Mar 2, 2014

Why do gaijin think KANJI is hard to learn

Kanji - A Japanese character system often described as "Chinese characters"

People who haven't started learning Japanese yet FEAR this to the point where a lot of them don't even try to learn the language because they somehow think it is impossible (yet all the Japanese people can do it).

Then you have the people who do actually start learning, but don't understand that it takes time to learn how to read, assume it should be done within a short time frame and underestimate how much time you have to put into it, THEN they go tell other people "kanji is so hard".

Well I am here to tell you that Kanji is not hard. 
It just takes time. Lots of time.

Japanese people & Kanji - Japanese learn kanji in school starting from grade 1. Japanese elementary school consists of 6 years. During this time they will learn to write 1006 kanji, which means each grade they learn 150-200 kanji on average. These kanji make up a large chunk of the everyday kanji they will use in their life.

They learn They continue to learn new kanji as they go into middle school and high school, even into university are constantly learning how to read new words as they enter their lives as adults.

Since the kanji they learn at a young age is most used and important I am only going to talk about that for now. It takes them a whole 6 years to learn these kanji.

This will give you a general idea as to how long it could take kanji and that it is OK to take this long to learn it (it is the same same it took for Japanese people learned it).

KANJI and YOU -   However. It shouldn't take you 6 years to learn all these kanji. As a foreigner studying Japanese, you are only studying Japanese. Japanese students in school are not sitting there all day studying kanji. So your time studying the kanji is compressed to a speed where you can learn kanji faster.

How Kanji are made -

Kanji are characters that often have characters within them. Called radicals in English, but you can forget this word and start calling them 部首 bushu as this is the Japanese word. In the picture to the right you will see the bushu are purple. There are only about 200 different bushu that are used to make up over 2000 different kanji. So not all kanji are completely different shapes all together, but different combinations of different shapes.

This makes learning kanji extremely easy, as you start to understand different patterns. Each bushu has a different name in Japanese. Japanese people use these names to learn how to write, how to tell someone else how to write it. It may sound strange to you, but even Japanese people have times where they don't know how to write a word. In this case they will ask someone else how to write it and they will then say out loud the names of the bushu within that kanji. 

YOMIKATA - This is the Japanese words for readings (how kanji are pronounced). Each kanji can have multiple yomikata (sometimes more than 10 different ways to pronounce it). This is one mistake a lot of people make when learning kanji is they don't know where to start. They end up starting with learning how to write kanji (good), and memorizing each and every yomikata (bad). 

Memorizing all the yomikata is a waste of time and it wont help with you on reading Japanese words.  Japanese read full words, they don't read individual characters and try to think up how to read the word. There is no rule on yomikata. Some books like to give you a little hint as to "maybe" which yomikata will be said depending on where the kanji appears in the word, however there is no solid rule or pattern as to how the kanji is read. So in the end you will have wasted your time learning all the yomikata when you should have been learning FULL WORDS.

As you learn words in Japanese you will generally catch on to the common ways to read a character and you will eventually memorize unconsciously
different ways to read each character.

Another reason you shouldn't waste your time memorizing all the yomikata to each individual kanji is some yomikata are not even written in the dictionary. There are plenty of kanji that follow unique readings or readings that change slightly depending on the word. So in the end this wont help you at all.

So how should you learn kanji? -  Kanji is something you will never learn how to write unless you are actually practicing writing it. It is something Japanese people are forgetting because they are using more computers and less paper. If you want to master it, you need to get off your bottom and write. Just like you did in school learning to write your ABCs.

Start with 小学校一年生 (shougakkou ichi nen sei) kanji and work your way up the same way Japanese kids did. Learn the proper Japanese names of the different bushu. Learn  how to read and write full words in Japanese. For example the kanji   take 竹 which means bamboo

竹とんぼ taketonbo (a bamboo dragon fly toy)
竹林 chikurin (a bamboo forest/park where you go to look at bamboo)

You learn the words associated with that kanji and it will build your vocabulary. Learning to read Japanese is easier than writing. Writing involves using your hands more often. Reading just involves looking at it and usually people can remember the words after a few times seeing it.

