Learn Japanese, Step 3: Kanji


NOTE: This article is part of a series.  If you missed Part 1 or Part 2 please click the corresponding link.

You have now mastered Hiragana and Katakana.  A lot of progress has been made.  You now know a total of three (Romaji, Hiragana, and Katakana) of the writing systems of Japan, with only one remaining.

What is Kanji?


Kanji 「漢字・かんじ」 consists of the Chinese characters for China and character. Thus, it can be translated as “China character” or “Chinese characters”.  Kanji originated in mainland China during the Shang Dynasty, (around 1500 B.C.E.) when the symbols were engraved by oracles onto animal bones, such as those of oxen or horses, and turtle shells.  

The number of Kanji in existence total more than 50,000.  However, over time many of these fell out of circulation, and the number decreased.  China now uses only around 5,000 characters, while Japan uses about 2,000 characters. In fact, the official number as set forth by the Japanese Ministry of Education places the current total at 2,136.  This list of characters known as Jōyō Kanji「常用漢字」, or “common use Kanji”, was established in 2010.

NOTE: Kanji were once used by Korea, who later developed Hangul「한국어」and Chosongul「조선말 」and Vietnam, who later adapted the Roman alphabet.

漢字 Radicals

Kanji are comprised of units known as radicals 「部首・しゅ」.  These are components that fit together to form a complete Kanji.  Radicals can be of two types:

 1. Other Kanji

十 口 日 月 田

2.  Elements from a part of another Kanji

⺅ ⼇ ⼌ ⺡ ⺮

As Kanji evolve to express more complex ideas, they absorb radicals to help convey meaning:

日 + 月 = 明

 目 + ⼉ = 見 

木 + 木 = 林

言 + 売 = 

⺾ + 目 + ⼍ + 夕 = 

Radicals are similar to Hiragana and Katakana; they are simpler, and have fewer strokes. Knowing how to write radicals will help you when penning more advanced Kanji.  Also, you can often look at a Kanji and guess its meaning, (even if you have never seen it before) simply by knowing the radicals in the character:

花  (flower) + 火  (fire) = 花火  (flower of fire) = 花火  (fireworks)

外  (outside) + 国  (country) + 人  (person) =  外国人  (foreigner)

今  (now) + 日  (day) = 今日  (today)

女  (woman) + 子  (child) = 好  (to be fond of; to like)

電  (electric) + 話  (talk) = 電話  (telephone)

漢字 Readings

ame kun on.png

One of the tricky things about reading in Japanese is that the same Kanji can be pronounced multiple ways.  These different ways of pronouncing Kanji are called readings.  There are two main categories of Kanji readings.

1. Onyomi

Onyomi「音読み ・おんよみ」means “sound reading”.  This reading comes from Japanese people trying to pronounce a Kanji according to how they heard Chinese people saying it, during the importation of Kanji to Japan.  Thus, not only did Japan adopt a writing system, but they absorbed new vocabulary as well.   Onyomi is also called the “Chinese reading”.

1. 火  (fire) : 曜日  (Tuesday) ・ よう

2. 国  (country) : 外人  (foreigner) ・ がいこくじん

3. 人  (person) : 日本人  (Japanese person) ・ にほんじん

4. 日  (day) :  一  (one day) ・ いちにち

5. 会 (meet) : 社  (company) ・ かいしゃ

2. Kunyomi

Kunyomi「訓読み・くんよみ」means “instruction reading”.  This reading comes from Japanese people assigning the pronunciation of their own words to Chinese characters. Originally, Japanese was a purely spoken language.  As Kanji were introduced to Japan, Japanese people mapped the sounds of their language onto the Chinese characters. Kunyomi is also called the “Japanese reading”.

1. 火 (fire) : 花  (fireworks) ・ はな

2. 国 (country) : 国  (country) ・ くに

3. 人 (person) : 人  (person) ・ ひと

4. 日 (day) : 日  (day) ・ 

5. 会 (meet) : う約束  (appointment) ・ やくそく

NOTE: When multiple Kanji are side by side, it is usually an indication that they carry the Onyomi reading, and when they are together with Hiragana, they will usually carry the Kunyomi reading.  Also, sometimes Kanji have more than one Kunyomi or more than one Onyomi.  This is due to Kanji being introduced at various times and places in Japan, over many years.

Some students will make an effort to learn readings individually, per each Kanji.  This is time-consuming and difficult.  A more natural way to learn Kanji readings is through acquisition and usage of vocabulary.  As you encounter new words and practice using them under a variety of circumstances, readings will become effortless, due to the principle of association: their being connected with whole words, rather than being isolated.

Erin’s Challenge is one tool that will help you conceptually understand how to read Kanji in this way, by offering the option to see both the Hiragana and Kanji version of a dialogue at the same time.

