How I find and study Kanji
For a beginner, I recommend using a structured textbook to learn new kanji. This is a good method because the book is likely to introduce the most common, easiest kanji first, and you won’t feel overwhelmed.
When I started out learning Japanese, I used Japanese for Busy people. I was pleased by how nicely they integrated kanji into the lessons. In the intermediate books, they provide space for you to practice the characters from the lesson.
These days, I learn kanji mostly through reading and listening rather than textbooks – I don’t want to learn a character on its own without knowing what contexts it can be used in. Usually I’ll read something or listen to a podcast and write down all the words I don’t know.
Learning new characters
If I am listening to a podcast, of course I might not know the kanji for a word I’ve just heard. I’ll write it in hiragana, then look it up on jisho.org to get the kanji. Jisho will also show you the stroke order, so I first write down each stroke in my notebook so I’ll remember the order, and then I practice writing the character over and over until I don’t have to think about which stroke comes first or last.
Writing kanji should become a natural hand movement without too much thinking. Sometimes this means writing it 5 times, sometimes 50. I also make sure to say the pronunciation of the Kanji while I’m writing it.
Looking up example sentences
The popular Heisig method (Remembering the Kanji)
If you’ve been in the Japanese language community for a while, you’ve probably heard of Remembering the Kanji, created by scholar James Heisig.
His method is explained in detail in the books Remembering the Kanji. The focus of these books are learning kanji through radicals. Radicals are smaller elements that make up complex kanji characters. For example, a complex character like 婚 (the first part of the word to marry) is made up of smaller parts, like 女 (woman) and 氏 (family name, surname clan)
When you’re a beginner to Japanese, kanji can seem extremely complex, but if you learn radicals and understand how kanji are pieced together visually, you could decipher kanji meanings better.
The Heisig method is meant for serious learners who have a long term fluency goal. You’ll be focusing a lot on single characters, and might not learn naturally in the context of a native situation. The book also includes rarer kanji which might not be useful to beginners.
I haven’t personally followed the Heisig method, but I understand and acknowledge how very useful it is to learn radicals first! In fact, my knowledge of Chinese hanzi came in handy when I started learning Japanese kanji years later because I already knew the meanings of basic characters.
Tips to keep in mind
1. Repetition – If you learn a kanji and its stroke order, make sure to write it down as many times as you can – over and over. This will result in muscle memory until it becomes a natural feeling of how you write it. This also will make your handwriting more natural as you keep practicing. Remember to say the pronunciation of the kanji out loud or in your head each time you write it.
2. Revision – you’ll forget very fast if you don’t go back and practice what you learnt. Depending on how many kanji you learn a day or a week, you’ll have to revise more or less regularly. I can say from experiencing that even if you write out a kanji 100 times and don’t look at it for 2 months, you’ll be able to read and recognize it but may not be able to remember how to write it in the correct stroke order.
3. Reading and writing – apart from using a textbook to learn, expose yourself to as much reading and writing in Japanese as you can. Reading articles online, blogs, subtitles in Youtube videos, books, anything – and noting down the new kanji you encounter is a great way to learn. I like to look up the meaning of a kanji on jisho.org and then look at the stroke order, then copy it down until I have the hang of it.
How I study Kanji through repetition (video)
4. Working through a good textbook or PDF with the top kanji you need to know for your level of JLPT is also a good idea to make sure you have a solid base and know what to expect.
5. Exposure is key. I like to change my devices to Japanese so I can see kanji around me as much as possible.
The best of both worlds: get a JLPT practice book
Even if you aren’t studying to take the JLPT, using a JLPT book close to your level (N5~N4 for beginners, N3 for intermediate, N2~N1 for advanced) can be beneficial. My favorite series teaches kanji on each daily activity and will give you sentences and usage examples.
Recommended resources for kanji
- Japanese on Master Ling for a simple app with audio and cute pictures. Good for beginners.
- JA Sensei – good app for those who like comprehensive notes. Also available in French!
- Clozemaster is awesome for quick phrases and a fun, gamified experience.
- Another excellent app to train your Japanese with (2000 kanji and 6000 vocab words) is WaniKani. You use spaced repetition to move through all the different levels of Kanji and it doesn’t let you move on if you haven’t learned the kanji to a good enough level – pretty good for motivation!
- Skritter Japanese – helps you learn stroke order and vocabulary and shows characters to you through spaced repetition so you can learn them over time. Feel free to use code CHINESEWITHLINDIE (You’ll have access to Japanese too) for 10% off a Skritter subscription if you sign up on the desktop website.
- Bunpo – one of my FAVORITE apps out there. It’s a comprehensive JLPT focus; plenty of example sentences! I used Bunpo for a few days and tracked all my progress and pros and cons on this Twitter thread.
- Obenkyo is an old but nice app (only for Android) which starts you from the basics of hiragana and katakana and moves you up to different JLPT levels. I mostly use it to recognize kanji.