japan and product/birth, and can be interpreted as "product of Japan" or "made from the sun." The kanji for the sun is the character used in Nihon, which is how Japanese people refer to Japan.

    豊田:Toyota is actually named for a place in Japan called Toyota, similar to how the brand Kawasaki is named after a place called Kawasaki. Toyota means "plentiful rice fields" and Kawasaki means "river cape," because there's a huge river that flows through parts of the city.

    任天堂:This is the kanji for Nintendo, and it's definitely not a normal word. The blog Kotaku even wrote an article that is several pages long trying to explain the name.

    観音:This is the Japanese kanji for the company Canon, which comes from the Japanese word kannon, which represents the goddess of mercy in Buddhism.

    Japanese People Names

    Japanese people and place names are often derived from the location they originate from. There are tons of unique Japanese names like Tokugawa, the former ruling dynasty of Japan, and other names of former royalty which are not so common anymore. You also have plain and commonly used family names like Nakamura, which means inner village, or even something like Kawasaki and Toyota, which became names for the masses of people from that location.

    The famous soccer Keisuke Honda's family name is "main or base rice field," while the famous figure skater Mao Asada's family name means "shallow rice field." We found a nice article with more information on Japanese family name kanji and examples of people that you may know.

    Learning Japanese Kanji:

    By the time Japanese students graduate from high school, they’ve learned to read and write around 2,042 kanji. Fortunately for foreigners, it can take a lot less than twelve years to learn! To become fluent in kanji, you'll need to learn around 2,000 basic Japanese kanjis used in media and everyday Japanese life.

    Don't panic; once you have the first 400-500 symbols down, the rest tend to follow smoothly. You really only need around 1,200 to read a newspaper or go to work. But if your goal is complete fluency, then 2,000 is a good goal to work for.

    There are many blogs dedicated to learning Japanese kanji as quickly as possible. However, learning something quickly doesn’t always mean the information fully sinks in or becomes usable. The Heisig method, associating Japanese kanji with English keywords to remember visual stories that associate the character with its meaning. This is cited as one of the most successful ways to learn Japanese kanji.

    A lucky few are able to memorize kanji on the first glance, but for the rest of us, here are a few techniques to improve your kanji study.

    1. Using SRS to Understand Japanese Kanji

    Spaced Repetition System, or SRS, is a great way to learn and retain information. This system is best utilized by Anki, a recommend flashcard learning system. In order to use Anki efficiently, you'll want to download a deck that you can associate context with. Another way to utilize SRS is by going old school and handwriting the kanji on a note card to create a custom deck. Only downloading a “most used kanji’ list to study is fine, but you may find yourself hard pressed to actually remember them all.

    2. The Heisig Method to Japanese Kanji

    The Heisig method was developed in the series “Remember the Kanji,” written by James Heisig. The Heisig Method is a technique to remember kanji through ‘primitives’ and mnemonic devices. These ‘primitives’ may be radicals, other kanji, or a series of strokes. It has proved to be very effective, and people who learned lots of kanji in a small amount of time cited this method. James Heisig himself said that by using his method, he was able to memorize 2,000 kanji within a month. Don't despair;, learning 25 to 50 kanji in a month is just as impressive and amazing a goal to work for.

    The Heisig Method in Action

    Japanese vocabulary can be simplified through kanji too! When you associate the kanji symbol with an actual object or image of a dog, bike, or sun, then it’s easier to remember the word. One good example of visualizing a kanji and turning it into a mnemonic is "relaxing" in Japanese.

    木=Tree

    休 = Relax > A person laying on a tree is "relaxing".

    田=Field

    Challenge 1

    What do you think this Japanese kanji represents? (Answer below)

    果:Hint it combines two of the kanji mentioned above.

    Examples of Easy-to-Remember Kanji

    Here are some examples of some easy-to-visualize Japanese kanji. The common element in these kanji is that they are nouns or words of objects.

