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Lesson 1: How to learn the Kanji

We assume you know Hiragana and Katakana. If not check out our free Kana Textbook.

What does it mean to "know" the Kanji and how many Kanji do you need to know?

Number of Kanji: The Dai Kan-Wa Jiten (大漢和辞典, "The Great Han–Japanese Dictionary") which is considered the authoritative Kanji dictionary lists over 50,000 Kanji. That's a lot of Kanji to learn.

A more realistic target is known as the Jōyō Kanji (常用漢字). This is a list of 2,136 Kanji compiled by Japanese Ministry of Education that Japanese students are expected to master before finishing high school. Most newspapers and other publications try to restrict themselves to the Jōyō Kanji so that everyone can read them. Another good target would be all the Kanji specified for the highest level of the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) which is just under 2,000.

Knowing a Kanji: Ideally knowing a Kanji means knowing:
  • Its meaning
  • All KunYomi readings (Native Japanese words)
  • All OnYomi reading (Chinese origin)
  • All the words with that Kanji
Learning the common KunYomi is great because you learn an actual Japanese word and it helps with your understanding of the general meaning of the Kanji. The general meaning is really the sum of all the words that the Kanji is found in. As you learn more words your understanding of what a Kanji means will evolve. For example you will probably first encounter the Kanji 生 as part of the word 学生 (がくせい) which means Student. Later on you will encounter it by itself in the context of the word 生きる (いきる) which means "to live". Later on you will also encounter it as 生まれる (うまれる) which means "to be born" and your understanding of the general meaning will probably change to "life/birth". Eventually you will learn that it can also mean "raw" or "unfiltered" and it's general meaning to you will become "life/birth/raw".

Simply trying to memorize the OnYomi for a new Kanji will simply lead to frustration. Since the Kanji itself is kind of abstract and the reading doesn't constitute an actual word the OnYomi have a tendency to vanish from your memory the next morning. The best way to learn the OnYomi is by learning an actual word and it's reading. That way you learn the reading for two Kanji as well as an actual word which tends to stick in your memory better.

One exception to this is OnYomi Reading Groups which we will cover later. Some Kanji which share an element also have the same reading. So by knowing the reading associated with that element you can learn the OnYomi for a bunch of Kanji all at once.

How not to learn the Kanji
Do not simply go through a long list of Kanji and try to memorize all the possible readings. It is like banging your head against the wall. Some Kanji like 下 and 生 have 12 readings each. Instead of forcing yourself to memorize 12 readings for one Kanji (most of which will be rare) you are better off learning the meaning and one reading for 12 different Kanji. Then fill in those additional reading later as you encounter them. It will be much easier to add new readings to your memory if you know the Kanji already.
The TenguGo Method
Our method stresses using knowledge of the Kanji Radicals (parts of Kanji that are combined to make more complex Kanji) to understand the meaning of the Kanji as well as their readings.

Kanji are taught mostly following the progression of the JLPT levels. Common readings are introduced along with the Kanji but the emphasis is on remembering the meaning. Using your knowledge of the radicals, we'll show how you can intelligently guess the reading when you come across a Kanji you don't know.

The Heisig Method
The Heisig Method is a popular and innovative approach designed by James Heisig in his series of books: Remembering the Kanji. His books separate learning the meanings of the Kanji (Book 1) and the readings of the Kanji (Book 2). Learning the meanings is aided by a set of mnemonic stories he makes up for each Kanji.

The possible downside of the method, which is what makes it innovative, is that you learn the meaning of ALL the Kanji in Book 1 without learning any readings or actual words. In the long run this may be the quickest way to learn ALL the Kanji but most people need to learn to actually read some words within the first year.

Levels of Kanji Knowledge
How many Kanji does a native Japanese speaker know growing up? The Japanese Ministry of Education specifies when the 2,136 Jōyō Kanji should be taught:

• 1st grade: 80 Kanji
• 2nd grade: 160 Kanji
• 3rd grade: 200 Kanji
• 4th grade: 200 Kanji
• 5th grade: 185 Kanji
• 6th grade: 181 Kanji
• Junior High: 1,130 Kanji

The JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) has 5 levels with 1 being the highest:

• JLPT Level 5: 80 Kanji
• JLPT Level 4: 170 more Kanji
• JLPT Level 3: 370 more Kanji
• JLPT Level 2: 370 more Kanji
• JLPT Level 1: 1,000 more Kanji