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How to Learn Japanese Kanji: A Comprehensive Guide

Updated: Sep 11, 2023

How to Learn Japanese Kanji

Embarking on the journey of learning a language is an exciting experience filled with unfamiliar sounds, unique structures, and novel ways of self-expression. However, when it comes to writing and reading, one aspect can seem challenging: Kanji. Unlike Hiragana and Katakana which are scripts and relatively easy to master, Kanji is a system of symbols borrowed from Chinese characters. You need to know over 2,000 characters to be considered "literate," which can appear daunting at first. Fret not! Learning Kanji is absolutely achievable. Here's a comprehensive guide to help you get started.

Recognizing the Significance of Kanji

Before delving into the intricacies of Kanji, it's crucial to understand why mastering it holds importance. Kanji is deeply ingrained in culture and everyday life. Whether you're reading a newspaper following a recipe or trying to navigate through Tokyo, you'll come across Kanji characters. It does not facilitate communication in a Japanese-speaking environment, but it enhances your grasp of the language as many words share common Kanji characters that provide clues about their meanings.

Breaking Down the Components

One strategy for making the learning process easier involves dissecting Kanji characters into elements called 部首 (bushu) or "radicals." These radicals often carry meanings and sounds associated with them.

Understanding the components of Kanji, known as radicals, can greatly assist you in recognizing and comprehending complex characters. For instance, the radical for "water" 水 often appears in characters related to liquids or flow. Another example is the radical 貝 "shellfish". It is commonly associated with matters related to money, finance, value, or economic activities, as in ancient times shells were used as currency. With this knowledge, you can make guesses about the meaning of words that contain certain radicals.

Start with the Essentials

To begin your kanji learning journey, it's advisable to focus on the 2,136 used Kanji known as 常用漢字 Jōyō Kanji as outlined by the Japanese Ministry of Education. You can start by familiarizing yourself with the 214 radicals that form a part of these characters. Once you have a foundation in these fundamentals, you can progress to intricate Kanji.

Effective Learning Techniques

Utilize Flashcards

Traditional flashcards or digital applications like Anki prove to be tools. One side of the card displays a kanji character, while the other side provides its meaning, pronunciation, and perhaps an example sentence. You can also incorporate spaced repetition into your study routine. A memorization technique involving reviewing cards at intervals over time.

Harness Mnemonics, Muscle Memory and Context Learning

1. Utilizing Mnemonics and Storytelling

To make it easier to remember Kanji, one effective method is to create an image or story associated with each character.

Creating devices or stories can enhance retention. For example, visualizing the Kanji character for "tree" (木) as a tree, with its trunk and branches, helps solidify its image in your memory.

2. The Importance of Writing Practice

Engaging in the act of writing down each Kanji can aid in muscle memory. Also, familiarize yourself with the culturally significant stroke order in Japan.

3. Learning Kanji in Context

An alternative approach to memorizing Kanji is to learn them in context. Reading books, articles, or even social media posts that feature the Kanji you're studying helps you understand not the characters themselves but their real-life usage.

4. The Importance of Review

Don't forget to review and revise the Kanji you have already learned. This ensures that your hard work doesn't fade away over time.

Utilizing Tools and Apps

There are tools and apps available specifically designed for learning Kanji. Platforms like WaniKani utilize Spaced Repetition System (SRS) techniques, while apps like Kanji Study offer quizzes and games that make the learning process enjoyable.

Setting Measurable Goals

When embarking on this endeavor, it's important to set measurable goals. You might begin by aiming to learn five Kanji characters per week. Once you feel comfortable with that pace, you can gradually increase it to ten or more. Remember, consistency is key.

Daily Practice for Long-term Success

Remember that learning Kanji is a marathon rather than a sprint. It requires practice in order to achieve proficiency.

Make sure to dedicate 30 minutes daily to reviewing and learning new characters. Remember that each Kanji you learn not only brings you closer to literacy but deepens your understanding of Japanese culture and thinking.

Engaging with Native Speakers

If possible, try practicing reading and writing Kanji with speakers. This can provide you with a real-world perspective that studying in isolation might not offer.

In Summary

To sum up, learning Kanji might seem tough at first glance, but by recognizing the significance of Kanji, breaking down its components, and approaching its study in a manner, anyone can master this intricate system. Wishing you the best of luck. As they say in Japanese, がんばれ!Ganbare!

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