How to Learn Kanji: The Best Method

How to Learn Kanji in Record Time

Kanji. Just hearing that word brings fear and intimidation to many people. Learning kanji takes time, patience, and a lot of effort. The number of jouyou characters (common-use kanji) is 2,136. On top of that, most kanji have multiple readings, and some contain many strokes that you have to write in a specific order.

You know what though? I LOVE learning kanji. It’s fun and exciting to me. However, I didn’t always feel like this. When I first started, I absolutely hated kanji, and I thought it was impossible to learn unless you practiced it every day for years.

Now I know that you can learn and master kanji without writing each character hundreds of times. You can even do this with only a few minutes of studying per day. Of course, the more time and effort you put into learning kanji, the quicker and better you will remember them.


What’s the Best Way to Learn Kanji?

There are 2 general schools of thought about learning kanji: The traditional method and the Heisig method.


The Traditional Method of Studying Kanji

How to Learn Kanji - Dream Character

The traditional method involves learning the meaning of the kanji, and how to read and write it at the same time. You also need to write each character over and over and constantly drill yourself.

The drawback to this is that most books teach kanji in a seemingly random way. So there’s not logical progression when learning with this method. However, if you do choose this way to study kanji, the best book for this is the Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course.

Students in Japan learn kanji this way. They learn a few characters at a time and practice by writing them dozens or even hundreds of times. They learn the meaning and readings of that kanji, along with how to write them all at the same time. The kanji that they learn are based on what grade level they are in.

They also take many tests and do many kanji drills to further their understanding of the characters. This is a tried and true technique, as there are millions of Japanese that can read and write kanji. In fact, Japan is one of the most literate countries in the world.


Why This Method Sucks

While this method certainly works, there are two main drawbacks.

First of all, the kanji characters aren’t organized very well. The kanji you learn are separated by grade level (even most Kanji books are organized this way) instead of by similar groups of characters. This makes learning the kanji seem completely random, with little to no logical structure. This makes it very difficult to remember.

The second huge drawback to this method is that it takes up a LOT of time. It takes the average Japanese student 12 years of learning kanji this way to be able to read higher level material like the newspaper. Of course, most people don’t want to take 12 years of intensive study to learn kanji, so let’s look at method number 2.


The Heisig Method: Remembering the Kanji

The second way that many people have used to learn kanji is a book called “Remembering the Kanji” by James Heisig.

With this method, you only learn the meaning of the kanji, and how to write it. You don’t learn how to read each kanji in this book. To learn the Japanese readings of each character, you’ll need to get volume 2. Volume 2 covers all of the readings for each character.

Even though this 2-step process seems overcomplicated, it makes learning and remembering the kanji easier than traditional methods.

This is the way I recommend you to study kanji.


Pros vs Cons of the Heisig Method


  • Remembering the kanji is organized in an easy to follow, logical manner
  • The method of studying the kanji allows you to remember more characters quicker and easier than traditional methods
  • Better recall of studied kanji
  • Easier and more fun to study
  • Effective use of this method can allow you to remember how to write each character with minimal practice


The major drawback of this method is that you have to study each kanji in two parts. The first time you just learn how to write it, along with its general meaning. After you finish all of the kanji in this book, you’ll have to get volume 2. In volume 2, you’ll go back and learn all the readings of each character.

Let’s take a look at the actual method that Remembering the Kanji teaches.


Remembering the Kanji: How it Works

How to Learn Kanji - Primative Images

To remember the meanings of all the characters, the author, James Heisig gave each kanji character a one-word definition. So instead of remembering a long definition, or multiple definitions, you just need to remember one word. For example, this kanji, “日” is given the definition of “day” in the book.

This method breaks down complex and difficult kanji into simpler parts, which the author calls “primitives.” You will create a clear, concrete image that you can associate to these primitives.

Let’s go back to the kanji for “day.” This kanji, “日,” is associated with the image of the sun. So every time you see this “日” primitive in a kanji, you will think of a story/image of something related to the sun.

For example, this kanji, “晶” is made up of 3 “suns.” The meaning of this kanji is “sparkle.” You can either image 3 suns in the sky “sparking” so bright that you can’t see anything. In fact, the bright sparkling lights from the sun is causing you to see nothing but pure white!

