The Fastest Way to Learn the Kanji

Update: There is a now an updated, thoroughly more incredible version of this post here: “Hacking the Kanji – How to learn the kanji easily and remember them permanently.” Check it out, if you please.

This post on the fastest way to learn the kanji is a (now-outdated) excerpt from the Hacking Japanese Supercourse, an all-inclusive guide to mastering Japanese. You can download it for free by signing up for our newsletter.

There’s also a lot of cool stuff about learning Japanese on our links page: The Best Sites for Learning Japanese.

Kanji!  Its endless curves, the way they combine to make words, make meaning of concepts in forms I’d not thought before, the way writing can be a visual art, the incredible depth and history.  I hate them.  They are like the most beautiful, fascinating, insufferable lover.

Kanji is the third of the three pillars of the Japanese writing system (the other two being hiragana and katakana).  The characters are actually Chinese characters that the Japanese began to adopt well over 1,000 years ago.

The unique thing about Kanji is that the characters have meaning, as opposed to how hiragana and katakana are simply used to represent sounds.  The other unique thing about them is that there are thousands of them!

The sheer number of Kanji that must be learned in order to obtain Japanese fluency (JLPT N1) is just ridiculous.  Overwhelming.  2,000 plus!

How can we ever hope to do it?  How can we, in a year, master something that Japanese people themselves are expected to learn only by the end of high school?  I mean, look at all of them:

Kanji Chart

Ok, sorry.  That was cruel.  Forget you ever saw that picture.  It will seem much less atrocious if you don’t try to take it all in at once.

I know what I always used to think: Is it possible?

The answer is yes. The answer is:

The 97-Day Kanji Challenge

Studying Kanji is tricky business. Everyone seems to have an opinion on the best way to study the kanji fast. And, truth be told, there are a lot of good ways to study the kanji. But most of them can be pretty overwhelming, so it’s easy to lose motivation and go in search of the mythical “easy, fast way to learn the kanji.”

I won’t mince words: Learning the kanji is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Not only that, but it took me longer than 97 days to learn them. It took me a lot longer, because I kept trying different study methods, never thinking that I was on the right track to learning all of the kanji.

How NOT to Learn the Kanji

1.  Stroke by Stroke

This is how a lot of Japanese classes will encourage you to learn the kanji. That’s because they teach kanji in the same way that Japanese children learn them—stroke by stroke, over the course of 10+ years.

There’s another word for this method: masochism.

Seriously, this is torture. I’m not saying it’s impossible to learn this way. I’m just saying that it wastes an unbelievable amount of time.

2.  Learning Each Kanji as a Whole

Kanji are made up of parts… and those parts have meaning. So you should learn the parts first, then the kanji as a whole.

3.   Using Only 1 Kanji Study Tool

A lot of people will write books and blog posts and just about anything you can think of in which they tell you about “the best, fastest, most awesome way to learn the kanji”…which, as coincidence would have it, is their way. Not only that, but they want money for it, too.

No!

There are a ton of useful kanji study tools and methods out there. But the only way to learn kanji fast and effectively is to combine the best ones. And that’s what this 97-Day Kanji Challenge Post is all about: an amalgamation of the best tools available for learning kanji.

How You SHOULD Learn the Kanji

The fastest way to learn the kanji is to use a combination of the best kanji study tools out there. Not only that, but you also need to be sure to use them in a very particular manner.

How to Learn the Kanji in 97 Days

Why these three tools? Well…

  1. Anki Flashcards will keep us from forgetting what we learn.
  2. Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji will help us break our kanji into parts so we can learn them via stories and mnemonics. (If you don’t know about the Heisig method, you can read about it on Wikipedia.)
  3. Reviewing the Kanji will save us from having to write our own, time-consuming, ineffective kanji stories and mnemonics.

Used together, these three tools can speed up your kanji acquisition exponentially. When used together the right way, they leave you with the fastest way to learn the kanji. If the instructions in this guide are followed precisely, you will learn all of the 2,000+ joyo kanji in 97 days.

