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Best way to learn Kanji

Updated on July 26, 2012

Kanji practice techniques

How to start, keep on going and succeed in learning kanji? There's no doubt that learning kanji is the most complex and time consuming part of learning the Japanese language, and often that part that causes the most headaches, and makes you feel like giving up. But how can you keep the learning process going without frustration? There are many ways of how to approach this seemingly daunting task, and over the last decade I have tried out a fair few methods covering basically everything from online recognition software and imaginative memory techniques, to flash cards and writing repetition. Having recently started to brush up my kanji knowledge, I have finally reached a conclusion of which method I found the most effective. So here's an overview of a few methods - hope it will help making the process a little less painful.

Without passion forget it!

Before you start find out what motivates you. Find that passion! If you don't really know what drives you, Kanji just like anything else will be a lot harder to learn. Therefore no matter what method you chose, keep your hobbies going at the same time. For example when not cramming characters watch that great Japanese movie you like, or read your favorite Japan site. If you are into Anime or Manga don't put it aside but really get into it. I love Japanese movies and a variety of Japanese style designs, and find great inspiration in seeking out anything new, so I try to surround myself with as many Japanese things that I like. Think about places you want to go, read travel books or manga, continue planning your trip... whatever it is, keep yourself motivated to avoid moving at snail's pace and discouragement.

Japanese animations - All time favorites

Online games and practice

There are many free games and online software available, in fact so many that it's hard to find your way. To me they all seem to be quite similar: Practice the On'yomi (Chinese) and Kun'yomi (Japanese) readings of the characters, learn the English meaning and pick up a few new Kanji. All this is without a doubt quite useful to some extent, the only thing I find, is just that it usually doesn't encourage you to physically write the characters yourself, as you sit there clicking away, and it's easy to lose concentration, and turn to something more interesting. I found that if done occasionally, or just to have a bit of a go, it's a good way to refresh your memory, and practice the recognition of the individual characters. The thing to be aware of, is just that it can be hard when you are going to hand write something, as you may not have remembered all the strokes.

Do imaginative memory techniques work?

"Imaginative memory techniques" differ from the "usual" study in the sense that you don't initially focus on the readings, but learn to remember the meaning of the kanji as well as the writing of the character first. This method originally created by philosopher James Heisig is heavily debated as individual learning experiences differ tremendously.

For me it was quite a negative experience as I feel that I invested a lot of time and didn't get very far in the end. Anyway, with this method a unique story it created around each kanji (which basically revolve around what radicals the characters are built upon) and you learn to associate the character with the story. If your study method is based on the book "Remembering the kanji" by Heisig you will learn simple to complex stories to assist in memorization, and also learn to create your own kanji stories to spice up your memory. His method sure has its benefits in regards to radicals, but I'm personally not much of a believer in its sublime advantages, as I believe that reading & writing should go hand in hand. However some people have great success with it, so it may work for you.

Flash Cards - Essentials for the Kanji learner

Why Flash Cards are GREAT

Flash cards are a great way to learn kanji. They are easy to carry around so you can study anywhere from the couch to the plane! Of course you can create them your self, but it's an awful lot of work though. I started out creating my own cards, but eventually it just got soo time consuming and tedious so I had to give in. I have been using Tuttle's kanji cards for years now, and I'm still really happy with them. There's a variety of flash cards available, so have a look around and see which ones suits you best. I have mainly been using Tuttle's and as they are the ones I know the best I will focus on those. So, WHAT'S ON THE CARDS?

The FRONT of each card shows:

  • A single character in large
  • 4 combinations where the character is used
  • The number of strokes
  • Dictionary reference number e.g. "KKN 29" ( Kanji & Kana by Wolfgang Hadamitzky & Mark Spahn)

The BACK of each card shows:

  • The On' yomi and Kun' yomi reading of the character
  • The meanings
  • The reading in Kana + English meanings of the 4 combinations
  • Stroke order - how to correctly write the character

All cards provide references to:

  • "Kanji & Kana" by Wolfgang Hadamitzky & Mark Spahn
  • "The New Nelson Japanese - English Character Dictionary" by Andrew Nelson
  • "A Guide to Reading and Writing Japanese" by Florence Sakade
  • "The Kanji Dictionary" Mark Spahn & Wolfgang Hadamitzky

I have personally found it very useful to reference the cards to "Kanji and Kana" and "The New Nelson Japanese - English character dictionary", but have a look through all of them and see what suits you best.

The artistic way

Although time consuming Calligraphy practice is one of the best ways to learn kanji. Focus is 100% on the stroke order and as you slowly work your way through the characters, one stroke at the time, it allows you to fully embrace the elements of the kanji.

If studying for a test and time is limited it's probably not the recommended method, as it simply takes too long. However, if calligraphy is done as a hobby it's a great way to both learn & express your self artistically at the same time.

