Top 15 Japanese Kanji Tips

By Azia Bounds, Revised by HeiKin Wong | January 31st 2022

It's kanji! Run! Hide! Don't look at it in its eyes! Alright, that's a bit dramatic. But many language learners (even native Japanese) don't like Japanese kanji. Thoughts like "If I know how to say the word in Japanese, why do I need to know how to write the word?" and "If I know how to say the word in Japanese and write the word in hiragana, why do I need to know the kanji for the word?" are common thoughts among Japanese language learners. While kanji might seem unnecessary on the surface, you really have to understand kanji if you want to master Japanese.

So, do you find kanji way too complicated to memorize? Are you simply looking for some helpful tips for your next kanji test? Well, you've come to the right place! In this article, we'll tell you the top 15 kanji tips that can make studying them easier. You will also find some of our picks for the best resources to learn Japanese with (The first one is this blog, bookmark it so you can look at them whenever you want!)

This article is a part of our series of articles on Self-studying Japanese.

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    Why Do I Need to Learn Japanese Kanji?

    To begin with, learning kanji is like seasoning a meal. Yes, even without the seasoning your meal is still edible and provides you the energy to keep you going. But is it enjoyable in any way and would you serve them to your friends? No. However, we are not saying that you cannot get by without mastering kanji, but you will most definitely have a better understanding of the Japanese language and an easier life in Japan by learning kanji.

    Beware, many beginning Japanese learners fall victim to the common complaint, "kanji is too hard." However, this doesn't make learning kanji any less important. Kanji is used everywhere in Japan. After all, it can be seen on menus, signs, and even in names. So if you plan to live in Japan for an extended period, just knowing how to speak Japanese or read hiragana isn't enough. In addition, if you want to work in Japan someday, you have to know kanji. Now that we've established how important kanji is, let's talk about the best ways to do so. In this article, we'll tell you some great kanji study tips so you can stop stressing over them the next time you encounter them.

    Kanji is but one part of the much larger and more complex Japanese language. We recommend visiting our Guide to Japanese Adjectives or Guide to Japanese Conjugation if you have not done so already.

    Best Japanese Kanji Learning Method

    1. Rote Memorization

    Firstly the best way to learn a language is to repeat it. Students use rote memorization to learn anything, like using flashcards or simply reading notes and book chapters over and over again. The repetition encourages you to read and write down kanji over and over again. In addition, this also a wonderful technique for beginners to start learning kanji. Another thing you could try is practicing stroke order with easy-to-write kanji. 

    As a result, this will teach you the general stroke order patterns and common radicals that can be found in kanji. You will also become more familiar with how kanji look and how they take on different pronunciations depending on if they are linked to another kanji or not. The best part is that you won’t get stressed out the next time you see the same kanji!

    Girl Studying Japanese Kanji

    2. Mnemonics

    Secondly, mnemonics is a common way to learn kanji, which is also the method many kanji textbooks use to help students memorize kanji. As a beginner, I was taught kanji with this very method and it helps with memorizing certain kanji. Also, you can think of kanji as pictures of words they represent. However, it can be hard to understand what each kanji represents just by looking at it; these symbols were created centuries ago. But being able to associate the meaning of a word with its picture is one of the best ways to learn kanji. Here are a few examples of how you could do that:

    Examples of Kanji

    た / ta OR だ / da Field / Rice field: The square shape of the plot from rice fields very well with this kanji.
    かわ / kawa River: The three lines try to depict show the flow of a river.
    やま / yama Mountain: Mountains have their peaks and come in different elevations. The kanji depicts this difference in the height of mountains.
    ひ / hi Fire: Similar to the kanji 山 (yama), the kanji of fire draws its idea from the rise and fall of flames.
    一 ; 二 ; 三 いち / ichi ; に / ni ; さん / san One ; Two ; Three: These are some of the easiest kanji to remember. Think of them as 1, 2, and 3 fingers respectively.
    だい / dai OR おお / oo Big: Think of this as a person stretching out their arms and legs sideways to make themselves as big as possible.

    *Disclaimer, keep in mind kanji can have multiple ways to read it depending on if it is alone or paired with other kanji. Make sure to memorize the different readings for kanji to be able to fully read/understand them!






    3. Learn 常用漢字 (Jouyou Kanji)

    Thirdly, jouyou kanji refers to commonly used kanji in Japanese society. This is the kind of kanji that is taught to children in Japan. Studying jouyou kanji is a great way to start learning kanji. The list contains some commonly used kanji that are simple to write. The strokes are also not overly difficult, making them easy to recall. A few of these kanji are 肉(にく/niku/meat), 国(くに/kuni/country), and 子 (こ/ko/child). 

