How I studied kanji

Okay, so it’s probably not going to be my most interesting post ever, but today I’m going to share my method for learning kanji.

Kanji is the most common stumbling block for Japanese learners. It’s easy to see why: there are 1,945 Joyo kanji, hundreds more non-Joyo kanji that are still very commonly used, and yet hundreds more kanji that are used in people’s names. And each of these intricate little characters has a specific order in which the strokes must be written, probably has multiple readings, might have multiple meanings, and can be mixed and matched with many other kanji to create compound words (熟語 : jukugo).

Basically, there is a reason that Japanese students are still studying kanji even in high school, and that reason is that kanji are as difficult as they are many.

There are many different ways to go about it, but I decided to learn kanji the old fashioned way: relentless and unforgiving old-school rote memorization. Just pen and paper, sweat and blood, with a focus on efficient reviewing.

Why the hard way? There was just too much information to absorb any other way than to sit down and pound each character one by one into my brain. At least, not any way that was possible in the short time frame that I gave myself (two years from start to finish). Brute force was just the best tool for the job.

I believe strongly in the power and effectiveness of rote memorization for learning kanji, but I’ve taken care to write this article as an account of my own successful strategy and not as a “how to” article that tells you to do this or not do that. Everyone’s brain works a little differently, everyone has different circumstances they need to work within, and everyone has different goals and priorities for their learning, so naturally the same approach will not be best for everyone. I just hope that by sharing my own (successful) experience and method, readers will get some insight, ideas and options that they can apply to their own study. Okay, let’s get started…

The tools

The Learner’s Kanji Dictionary

the learner's Japanese Kanji Dictionary

I can’t emphasize enough how helpful this dictionary was in my quest to learn kanji. It has all the Joyo Kanji and name kanji, and a very good helping of non-official but still widely used kanji, including stroke order, old forms, and for each kanji it lists all common jukugo that contain it.

I used this dictionary probably several times a day for 2-3 years, as evidenced by the filth on the pages. Best $20 I ever spent.

Finger grime: evidence of a well-used book.

Finger grime: evidence of a well-used book.

Check out reviews and buy this book on The Learner’s Japanese Kanji Dictionary (Bilingual Edition).

A good notebook

A hard-cover notebook was really necessary since I ended up carrying these books around for literally years. A regular $1 notebook would not have survived. I also don’t think spiral-bound would have been able to do it either, the wire would have gotten all bent up eventually.

The notebooks I got were 96 sheets each, and I eventually filled 5 of them.

My notebooks

My notebooks

By the way, the duct tape you see on the binding was to attach a bookmark-ribbon to the spine so I could easily keep track of my page, not because the notebook was falling apart (these books are the toughest notebooks I have ever come across).

I was surprised to also find these exact same notebooks on Blueline Business Notebook, Black, 192 Pages, 9-1/4 Inches x 7-1/4 Inches

The method

Now, I’m a computer guy, but learning kanji had to be done in analog. Actually writing down the kanji with a pen and paper was really helpful for learning it (and remembering the stroke order), and this way I had a notebook that I easily just toss in my bag and take with me on a bus or to Starbucks. Plus, it was highly rewarding to have an actual physical sense of how much I had learned (and of course it was great for showing off to people!). I enjoyed being able to look at my books (which eventually numbered 5 altogether) and think “Wow, all of that is in my brain!”

My objective was essentially to transfer all the information contained in the Learner’s Kanji Dictionary into my brain. To do this, I literally transcribed nearly everything from the dictionary into my notebook and reviewed each word hundreds of times over.

kanji study method

If that sounds tedious, difficult, boring, repetitive and perhaps even emotionally scarring to you, well, you’re right, it was. Once, I even went on an all-day study rampage where I just transcribed kanji after kanji from the dictionary to my notebook from morning until late at night… and after 14 long hours I had filled 37 pages, had an unearthly headache and throbbing, trembling fingers that could no longer hold a pen.

The reason behind transcribing was twofold. First, the act of actually writing the kanji a few times is great for retention. Second, I needed to have all of this information streamlined for maximum reviewability, which was the key to the strategy. I suppose you could think of the process of kind of like snatching up every word one by one from dictionary and putting the little buggers into your head, and then using the notebook to take roll call every once in a while to make sure everyone is still where they’re supposed to be.

The page format

Here’s a sample page from the kanji dictionary and a scan of from my notes to show you how I formatted my notebook based on the information in the dictionary… (no laughing at the bad handwriting!)

kanji study notebook page example learners kanji dictionary example page

The format for each line goes something like: A – B – C _________ D

  • A: The word in kanji form.
  • B: The word in hiragana (pronunciation).
  • C: The English translation/explanation.
  • D: The kanji form again in the right margin.

Pretty simple, right? One line for each word, information on the left and just kanji in the right margin. One line left blank between different kanji groups to make the pages easy to scan.

To review, I would simply go from page to page, top to bottom focusing on each word in the right margin in turn, recalling its meaning and pronunciation before moving on. If I couldn’t remember a word or its meaning, I would quickly check the information on the left.

