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 (even Japanese themselves) dread kanji. They simply don't want to see and use kanji in any way. 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 not uncommon among Japanese language learners. While kanji might seem unnecessary to many on the surface, understanding kanji is crucial to mastering the Japanese language.
So, do you find Kanji way too complicated to memorize? Or 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 Japanese kanji tips that you can use to make studying them much easier. You will also find some of our picks for the best resources to learn kanji with (The first one is obviously this blog, bookmark this page 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?
Not learning kanji is like cooking a meal, but without all the seasoning that makes it delicious. Yes, 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. We're not saying that you cannot get by without diving into kanji, but you will most definitely have a better understanding of the Japanese language and an easier life in Japan by learning kanji.
Many beginning Japanese learners fall victim to the common complaint, “It’s too hard.” 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 are planning on living in Japan for an extended period, just knowing how to speak Japanese or read hiragana is not enough. Furthermore, 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 about them in your next encounter with these fascinating texts.
Best Japanese Kanji Learning Method
1. Rote Memorization
The best way to learn any language is through repetition. Students use rote memorization to learn just about anything, like using flashcards or simply reading notes and book chapters over and over again. It is an excellent approach to study because it encourages you to read and write down kanji (and their meaning) over and over again. This is also a wonderful technique for beginners to start learning kanji. Another thing you could try is practicing stroke order with easy-to-write kanji. 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 looks and how they take on different pronunciations depending on if they are linked to another kanji or not. The best part is that you’ll not get stressed out next time you see the same kanji!
Mnemonics are another common way to learn kanji. This is also the method used by numerous kanji textbooks to help students memorize kanji. As a beginner, I was taught kanji with this very method and it helps with memorizing certain kanji. You can think of kanji as the 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 are a few examples of how to associate kanji with its meaning by using a picture.
- 田 (だ/da) : Rice Field
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 fields.
2. 川 (かわ/kawa) : River
Look at the picture of the river. Observe how the land creates a border for the river and notice how the rapids creek lines 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
Take a look at the mountains. Pay close attention to the mountain peaks and their different elevation. There is a significantly taller one. While the other two look to be around the same height. The kanji for mountains tries to depict this difference in elevation that can often be seen in mountain ranges.
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3. Learn 常用漢字 (Jouyou Kanji)
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. They can also be easily found in lists online.
Speaking of textbooks, did you know we provide highly engaging online Japanese textbooks for beginners to start learning kanji? We’ll cover some of the most commonly used kanji so you could be better equipped for your next kanji encounter.
4. Study the Kanji of Words that You Most Commonly Use
While the previous kanji tips encourage you to study regularly used kanji in Japan, this one encourages you to study kanji that you might use in ordinary discussions but aren't included in Jouyou kanji. Words such as these may include electronic devices (printers, headphones, etc.), household decorative items (curtains, vases, lamp), 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 continually 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.
5. Learn Radicals
You've probably learned a few kanji by now, and you've undoubtedly noticed a pattern in them. These trends that you've seen are 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. 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.
a. 読 (yo)
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.
b. 悪 (aku)
The radical is 心. It means heart or mind. However, it does not literally refer to the heart or mind. It is more metaphorical. The radical is located at the bottom. Therefore, the kanji is related to the heart. 悪 (aku) means bad.
When you need to start reading more Japanese literary content, being able to recognize and understand kanji is a valuable skill to have. Because of the huge number of kanjis being used by Japanese, it is impossible for beginners of the Japanese language to know the meaning and pronunciation of each one they encounter. Even native Japanese speakers look up unfamiliar kanji when they see them. 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 Japanese friends will get a good laugh out of it.
6. Learn the Kanji of Words on Your Vocabulary List
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.
Kanji that receive this kind of attention are 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 are 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.
So 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.
Making your own vocabulary list is often a tedious task. That’s why we’ve got you covered in our Ultimate Guide to Learning Japanese Vocabulary. Make sure to check it out after this article!
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7. Read Japanese Reading Material
Reading is fundamental to learning any language. Even your English teachers were probably saying this on a daily basis. You must be able to read and write regardless of where you are from or what language you speak. And 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 kanji and understand how they are used in writing. Of course, reading Japanese will be difficult for you at first. But you kept doing it and now you’re exceptional at it.
What you might also have done was read beginner-level material that was designed to be easily understood and with easy to pronounce words. 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.
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.
If you wish to further improve your Japanese reading skills, visit our article on Guide to Japanese Reading to get our top tips + resources!
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. 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. It is, however, 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
Do you have trouble remembering the pronunciation and meaning of a kanji but not the appearance of that kanji? If you responded yes to this question, you're experiencing a common issue that many Japanese language learners face. 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 becomes drastically more difficult.
This phenomenon has 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. 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. Just because you’ve seen and read how to operate a car, that doesn’t mean you know how to drive one. Some things are always easier to remember by actually doing them.
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10. 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. The first thing you could do is 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. It's also 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 get more useful tools for your learning journey!
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. 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 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. 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.
週 (しゅう/ shuu)
末 (まつ/ matsu)
本 (ほん/ hon)
屋 (や/ ya)
Did you remember the individual kanji better or did you remember the compound kanji better?
12. White Rabbit Flashcards
Flashcards are a tried-and-true method of studying that works for some people. People who construct their own Japanese flashcards, on the other hand, write the word in Japanese on one side and the English equivalent on the other. This is a reasonable method. It works, but when studying kanji, you'll need to know a few more things. That’s where White Rabbit flashcards come in.
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. They pack a lot of information into a single card without making it look cluttered or overwhelming. Not to mention that the 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.
Make it easier: Get Japanese Kanji Tips Online
13. Kanji Learning Apps
When it comes to studying, apps are always an excellent option. Apps exist to help you in learning autonomy, math, and even coding. Of course, there must be some useful apps for learning kanji. One such app is Kanji Study. This app has hundreds of kanji to study that are organized into categories ranging from Elementary 1 to Advanced. This program can also be used to learn about radicals. 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 display various terms that utilize that kanji, its 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 practice your vocabulary and grammar while studying for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). The app has a simple but appealing interface. 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.
14. Kanji Learning Books
If you don't like studying through applications, 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 the memorizing of 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, enabling the reader to envision the kanji using their imagination. The book is available in paperback or Kindle format on Amazon.
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15. Try Calligraphy
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/ shodo) in Japanese and you may already be familiar with it. 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. 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). 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.
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. 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.
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. Aside from kanji, your vocabulary is equally as important in your path towards 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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