    When you start reading Japanese newspapers, signs, books, and other reading materials, knowing this type of kanji will come in handy. While you'll still have to look up kanji that you don't understand, you'll at least be familiar with a few popular kanji that will help you read more quickly. It might even help you guess the meaning of words you don't understand. Jouyou kanji can be found in Japanese textbooks like the Genki textbook. In addition, they can also be easily found in lists online.

    For example, one of the best ways to level up your Japanese, kanji included, is to improve your communicative ability. This is what we specialize in Japan Switch. The online Japanese textbooks we use will give you a good grounding in the kanji that you're gonna see in everyday life.

    4. Study the Kanji of Words that You Most Commonly Use

    In addition to studying the Jouyou kanji, it may also be helpful to study kanji that you might use in ordinary discussions but are not included in the list. These are words such as electronic devices (printers, headphones, etc.), household decorative items (curtains, vases, lamps), and career field-specific words. Branching out and learning more kanji of words that you would use frequently may help you communicate more effectively with Japanese friends and family.

    Learning kanji like these will help you expand your vocabulary and knowledge of kanji in general. If you have a Japanese pen pal, you might want to spice up your conversation with kanji to make it more interesting and exciting. Or perhaps you simply want to understand what your pen buddy is saying without having to continuously question them for the meaning and pronunciation of the kanji they're using. In any case, learning the kanji you'll be using regularly is a smart method to start learning Japanese.

    Man studying Japanese Kanji with a Phone

    5. Learn Radicals

    You've probably already learned a few kanji, and you must have noticed a pattern in them. This trend you've seen is related to the radical,  the main component of any kanji. The radical has its own meaning and can be found to the left, right, above, or below the kanji. It can also surround the kanji. By understanding the meaning of the radical you can try to guess the meaning of the kanji. Take a look at some examples below. Notice how the radicals are used to piece together the meaning of a kanji.

    Examples of Radicals in Kanji

    よ / yo OR とう / tou OR どく / doku To say: The radical is 言 and is located on the left. Therefore, the kanji is related to speaking.
    あく / aku OR わる / waru Evil: The radical is 心 and it means heart or mind. This suggests it has to do with the heart, feeling or desire.

    *Disclaimer, keep in mind kanji can have multiple ways to read it depending on if it is alone or paired with other kanji. Make sure to memorize the different readings for kanji to be able to fully read/understand them!

    When you need to start reading more Japanese literary content, being able to recognize and understand kanji is a valuable skill to have. Considering the huge number of kanjis being used by  Japanese people, it is impossible for beginners to the Japanese language to know the meaning and pronunciation of each one they encounter. However, understanding the meaning of radicals can help you comprehend a text's overall meaning and improve your reading speed. Even if you guessed the wrong meaning, at the very least your friends will get a good laugh out of it!

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    6. Learn the Kanji of Words in Your Vocabulary List

    Next, by learning the kanji on your vocabulary list, you can broaden your kanji studies even more. If you're studying the vocabulary lists supplied in Japanese textbooks like Genki, you're probably aware that each chapter has kanji for you to study. This contains the order of the strokes, as well as their meanings and pronunciations. 

    Not to mention, kanji that receive this kind of attention is usually regarded as important and are regularly used. That being said, textbooks like Genki also provide plenty of vocabulary words that do not receive a detailed chart showing how the word is written in kanji and what other words that use the same kanji. Think of them as kids who never get invited to any parties but somehow have the coolest party tricks. You might not see them very often, but every time you do the party is sure to be a fun one.

    Given these points, go over your word list and study the kanji. It will help you memorize your vocabulary words and you’ll learn more kanji. As you learn the grammar principles and complete the writing activities for each chapter, you'll probably find yourself using them more often. If you’ve made your own vocabulary list, study the kanji for each word there too. The goal is to learn more kanji so that you can read Japanese books, signs, newspapers, and other reading material better.


    Kanji is just an aspect of learning Japanese. If you want to improve reading Japanese, check out our Top 15 Tips to Improve Japanese Reading today!

    7. Read Japanese Reading Material

    Most importantly, reading is fundamental to learning any language. You must be able to read and write regardless of where you are from or what language you speak. Consequently, the only way to get better at reading and writing is to do more of it. Therefore, if you want to learn more kanji and boost your memorization of the ones you already know, you should read Japanese more often.