    雨・車・木・川・森・口・一・二・三・鳥

    Examples of Harder-to-Remember Kanji

    Kanji used for verbs and adjectives are somewhat harder to remember, and you'll need a good mnemonic or a lot of practice to remember them.

    厳・約・都・走・逃

    Answers to Challenge 1 and Kanji Meanings

    Did you guess what 果 represents? It means "fruit" and is the combination of tree and field. A common mnemonic used to remember this kanji goes something like this:

    果 Fruit trees growing in a field

    Here are the meanings of the kanji from above:

    雨 (rain) from heavenly cloud

    車 (car) with two wheels

    木 Tree

    森 Forest

    川 River

    口 Mouth

    ・一・二・三:1 2 3 respectively

    鳥 Bird

    Challenge 2

    Please come up with a mnemonic or story to remember the Kanji for river, forest, and tree. You are welcome to post your answer on our BFF Tokyo Facebook Page.

    If you are looking for some easy to learn Japanese Kanji and commonly used mnemonics, check out the list of Japanese Kanji Mnemonics by Jim Henshall, or check out these two videos.

    3. Learning Japanese Kanji through your Community

    Another way to develop your Japanese kanji skills is through your community. Learning from your community can create an exciting environment to learn from your peers and make new friends.

    You can join in on competitions like the Kuzushiji Recognition competition, which has a grand prize of $15,000!

    Social media is another great way to find a community in your area studying Japanese kanji. Be sure to check sites like Facebook or Reddit; you can search from the social media of your preference for local kanji study groups. One website example is a forum called Kanji Koohii, which uses the Heisig method to help people from all over the world study Japanese kanji together. Another awesome website to find Japanese kanji enthusiasts is Meetup; you can find local groups in your area there or even make your own!

    Last but not least, go outside and find a group of people in your area and create your own study group. Studying in groups can help reduce the stress of trying to learn on your own. You can make your own competitions and games or practice calligraphy. In your own group, you get to decide which way you like to study with the people you like being around.

    4. Use a Support System

    Sometimes, you just need a shoulder to lean on to reach your goal. This is where your community comes in! You can find this support in your friends, family, or even the internet. Here are a couple of apps to help you form good learning habits:

    Habit List:

    This app is part of the visualization aspect. You can see your progress in streaks on the calendar and compare your progress overtime. This app you will allow you to see benefit over the long term.

    This app is only available to IOS devices.

    Goal Tracker and Habit List:

    Simple to use; just tap once for a successful day, and tap again if you didn’t manage to reach your goal.

    5. Establish Achievable Goals

    If you want to learn 5 kanji a day - great! If you want to learn 20 kanji a day - amazing! Just be sure that whatever goal you set for yourself will be achievable. It’s easy to lose motivation when you’re having a hard time reaching an unrealistic goal. Have fun with what you’re doing, but also be purposeful. If you bully or put yourself down for not reaching your goal, you won’t enjoy learning Japanese kanji. And don’t forget to treat yourself every now and then for your progress!

    6. Review!

    Reviewing is your best friend. Set aside time to sit down and go over what you’ve been practicing. You can even make a little homemade quiz for yourself. Japanese kanji is like math in that you build up your skills with each new formula you learn. Take the time to study kanji at your own pace and review what you've learned.

    7. Make Some Friends

    Another way to connect with the native speakers and the community around you is to ask for help with kanji. Many good relationships and friendships are formed this way! For more, check out our article on How to Make Japanese Friends.

    8. Learning Kanji through Kanji WorkBooks/ Textbooks

    If you are looking to self-study and do not have any idea as to which textbook to use in improving your kanji skills, well, here are the top 5 kanji textbooks/workbooks that I strongly suggest for you.

