Life in Japan #2: Thoughts on Studying Kanji, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Needlessly Complicated Japanese Logographic Writing System

(This is an edited repost of a post I wrote in the dark depths of 2015.)


So you want to learn Japanese. It’s a common story. Just think of all the manga you could read, all the anime you could watch, and all the non-Japanese people you could no doubt impress by saying ‘karaoke’ with the original Japanese pronunciation. Maybe you could even go to Japan. In that case, just think of all the places you could see, all the interesting people you could meet, and – statistically speaking if you’re a white man – all the Japanese women you could pursue with a single-mindedness bordering on mania.

So you buy a textbook, sign up for weekend classes, and everything goes well – at first. After a little while you feel like you’re making real progress. You’ve memorised hiragana and katakana – Japan’s two phonetic alphabets. Your listening skills are improving. You’ve got your ‘sumimasen‘ (excuse me), your ‘arigatō‘ (thank you), and your ‘私の一番好きな力士は琴奨菊です。’ (Kotoshōgiku is my favourite sumo wrestler) all sorted out.

You’re dimly aware that there’s something out there waiting for you, though. Something that’s eaten linguistically-better men and women alive. Something every single one of your teachers and textbooks warned you about from the very beginning.


Eventually kanji catches up with you. One day you’re foolish enough to think ‘I’ll just learn a few kanji and we’ll see how it goes’ and the next thing you know you’re tearing you hair out. About the three different readings for each kanji. About the 2,000+ hideously complex characters you’ll have to learn. And about why exactly the kanji for ‘happy’ (幸) and ‘spicy’ (辛) have to look almost bloody identical.

After a brief, violent skirmish you delete the app off your phone, abandon your textbook on the shelf between your copies of Russian Fluency in 30 Days and Legerdemain & Skulduggery: A Beginner’s Guide, and you give up. You’ll just focus on speaking and listening for now. Kanji can come later. Maybe.


I said it was a common story, and it is. People who study Japanese absolutely bloody love this story, in the sense that misery absolutely bloody loves company. Especially new, wide-eyed company that is about to go through the same misery you had to endure, but has no idea what they’re getting themselves into just yet. Learners of Japanese love telling beginners horror stories about how awful kanji is, before informing them that they’ll understand one day.

Yup, kanji isn’t easy. It would be so much easier to learn Spanish, with its Latin roots and its lovely, lovely single alphabet. And yes, the official list of Jōyō kanji – i.e. the list of kanji in everyday usage – currently stands at 2,136. That’s like learning the Latin alphabet (upper and lower case), and then learning it 40 more times. But harder. Impossible. Impossible, right?

Well, no. It’s not exactly easy, but it’s also not one of the twelve labours of Hercules. There are many reasons why the story I told you above is so common, and in my opinion one of the most important is that many people approach kanji in the wrong way.


The bit where I shill some crappy textbook I wrote:

Now, I should make it clear that I’m not trying to hype up my new, patent-pending method of learning kanji. I’m also not saying that any one specific method of learning kanji is stupid. Whatever works for you is great, and different methods work for different people.

The people who champion one specific method of learning kanji often act as if theirs is the only good one (sometimes it seems like every article or YouTube video about how to learn kanji is titled ‘Learn Kanji – The Right Way!‘), which is wrong, because as I said: different methods work for different people. I learned kanji pretty much by rote memorisation, which many people would say is a terrible way to learn kanji. And it actually kind of is terrible – for most people. It might not work for you. But it worked really well for me, because apparently I have a cold, inhuman robot brain. And after a few years of using that cold, inhuman method, I now probably know 3,000-3,500 kanji.

But this insistence on the One True Method for learning kanji isn’t just wrong, it also leads to people getting disheartened when that specific method doesn’t gel with their own way of learning. Instead of thinking “Maybe I just need to try a different method” it’s very easy and understandable to think “Maybe I’m just no good at learning kanji”).