Or you can use the example given in the book. The author talks about how a diamond, sparkling in the light looks like miniature suns.
Good stories will involve your emotions. Whether your stories make your laugh, cry, or even make you scared, be sure to make it reach your emotions. Our brain doesn’t like to remember random facts and knowledge. But it does remember things that have our emotions tied in with them.

For example, do you remember what you ate for dinner last Saturday? Unless you eat the same exact thing every day, you probably won’t remember.

However, what if last Saturday you were eating at a fancy restaurant. You order pasta with a tomato cream sauce. When the waiter brings the food to your table, he trips and spills all of that red, sticky tomato sauce all over your nice, white shirt. I bet you would remember that for years to come.How to Learn Kanji - Love Character

That’s the kind of stories you want to create for each kanji character. Something that you can see crystal clear in your mind that touches your emotions.

Breaking down each character into smaller parts and giving it an image makes learning each kanji easier, and it improves your recall of each character. The advanced kanji are made up of these smaller parts, so you can adjust your story based on which characters are used.

After you finish all of the kanji in volume 1, you will have mastered 2,200 characters. Pretty impressive. You’ll then move on to volume 2 to learn the readings for each of these characters.

At a first glance, you would think that it would take twice as long to learn kanji with this method. However, I believe that you retain and remember the kanji much better than with traditional methods.


My Personal Kanji Story

My friends and I would study kanji all the time using traditional methods, but we wouldn’t progress every much. Sure, we did well on our tests, but a week later, we couldn’t remember any of the kanji we studied. I was especially bad. I would literally forget half the characters just a few days later.

No matter how many times I studied kanji, I would only remember 10% of them after a couple of weeks. I tried using several different books and even had a Japanese teacher give me private lessons. I still felt like I was putting in way too much time to remember just a few kanji.
A few years later, I went to visit my friend in Japan. He lived in the countryside, which meant that there wasn’t much to do unless you had a car. He didn’t have a car, so he spent a lot of his time studying Japanese.

He introduced me to the Remembering the Kanji book. Since I was staying at his place and there wasn’t much to do, I started to study kanji again. In 10 days, I went through and remembered 1,000 kanji. That’s 100 characters per day.How to Learn Kanji - Many Kanji Characters

Sure, I was only remembering how to write them and remembering their meaning, but it still took me a lot of time. I ended up studying for 10 hours a day. It took me 1 hour to read, practice writing, and memorize 10 characters. At first, that seems like a long time to remember just 10 characters. That is true if I were studying using the traditional approach, but with the RTK method, I had to make up a story for each of the kanji.

Here’s the thing though. Because I spent a few minutes reading, writing, and creating a great story for each character, I remembered them easily.
A month after I studied these characters, I could still recall what most of them meant, and how to write them.

Instead of just rushing through and trying to memorize as many characters as I could, I did the opposite. I took my time and made sure I had the kanji I was studying ingrained in my mind before I moved on. I would create crazy stories that either made me laugh or made me feel some sort of strong emotion. This really made it easier to remember each character.

To really master each kanji, I would review the characters I studied daily as well with flashcards. You can either buy the RTK flashcards or use free online flashcard systems.
It took me a few months to get through the last half of the book. Years later, I still remember most of the 2,200 characters that I studied.

I eventually went on to learn the readings of the characters, and can now read most books, websites, and documents with no problems. I do still have trouble reading a Japanese newspaper though. I did put in a lot of effort to learn the characters, but I really believe that the Remembering the Kanji method was the reason I could remember and master all 2,200 kanji in a fraction of the time of the traditional method.


Sushi - japanese characters

Learning the Readings of Each Kanji

Here’s a small disclaimer. Even though I bought volume 2 of Remembering the Kanji, I mostly used it as a reference to learn the readings of the kanji.

Instead of using the book as my main study method to learn of all the readings, I only used it to remember 30-40% of the characters.

What I did instead took a lot more time and effort, but was much more fun to study. I went straight into reading whatever I could get my hands on. While I was working in Japan, there would always be newsletters, magazines, and announcements left on my desk for me to read. I had quite a bit of free time then, so I would try to read as much as I could.

Whenever I came across kanji characters I didn’t know how to read (which was almost all of them), I would look it up in my dictionary (I used the Japanese by Renzo app). To search for a kanji character, you have to look it up by its radical, or commonly used character that is used to create other kanji.