    I. Elementary Kanji Workbook (1026 kanji)
    It is true! Kanji is difficult to learn and even more difficult to master. The best way to improve your reading and writing ability is practice, practice, and more practice! This book doesn’t just teach you the meanings and how to write kanji but also uses them in sentences. Reading practical sentences and inserting the proper kanji is very helpful in learning. Each page has a new set of kanji, paired with sentences and phrases to practice each one.
    This book features 1,026 kanji! That’s a lot and once you’ve mastered those you’ll know most of the kanji used in everyday life.

    II. Practical Kanji - Kanji & Kanji Vocabulary for the Modern World (Volume 1&2)
    This book has two main volumes: Vol.1 and Vol.2. By learning kanji and vocabulary frequently used for various topics and news articles about modern society, you will be able to read specialized information. This textbook contains carefully selected N3-N1 level kanji and kanji vocabulary that frequently appears in topics and news articles on Japanese geography, economy, politics, and society.

    Users of this book can learn new kanji from each section and already learned kanji are connected to each other hence increasing the vocabulary too.
    By practicing reading, writing, and listening in context, this textbook will help users increase their kanji vocabulary and develop reading skills.
    This textbook comes with a red sheet that users can practice repeatedly while hiding the kana versions. There are also English translations in this textbook.

    III. Intermediate Kanji Book Vol. 1&2 - 1000 Kanji
    The Intermediate Kanji Book Vol. 1&2 - 1000 Kanji also teaches a more practical form of using Kanji. These Intermediate books focus more on Kanji structure, uses, and grammar kanji. This is aimed at helping users towards fluency. This textbook is perfect for anyone that wishes to challenge themselves after completing the Basic Kanji Book series.

    If you already have a solid understanding of intermediate grammar, if you want to apply and test your current Kanji knowledge, or if you are aiming to build your vocabulary, then this book is your best choice. Each volume is made of approximately 337 pages and the language of this textbook is Japanese as expected.

    IV. Kanji Dictionary 2500
    Kanji Dictionary 2500 includes nearly all the kanji needed for daily life and for reading novels and news articles. It includes all 2,136 Joyo Kanji - characters taught in Japanese schools - as well as 350 additional kanji commonly used in Japanese writing. Knowing every kanji included in this book will be a tremendous step towards mastering the Japanese language and open up a whole new world of Japanese reading and literature.

    Kanji are organized by their frequency, allowing students to quickly learn practical kanji they can see in almost any Japanese text. You won’t be wasting your time studying obscure kanji that Japanese people don’t even use. Instead, every kanji matters and builds a foundation for increasing your kanji knowledge base. Each kanji is given its own section with incredibly detailed information such as the readings, stroke order, example vocabulary and sentences, and even their JLPT level. Concise English translations make it an excellent source for learning new words as well as kanji. You won’t find a more comprehensive kanji guide anywhere else.

    V. Kanji in Context Workbook Vol. 1&2
    Unlike most kanji study books that focus on beginners and the basics of kanji, Kanji in Context book is a system designed specifically for intermediate and advanced learners. This series will enable you to systematically and efficiently learn 2136 kanji and the kanji-based vocabulary essential to advanced Japanese communication. Yes! You read it right. 2136 kanji.

    Volume 1 of this book covers 1,200 kanji and volume 2 covers the last of the course's 2136 kanji. It is divided into lessons of kanji reading practice exercises covering 10-20 kanji each. If you are focusing on studying kanji, or if you are studying using the Genki textbooks, An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese or Progressing from Intermediate to Advanced series, this is the best text for you to continue your Japanese kanji skills.

    The Above are just a few examples of Kanji textbooks and workbooks that will be helpful to anyone looking to improve their Kanji. There are many other textbooks to help you improve your kanji here.

    Bonus: Check out these two videos on how to remember your kanji and keep them at your fingertips!
    https://youtu.be/sspUdoV9Il0
    https://youtu.be/TgRte6oSoF8

    Japanese Kanji 3

    9. Learning Kanji through Kanji Apps.

    Our smartphones are recently our most frequently used devices. The smartphone has its downsides but the good news is that it can help everyone who is learning to improve massively. There are mobile apps that are designed purposely for learning kanji and below are the top 5 free apps to help you learn kanji effectively.

