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How to memorize Japanese Kanji

Updated on March 3, 2013

Kanji learning methods

In this part is written about the same what have been said at the movie. That is why if you watched it, you do not need to read this article. It is written for those of you, who prefer reading.

So as all of you probably know, there are a lot of ways to achieve some goal. Of course there is also distinction for effective and not ones. Unfortunately, in the case of kanji is difficult to say what is the best choice for YOU. That is why, I will try to present all possible methods, that I know. If you will ever find some other one and it will fit your personal preferences, USE IT and do not care about that someone told, that it is extremely ineffective!

Below this sign, there is the divine stone that can make you pregnant, so better learn some kanji before you touch something in Japan! This stone is in Nara city, by the way.

Method I - classic

You can learn kanji exactly the same way as Japanese children do. So you will need few square-line(1sq=1cm x 1cm if possible) notes, a lot of pencils, at least 2 hours a day and you should prepare for really hard work! To be honest, you can not avoid it no matter which way you will choose. Sorry!

If you wander what should you do with all of those things, I will tell you. Google for some kanji chart or dictionary, or check "links" on my site. You should start from simple ones. So if you have never heard about kanji before you should check out 1 grade ones. For students more familiar with Japanese(Chinese in fact) characters I recommend 3 grade and above. It is because, even if you do not know perfectly every kanji in 1 grade set, but generally you think you somehow understand their meaning or you can read them, you can learn them later "by the occasion".
To sum up, in this method you should write every kanji at least 10 times (without looking at the chart or kanji you just have written). However, I heard suggestions saying that it is better to write it about 100 times!

Method II - mnemonics

Have you ever seen funny pictures that represents kanji? For example an eye with two legs for 見 or a bird above the fire to represent 焦 ? Have you? I think it is kind of cool staff, but to make it effective you need one thing. You should understand why drawer used those pictures! Come on, 隹 <-does it look like a bird at the first glance? I do not think so. So, for this method you need to know so called "elements". I am not sure if it is exactly the same as 部首 "radicals", but try to google it. There are about 256 elements from which you can create kanji. 256 seems to be a huge number, but if you compare it with more than 2000 kanji that you should know, becomes acceptable. However, you will not use it except for your learning... Never mind, when you became familiar with those elements you will understand mnemonic pictures.
Hmm, but there is some way to avoid memorizing those elements or make it easier. I bought some book called "kanji pict-o-graphix" that contains mnemonic pictures as well as their explanations(chapter starts from single radical) and mnemonic stories. It is 3 in 1. I you wonder how much it is, I paid for mine less than $20.
So if you feel that mnemonic is something for you, try it. It can be very effective, but as for me it is too messy. It helps sometimes, but I would not base my learning on this method.

Method III- personalize your browser

There are many add-ons for popular browsers. Most of them is useless for kanji learners, but there is the one that you may like. After installation, this plug-in will change first letter of words displaying on websites into kanji that contain the meaning of those words. Maybe it sounds complicated, but it is really simple. It translate the site you are reading into Japanese and shows only part of translation. For example for the word "house" it should show something like "家ouse". If you like something like this, you should check out firefox add-ons:

Me, I was using it for only one day. As you know, online translators are not perfect. Only simple words can be translated accurately. Maybe it is good for revision while reading your favorite sites. But the extension I really like is hover dictionary. It's useful rather for memorizing words more than kanji, but it may help. It saves a lot of time, because you don't have to copy and paste words into dictionary. You just hover your cursor over them, that's it! For firefox it's "rikaichan" and "rikaikun" for chrome. However, firefox version contains names dictionary and generally is more extended one.

Here there are:

Method IV - read(watch) Japanese text even if you don't understand

Sounds little strange, doesn't in? Of course, reading kanji without learning them first is impossible. That is why, what I mean is in fact watching Japanese texts! Nowadays, thanks to youtube and so on, you surely will not have any problems to find, for example, song that you will like with lyric. So, while listening music, that you like, you can learn in the pleasant way. It is a wonderful solution. You can find lyric by searching for "song title" 歌詞, but I recommend you to find some movie with subtitles. Or even better if you will find some karaoke(try to look for テロップ). It because you will know which word of the song is actually being sung.

