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Learning Kanji

May 25, 2021 — Tatsumoto

Unlike kana which you can learn in a matter of few days no matter what method you pick, learning kanji is apparently more difficult, and there are many methods of doing it.

To pick the right method you have to understand why you want to learn kanji in the first place. The "practice how you play" principle applies here as well. Kanji do not exist in a vacuum, instead they're used to writing Japanese words, so in order to "learn" them all you need to do is learn words. To learn a word means to memorize how it's read and what it means. Over time as you keep learning words you unconsciously get better at recognizing the kanji.

We advise against learning kanji readings in isolation. Very often a kanji character has a number of completely different readings. Not only learning all of them is an enormous task, but it's impossible to apply the knowledge to real native content when reading.


Kanji composition

To someone who hasn't started learning Japanese yet, kanji may look like blobs of random scribbles. Thankfully, in reality each kanji is just a composition of either simpler kanji or primitive components called radicals. For example, is a combination of , and . There are only about 200 of such basic components.

This property of kanji can be and often used to aid memorization. Some people may also choose to dedicate a week or two to study the individual radicals. Being able to see kanji in terms of their components makes learning words easier, although it's completely optional and only gives benefits in the short term.

Kanji production

Some methods insist that you learn to write kanji from the start. Due to the effort it takes we don't think it's a fair use of your time. Japanese typing is done phonetically, so as long as you can read kanji, you can type kanji as well. Instead, we recommend waiting until you're fluent and learn handwriting then. Learning to produce characters that you've already learned to recognize is going to be easier.

Kanji fluency

Jumping right into learning words in the beginning is not easy. Similar characters often look the same and remembering words takes many repetitions. You have to somehow force the words into your brain and there are no mental anchors to help you. However, if you do this enough eventually you arrive at the point when kanji stop being foreign anymore. Once you reach this point, your brain starts to recognize each kanji as a whole without paying attention to its component parts. You start distinguishing them easily from each other, and learning new kanji becomes effortless. This point is called kanji fluency.

When you reach kanji fluency, recognizing a kanji becomes just like recognizing someone's face. It takes an instant to remember the face of a person. Later if you just look at the person again you immediately know if you've met them before even if you might forget their name or why you know them.

With kanji, you're not analyzing the component parts but taking the whole character as one unit. When you see a new kanji, it will look like something to you. When you encounter that character again, you will instantly recognize it as the same exact character.

Isolated kanji study

Training kanji recognition through isolated kanji study can be used as a ladder to help you achieve kanji fluency and to make moving on to learning vocabulary less of a burden. You start by learning meanings of individual kanji. By doing so you create mental anchors in your brain which help you associate words with the kanji. Kanji are learned by breaking them up into their components and viewing each kanji as a combination of its parts. The method uses short stories or images called mnemonics. Each story ties the components together to make kanji easy to remember.

You memorize 1000-2000 characters this way, and then you end up naturally reaching the point of kanji fluency. The main goal of isolated kanji study is not to learn what every kanji means, but simply to push learners to the point where recognizing a kanji feels similar to recognizing a human face.

Many commonly used resources that encourage mnemonics are based on RTK. Originally, RTK refers to a book "Remembering the Kanji" by James Heisig. The ordering of characters in the book and its component-based mnemonic system are used in combination with the SRS.

  • RTK. The traditional method intended for those who wish to learn handwriting from the start. Each Anki card has a keyword on the front and your job is to recall the character from memory.
  • RRTK. Recognition RTK. It is a modification to the traditional RTK intended to optimize it for training recognition. You're given a deck which contains kanji on the front of the cards, and you need to memorize the meanings they represent.
  • Lazy Kanji Cards. The card format Khatzumoto from AJATT used. RRTK is based on this idea.
  • AnkiWeb has a large collection of premade RTK decks.

Other decks that use the mnemonic-based approach but are not based on RTK:

  • KanjiDamage. A big improvement over RTK. Introduces more easily memorable component names and high quality mnemonic stories. Each character has mnemonics for its most important reading, but it doesn't force you to learn multiple readings.
  • KanjiDamage+. A slightly larger version of KanjiDamage which contains ~200 additional kanji. Some component names were renamed.

The downside is that although this method makes it easier to remember words later on, it requires investing months into essentially memorizing English keywords that have a very loose connection to real Japanese. KanjiDamage gives you a little more benefit by incorporating the main reading of each kanji into the mnemonic story. Knowing the most common reading helps you trigger your memory as you take your first steps in reading native Japanese.

JP1K method

The method is aimed at complete beginners who don't want to go through RTK but feel intimidated by the idea of learning whole words from the start. JP1K is intended to be a compromise between the two.

To execute it you need an Anki deck formatted in a specific way. On the front of each card you have a word, phrase or sentence in Japanese language written in full kanji and without furigana but if you hover over it then the furigana readings will appear. On the back you have everything necessary to understand the flashcard, which may include English translations, dictionary definitions and native audio.

The important part is how you review the deck:

  1. A flashcard comes up, furigana is hidden.
  2. Read the target word, or the whole sentence if you want.
  3. If the word contains kanji try to recall its reading. Then hover over the word to make the furigana pop up and see if you've recalled the reading correctly.
  4. Try to recall the meaning of the target word. It doesn't need to be precise.
  5. Reveal the back side of the card and see if the meaning was correct.
  6. When grading yourself, pass the card if you understand the meaning. Whether you remembered the reading or not doesn't matter. Avoid "Hard" and "Easy" buttons.

This way when you review a card you may completely forget the reading, but then if you get the meaning right you still pass the card.

The idea here is that this will make the process of going through the deck much more enjoyable because all you have to do is remember the meaning to pass the card. It's not that hard. The advantage over isolated kanji study is that you're going to start noticing the new words you've learned in your immersion.

This should be enough to eventually achieve kanji fluency because every time you're still trying to recall the reading, you're just not taking it into account when grading yourself. On the other hand, if you could see the reading immediately then there would be no deliberate practice involved, so you'd eventually start ignoring the kanji.

At Ajatt-Tools we have made our own Anki deck for people who wish to follow this method. You can download the deck below:.

Kanji Transition

Note: The JP1K method was first introduced by Refold. If you want to learn more about the method from its author, watch this YouTube video.

Conclusion

There are three paths you can take:

  1. Learning words from the start. This is going to be a little difficult at first, but all of us learn this way past the beginner stage.
  2. Study kanji in isolation using a mnemonic-based method such as KanjiDamage or RTK. For each kanji you memorize its meaning which later acts like a mental anchor making associating words with kanji easier.
  3. Use the JP1K method to learn words without penalizing yourself for not knowing their readings.

The last two paths only serve as intermediate steps to prepare you for reading native content. Any of them should take about a month or two to complete.

Either path will result in success so long as you persist, so the choice comes down to what you personally like more.

Tags: kanji, guide