Quick! How do you say "barbed wire" in Japanese?
ANSWER: It's 有刺鉄線.
Yeah, it's a mouthful and not too useful, but...
It's actually fairly easy to remember...
If you know the kanji.
Kanji Super Power: Know unknown words at a glance.
Let's go back 25 years when I (Clay) was a fledgling Japanese learner. I knew the meaning and readings of over a hundred kanji! My basic conversational Japanese was coming along.
In other words, I felt good about my Japanese progress.
But while talking to a friend, the topic turned to barbed wire for fencing (I truly don't know how this came up...). I asked the friend how to say "barbed wire" in Japanese. She said, "It's yuushitessen."*
*Note, I wrote that in romaji for a point. If you look at the meaningless letters (letters convey sound but not meaning), it's just a string of sounds. But if you look at the kanji 有刺鉄線, it's a string of both sounds AND meaning.
As you can imagine, I quickly forgot "yuushitessen."
I mean, who wouldn't?
Years later, I was reading an article and came across 有刺鉄線. I had forgotten the word completely, but just by looking at the kanji, I knew instantly what it meant (context also helps).
Makes sense, right?
This article isn't about learning the word 有刺鉄線, which, let's face it, unless you are in the cattle business, it's one of the least useful words to learn.
No, my point is:
Learning Kanji supercharges your reading, listening, and even speaking skills.
If you know the meaning of the individual kanji, you can often pick out the meaning of words you have never seen or heard before (just as I did with 有刺鉄線 - "have barb metal line" AKA "barbed wire").
Supercharging your Japanese language studies
Before I give you some actionable tips, let me tell you one more story.
When we moved from Japan to the States in 2001, I knew the meaning and / or the readings of about 1000 kanji. This was after about 3 years of study.
This lower-intermediate area is a dangerous place to be. Why? Because with 1000 kanji, you can read a lot, and it's easy to become complacent.
And that's what I did.
I had excuses, you know. I was now responsible for my wife, and pretty soon, my kids. The stress of supporting a family in the States made studying Japanese a low priority.
But one year, my New Year's resolution was to focus on learning all 常用漢字 (The 2,136 characters the Japanese Ministry of Education sets for Japanese school children to know.)
I started at 一 (one) and kept at it until I finished a little early, about 10 months later. Those 10 months turned out to be the most productive months of my Japanese language learning journey. It kicked me out of my complacent lower-intermediate plateau.
Once I completed my concentrated kanji study, I noticed a few improvements:
- My reading comprehension and speed jumped tremendously.
- This encouraged me to read more.
- Reading more increased my vocabulary.
- Increased vocabulary helped with my conversational Japanese.
- Understanding unknown words by thinking in kanji further helped my listening comprehension.
- Rinse and repeat.
This was all thanks to my newfound kanji super power.
All around Japanese ability = snowball
Kanji study = pushing said snowball down a powdery hill and watching it grow bigger and bigger
Actionable advice for learning kanji
While everyone's learning journey is different, if you have neglected kanji, I would highly recommend making it a part of your daily studies. Here are a few suggestions how to do that:
Advice for Total Beginners
If you are just starting out, my recommendation is to master kana (hiragana and katakana) first. Makoto+ members, use our Hiragana course here. Shogun and Lifetime members, you have free access to our Katakana course too.
But once you've done that, while working through a good textbook (Genki is good, but there are many others that may be cheaper), start hitting kanji. Make kanji one of your hobbies.
I wrote an introduction to kanji here:
While I think kanji learning systems that focus on learning through mnemonics like Kodansha's Kanji Learner's Course or Heisig's Remembering the Kanji are good for a total kanji approach, for the total beginner, I would recommend learning the first 100 or so kanji before starting a total kanji approach.
Learning the meaning and readings of these 100 key kanji will jump-start your reading ability.
The 100 kanji found in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test N5 level are the most common and useful kanji. This is a good place to start.
By going through this course (after you learn hiragana and katakana), you'll be amazed how much you will be able to read. There's also an Anki deck with the course with sound and example sentences.
Advice for Those with Some Kanji Knowledge
If you've studied for a while and can recognize dozens or hundreds of kanji, you may want to consider a total kanji approach like the aforementioned Kodansha's Kanji Learner's Course or Heisig's Remembering the Kanji.
