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May 3, 2011

Learning the Kanji - A Second Look

In the first post about learning the kanji I didn't get very in-depth about the learning methods, so I would like to correct that error now by making a second post that focuses entirely on using James Heisig's book “Remembering the Kanji” to memorize the writings and meanings of the core 2000-ish kanji.

To begin with, the concept behind the “Heisig method” is simple – break every kanji into smaller parts, name those parts, and then bring them all together in a story (mnemonic device) so that you remember it. It probably sounds a lot more complicated than it actually is, so I'll do some simple examples.

In the first few lessons, most of the kanji are presented as is – meaning they are as basic as they come. Things like the numbers (一、二、三、四、五) and simple pictorials like mouth (), eye (), or sun (). As the lessons progress, these basic kanji are then combined to create more complicated kanji. For example, the “elements” of sun () and eye () combine to form the kanji for risk (). Heisig gives a simple story along the lines of risking burning your eyes out by looking up at the sun. In the story, not only are all of the elements (sun and eye) named, but also their relation – eye looking up to sun. The name of the kanji itself is also given, so that you can identify it – risk.

Another early example is the kanji for bright (). The two elements used are sun () and moon (). The story is extremely simple – according to biblical myth, two bright lights watch over the planet – the sun by day and the moon by night. The placement isn't really an issue, because there are only two elements side by side, so simply putting the two together is good enough.

The entire book goes along in this manner, although the kanji do become bigger and scarier. The wonderful thing about it is that if you can learn those simple kanji in the first few lessons, then you can learn the later ones as well. Making stories can becoming tiring – because eventually the book stops giving the entire story and instead only lists elements – but as long as you use your imagination and get help from Reviewing the Kanji when needed, you'll have no problems.

In addition to learning the elements and stories for each kanji, you need be practicing writing the kanji. With each new kanji, aim to write it at least five times while reciting and thinking about your story. The power of the method is the story, so don't breeze over it. Try to draw the kanji only from your story, so that you can recall it later and truly master the kanji.

You'll also need to get a good review system going. Luckily for you, there's a fancy post all about reviewing the kanji!

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  1. I can't make up my mind which language to restart on: spanish or japanese. I feel like I have more knowledge of the former and it'd be more helpful in finding work but the shrinking weeaboo in me cries out loudly.

  2. >The power of the method is the story, so don't breeze over it.

    You're right of course, but it's so tempting to just skim over it quickly (and then inevitably completely forget it by next time).

    >eventually the book stops giving the entire story and instead only lists elements

    That sounds like it'd be annoying, I'm not sure my limited imagination would be able to step up to the plate for so many kanji.

  3. Oh so this may be one of the reasons why Japanese are so poetic like and stuff, if they use that way to learn to write.

  4. For a while i've been trying to figure out where to start with the Kanji, while this is useful I was wondering how one would incorporate the pronunciation of the Kanji into their studies? Or is recognition more important at this stage?

    1. In my opinion, it is far easier to focus only on recognizing the kanji in this phase, then learn the pronunciations later with vocabulary. So instead of memorizing facts, you get a natural understanding of kanji pronunciations by seeing them in use.