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Kanji on a Temple

Top 15 Japanese Kanji Tips

Kanji. It's one of the things that Japanese language learners struggle the most to learn. Some people don't know how to start learning it. Others find it hard to remember. Either way learning kanji can be a bit challenging. So here are 15 tips to get you on the right track to learn Japanese kanji.

This article is part of a series of articles on how to self-study Japanese.

Why Do I Need to Learn Japanese Kanji?

Gaaah! It’s kanji! Run! Hide! Don’t look at it in its eyes! Alright, that’s a bit dramatic. But a lot of Japanese language learners dread kanji. They don’t want to see it. They don’t want to study it. They don’t want to write it. Some Japanese language learners are incredibly intimidated by it. Learning kanji can sometimes be seen as unnecessary. There is a common thought that “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?” While both can be seen as valid points on the surface, understanding kanji is very important. 

Not learning kanji is like baking a cake, but deciding not to put the icing on it at the last minute. The icing is the best part for me. Icing a cake correctly is hard and it tends to get messy, especially for novice bakers. But it is also fun and delicious. By not learning kanji, you’ve decided not to fully understand Japanese and have fallen victim to the common complaint, “It’s too hard.” Yes, kanji can be difficult to understand at first, but that doesn’t make learning it any less important. Kanji is used everywhere in Japan. It can be seen on menus, signs, even in names. So if you travel to Japan, just knowing how to speak Japanese or being able to read words in hiragana, is not enough. Furthermore, if you want to work in Japan someday, you have to know kanji. Now that you are going to study kanji, let’s talk about the best ways to do so. And you can stop obsessively stressing yourself out over it.

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    Best Methods to Learn Japanese Kanji

    Girl Studying Japanese Kanji

    1. Rote Memorization

    Rote memorization is a common method students use to learn just about anything, be it by using flashcards or just reading notes and book chapters over and over again. It is great a way to study if done correctly because it encourages repetition. To learn how to write kanji and learn their various meanings and different pronunciations you are going to have to look at the characters and write them several times. Furthermore, this is a good way for beginners to start learning kanji. Practice stroke order with easy to write kanji. This will teach you the general pattern that stroke order uses and common radicals that can be found in kanji. You will also become more familiar with how kanji looks and how they take on different pronunciations depending on if they are linked to another kanji or not.

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    2. Mnemonics

    You can also use mnemonics to learn kanji. It is actually the method that is used in several kanji books to help students learn and the way that I was taught to learn kanji as a beginner. And it makes sense that kanji are taught this way. Kanji are basically pictures of the words they represent. However, it can be hard to understand what each kanji represents just by looking at it, as kanji was created centuries ago. But being able to associate the kanji with its meaning based on a picture is one of the best ways to learn kanji. So here’s a few examples of how to associate kanji with its meaning by using a picture. 

    1. 田 (だ/da) : Rice Field
    rice field plots

    Look at the picture of the rice field. Notice the square shape of the plots and the crisp lines that divide each plot of land. This looks awfully similar to the kanji for rice field.

    2. 川 (かわ/kawa) : River

    Raging River Rapids

    Look at the picture of the river. Can’t you see how the land creates a border for the river? Don’t you notice how the rapids create lines that indicate river flow? That’s what the kanji for river tries to depict. Although it looks a bit simpler. 

    3. 山 (やま/yama) : Mountain

    Mountain Range

    Take a look at the mountains. Pay close attention to the mountain peaks and their different elevation. There is one that is significantly taller. While the other two look to be around the same height. The kanji for mountain tries to depict this difference in elevation that can often be seen in mountain ranges.

    Let’s Start at the Beginning

    1. Learn 常用漢字 (Jouyou Kanji)

    Jouyou kanji refers to commonly used kanji. This is the kind of kanji that is taught to children in Japan. Studying jouyou kanji is a good way to start learning kanji. The list includes easy to write kanji that have few strokes. The strokes are not very complicated either, so it is easy to remember them. A few of these kanji are 肉(にく/niku/meat), 国(くに/kuni/country), and 子 (こ/ko/child). 

     

    Learning this type of kanji will also help you when you start to read Japanese newspapers, signs, books, and other reading material. While, you will still have to look up words you do not know, at least you will know a few common kanji to help you read through material faster. It may even assist you in guessing the meaning of words you do not know. Jouyou kanji can be found in Japanese textbooks like the Genki textbook. They can also be easily found in lists online.

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

    While the previous tip urges you to study commonly used kanji in Japan, this tip urges you to study kanji that you use in everyday conversations that may not be included in Jouyou kanji. Words such as these may include electronic devices (printers, headphones, etc.), household decorative items (curtains, vase, lamp), and career field-specific words. Branching out and learning more kanji of words that you would commonly use may help you better communicate to Japanese friends and family. 