Be aware, though, this is a marathon and requires consistent, daily studying.
I was able to go through all 2136 常用漢字 kanji in 10 months because I was already familiar with about half of them. If you are starting from 100 kanji, expect to take two or three years to learn the 2000+ kanji. By "learn" here, I mean become familiar with the kanji, the meaning, and some pronunciations. You'll fully learn the kanji as you read Japanese texts.
The Key for Learning Kanji: At first, you get to know a kanji by studying the individual characters (kanji parts, meaning, and pronunciations). Then, you truly learn that kanji by reading and seeing it in context as part of words.
Also, You don't want to sprint learning kanji. It is a marathon and sprinting (binge studying) can lead to burn out. Just spend 5-15 minutes a day learning and reviewing kanji. Over time your proficiency will grow.
Both of these systems (Kodansha and Heisig) break kanji down into parts and use mnemonics to help you learn the kanji.
For example, 話す (to speak) is made up of 言 (word) and 舌 (tongue).
A mnemonic story might be "話 is a 言 (word) that leaves the 舌 (tongue)."
舌 (tongue) itself could be broken to 千 (1000) and 口 (mouth). "A 千 (1000) 口 (mouths) have a 舌 (tongue)"
Try to make the stories silly and personal. Those are the easiest to remember.
Kodansha's approach is more methodical and is well supported by tons of separately purchased readers for practice. After all, the way to truly learn kanji is through reading.
Heisig's approach is less conventional but highly regarded by many students. It also uses kanji part mnemonics to learn kanji, but it separates meaning and readings. In the first book, you learn the meaning of the kanji. In the second book, you study the readings.
One good thing about choosing Heisig is there are free Anki decks made specifically for this approach. I'm not sure if the Kodansha approach has an Anki deck, but Anki is ideal for reinforcing kanji.
Regarding Heisig, I personally agree that learning the meaning of a kanji is the most important aspect.
However, if you are going to the trouble to learn the meaning, why not also at least familiarize yourself with the readings? Even if you don't memorize the readings, read through them out loud as you also say the mnemonic. It will make learning words with this kanji easier down the road.
Again, kanji is best learned by reading. You can study lists of kanji all day long, but, in my experience, until I read it in the wild and began to learn the sounds by learning words, I didn't truly "know" that kanji.
What I would not do
It depends on your goals with Japanese, but I personally see no reason to spend much time writing kanji.
Learn to write kana so you can fill out forms and write your name, but writing kanji is less and less of a necessity these days.
This isn't the 1990s.
I mean, how often do you hand-write English? If you are like me, maybe once a year at the doctor's office and even then, more and more forms are filled out using tablets.
Would it be nice to be able to write kanji? Sure, but for me I would rather prioritize other areas such as speaking, reading, and listening. Your goals are different from mine, but learning Japanese takes an incredible amount of time. Focus on what is most important for you.
That being said, maybe you love 書道 (Japanese calligraphy). If that's the case, learning the stroke order and how to write kanji beautifully would require much writing practice.
I suspect for most people, though, spending time writing kanji, while not wasted time, could be better spent doing other activities.
I learned the first 1000 kanji mostly through rote memorization and writing each kanji out dozens of times. (I still have my Doraemon notebook from 1998 to prove it--see the messy image below)
While it worked for me, it was a very inefficient way to learn kanji.
If I had known about the power of mnemonic stories by kanji parts and had Anki back then, I am sure I could have learned the 2,000+ kanji in the same three years as I learned 1,000. (By "learn" I mean to recognize the meaning and usually get the pronunciation right when reading vocabulary words that contain the kanji. My goal with learning kanji wasn't to be able to be able to spit out all the readings and meanings perfectly for each character, but to greatly increase my vocabulary and reading enjoyment.)
If you find kanji intimidating, here's one way to think of it. Kanji is easy. That is, learning the meaning and readings for each individual kanji isn't that hard.
What's difficult is the sheer number of kanji out there. Kanji is easy, BUT it takes a long time to master.
千里の道も一歩から The journey of a thousand miles (or "ri") begins with a single step.
Every step you take--10 or 15 minutes a day--will get you closer to your goal. Keep at it, and check your progress in a month and then in a year. I suspect you will be pleasantly surprised by your progress.
How do you learn kanji? Do you have any suggestions for others? Let everyone know in the comments!