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Kanji memorization

Updated on February 24, 2014

Looks difficult, neh?

What? Kanji?!

Japanese Kanji!

How do you go about memorizing it? What about drawing out each kanji and remembering its meaning?

First, a little background into why I'm writing about this now. I'm going to Japan in late March to attend a language school. For the past six months I have been doing some preparation of my own; studying grammar, vocabulary and so on.

But wow, all those symbols, they can be so confusing! After a bit of work though, I believe I have found the best combination of exercises to successfully memorize kanji symbols and store them in your long-term memory.

I have been working with a number of different methods, but the majority of them involved flashcards and repetitious writing and studying. Over and over, everyday. While it worked to an extent, I felt like it wasn't that successful. To date, I have only memorized about 120 kanji, which isn't much considering I have to memorize around 2000 kanji by the end of 2015!

I had heard much about a method involving mnemonics. This is basically associating an image or phrase with what you are trying to remember. I didn't want to give it a try right away since I felt like i would spending more time on each individual kanji and slow my progress down.

However, I can say that now that I have tried it, I am now remembering kanji and their meanings more easily. For example, the kanji for "car" is 車, pronounced as kuruma くるま。 Obviously I just picture a car and associate it with this symbol and meaning. It's essentially the same process with other kanji when you use phrases instead of images. Such as, "A child writing letters under a roof" is associated with 字。子 is the kanji for child, and then you just add the roof and you get the kanji for じ or "ji". The meaning of that kanji is also in the phrase; "letter" or "character."

So, for anyone looking to study Japanese, or even Chinese, use mnemonics! It may take a longer time initially, but you should be able to memorize everything more thoroughly than through more traditional methods. Furthermore, keep using flash cards and other methods to test yourself. Flash cards are a great way to see what you know and what you need to work on especially.

As for a book to use, I recommend "A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters" by Kenneth G. Henshall. It lists all the general use kanji and even some non-essential kanji, and utilizes the mnemonics method. You can find it easily on Amazon, or go to your local bookstore.

"Ji" or "じ”
"Ji" or "じ”


So how does Mnemonics work?

Well, let's use the above kanji as an example. We know that mnemonics is a way to associate a phrase with an image, or vice versa. So, how would we put this kanji into phrase that we can remember and associate the two together with?

This particular kanji is known as "Ji." Alone, this kanji means "letter" or "symbol".

Take a look at the kanji. Now let's separate it into two parts. The top is "roof", symbolizing house or home. The bottom is the kanji for "child".

Now we can make a phrase, such as "Child at Home Studying Letters" (Henshall, 1998). This gives us a phrase that can trigger a memory of not only how to write the kanji, but also what the kanji means (letter). This is just one example of how to memorize this particular kanji. That is, in fact, the phrase given in Henshall's book.

Of course, you can make your own phrases, as you see fit. In fact, I encourage this, as using someone else's phrasing may not be the most beneficial for you.

What about harder kanji? Well, that is another discussion for later, but there is another concept of kanji known as Radicals. There are 200 or so radicals, and almost every kanji out there utilizes them in some way, which can make it easier to at least guess what a kanji means, even if you can't fully remember a particular kanji. I will cover this in the future, as I have not yet studied these radicals personally.

Multiple sayings of Kanji

While you are writing out and memorizing each kanji, it is important to remember both of the different ways to say each individual kanji. Unfortunately, this is not easy. Some words you may remember more easily, others not so much.

What I mean by the different readings is what is called the on and kun readings. This only happens in Japanese as far as I know. For example, 門 means Gate or Door, but has two readings: MON and kado. I do not have a good way of explaining when a kanji is going to be read one way or the other; the best way as far as I know is to learn that while going over vocabulary. For example, 正門 is SEIMON while 門番 is said as MONBAN, and 門出 is read as KADODE. In order, these mean "main gate", "doorman", and "departure".

I also cannot recommend an easy way to memorize both readings as you write out each kanji and memorize them. But then again, learning a new language always has its own challenges. My best recommendation is to continue to go over each one, and use flash cards and read.

Stick with it and eventual you too can learn kanji!


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