     

    Learning kanji such as these will also help to expand your vocabulary and your overall knowledge of kanji. If you have a Japanese pen pal, then maybe you want to spice up your conversations to make them more fun and engaging. Or maybe you just want to better understand what your pen pal is saying, without constantly asking them for the meaning and pronunciation of the kanji they are using. Either way studying the kanji of words you use often is a good way to start improving your understanding of Japanese.

    3. Learn Radicals

    By now you’ve already learned some kanji and you may have already started to notice a pattern in kanji. These patterns that you’ve noticed may have something to do with the radical. The radical of a kanji refers to the main component of the kanji. The radical has its own meaning and can be found to the left, right, above, or below the kanji. They also can surround the kanji. By understanding the meaning of the radical you can try to guess the meaning of the kanji. See for yourself. Look at the examples below. Notice how the radicals are used to piece together the meaning of a kanji.

    1. 読 (yo)
      1. The radical is 言. It means to say and it is located on the left. Therefore, the kanji is related to speaking. 読 means to read.

     

    1. 悪 (waru)
      1. The radical is 心. It means heart or mind. However, it does not literally refer to the heart or mind. It is more metaphorical. It is located at the bottom. Therefore, the kanji is related to the heart. 悪 means bad.

    Being able to identify and understand the meaning of kanji is a great skill to have when you start reading more Japanese literary material. There are thousands of kanji making it impossible for Japanese language learners to know the meaning and pronunciation of every kanji they see. Even native Japanese speakers look up unfamiliar kanji when they see them. But knowing the meaning of radicals can help you understand the overall meaning of a text and increase your reading speed.

    3. Learn the Kanji of Words on Your Vocabulary List

    Branch out your study of kanji even further, by studying the kanji in your vocabulary list. If you are studying the vocabulary lists provided in Japanese textbooks, like Genki, then you already know that the textbook does include kanji for you to study for each chapter. This includes the stroke order, meaning, and pronunciations. Kanji that receive this attention are typically deemed important and are used frequently. However, these textbooks also provide plenty of vocabulary words that do not receive a detailed chart showing how the word is written in kanji and what are other words that use the same kanji. They’re treated like the kid that never gets invited to any parties, sad and lonely as they play video games while trying not to look at social media that no doubt show and tell the exploits of some grand party. No, they sit there online trying to cover up the hurt, secretly longing for the day they will be invited to a party. 

     

    So study the kanji in your vocabulary list. It will help you memorize your vocabulary words and you’ll learn more kanji. You’ll probably even use them more often too as you study the grammar points and complete the writing exercises for each chapter. If you’ve made your own vocabulary list, study the kanji for each word on there too. The goal is to learn more kanji so that you can read Japanese books, signs, newspapers, and other reading material better.

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    Read Books to Learn Kanji

    4. Read Japanese Reading Material

    Reading is fundamental. Your English teachers probably said this on the daily. It doesn’t matter what country you’re from or what language you speak, you need to be able to read and write. And the only way to get better at reading and writing is to do more of it. So if you want to learn more kanji and better memorize the kanji you already do know 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 are true to some extent. You may not know every kanji that you encounter, but the purpose is to get you to learn more kanji and see how they are used in writing. Of course, you are going to struggle with reading Japanese at first. You probably struggled with reading English at first too. But you kept doing it and now you’re exceptional at it. You also started reading with beginner-level material that was designed to be easily understood and with easy to pronounce words. Therefore, you should read material that matches your proficiency level. 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 readings in them. So I highly recommend that you check them out.

     

    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.

    5. 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 need to look up words that you do not know, but you also need to look for words that use similar kanji. By doing so you will learn more kanji and better understand the meaning of kanji. 

     

    If you are not using a digital dictionary, looking up kanji may seem difficult. However, if you know how to spell the word in hiragana, it is relatively easy. Just look for the romanized kanji and then look at the surrounding words and see if they use the same kanji. You should find that you are able to find many words using the same kanji and be able to understand the meaning of the various other kanji that may be linked to it.

     

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

    How Does That Kanji Look Like Again?

    1. Practice the Stroke Order

    Are you able to recall the pronunciation and meaning of a kanji, but find it difficult to remember what that kanji looks like? If you answered yes to this question, then you are dealing with a common problem that many Japanese language learners encounter. It seems that many find it easier to recall the meaning and pronunciation of a kanji if they are looking at the kanji. However, if they do not see the kanji, then it can be very difficult. 

    This phenomenon may have something to do with how people study. Studying only the meaning and pronunciation of kanji with flashcards is a common way that people study Japanese. However, this study method overlooks the importance of learning stroke order. Learning the stroke order of a kanji will help you remember how it looks. Furthermore, it will also help you write quicker and give you more confidence when determining what kanji to use when you encounter two that have the same pronunciation.