Method V - kanji flashcards

If you are thinking seriously about learning kanji, you should invest for set of them. Do you remember, that I said you need revisions to learn kanji? Flashcards are the best way to keep revisions simple! What is more, you probably can take few cards with you when you go out and learn in your spare time. To be honest, I am not sure about it, but... Well, as form me, I find it hard to learn for example in queue, but maybe some of you do not see any problem in it. Whatever, you don't need to learn when you are out, but you should think about cards while learning at home! Unfortunately I bought my cards as the last study material. I wish I bought it as the first one! I really can say, that flashcards skyrocket my kanji knowledge.
If you decide to purchase some flashcards, you may wander which should you choose. There are probably many kinds of them, especially if you are living in the USA. So when you go to a bookstore to look for one set, firstly you should check the material which cards are made! It is not the joke. It is very important. Once I owned some French flashcards made of thin paper(common paper). You know what, I used them only once! It was the cheap set, but useless. So kanji flashcards, that you will buy, should look like playing cards. Cards that you will use hundreds times and nothing bad happen to them except, that edges become little bit dirty. Next, thing that you should check is that if the Japanese word on the back is written in hiragana or not. Come on, are you going to learn kanji without knowing hiragana?! And the last and the most important one, check if those cards contains example words! Knowing kanji separately is useless knowledge! What is more, thanks to this you will be able to read every word properly and you expand your vocabulary!

Method VI - use technology!

Recently, it's my favorite one. By technology, I mean something more than just browsers and youtube. Now, we'are living in the era of smartphones and tablets with beatitude of app markets. When I started to write this list, there haven't been this point yet. So it's quite recent method. However, it's very powerful one! You can practice all jouyou kanji in, let's say, one month! Of course if you would spend few hours every day. When I started to practice, I was using web version of "kanji writing game". It was little bit overwhelming, because you had to practice whole sets of 180-200 characters at once. But I was really into it! Spent hours on this "game". Sad fact is that, once you will be able to get perfect score it's just the beginning of the way to mastering this particular set. From now, you will have to practice it over and over again to not forget! And even worse is that you will surely forget dozens of kanji in some point if you're going to learn fast(it's your goal, I remind). But, don;t worry. After few sessions later you will be able to write any kanji in set from memory almost automatically, without even thinking about stroke order etc. Second application, that I use is "tegaki kanji doriru 1006" for android.It's absolutely free app, that you can download from google play. It covers only primary school's kanji, but I love this app. There is also version with middle school's kanji, but I didn't like it. However, you can give it a try!

Here are the links for those "games":

Method VII - merge it all!

method 6- bad news

Sorry to say that, but I am sure that you will need most of those methods in the case of learning kanji... You will see by your own. If you will not write kanji few times, you probably will not remember it well enough to write it by yourself without looking to the chart. Mnemonics and watching through a text that being read is also very helpful. And of course, flashcards to organize your revisions' plan.

Here are some videos on how to make your kanji look better

It's all about angle of depression. Hmm, if it only was that simple...

But if you're interested in some rules of calligraphy, I can recommend Nintendo DS game called "Bimoji training". You can buy it here:


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    • Adam Slucki profile imageAUTHOR

      Adam Słucki 

      5 years ago from Poland

      Oh I see, fact that someone serves you a steak, when you think you ordered only a beer may be surprising and even a little bit scary if you don't have enough money to pay, isn't it? :) However, firstly I thought you accidentally ordered something inedible in non-Japanese eyes.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      5 years ago from sunny Florida

      O my...kanji got me in trouble. Let me put that a different way---my lack of knowledge of kanji got me in trouble. I wrote a hub about it---it was funny sort of. I went to a restaurant and pointed at the kanji that I thought my friend had pointed at and was very surprised when the order came and I had to send it back.

      Thanks for sharing this...I wish I had known it many years ago.

      Sending you Angels this afternoon :) ps


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