Sometimes I would pretend to write the kanji on the tabletop or my leg or wherever just with my finger as I went through the list. I was pretty strict on myself, so if I forgot one word on a page I would keep going over the whole page before moving on. I made an effort to review a whole book every day, but especially once the notebook started to get past 40 pages or so I didn’t always have time.

For me (and I suspect for many others as well) 90% of learning is simply not forgetting. So the “secret” to my method (if you can call it that) was to make the act of reviewing as comprehensive, simple, easy, and quick as possible.

How did I choose which compounds to list?

This is important. I made a point to write ALL the jukugo for each kanji IF I knew the other character(s). If it was a compound with a character I hadn’t studied yet, I ignored it (the same word would come up again when I got to the unfamiliar kanji). By following this rule, I never had any duplicate words in your notebook, all the words I was learning were reinforcing previous kanji I had learned, I never confused myself by learning words with kanji that I didn’t yet know, and this way not a single jukugo gets left out.

How did I choose which kanji to learn next?

Of course it’s a good idea to focus on easier and more common kanji first, but since my ultimate goal was to learn ALL (useful) kanji, I was never picky about what kanji to study next. I’d flip to random pages in the dictionary to find kanji, scan jukugo lists, go through my textbook or some manga, look up kanji that I had seen somewhere else and wanted to know, whatever.

Very often I would be writing the jukugo for one kanji and find a word that I wanted to learn but which was using another kanji that I hadn’t studied yet, so kanji, in a way, introduced me to their friends as I was learning. (on the example notebook page above, you can see how I decided to learn 殊 after seeing it when I was going through the jukugo list for 更)

The only thing I was really picky about was filling each page, so I’d often start off with a common kanji that took up quite a few lines, and end with whatever kanji I found that could fit in the space that was left. The fish/sushi kanji, while for the most part non-Joyo, are particularly well suited to filling one or two extra lines at the bottom.

Anyway, if anyone wants to follow my example, start with any JLPT Level 4 kanji you don’t already know (check out my Japanese Cheat Sheet for a list), but after that there’s really no “wrong” order to learn kanji in, so just do whatever you want (as long as you don’t end up procrastinating all the harder and more boring kanji).

What did I do about writing?

Since my focus was on learning how to read moreso than to write, I really only added in a writing method as an afterthought. And actually my logic for including it at all was that if I could write it, then I was much more likely to never forget how to read it. Anyway, I’m glad I did include it, even if I have slacked off and forgotten how to write most of them…

I did this: after I had finished a book, I would type up a big long list of English cue words for all the kanji in the book, in the same order as the kanji in the book. I would then print the list and tape it securely to the back cover… take a look at the picture to see.

Cue words taped to the back cover

Cue words taped to the back cover

To practice writing, I would go one by one through the list of cue words and write the corresponding kanji on a piece of scrap paper. The only reason this worked, of course, was because I had already been reviewing the kanji in the same order for weeks or even months. Even with that preparation however, it was hard to recall which kanji I was supposed to write for each cue word, so I’d go column by column initially, looking back to cheat whenever I needed to. Usually it only took a day or two of practice before I could write out every kanji from the notebook in the correct order just from using the list of cue words. After that it was just a matter of keeping in practice so that I wouldn’t forget.

Unfortunately I don’t have any images of the old scrap papers that I wrote kanji on to show everyone, but when I went practicing kanji I would always come away with a half sheet of paper or so of just solid kanji. Anyone who saw me studying must have thought I was a madman!

I could have used both sides of the paper, but…

I only used the right-side pages, so theoretically I could have put two times more information in each notebook. But I didn’t do this for a few reasons…

  1. It was much easier to just scan one side of the book as I flip through doing my review; no need to go back and forth. I know it seems like just a little tiny detail, but this made reviewing much easier on my eyes.
  2. On the left-side page I would occasionally put random interesting sentences or other word collections that I wanted to remember (Japanese isn’t all about kanji, you know)
  3. Leaving breathing room, even if it was on the opposite page from the one I was reading, really made everything feel less cramped.
  4. There’s no way I could have fit twice as many cue words on a sheet of paper for the writing review.
  5. I wanted each page to be nice and clean, with no ink seeping through from the other side.
  6. Going through pages faster makes it feel like your studies are progressing faster! Yeah, it’s a mind trick but who cares if it can keep you motivated.

Final thoughts

Learning kanji is a truly massive undertaking that cannot be accomplished without a very strong will and long term dedication. I may not have met those requirements when I started, but I did by the time I was finished.

My study of kanji was the first and perhaps only thing in my life so far that I’ve really put my heart completely into. At times, I questioned if it would ever end and if it was really worth it, but always somehow found the strength to press on. In the end, not only was it the most challenging project I’ve ever approached, but it was the most rewarding as well.

Other study methods

I’d like to complete this article with a list of links to other kanji study method articles around the internet, so if anyone knows of any, please drop me a line!

Posted under Language & Study by Nihonshock.

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