Even the Best Way Will Not Be Easy

I could go on for pages and pages about why I chose the following method of study as opposed to one of the plethora of other options. The bottom line, though, is that I think this is the fastest way possible to learn and retain the meaning of each of the 2,136 Joyo Kanji.

However!

It will be a nightmare getting through this 97-Day Challenge, and I’m really sorry to tell you that. But if you’re serious about learning Japanese, then it’s the most valuable 97 days that you will ever spend studying. If you know the meaning of the kanji—even if you don’t know their readings or example vocab to go with them—every part of your Japanese studies will get easier, and you will learn faster. Concepts make more sense. Vocab makes more sense. So why not just get them out of the way? You can do it. I know you can. You are awesome. You are awesome. You are awesome.

Now, bear with me, friend. I vow to not lead you astray…

How to Learn the 2,000+ Joyo Kanji in 97 Days

Lather. Rinse. Repeat… 2,042 Times

The 97-Day Kanji Challenge follows a six-step process. The first five steps only take a few minutes. Actually, step six only takes a few minutes also… but then you need to repeat it a couple thousand times.

1.    Download Anki

Anki Logo

 

That is, if you haven’t already done so. You can get it here.

2.  Buy Remembering the Kanji

Remembering the Kanji Book cover

 

Again, if you haven’t already done so. You can get it on Amazon.

Once you have it, be sure to read the intro. This book is meant as a kanji study guide, but we’ll be using it as more of a reference.

3.   Download the Heisig Deck on Anki

There is a shared deck on Anki, as luck would have it, that already has all of the Remembering the Kanji characters in it, along with links to each of them on Reviewing the Kanji. I cannot express in words how much time this is going to save you, so I won’t even try. Just know that today the world should look a little more beautiful to you, because of how much time and pain this has saved you from wasting.

Once you’ve downloaded and installed Anki, click the “Get Shared” link down at the bottom of the decks page. You can see my mouse pointing to it in this image:

 

This will bring up a webpage, where you can browse shared decks:

 

Click on (you guessed it) Japanese!

On the next page, type “Heisig” in the search bar. You’re looking for a deck titled “Heisig’s Remember the Kanji (RTK) 1+3.” Be careful, as there are similar decks that aren’t as good. It should be relatively easy to spot, as it has the most downloads. As of the time of this writing, it’s the third item down on the page. Click the Info button next to it:

 

This will bring you to the deck’s information page. Scroll to the bottom and click “Download:”

 

This will prompt a download box. Click to open the file with Anki (this should be pre-selected):

 

Anki will then automatically add this deck to your list of decks:

 

Next, I want to give the deck a name of my own, so I click on the settings button and select “Rename:”

 

Now, I have my deck downloaded and named something I want. Next, I’m going to…

4.  Set Up Anki Preferences

Anki is a great tool. It’s actually my favorite tool, period, for studying Japanese. One thing I don’t like, though, are the default settings for Anki, because I don’t think they’re optimized for learning VAST amounts of information (i.e. the kanji!). A few tweaks to the settings can change this.

Change New Card Order

Changing the New Card Order is the most effective way to learn Japanese via Anki. I know this, because I was doing it the wrong way for years. Anki’s default is to spread out New Cards mixed within the cards that are due for review that day. The reason this is detrimental to your studies is that there is nothing in the world more important than doing every single card due for review. Every day.

There will be days when you don’t feel like studying. Days when you don’t have time or feel sick or have to go to a wedding or party or class or pretty much anywhere you can think of. On such days, you may not have a lot of time to study, and you might not have any time to learn new cards. But you must, must, must, must review the cards that are due that day.

Once upon a time, I missed about a week of doing my cards that were due for review, and I got overwhelmed by the cards that piled up, causing me to miss even more that were due for review… and before I knew it, I had about 4,000 cards due to be reviewed on a single day.

One way we’ll avoid this is by having our new cards always show after our review cards.

To do this, go to Tools –> Preferences. Then under the Basic tab, make sure that you’ve selected “Show new cards after reviews:”

 

Then click close.