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    2. Practice with Pen Pals

    Writing kanji is probably one of the most effective methods of remembering kanji, although 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. Start writing to a pen pal. 

     

    Writing to a pen pal is one of the best ways to practice your grammar and spelling skills. It is also a good tool to use to remember vocabulary words and kanji. There are some kanji that you will find yourself using over and over again. This repeated use of kanji will allow for better recall because you become more engaged when you talk to someone. As opposed to the level of engagement you have with flashcards, which is less. If you are looking for a pen pal, try using HelloTalk. It is a good app to chat with native speakers via text messages, voice calls, video calls, and more.

    3. Learn Kanji by Studying Compound Kanji

    As stated 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. And 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 can be a bit similar. This is probably because kanji typically represent part of a word. While they do have their own individual meanings and pronunciations, hiragana or another kanji is usually tacked onto them. Take a look at the kanji below. Read the meaning of each individual kanji and be sure to pay attention to the compound kanji. After you think you memorized the meaning of every kanji in the table, try reciting the meaning of each without looking at the screen.

    週 (しゅう/ shuu) 末 (まつ/ matsu) 週末
    week end weekend
    本 (ほん/ hon) 屋 (や/ ya) 本屋
    book store Book store

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

    4. White Rabbit Flashcards

    Flashcards are an old standard way of studying that is effective for some. However, when people make their own flashcards to study Japanese they put the word in Japanese on one side and put the English translation on the other. This is an okay method. It works, but you need to know a few more extra things when you study kanji. That’s where White Rabbit flashcards come in.

    White Rabbit flashcards are far more superior to the old standard flashcards. These flashcards include the pronunciation of the kanji, stroke order, kanji that look alike, other words using the same kanji, along with the English translation for everything on the card. They provide a lot of information on one card without it looking messy and overwhelming. Not to mention that the flashcards can be purchased in beginner, intermediate, and advanced sets. With all the information that they provide, White Rabbit flashcards are a good tool to use to study kanji.

    Make Studying Japanese Kanji Easier: Use Outside Resources

    Studying Japanese with a Phone

    1. Kanji Learning Apps

    Apps are always a good tool to use to study. There are apps to help you learn autonomy, math, and even coding. So of course there must be some good apps to help you learn kanji. Japanese Kanji Study is one such app. This app has hundreds of kanji to study that are organized into categories ranging from Elementary 1 to Advanced. You can also study radicals using this app. Japanese Kanji Study allows you to study kanji in-depth, by taking apart the character and explaining radicals, using the word in sentences, showing various words that use that kanji, and showing the stroke order. This app is free on Android, however, to be able 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. You can study vocabulary and grammar as well as practice for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). Furthermore, the app design is simple but cute. This app is also free in the Google Play Store, however, you will have to purchase a subscription with them to get access to the full app and get rid of the several ads that the app uses.

    2. Kanji Learning Books

    If you’re not really into learning from apps, you can try learning from kanji learning books. These books include hundreds of kanji depicting stroke order and providing ways to remember kanji. Some even use pictures to help you remember the kanji. Remembering the Kanji: A Full Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters is a popular kanji book that students use to learn kanji. While it does not use pictures to help you remember words like Kanji Pict-O-Graphix, another kanji book, it instead describes how the kanji looks, encouraging the reader to use their imagination to picture the kanji. You can find the book on Amazon in a paperback or Kindle form.

    Kanji Practice with Caligraphy

    3. Try Calligraphy

    If you are an artist or you want to branch out from the traditional way of studying kanji, then you may want to try out calligraphy. Calligraphy is known as 書道 (しょどう/ shodo) in Japanese and you may already be familiar with it. You probably have already seen a video or two of someone dipping a brush into ink and delicately drawing characters onto thin white rice paper. It is elegant and the final product always looks amazing. I’ve tried 書道 a few times and it was a fun and relaxing experience.

    If you do try out 書道, you may quickly discover how messy it can be. I suggest that you place something underneath the rice paper (using several layers of newspaper or construction paper would be helpful) so that the ink does not blend onto the hard surface below. Rice paper is very thin. 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.

    Now that you have your material and work area situated, try to recall the kanji that you have studied and write the meaning of the kanji in a corner of the paper first. You can use a regular pen for this part. Then get out your ink and brush or calligraphy pen and draw the kanji that matches the meaning in the center of the paper. 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. 書道 can be a very fun and interesting experience. Furthermore, you can even frame your final product and display it in your house. So I definitely recommend that you try out this fun activity.

    Keep Studying Japanese Kanji

    Beautiful Japanese Temple

    Studying kanji can be hard. But now it doesn’t have to be. You’ve learned two of the best methods to use to study kanji along with how to start learning kanji. You also 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. Whatever you do, continue to learn kanji and study Japanese. If you need more help with learning Japanese check out The Ultimate Guide to Learn Japanese. Good luck studying.

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