As a part of one's kanji study I would highly recommend calligraphy practice. It provides an essential base for understanding the elements/radicals and the characters as a whole.

For more information on Japanese calligraphy please click HERE

Japanese Calligraphy - How to start

Why traditional pen & paper is the key

Repetition, yeah it sounds boring I know. Most people don't hand write much these days, so why is hand writing still important? Or is it at all? I think it still may be, not just for the odd letter but mainly for your memory. Online kanji games and recognition software are useful, just like study books and flash cards, but if only visually studying Kanji without not much focus on physically writing them, it seems that the characters don't sink it in the same way. You may initially get far, but once more and more characters add on to the pile, the picture starts getting blurry, and it's hard to remember. I found that if I not just flicked the flash cards, but actually spent the time writing the combinations listed on the cards, using the traditional method of pen and paper, the characters seemed to stick better. So that's the conclusion I have reached so far, it may initially seem tedious, but it sure pays off in the long run.

Unfortunately I haven't found any magic software or supernatural ways to conquer Kanji in no time, but what I have realized is that passion, persistence and repetitive writing combined with flash cards, are one of the best ways to easily soak up Kanji without them vanishing again. However if you do find a miracle cure please make sure to let me know :-)

Guestbook - Thank you for stopping by

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    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Only learned about kanji in this lens. Thanks.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      thanks for sharing the information

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Returning to this passionate lens on the best way to learn kanji with a passionate angel blessing.

    • JJNW profile image

      JJNW 5 years ago from USA

      Thanks for the info. My son wants to learn kanji.

    • SciTechEditorDave profile image

      David Gardner 5 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area, California

      Nice! I've spent many years learning my hiragana, katakana, and kanji (hanzu) -- Congratulations on a Squidoo masterpiece!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Kanji in Japanese is very similar to Chinese chararcter. :)

    • wilfredpadilla profile image

      wilfredpadilla 5 years ago

      I like to learn this.

    • ForestBear LM profile image

      ForestBear LM 6 years ago

      @poptastic: Hi Arncyn, I find that hard too. Thank you for the blessing, I appreciate it. Ganbatte ne :-)

    • poptastic profile image

      Cynthia Arre 6 years ago from Quezon City

      Thanks for your tips, I'm learning kanji myself and like you, I didn't really like the method described in RTK. I find that the flashcard method works best too, though it's really difficult to memorize all the kunyomi for characters that have more than 5 readings! Oh well, ganbarimasu (; ~Blessed by a Squid Angel~

    • sukkran trichy profile image

      sukkran trichy 6 years ago from Trichy/Tamil Nadu

      first time i heard about kanji. learned new thing from your lens. thanks

    • christopherlee lm profile image

      christopherlee lm 6 years ago

      Very good topic well done for a good Len.

    • profile image

      dellgirl 6 years ago

      Yaaaaa, I'm like #20! I like that.

    • efriedman profile image

      efriedman 6 years ago

      Interesting lens on good topic. I once tried to learn a little Kanji and enjoyed the process, but i did not get very far with it. Could you add some examples on your lens so that people can see how beautiful it is?

    • ForestBear LM profile image

      ForestBear LM 6 years ago

      @efriedman: Thank you, good idea!

    • John Dyhouse profile image

      John Dyhouse 6 years ago from UK

      Not sure if I could ever have the skill or patience to learn this. On a lighter note, as an artist I do use some of the symbols in my artwork as an alternative to western text, simpy for their visual appeal. Well written and put across, thanks for sharing

    • ForestBear LM profile image

      ForestBear LM 6 years ago

      Hi everyone, thank you for your comments. I have just updated the lens, please let me know your thoughts. Thank you

    • profile image

      neoglitch17 6 years ago

      'Remembering The Kanji' rocks a lot... hey, you should expand a little bit about the book!

      Awesome lens by the way and very informative... but I would recommend using SRS software instead of paper flashcards ¬_¬

    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 6 years ago from UK

      I think anything that makes learning Kanji a little easier for us Westerners is very welcome. Thanks for sharing your tips.

    • archangelptx profile image

      archangelptx 6 years ago

      Great read--thank you! I've always wanted to dive into another language totally foreign to my own, and your lens is nothing but encouraging me to follow that dream.

    • SueM11 profile image

      Sue Mah 6 years ago from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

      What a great way to start at Squidoo. Learning a new language is tough and without a real interest or passion it is so easy to give up.

    • James20 profile image

      James20 6 years ago

      Welcome to squidoo.

    • cinstress profile image

      cinstress 6 years ago

      wow you should post some pictures of your writings

    • katiecolette profile image

      katiecolette 6 years ago

      What a great lens! And when it comes to learning languages, I totally agree, without passion - forget it!

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 6 years ago from Colorado

      I really enjoy Kanji and would love to be able to learn this language. Thanks!