LEARN JAPANESE in JAPANESE - If you are learning Japanese you should be learning it in Japanese. I see lots of websites that show the radical lists online however, all the meanings are only in English. That is pointless. You are learning Japanese, not English. So as much as you can learn the way things are said in Japanese.  Don't be afraid to start googling questions in Japanese. For example, what is the YOMIKATA of a certain word or what does this word mean. If you don't use your skills they wont grow.

Good luck!


  1. Nice article :)

    I also thought learning Kanji would be very difficult. Upon first hearing that the Joyo Kanji list is around 2000 Kanji, I was like, "There is no way I can learn that many Kanji!". I first tried to learn them by brute-force (rote) at University, but I was only able to learn about 100 or so.

    About three months ago, however, I discovered the Heisig Method and By using the user stories at and Heisig's "Remembering the Kanji", I can now recognise over 2100 kanji, and only have a few chapters left to complete. I am absolutely sold on this method, and HIGHLY recommend it to others. I also recommend not bothering to learn how to write them (how often do we write english these days on paper anyway?) and just focus on recognising each Kanji. Writing can come after.

    There is one caveat however: you won't learn any vocabulary via this method. But I found that learning how to recognise the Kanji first makes learning vocab much much easier.

    So in short: Heisig's Remembering the Kanji + for user stories + Anki = Recognising 2200 Kanji in a very short time.

    Having said that, everyone learns differently and it may not be as effective for some people (or so I heard). Nevertheless, I highly recommend checking out anyway, as it is probably the most active and helpful forum on learning Japanese out there.

    Good luck to all!

    1. Thank you so much for this article!

      And in response to Ronald, you are just one more person I've heard sing the praises of the Heisig Method. I just got my hands on the first book after hearing so many wonderful things. I've been studying Japanese for awhile and have finally gotten back into it seriously again, but kanji has always given me fits. I'm sure if I studied in a more focused manner I'd get through, but I'm going to try Heisig and see if that helps.

  2. Nice. This is coming from the person who said she didn't even want to learn Kana when she first came to Japan.

  3. Hello Mira!! Nice article, thanks for the tips! I am like dying to know how did you learn japanese and on which level are you? Could you tell us your method:?
    thanks in advance.

  4. In America we have Spelling Bee's. This is an event where kids from all over the U.S compete on stage to see who is the best speller. I'ts very popular here. Does Japan have anything similar to this? How do you spell a word that's written in kanji?

  5. This is also coming from someone who doesn't even know standard Japanese. I believe you are the one who cannot bare to learn actual Japanese, and by the way your Japanese is, you seem to commonly make errors here & there. So why should you be teaching your readers basic Japanese if you can't even properly form coherent sentences?

    1. Can't form coherent sentences? A little exaduration? I have never had a Japanese person or anyone around me not able to understand what I wanted to say in the past year and a half. Aww cute. You came here just to insult me. Ofcourse I make errors. I am a Japanese learner. Japanese learners make errors. That doesn't mean I don't know "standard Japanese" It also doesn't mean I am qualified or not to tell other people how and how not to learn Japanese.

      The hardest part of learning a new language, is getting to speak naturally in that language. Because my first language is English, I think in situations that I would normaly say in English. Sometimes you can't say the same thing in another language, or it is unnatural to say it. Thus you make lots of mistakes. The only way to correct this is have Japanese people around you tell you when you say something weird, or re-phrase your sentence in a way a Japanese person would. Sadly, most people don't do such a thing.

      But you know, you are so smart that you were able to figure out that I make errors in Japanese. Instead of insulting me, why don't you correct them for me? 頼むよ

    2. Just ignore ignorant comments, Mira. They are not worth the effort to fight.

    3. Ok, let's admit it, what you said is amazing!


    4. ミラちゃん 【^_^】

  6. hey mira! :) i have a question (which doesn't have anything to do with japanese/kanji sry)
    how often do you go to the hairdresser (and have your fringe cut)?

  7. Excellent advice, Mira!
    Awesome that someone share my very same thoughts on how much of a waste of time it is to be memorizing all the reading for each kanji when it is much more effective to learn them "in action", on my different sentenes and words, that is!! Keep it up!! (^_^)

  8. What a GREAT article. Thanks, Mira

  9. I have been hesitating in learning kanji for this very reason and when I do try and study, I do it the wrong way by studying the yomikata like you were saying. This was actually really helpful and made me feel a lot better about learning kanji! Thanks so much!