Once you know the radical, you need to know how many strokes are in the character The good news is that by studying the RTK books, you should know most of these radicals, and how many strokes are in each kanji. It just takes time to search for kanji in a dictionary.

Above each kanji character, I would write the reading in hiragana. I would study the different readings of each character too. When I was finished, I would read the whole article over again.
I did this with articles I found interesting, and studying became fun. Each time I looked up the meaning and reading of kanji characters, I would feel like I knew more one piece of the puzzle.

When I was finished, I could read an entire article in Japanese and understood most of it. It felt awesome to accomplish this. I highly suggest you give it a try too. Find some good Japanese blogs that have topics that interest you.

Even though this took much longer to learn the readings than just using a book, it was more enjoyable, and you get to see kanji being used in real-world examples. Because of this, I learned a lot of vocabulary words and grammar too.

I mainly used the Remember the Kanji volume 2 book to review what I learned reading actual articles. I did use it to study the readings for some kanji, but 60-70% of learning how to read came from me studying on my own. If you can afford it, I would get the book as it is nicely organized and makes a great reference.


Other Resources to Use with Remembering the Kanji

If you are brand new to kanji, take a look at this introduction to kanji video to help get you started.

As mentioned earlier, Remember the Kanji breaks complete characters into simpler, basic parts. This makes it easy to master complex kanji. This allows the book to be highly organized, and logical in its progression.

Even though it’s possible to remember a character after studying it once with this method, you want to review and quiz yourself often so it becomes a part of you.

The best ways to review are by flashcards. You can either make your own (which is described in the book), or you can buy the Remembering the Kanji flashcard set. I bought the set, and it’s awesome for reviewing and testing myself. However, there are now other ways to study or review kanji, that are free.

Kanji Koohii is a website that has all of the kanji organized with the RDK system. It even gives you stories for the kanji that you can use. It’s probably the best resource for studying kanji with the Heisig method.

If your use your smartphone a lot, the Anki app is awesome. It costs money but is totally worth it if you can use your smartphone to study. I always rode the bus or trains in Japan, so I would study kanji on my smartphone during my commute.


Photo of author

Dallen Nakamura

Dallen was born and raised in Hawaii and never had a passport until he was 24. His first trip outside of the US was to Japan. He loved it so much that when he got back home, he immediately quit his job and moved to Japan without a plan. While he loves the people and culture of Japan, his true love is food. He is convinced that Japan has the best food in the world and is slowly eating his way around the world to prove it.

2 thoughts on “How to Learn Kanji: The Best Method”

  1. I can see how both methods can be effective, though the Heisig is probably better for those learning Japanese as a second language.

    Right now, I’m focusing on reading Kanji rather than remembering how to write them. Of course, I still practice writing new Kanji and words as I learn them, that helps me in recognizing them if I see them later on.
    However, I want to get to the level where I can read and understand Japanese newspapers and novels.

    Do you have any advice or book recommendations for someone like me, who wants to focus on the reading aspects of Japanese more than anything else?

    • Hi Dominic,

      That’s awesome that you’re studying kanji with the goal of reading novels and the newspaper! Reading the Japanese newspaper is no easy task, as there are many specific kanji characters that aren’t used as often in other reading materials.

      The best advise I can give you is to read everything you can. Learn from context. The one thing that help me A LOT was reading everything I could get my hands on, and then looking up the kanji I didn’t know, and researching any grammar or vocabulary I didn’t understand. Not only do you learn how to read kanji quickly this way (as you’ll see common kanji over and over again), but you’ll learn lots of new words and expressions as well.

      If you’re looking for books, I wrote an article “The Best Books for High Intermediate Students.” In that article, I recommend the “Read Real Japanese” books. They contain some pretty good stories, all in Japanese but with English translations and explanations. They are good for learning how to read Japanese.

      If you want a free way to practice reading, you have a resources with unlimited materials to read…the internet. If you have a favorite Japanese singer, actor, character, food, hobby…pretty much anything…you can probably find a blog or webpage for it. I read tons of blogs by Japanese celebrities and it really helped improve my reading a lot, and quickly too. I wasn’t even “studying” kanji but after a few months I could already read lots of kanji I encountered in my everyday life in Japan. Be sure to install the “Rikai-chan” add-on so you can hover over kanji you don’t know while reading….it will provide you with both the reading and meaning of that kanji. You can aslo check out out “Learning Japanese Resources” for more options. Good luck with your studies!


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