The Ultimate Guide to Learning Japanese Kanji

By Meridian Jordan and Natasha Henriksson | Updated September 26, 2019

Japanese Kanji 1

Learning Japanese Kanji is Essential

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. 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.

In this article we will be covering these topics:

All About Japanese Kanji

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 which 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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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Tip #1: 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.

Tip #2: Establish Acheivable 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!

Tip #3: 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.

Tip #4: 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 “How to Make Japanese Friends"

Additional Information

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

Japanese Reading 3

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