    You might be saying, “I can’t! I don’t know enough kanji.” or “It’s too hard. I have to translate everything.” Both of which may be true to some extent. You may not recognize all of the kanji you come across, but the goal is to motivate yourself to learn more about kanji and understand how they are used in writing. Of course, reading Japanese will be difficult for you at first. But if you keep doing it, you will be exceptional at it!

    Until now you might have read some beginner-level material that was designed to be easily understood and with easy-to-pronounce words. Comparatively, learning kanji is no different! Reading materials that match your proficiency level could go a long way in helping your understanding of kanji. If you are at an N5 proficiency level, then start reading material that is intended for children. Yotsuba and Shirokuma Cafe are two mangas that are easy for beginners to read that include kanji reading in them. So I highly recommend that you check them out.

    Read Books to Learn Kanji

    Additional Tips on Reading Material

    Furthermore, if you are reading online, use the google chrome browser extension rikaichan. It translates the kanji of words that you hover over with your mouse. You will also be able to learn information about the kanji you hover over. It is a neat extension that all Japanese language learners should use to help them when reading Japanese!

    8. Use a Dictionary

    When learning any foreign language, you should use a dictionary. You need to be able to easily look up the translations of words that you do not know. This is especially true for studying Japanese. Not only do you want to look up words that you do not know, but you might also want to look for words that use similar kanji. Consequently, you will learn more kanji and gain a better understanding of their meaning when you do so. 

    Looking things up can be difficult if you don't have access to a digital dictionary. However, it is relatively simple if you know how to spell the word in hiragana! Just look for the romanized kanji and then look at the surrounding words and see if they use the same kanji. You should be able to track down a lot of words that use the same kanji and comprehend the meanings of all the other kanji that are related to it.

    Therefore, if you do not have a dictionary already, we highly recommend that you buy or download one. You will not be able to study Japanese efficiently or effectively without one.

    Japanese Kanji Tips for Intermediate-learners: Learn by writing

    9. Practice the Stroke Order

    All things considered, do you have trouble remembering the pronunciation and meaning of a kanji, but not its appearance? If you responded yes to this question, you're experiencing a common issue that many Japanese language learners face. It seems many find it easier to recall a kanji's pronunciation and meaning if they're looking at the kanji. But if they don't see the kanji, then it becomes drastically more difficult.

    This phenomenon has something to do with how people study, often by focusing on the meaning and pronunciation of kanji with flashcards. However, this method overlooks the importance of learning stroke order. Learning the stroke order of a kanji will help you remember how it looks. Also, it gives you more confidence when determining what kanji to use when you encounter two that have the same pronunciation. Just because you’ve seen and read how to operate a car, that doesn’t mean you know how to drive one. Keep in mind, some things are always easier to remember by actually doing them!

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    10. Practice with Pen Pals

    Although writing kanji is probably one of the most effective methods of remembering kanji, some may find it to be the most boring and time-consuming method for learning kanji. If you fall into this category, then try making it more interactive, fun, and engaging. For example, you could start writing to a pen pal!

    One of the best ways to improve your grammar and spelling skills is to write to a pen buddy. Also, it is useful for remembering vocabulary words and kanji. There are some kanji that you will find yourself using repeatedly. This repeated use of kanji will allow for better recall because you become more engaged when you talk to someone. Visit HelloTalk if you're seeking a pen pal.

    If you're looking for something more specific, check out our Ultimate Guide to Japanese Learning Apps to level up your Kanji skills today!

    11. Learn Kanji by studying Compound Kanji

    As we mentioned previously, studying kanji by itself can be a bit lackluster. You stare at a kanji trying to commit the character to memory while muttering the meaning and pronunciation of the word. While it may be just one character, it is hard to remember one character by itself because it lacks context. It’s like trying to make sense of an argument that you just happen to walk in on, even though the first thing you heard was, “It wasn't my fault! I barely got to touch the elephant!” It may take you a while to figure out that the argument is about who caused the elephants to get spooked during a prior visit to a nature park. 

    Learning kanji is a lot like learning English, this is probably because kanji typically represent part of a word.  While they have their own meanings and pronunciations, they are generally accompanied by hiragana or another kanji. For example, take a look at the kanji in the picture below. Read the meanings of each kanji separately, paying special attention to the compound kanji. Try reciting the meanings of each kanji on the table without looking at the screen once you think you've remembered them.

    Examples of Compound Kanji

    しゅう / shuu Week 週末 ; Weekend
    まつ / matsu The end
    ほん / hon Book 本屋 ; Book store
    や / ya Store

    Did you remember the individual kanji better or did you remember the compound kanji better?

