6 Simple Ways to Learn Kanji

Published April 30th, 2021

You’ve mastered hiragana (ひらがな). It took you a while to learn katana (カタカナ), but at the end, you did it. Now, for the next step in learning Japanese. There are three writing systems in the Japanese language. The third one is kanji (漢字). This writing system is made up of Chinese characters. If you’re familiar with the Chinese language, memorizing the characters won’t be hard for you at all. Because you already know them.

Not all of us are as lucky. We’ve got to learn kanji from scratch. And let me tell you, from personal experience, it’s extremely difficult. Even some of my Japanese friends find kanji hard!

But hard doesn’t mean impossible. With a couple of tips, you can learn kanji easier. In this article, we list 6 ways to help you master the kanji writing system!

Learn the Radicals

The kanji for time (toki) is made up of radicals resembling the simpler kanji for sun (日) and temple (寺).

Radicals are a big part of how kanji characters are set up. Radicals are a piece of kanji that gets tacked onto a bigger kanji. There are a total of 214 radicals in Japanese. If you learn all of them, you’ll cover the base characters. From there, you can build up towards your kanji characters. Radicals are also handy for using kanji dictionaries, like the one on Nihongo Master.

When you combine two or more radicals together, even without knowing the big kanji character, you can basically guess what it means. However, radicals change shape when you combine them with another kanji. For example, 水 (mizu, water) changes to 氵 when you see it in the word 海 (umi, ocean).

When you start learning radicals and the ways they change, soon you’ll be able to recognise bigger kanji characters. Over time, you’ll build your kanji vocabulary, just from learning the radicals!

Learn Jouyou Kanji

Japanese Characters

There are over 50,000 kanji in the Japanese language! That’s a lot, even for a Japanese person. So, how do you know which kanji to learn and which not to?

The answer is simple: learn Jouyou kanji (常用漢字). This refers to the commonly used Chinese characters. Younger Japanese kids start off by learning this type of kanji first. If you can memorize Jouyou kanji, you’ll be able to read at least 80% of the Japanese language already!

Jouyou kanji includes simple ones like watashi (私) and ki (木). Over time, you’ll be able to break down big words like 悪循環 (pronounced as “akujunkan”). This word, which means “vicious cycle”, is made up of three kanji characters. If you break it down, you get “bad” (悪, waru/aku), “sequential” (循, jyun) and “circle” (環, wa/kan).

Repetition & Drilling

You can’t beat the age-old technique of repetition and drilling. This is also known as the traditional way to learn kanji. It uses a lot of paper with square boxes and pen ink. But at the end of the day, you’re going to have those kanji characters locked in your brain.

Take one kanji character that you really want to learn. Then, look at how the strokes are. A lot of people say it’s important to learn the strokes in order. It’s true, because it really helps to memorise the character. Follow the strokes of the characters on paper for yourself.

Copy the stroke order until you’ve locked it in your brain for the day. Then the next day, try recalling it without referring to anything. Do it every day until you can remember it. Then, when you stop drilling that kanji character, wait a few weeks before testing yourself again. If you pass your own test, you’ve mastered that kanji character.

Do that practice for all the kanji characters you want to learn. Learning to draw kanji will help you remember as well as make your Japanese writing more fluent looking!

Use Flash Cards

Accompany the previous method with this one: flashcards. Not everyone can learn from constantly repeating the same strokes over and over again. Some are more visual learners than others. This means that they need to see a visual reference to learn better.

I learn better with writing things down, but I know some people prefer visual aids. The flash cards can be of the stroke orders or a picture of what the kanji character looks like. Whichever works best for you, opt for those flashcards.

They’re great for learning on-the-go, as well. Flashcards are small and can be carried around with you. They barely take up any space! Whether you’re commuting or waiting for your dish at a cafe, pop them out and learn!

Take Up Reading

I know not everyone is a fan of reading. If you’re not, you might want to reconsider. Reading can really help you learn kanji characters. That’s because reading solidifies the kanji characters that you already know. When you are faced with the characters you’re familiar with a lot of times, it’s going to stay permanent in your head.

This method is great when you already know a lot of kanji characters. It shows you the kanji you know in action, reinforcing them, but also showing you new kanji and different usage of the ones you know. Keep a kanji dictionary handy and highlight or take note of what you don't understand. You'll be learning new words and kanji in no time!

On top of that, you get to read a new story and see the kanji characters you learn in context!

Build Your Vocab

Last but not least, a great way to learn kanji is by building your vocabulary. I used to do this a lot when I was starting out with learning kanji. If you learn the vocabulary word, you’ll naturally learn the kanji characters used for it.

For example, you’re definitely going to learn the word “to eat” (食べる, taberu). Another essential Japanese word is “dining room” (食堂, shokudou). You’ll realize that the kanji 食 can be pronounced as “ta” or “shoku”. You’ll learn more vocabulary and be exposed to more words that use the same kanji character. After a while, you’ll be able to guess the readings and grasp the meaning just from context.

This method is more useful the more words you learn. It definitely gets easier as well. Not only are you building your kanji character book but also your Japanese vocabulary!

Different people study differently. These 6 methods have different approaches for various types of learners. There’s definitely one that’ll be great for your way of learning. Kanji is important in the Japanese language. Try all the ways out and you’ll be a master at it!