    I. The Flashcard Fiend: Anki

    Anki allows you to import kanji and vocabulary from popular textbooks or JLPT lists and then convert them into flashcards. You are able to personalize your own flashcards. The kanjis can range from just a word or kanji to vocabulary placed in sentences to help you understand the context. There are audiovisual representations in the form of photos to make the learning process more fun.

    Users of this app will be presented with a flashcard, and they will have to think of the answer and click to have it revealed. Every user is able to self evaluate their abilities. Then there is a repetition of the same process with many other kanji options.

    Along with being able to create your decks, Anki comes with a range of useful features, including an answer timer and the ability to flip the questions and answers. This is particularly good for when you want to switch between reading kanji or vocabulary to being able to write them.

    Anki can be used as an app, online, or a desktop version. For creating decks, you might find it quicker to use the desktop version and then sync it with your device. This app can be used on the iPhone and on android phones.

    II. The Sensei: Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese

    If you’re looking for structure or can’t grasp meaning from context, Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese is the answer to your prayers. This app is made up of logically organized lessons, beautifully clear explanations, and conjugation tables. There are also exercises for the first chapters on basic grammar for users to practice.

    A vocabulary list with examples, kanji readings, and English definitions are available for every lesson. All the kanji in this app are clickable, so users do not need to refer to a dictionary.

    Unfortunately for this app, the lessons are not considered as games, so there might not be much fun for users who are seeking entertainment but if you seriously learn and understand Japanese extensively, Tae Kim's Guide to Learning Japanese is your best choice of App!
    It is also important to note that this phone has only iPhone supported versions so android cannot access at the moment.

    III. The Quizmaster: Obenkyo

    With Obenkyo, users will start from the basics of katakana and hiragana and advance through to kanji and vocabulary. Comprehensive Japanese learning is taking one step at a time.

    The app quizzes users with multiple-choice and writing tests using your touchscreen. Kanji lists can be displayed according to JLPT levels, making this the ultimate tool for preparing for the exam. You can easily access a list of vocabulary, classified by word type as in a dictionary.

    The most important feature of this app is the handwriting recognizer. It corrects not only your form but also your stroke order. If it makes a mistake in recognizing your writing, you can quickly tell it so, and your score will be adjusted accordingly. The app has also imported Tae Kim’s guide for grammatical references.
    It is unfortunate that iPhone users cannot use this app because it currently only has android versions.

    IV. The Dictionaries: imiwa?

    This is one of the most popular apps among foreigners in Japan. Imiwa is an offline dictionary with a variety of methods for finding words. You can search using romaji and Japanese characters, but you can look up kanji by SKIP (System of Kanji Indexing by Patterns), multi-radical, and Chinese radical. Its clear interface allows for the easy creation of lists and favorites and straightforward copy to clipboard/export to email functions.

    This App has example sentences and definitions in multiple languages. If your first language is not English, you do not have to worry, hopefully, your language will be found in the translations.
    The other fantastic feature is an automatic look-up of any text that you have copied to the clipboard. This app is also for iPhones only.

    V) The Government-Approved: WaniKani

    This app called WaniKani has over 2,000 kanji and 6,000 words sourced from the official joyo kanji guide established by the Japanese Ministry of Education. Through spaced repetition, you learn to depend on memory recall as you ascend through the various levels. However, it’s recommended that you have a solid grasp of reading both hiragana and katakana before starting. While this isn’t a service designated to teach grammar, there are example sentences for everything you learn that is useful for syntactic exposure or review.

    If your daily life as a user becomes hectic and busy, you can freeze your progress. If enough time has passed that you forget or feel overwhelmed, you can also reset your level, but it’s permanent. It might take approximately one or two years to completely master all the items in this textbook. WaniKani is free to try for the first three levels. Afterward, there’s a small monthly fee. This app is built for iPhone and Android systems.

