How to best learn Japanese kanji characters


Proven methods for memorizing kanji

Most people struggle memorizing kanji. As every person is different we though it might be a good idea to make a collection of different ideas on how to best practice Japanese kanji. For most people a combination of different methods probably works best.


1) Repeatedly writing kanji

When we made a reader survey about the most effective ways to memorize kanji most mentioned that writing a kanji again and again worked best. It probably is the best method for beginners who need to first get used to kanji. Writing the kanji on worksheets helps to get the proportions right and to get  first feeling for them. The more advanced you become and the more you understand the structure of kanji the less you will require such worksheets.

Repeatedly writing kanji characters will also help you to understand the stroke order and the directions of the strokes. Although it might not  seem that important in the beginning it will become a very useful habit making things much easier when you start memorizing a large number of kanji.

We created a free pdf ebook for the first 103 kanji, which allows you to print the worksheets as often as you like on your own printer. Click here to download the file.


2) Kanji flashcards

Kanji flashcards are a very effective way of memorizing a large number of kanji in short time. The most effective way is to create flashcards by yourself as you will already memorize a lot during the production process. On the other hand it takes a lot of time and you might also make mistakes and memorize these.

The best paper made flashcards on the market are from White Rabbit Publishing. They have been on the market for many years and each cards includes a picture  of the kanji, the meaning and readings, the stroke order, vocabulary and some analogy to help remembering the kanji.


3) Learn kanji with Mnemonics

Most flashcards also use mnemonics, which are analogies to help remembering kanji. These can be very useful at the beginning when kanji still look very unfamiliar. The more you understand the structure of kanji the less you will rely on such often artificial analogies.

The book KANJI PICT O GRAPHIX received a lot of recognition for its innovative approach and the very well made graphical analogies.


4) Understand the history of the kanji

Knowing the history of a kanji can be very useful to remember it. As kanji originally were derived from pictures this method works well for visually oriented people. There is very little material in English about this. Joy ‘o Kanji is a site that writes an essay about each kanji that includes a lot of background information on each kanji. It is especially useful if you want to know more about your favorite kanjis.


5) Kanji Apps & kanji games

There is an ever growing number of software and phone applications to help memorizing kanji. The advantage of most applications is that they trace your progress and accordingly alter how often a kanji is presented. If installed on a smart phone they also allow you to practice anywhere at anytime and turn even a few minutes of idle time into productive time. As repetitions are more important than the duration of the exercise for memorizing something new this aspect can not be overrated.

Our personal favorite is Kanji Flip for those who prepare for the JLPT. However, there are so many applications on the market that we will probably write a separate review about the best kanji apps on the market.


6) Understanding the radicals

Kanji are made of components that are called radicals. Once you know the 214 most common kanji radicals understanding the structure of each kanji becomes very easy. Although it first sounds like a side track for beginners, knowing the radicals is a real asset when it comes to memorizing a very large number of kanji within a short time.


7) Practice reading

Memorizing a kanji is one thing but the biggest challenge is not to forget them. The most effective way to keep your memory of kanji fresh is to regularly practice reading. Unfortunately the choice of reading material for beginners is very limited. A Japanese newspaper will be too frustrating as you won’t understand most kanji and vocabulary. One way is to purchase Japanese books for children that just include the most basic kanji. It not only helps to memorize kanji but also makes you more familiar with simple sentences and patterns. The downside is that the stories can be quiet boring for adults.

We therefore recommend the Hiragana Times. It is an English-Japanese bi-lingual magazine with a hiragana transcription of all words written in kanji. As the monthly magazine covers many aspects of traditional and contemporary Japan it’s contents also has something interesting for most people. Reading kanji from real texts will also help you to memorize the most commonly used kanji first.


What works best for YOU?

We would be very interested to learn more about how you learn kanji. Share with us and our readers what worked for you and reply to this post!

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Comments

  1. Back when I was learning in college and afterward, I tried all of those. The repeatedly writing was good as a beginning, but after a while I found that I would be writing a kanji for the 50th time over a period of a few weeks and would find myself lost in thought about something else. When I finished writing, I would have forgotten either the pronunciation or the meaning or both. Flash cards? Bored to death in .0000037 seconds. Gotta use it in context in a sentence—actually many times in a sentence. That means reading and writing.

    I found reading was the best way to remember kanji after I had learned enough the other ways to know 600 or so (I never have counted) kanji and their basic meanings and could guess at those or compounds I encountered and did not know.

    Unfortunately, it is correct that there are very few sources of reading materials for beginners or even low intermediate. There were a few books from an NPO several years ago for beginner to lower intermediate. There are also some Japanese novels for intermediate-advanced level students with definitions, hints, grammatical explanations and such. Unfortunately many of these type of books have the flaw of listing furigana with kanji the first time it is mentioned in a text, and then just printing the Kanji w/o furigana afterward. I guess you are supposed to learn it instantly or else keep going back to the first time it was in the text.

    Today, the Internet is the best source of reading materials—Google NEws Japan is full of short articles. Download Rikaichan—which I still use occasionally as I hate, absolutely hate any printed or electronic Japanese dictionary—for any kanji/vocabulary you don’t know or have forgotten. Haven’t read the Hiragana Times for years, but it sounds like a good way.

    And write a diary in Japanese. By hand is the best way to remember the kanji, or use a Japanese language capable computer. You gotta get the spelling write for the correct kanji to show, which means you can check your pronunciation as well.

  2. Hi
    Nice tips, especially about learning radicals to be able to ‘chunk’ kanji elements and remember them more easily. For apps, try the iOS app Kanji Connect game which is more interactive and productive than flashcards. Or use your own Quizlet flashcard data in the Lex Word Game app
    Find them both on the app store or play at http://www.kanjigames.com

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