Allow Maximum Reviews/Day

You also want to make sure that Anki is always showing you every card that is due for a given day. So, next, click on the Settings icon next to your deck on the Decks page and click Options. Click on the Reviews tab and change the “Maximum reviews/day” to 9999:

 

Change Card Formatting

This one is really up to preference. I just don’t like the default font size for this Anki deck. To change it, open up your new kanji deck and click “Study Now.”

Then, on one of the card pages, click “Edit:”

 

Then click “Cards:”

 

Then edit the card appearance to your liking:

 

I prefer to change the font size on the Back Template to 50px instead of 150px, as I think 150px is just a little overwhelming, because it’s so big, and I want room for my story to show. Really, it’s up to you, though, how you’d like your cards to look.

Most importantly, you will want to make sure that you add the {{Story}} field somewhere in your Back Template. I put mine between the character and stroke counts, so my entire Back Template is as follows:

{{FrontSide}}
<hr id=answer>
<span style="   "><
span style="font-family: Mincho; font-size: 50px; 
">{{Kanji}}</span><br>
<br>{{Story}}<br>
 <br>画数: {{Stroke count}}, Nr: {{Heisig number}}</span>

With that, the cards are set up to show the Story during review. Which means…

Congratulations! Your Anki program is maximized for Kanji learning.

Now we just need to set some goals…

5.   Change New Card Quota

This is a tough one, because, really, it depends on the person. While this deck has over 3,000 cards, we’re only going to make it our priority to learn the first 2,042 of them. That would have us learn every one of the Joyo Kanji up until they added 196 additional ones in 2010.

The 196 additional kanji are spread throughout the remaining cards between 2,043 and 3,007. I think that you should still learn all of the kanji between 2,043 and 3,007, but maybe just save it for later on in the year, or after you’ve finished this 1-year mastery plan.

That said, we have some decisions to make. We need to learn 2,042 flashcards in as little time as possible… without getting burned out or overburdening ourselves.

To follow the challenge and get through them all in 97 days, we’d need to learn 22 kanji per day. That means we would set our New Card Quota to 22. To do so, we click the Setting icon, then for “New cards/day” we would enter “22:”

 

That probably doesn’t even sound like all that much, but be careful that you don’t underestimate the mental toll that learning Kanji takes. Also, you don’t just look at a card and automatically learn it. Instead, you’ll have to:

  1. Click the link
  2. Pick a story/mnemonic
  3. Edit the card
  4. Learn the kanji

And all of that can take quite a while to do… especially when you have to do it over 2,000 times! If it helps, let’s walk through an example…

6.   Learn New Kanji

The biggest flaw with Heisig, for me, was that he makes you write so many of the stories yourself. And I’m just not creative enough to write 2,000 stories that are good or help me remember. Inevitably, I would end up rushing through the creation of a story… meaning my story would suck… meaning I wouldn’t remember the kanji.

This is why Reviewing the Kanji is such a helpful site, because other people have already written great stories and pointed out which ones are better than others. So all I need to do is click the link on one of the new cards that shows up while I’m studying:

 

This takes me to the relevant page on Reviewing the Kanji:

 

I can then scroll down and pick the story that, to me, is easiest to remember:

 

I then copy the mnemonic and go back to my Anki deck, where I’ll click “Edit:”

 

I then paste the chosen story into the “Story” field. I like to also write the primitives above the story. If you don’t know the primitives, just check your Remembering the Kanji book. I put primitives in italics and kanji meanings in bold:

 

Then I hit Close. From now on, the answer side of this card will look like this:

 

If your answer card does not show the Story, then you probably haven’t edited the card formatting right, which I showed you how to do back in Step #4.

There you have it. Now I’ve learned the Kanji for “risk,” and my Anki deck will never allow me to forget it… as long as I keep studying it.

How to Learn All 2,000+ Kanji

Even with a straightforward approach like this, it seems pretty overwhelming, right? Ya, it only took me a few minutes to learn the character for “risk,” but to remember it amidst thousands and thousands of other characters, thousands and thousands of other stories? How is it possible?

