6 July 2016

How to learn 2000+ kanji in a matter of years

One of the biggest hurdles Japanese learners face is the seemingly endless mountains of Kanji there are to master. Part of the problem is that it isn't actually obvious what it means to 'learn' Kanji.

A few years ago I passed Kanji Kentei level 2, which covers all Joyo Kanji approved by the Japanese government. This was before the 2010 update, so there was only a requirement to know 1945 of them (and a passing acquaintance of the Jinmei Kanji for names). That is not to say I can write out all of them off the top of my head, but I know enough to read most Japanese I come across without using a Kanji dictionary. This post is about how I did it. I hope it doesn't sound as though I'm bragging. It is an achievement I'm proud of, but that's only because it's taken a huge amount of effort. I'm not really going to impart any secrets or shortcuts, but there

I began with the 'Basic Kanji' 500 books. These are great for giving an introduction to Kanji, the vocabulary they are used with, and building up an understanding of Kanji structure. I also tried the more advanced books in this series, but my advice would be not to bother, as they're completely impenetrable.



At about the same time as doing the second book, I bought Henshall's 'A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters'. This book is brilliant because it gives the origin of the Kanji, and the story of the character itself is often a better mnemonic than anything you make up yourself. The book does include suggested mnemonics, but I didn't use them.

It had a different cover in those days

I did make up my own mnemonics, but I quickly found that it wasn't always necessary to have a clear story in my mind as to the structure of the character. For example, I knew 曜 as 'day of the week' so 濯 is 'washing' because it's got water and you can do it on any day of the week. That's a rubbish story, but as long as it sticks in your mind, that's great. I would also learn a representative word or two that it was part of. This helped understand both the meaning of the character, it's reading, and expand my vocabulary.

Henshall's book can be used as a rudimentary Kanji dictionary, but that isn't what it's designed for, so I bought Halpern's Kani Dictionary. This is by far the best Kanji dictionary out the for the student of Japanese. It's easy to use and actually pretty readable, and I found the appendices really interesting.

I can remember when all this was yellow....

I also wrote down every new word I came across in Kanji. If I heard I new word I would get somebody to write it in Kanji for me. To start with I wouldn't recognise the characters, but as time went on I would know more and more, and would eventually be able to guess what the kanji was when I heard the word. I would also try to read; anything is good reading material. Eventually I had seen enough characters enough times that I new their meanings, their readings and, with some more practice, their writings. At no point did I go in for rote memorisation of the kanji out of context of the Japanese language.

After 18 months I knew enough Japanese to pass the old JLPT level 2. Not a brilliant pace, but not bad either. Then I started on the Kanji Kentei, beginning with level 5. This is all Kyoiku kanji, those learnt by Japanese children during the first six years of school.

Now, from the start, I loved Kanji. I found it absolutely fascinating, and it probably kept me motivated when I got fed up of learning grammar or vocabulary. I thought that level 5 would be a pushover. It wasn't. It opened my eyes to how Japanese people see Kanji. For the first time I could see how you sometimes have to look at them as Chinese in order to make sense of the meaning, as many compounds follow Chinese grammar rules. Above all, though, it really expanded my vocabulary. Knowing how to write the Kanji and their individual meanings was barely ten per cent of the effort needed to pass.

From there I took one level of the Kanken every six months. Generally it took three months to master a level, and then I'd leave it for three months. It took about six months to master level two and consistently get 80% on the practice tests, so about three years from starting level 5 to passing level 2. I'll cover in a different post my strategy for passing the Kanken. I really enjoyed them as a challenge, but they also give structure to covering all the Joyo kanji thoroughly and measurably.


I couldn't pass level 2 now, but that doesn't matter. Forgetting Kanji is part of learning them, and there is a huge difference between forgetting something and never having learnt it. This is also something for a beginner to remember when they can write a Kanji a Japanese person doesn't know. You may know that specific kanji, but their knowledge goes to depths the beginner can't even imagine. I would certainly make that point to smug little me all those years ago.

1 comment:

  1. Great job!! Thanks for sharing these valuable resources to Learn Japanese online

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