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Jul 29, 2012

How to Learn the Kanji

One of the greatest hurdles in learning Japanese is finding a way to learn the kanji. If you've already made some attempts at learning kanji, then you're probably familiar with the I'll-write-it-down-a-few-hundred-times-and-bang-my-head-against-the-desk-until-I-remember-it method. Yeah, surprisingly, a mild concussion doesn't really help with learning the kanji. But luckily for all of us, there is a book that does help. That book is...

This book approaches the kanji from a different direction. Instead of presenting kanji based on grade level or frequency, the kanji are presented in a logical order based on complexity. Each kanji has its own unique keyword and mnemonic story that you can use to remember the kanji. It's a unique approach that makes the process quicker and easier.

What do you mean by keywords and stories?

James Heisig approaches learning kanji from a different direction, using stories and keywords for each kanji and the pieces that make them (elements) to create a unique, lasting memory of the kanji. The author himself explains it much better in his introduction to the book, so I strongly recommend giving it a read. A sample with the introduction and the first chapter of the book is available here.

What about the readings for the kanji?

This book will not teach them to you, and I really don't recommend trying to memorize them by brute force either. Unlike with the kana, where you should definitely learn the sounds associated with the symbols, learning all of the readings for each kanji would be a waste of time and effort.

By learning with this method, we break the tasks into parts. Here we focus on learning how to recognize and write each kanji, so that later we can learn vocabulary with ease. You'll learn the readings for the kanji naturally when you begin to learn vocabulary, so for now we skip over it.

So how do I actually use the book?

First of all, I again recommend reading the introduction to the book. At least skim through it. It really helps to explain how the method works and what you need to do. My second piece of advice is to go make an account on the Reviewing the Kanji website ( This site will be your best friend in learning and reviewing the kanji.

As you learn kanji for the first time, your focus should go on the mnemonic story that you are creating for each symbol. Write each kanji anywhere from 5-20 times, each time reciting your mnemonic story to yourself. Really think about the story as you do this, fix it in your memory, make it vivid. The more involved you become in the story, the easier it is to remember. Once you're satisfied that you've got your story in place, you can move on to the next kanji.

Make a daily goal for new kanji to learn, some number that you can commit to achieving every day. I recommend somewhere in the area of 20-30 kanji a day, as this will keep you moving through the book at a quick pace without overwhelming you. If you're doing really good one day or have some extra time, you can go beyond this number, but aim to complete at least that many each day.

Each day, after you've learned your new kanji, it's time for...

Reviewing the Kanji

Reviewing what you've learned is crucial to making this work, but you can't just keep reviewing everything day after day - this is where the reviewing the kanji site really pays off. The site will keep track of which kanji you remember and which ones you don't. The ones that you have trouble with will pop up in your reviews more often, while the ones that you consistently remember will appear less and less frequently. This is called a spaced repetition system and it makes learning language so much easier.

To learn more about how the site works, see this page of their site.

If you're using the site, then it will keep you on track with reviewing the kanji. All you have to do is show up each day and go through your reviews. There's already a post about doing kanji reviews, but here's a short summary.

With reviewing, you'll be presented with the keyword for a kanji. Use the keyword to recall your story for that kanji, which should help you to piece together the elements that form each kanji. Write the kanji out as you recall, and then flip the card over. If the kanji you wrote down matches the kanji on the card, then good job! Pass the card and move on to the next one. If you recalled the wrong kanji or couldn't remember your story, then fail the card. You'll get to go review the story for the card before it gets put back into the review stack.

To sum it all up...

This book sets out to make remembering the meanings and writings for kanji quick and easy, and it most definitely achieves this goal. This book can easily be completed in 2-3 months, or even as little as a few weeks if you really work at it, and once it's done you'll never have trouble with kanji again. You'll still have to learn grammar and vocabulary, but you won't be smacking your skull against your desk as you write out the same kanji a few hundred times (only to forget it the next day). Save yourself a lot of time and effort and try this book.

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  1. All i can add is that i dont know anyone who completed RTK and have regrets about choosing this method. Turns the hardest part of japanese into fun, and turns whole learning process later into fun. Rtk, Tae Kim's Grammar, Kanji Odyssey/Sentence mining and you're set. It's just that easy now.

    1. I think many of the people who decry the Heisig method have either never tried it or used the book improperly. This book really does make the process so much easier. Thanks for sharing!

    2. I find interesting that most people I know that opposes Heisig are either Japanese teachers or college graduates who learned Japanese using the traditional method. After all, if the Heisig method became widespread, the first ones to suffer would be precisely Japanese teachers. And about college graduates who learned Japanese using the traditional method, I'd also be in denial if I'd stayed years in College spending God knows how many thousands of dollars just to find later on that exists a much better method to learn Japanese who is not just more effective and faster, but also extremely inexpensive.