So what is stupid is not any one specific method of learning kanji, but instead how students and teachers tend to think about learning kanji as a whole. This problem comes in two main parts:

(1) People tell you that kanji is one of the scariest things in the world

Like I said before, people learning Japanese are weirdly into telling Japanese beginners about how awful kanji is, and how they’re just going to hate it. But lots of teachers also do this. Almost every single Japanese teacher I’ve had, actually. Even Japanese textbooks – including textbooks specifically designed to teach you kanji – do this. This is not only incredibly annoying, it’s setting you up to fail from the very beginning. If you approach kanji knowing only that everyone thinks it’s endless and near-impossible, you’re going to have a much harder time than if you approach it with an open mind.

I’m not saying that learning kanji isn’t difficult – it is, and, like most things, the beginning stages of the learning process are probably the hardest. But nothing else I know has such a poisonous popular image. Such a poisonous popular image, in fact, that it pushes people to give up where they might not otherwise.


When you’re studying Japanese vocabulary and you forget a word, or five, or ten – even ones you’ve reviewed dozens of times – the natural reaction is to shrug it off and think “Oh well, I’ll get it next time”.  But the moment you forget a kanji character all that baggage comes up and it’s amazingly easy to throw up your hands and think ‘For god’s sake, I guess kanji really is impossible’ and take a step towards giving up, rather than taking a step back and realising that frequent roadblocks are a part of any learning process.

Learning anything is difficult – learning thousands of Japanese words, many of which sound incredibly similar, is really, really difficult. And it takes a really, really long time. But there isn’t a culture of fear and anger surrounding it. People just accept it as part of the territory of learning a language. The moment someone starts learning kanji, however, everyone warns them how awful it is, how long it will take, and how many mistakes they’ll make, but surprisingly few people actually seems interested in giving practical advice.

So it remains something weird and different and apparently impossible, rather than what it actually is, which is something that’s difficult, useful, and totally doable. Something that, with the rise of electronic dictionaries, memorisation apps, and new methods of learning has become far easier over time, but which still retains its reputation as the academic equivalent of just punching yourself in the kidneys over and over again until you die.


(2) They coddle you, letting you avoid it for far too long

I don’t know if you should start learning kanji on your first day of studying Japanese, but that’s definitely a far better idea than what 95% of students (at least students I’ve encountered, all of whom are studying in Japan) are pushed towards – i.e. learning almost no kanji for months and months and months.

If you’re going to read Japanese you’re going to have to learn to read kanji, full stop. But Japanese text books (and many teachers), even up to a pretty high level, rarely make you do this, since they’ll print the hiragana reading above the kanji. This is partly because everyone learns at different paces, so it’s obviously useful to have hiragana there for those who haven’t learned the kanji yet. But I think it’s also largely down to the aforementioned ‘It’s impossible, you’re never going to learn it’ attitude that hangs around the Japanese-education community like the ghost of a bad fart. After all – I’ve studied using quite a few high-level textbooks, and they still feature the hiragana readings, well past a point where they should be necessary.

What this attempt to shield you from kanji means is that, while you could be going at a steady, manageable pace – learning a few kanji a week alongside your regular studying and steadily getting better over time, instead many students are left functionally illiterate for years, and then are suddenly faced with the prospect of cramming thousands of kanji all at once somewhere awful down the line.


In conclusion:

So, I guess if you come out of this with anything it should be that kanji is difficult, but doable. You can learn kanji – stop trying to avoid my gaze – yes, you.  It’s not only for people who are great at languages (I’m pretty rubbish at languages – 10 years of French and I could barely say “Where is the cake? In the dustbin.”), or only for people who are geniuses (I still sometimes get mixed up on the whole ‘small/far away’ thing). You can learn kanji, but like everything else it takes time and consistent effort.

There are tricks that will make it easier, but they’re the ‘how to make sure you’re not wasting those 20 minutes of studying per day/every other day’ kind of tricks, rather than the ‘this one quick trick to learn kanji in 10 days that doctors hate’ kind of trick.

Just don’t let people turn you against it before you’ve even started. Take it from me – it’s not impossible and it’s not evil and it’s not out to get you. You can start whenever you want, going at your own pace and you’ll make progress so long as you try. You’ll make mistakes and get frustrated at times but the most important thing to remember is that even then you’re always making progress.


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