NOTE: On the videos, check the first two boxes: 「日本語」 and 「ほんご (かな)」

Writing Japanese Words


Japanese words can be written in 5 different ways:

1. In Hiragana -> とけい

2. In Katakana -> スターバックス

3. In Kanji -> 電車

4. In a combination of Kanji and Hiragana -> 勉強します

5. In Romaji -> Tokyo

However, words can move between all five writing systems, depending on how they are being used.  For example, in formal writing you are more likely to see words spelled in Kanji.  However, a student taking lecture notes at university may use more Hiragana, as this is easier when jotting down information.  A word may be written in Katakana if it is meant to catch one’s eye.  Romaji can be found at train stations and tourist sites to ease navigation for foreign visitors.  For this reason it is important to know all the Japanese writing systems, and understand how they work together to convey meaning.

Certain words are usually associated with a certain script.  For example, “apple” is normally written in Hiragana,んご」because it is more simple to write than the Kanji「林檎」.  The same is the case for “giraffe”: the Katakanaリン」versus the Kanji 「麒麟」.

Learning 漢字

There are a combination of methods I would recommend.

Method 1: Remembering the Kanji, Vol. 1

This book was written by James Heisig.  It is a comprehensive guide which walks you through a list of 2200 Kanji, grouped in sets between 56 lessons.  The book uses simple Kanji as a foundation for presenting the more complex variety, so that as the student progresses, all the information needed to understand the next set of Kanji, has been covered in a previous chapter.  Remember the Kanji, Vol. 1 covers the meaning and writing of Kanji ONLY.  It does not cover their readings.

Method 2: NihongoShark.com Kanji Deck (on Anki)

This Anki deck was created by Niko of NihongoShark.com.  It pairs perfectly with Remembering the Kanji, and is a great alternative to making your own flashcards, as Heisig recommends.  Additionally, if at any time you forget the meaning of a Kanji, you can review its story (from the book) from within the deck and try again. Stories created by other learners are present as well.

Click here for Niko’s complete guide on setting up the Kanji deck as well as information on the 97 Day Kanji Challenge.  The sections “Set Anki Preferences for Efficient Studying” and “Change New Card Quota” are especially noteworthy, as they explain how to set your own pace for studying Kanji.

NOTE: Anki is a website and virtual flashcard app for iOS and Android.  It uses a spaced repetition system (or SRS) to guarantee maximum retention of the information stored in your flashcards.  You can even track your progress.

Method 3: Kanji From Zero, Book 1

This is the first in a brand new series by George Trombley of YesJapan.com.  The book has a similar format to his Japanese From Zero series, however focuses exclusively on Kanji with a unique perspective on radicals, sample vocabulary, stroke order, fill-in-the-blank style sentences, and other features.  In all, 240 Kanji are discussed over the span of 39 lessons.  To learn more about this book, see the introductory video by the author.

Writing 漢字


Writing aids greatly in recall of Kanji.  If you can write a Kanji, you can definitely remember it.  However, if you can only recognize it, it may be a challenge to write.  Physically writing out the Kanji will promote muscle memory and mental memory.  This will allow you to automatically recognize and produce each character when needed.

Reading 漢字


When first learning to read Kanji, it may be beneficial to use material that incorporates Furiganaりがな」.  This is a Hiragana reading aid added to Kanji to mark their reading. Furigana can be located above, to the side, or beneath a Kanji.  This is useful when Kanji literacy is low, but as you improve, using Furigana may hurt your ability to read, as your eyes will tend to gravitate towards the readings, and not the Kanji to which they belong.  Furigana is sometimes referred to as Yomiganaみがな・読み仮名」

One of the best ways to learn how to read Kanji is through instant messaging apps, such as HelloTalk or LINE.  If your Japanese is even at a basic level, you can start writing with native speakers.  If you do not understand something, look it up, reply as best you can, and move the conversation forward.  You may want to take notes on the exchange, to refine your skills for next time.

Listening For 漢字

kanji listening.jpg

As you continue practicing spoken and written Japanese, you will internalize many character’s readings and meanings, so that when an unknown word arises, you will be able to use these, as well as the context of the situation to establish possible Kanji for the unknown word.

 漢字 and Learning Japanese

kanji and jpn.jpg

Learning Kanji is a major stepping stone to achieving fluency in Japanese, and one that requires more time and attention than either Hiragana or Katakana.  For this reason, it is important to start studying Kanji as soon as you can.  However, this does not necessarily mean that you should focus exclusively on Kanji.  Study Kanji at a pace which feels comfortable to you.  It is very important to continue developing your speaking and listening skills at the same time, so as to progress evenly across all fields of the language.

For Optimal Success with 漢字

  1. Read Remembering the Kanji, Vol. 1
  2. Get a notebook for practicing Kanji and write them every day
  3. Download Anki and the Nihongo Shark Kanji Deck
  4. Review with the Kanji deck every day
  5. Print out a Kanji progress chart
  6. Use Erin’s Challenge or other subtitled videos to match the spoken and written word
  7. Use Jisho.org to find the Kanji for vocabulary you know, or want to know
  8. Download an instant messaging app and connect with Japanese speakers

You are welcome to leave any questions or comments about the article or send them to me via Twitter @cbilbrey12. To receive updates on forthcoming articles, please follow me.

Thank you for reading.




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