    VI. Kanji App

    Last on the list of recommended apps for learning Japanese kanji is none other than Kanji App! Within the timeline of a year, users of this app will be able to learn 2,200 kanji and 7,000 words. Radicals, kanji, and vocabulary are taught to users through lessons and mnemonics.

    This App uses 5 main study methods to help users to learn Japanese effectively. These methods are; lessons & reviews, spaced repetition systems, radicals, kanji, and words.

    Under lessons & reviews, users of this app can practice kanji items via reviews until recalling has become not necessary anymore. Since practice makes perfect, this is the best chance for users to review all that they have learnt. Spaced repetition systems offer more than just flashcards. The Algorithm adjusts the time between reviews for each item, calculated by your last correct answer. This way, users will learn radicals, kanji, and vocabulary at the optimal time for you. This guarantees success.

    Radicals on the other hand are the building blocks of Kanji and this App. This app uses them to help you memorize kanji items within minutes. Concerning kanji, users will learn over 2,200 kanji that are hand-picked and cleverly ordered by the Japanese language test system. This way you can learn the kanji meanings and readings more efficiently. Finally, there is vocabulary that users can learn too! Users of this app will learn thousands of Japanese words that are useful to their daily life.

    Fortunately for every phone user, this app is available for iPhones and for Android phones too.

    10. Leveling up your Japanese with two good Schools.

    After the above ways to study Japanese Kanji and improve your skill, if you still wish to take your Japanese lesson with a school, here are two best recommendations for you! They teach the Japanese language comprehensively; They teach grammar, kanji, and vocabulary. Below are the two best schools in Tokyo. Japan Switch and Coto Academy.

    Japan Switch Tokyo

    Are you looking to study Japanese at the cheapest cost in Tokyo? The cost of living in Tokyo is expensive so Japan Switch Tokyo has made its classes cheaper for you to learn while you save money. Japan Switch is your best choice. Japan Switch is one of the best Japanese language schools in Tokyo for foreigners.

    Their Cheap cost coupled with friendly and supportive methods of learning makes Japan switch your best shot at improving your communication in Japanese while not cutting a hole in your wallet.

    The great news is that; Japan Switch combines all the above methods to help students develop their Japanese skills extensively. For more information, please visit Japan Switch Tokyo. There is also no charge for enrollment or hidden fees. Trust me, if you want your Japanese Language skills to improve in no time, Japan Switch is your best investment!

    Coto Japanese Language Academy

    Established in 2000, Coto Japanese Language Academy has been teaching Japanese to international residents of Tokyo and Yokohama and their families for over 20 years. Based on their goal: Your growth is our goal, they have established five types of schedules to fit everyone who is willing to improve their Japanese skills. These schedules are: part-time Japanese lessons, JLPT preparation courses, private lessons, part-time Japanese courses+JLPT prep courses(Yokohama School), and online lessons.

    Coto Japanese language academy has so many outstanding features and some of these are; students gets many speaking practice opportunities, small class sizes maximum of 8 People which allow for relational learning and personalized attention, Industry-leading in-house developed course materials (Nihongo Fun & Easy) teaches practical and fun Japanese you can use in your daily life.

    Also, flexible scheduling allows you to study on any schedule, free course consultation and level check ensures you a lesson plan that matches your needs, multiple locations and online lessons allow you to keep studying even if you move. Coto Japanese Language Academy is located in Tokyo and Yokohama; two of the biggest cities in Japan.

    If you are looking to take the JLPT exams, intensive or take Japanese lessons online, look no further than the Coto academy, they are here for you.

    Additional Information

    Check out these articles for more information on learning Japanese reading, listening, and speaking!

    Kanji Learning Resources

    Here are few extra resources for you to study Kanji!

    Additional Information

    Check out these articles for more information on learning Japanese reading, listening, and speaking!

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