    Japanese Kanji Practice with Caligraphy

    12. White Rabbit Flashcards

    While it may be true that flashcards are a tried-and-true method of studying that works for some people. On the other hand, people who construct their own Japanese flashcards, write the word in Japanese on one side and the English equivalent on the other. It works, but when studying kanji, you'll need to know a few more things. That’s where White Rabbit flashcards come in.

    Comparatively, White Rabbit flashcards are far superior to the old standard flashcards. These flashcards feature the English translation for everything on the card, as well as the pronunciation of the kanji, stroke order, kanji that seem alike, and additional words utilizing the same kanji. Consequently, they pack a lot of information into a single card without making it look cluttered or overwhelming. In addition, flashcards are available in three levels of difficulty: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. White Rabbit flashcards are a fantastic tool to use to study kanji because of all the information they contain!

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    Make it easier: Get Japanese Kanji Tips Online

    13. Kanji Learning Apps

    When it comes to studying, apps are always an excellent option because they allow you to learn autonomy, math, and even coding. For example, one app is Kanji Study. This app has hundreds of kanji to study that are organized into categories ranging from Elementary 1 to Advanced. Japanese Kanji Study allows you to study kanji in depth by dissecting the character and explaining radicals as well as applying the word in sentences. It can also be used to move stroke order. This app is free on Android. However, if you want to access most of the app, you will have to pay a one-time fee.

    Another good Japanese learning app is JLPT: Japanese Study Kanji Vocabulary N5 N4 N3 N1. Just like the name implies, you can study more than kanji with this app. In addition, you can practice your vocabulary and grammar while studying for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). This software is also available for free in the Google Play Store, but you will need to purchase a subscription to gain access to the complete app and remove the app's numerous advertisements.


    Kanji can be overwhelming and can be difficult to know where to start. Visit our Ultimate Guide to Easy Japanese to get more useful daily Kanji!

    14. Kanji Learning Books

    In any case, if applications aren't for you, kanji learning books are a good alternative. Hundreds of kanji displaying stroke order and strategies to recall kanji are included in these books. Some even utilize visuals to aid in memorizing the kanji. The popular kanji book Remembering the Kanji: A Full Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters is used by many students to study kanji. While it does not employ visuals to help you recall phrases like Kanji Pict-O-Graphix, another kanji book, it does describe how the kanji appears. Consequently, this enables the reader to envision the kanji using their imagination. The book is available in paperback or Kindle format on Amazon.

    15. Try Calligraphy

    Finally, calligraphy is a good option if you're an artist or want to venture out from the usual approach of learning kanji. Calligraphy is known as 書道 (しょどう/ shodou) in Japanese and you may already be familiar with it. For example, you've probably seen a video or two of someone meticulously writing characters on thin white rice paper with a brush dipped in ink. It is graceful, and the end result is always stunning. Personally, I've tried it a few times and found it to be a pleasurable and peaceful experience!

    If you do try out 書道, you may quickly discover how messy it can be. I recommend putting something behind the rice paper to keep the ink from bleeding onto the hard surface below (several layers of newspaper or construction paper would be ideal). You may even want to put on an old shirt and a pair of old pants in case you spill ink on yourself. However, if you want to try a less messy alternative, you can always buy calligraphy pens.

    Try to recall the kanji that you have studied and write the meaning of the kanji in a corner of the paper first. Then get out your ink and brush or calligraphy pen and draw the kanji that matches the meaning. Do your best to use the correct stroke order for the kanji. Once you have finished, check yourself to see if you got it right. 

    Japanese Temple peaking out of the tree line with a blue tinted mountain in the background located in Kyoto, a perfect place to find Japanese omiyage for loved ones

    Final Thoughts

    To conclude, studying kanji can be difficult. But now it doesn’t have to be. You’ve learned multiple methods to use to study kanji along with how to start learning kanji. Also, you know about a few apps and activities that you can do to make studying interesting. Therefore, there is no need to stress out. Just relax as you gracefully drag your brush across thin rice paper or laugh as you joke around with your pen pal. All things considered, your vocabulary is equally as important in your path toward mastering Japanese conversation.

    Check out our guide Guide to Top 1000 Japanese Words You Need to Know to find out how you can survive any Japanese conversation!

    Alternatively, if you just want a few phrases you can use to get by in Japan while learning Japanese, visit our Guide to Useful Japanese Phrases to learn more!


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