Well, there are a few keys to this:

Take It 1 Kanji at a Time

You’re not learning 2,000 kanji all at once. You’re only learning 22 kanji a day. And maybe you’re busy, and you only average something like 10 new kanji a day. That’s fine, too. It just means that it’ll take you a little bit longer to learn all of the kanji… and that’s not a big deal. If you miss adding new kanji one day, then it will just take one extra day to learn all of them. So what? It takes most people years and years to learn all of them. It’s not like one extra day is going to be the end of the world.

But!

Not reviewing cards that are due for review IS the end of the world.

Never Miss Your Cards Due for Review

I cannot stress this enough.

It’s not a big deal if you don’t learn any new kanji on a given day. But it is a big deal if you don’t review the cards that Anki tells you are due on a given day. Because it’s just too easy to miss two days… then three days… then a week, and pretty soon, you don’t remember any of the hundreds of kanji that you’ve spent all that time learning!

I’m serious. This has happened to me, and it SUCKED.

I always review my cards first thing in the morning. A lot of the time, I’ll review them on my phone before I even get out of bed. It’s been about six months since I missed a day reviewing my flashcards… and some of those days I was pretty absent-minded, and reviewing probably didn’t do me all that good anyways, but I at least have the peace of mind in knowing that (1) I’m making progress and (2) I’m staying on track.

Review the cards that are due EVERY DAY.

Find Your Perfect Mnemonic Style

It took me a long, long time to realize that a lot of the stories that Heisig wrote in his book did not help me at all. I think that, overall, this is because his stories are written for visual learners, but I’m not a visual learner. I remember word-play, jokes, etc.

Maybe you do need to draw a picture in your head every time you put down a story, though.

Whatever works! It might take a long time to find out what kind of mnemonic is easiest for you to remember. So don’t fret about it. But ask yourself, as you continue through the kanji, why you remember some stories so easily while you forget others every time you read them. Do they strike up vivid images in your mind? Do they remind you of something that happened in your life? Do they make you laugh, cry or inspire other emotions?

Only you can find your perfect mnemonic style.

Watch the Clock

When studying kanji, it’s really easy to get distracted and start doing something else. I, for one, have a particularly hard time focusing when I’m studying kanji, so I often find myself dazing while I’m learning new ones, or getting carried away with finding the perfect mnemonic and spending 30 minutes on one story! It’s going to take hundreds of hours to learn all of these kanji. And it will take hundreds more if you don’t watch the clock.

Keep Swimming

Just keep at it. I thought that learning all of the Joyo kanji seemed impossible. Even when I was up to 1,800 or so, I still thought it seemed impossible. Whether I had 1,000 left to learn or 200 left to learn, it just seemed impossible.

So I had to keep my head down. I had to take it one story at a time and remember that great accomplishments only come from persistent efforts. When I finally lifted my head up, at the end of it all, it was a feeling of joy—relief—that I’ve never been able to adequately describe to anyone before.

You won’t regret it. And yes, you can do this.

The Hardest 97 Days of Your Life

Right? But we’re in this together! Don’t give up! Maybe this will help:

8 Reasons Knowing the Kanji Will Be Awesome

  1. You’ll practically know Chinese.
    China Town in Yokohama
  2. You’ll be able to read ads in Japan.
    Japan Subway Ad
  3. And signs warning you not to be a pervert.
    Chikan Sign in Japanese Subway
  4. You’ll know what food you’re eating.
    Sukiya Tokyo
  5. Crows will be nice to you.
    Crown in Tokyo
  6. Some signs will seem less rude.
  7. You’ll feel safer.
    Neighborhood Watch Sign Japan
    And, perhaps most important…
  8. Hawks won’t steal your lunch. (I wasn’t so lucky that day.)
    Kamakura Hawk Sign

This post on the fastest way to learn the kanji is an excerpt from the NihongoShark.com e-book: How to Learn Japanese in 1 Year, a 100+ page guide on attaining Japanese fluency in 1 year. You can download it for free by signing up for our newsletter.

You can find lot of other cool stuff about learning Japanese if you look at the Links page: The Best Sites for Learning Japanese.

Good luck with your studies!

Niko

p.s. Here’s a free course bundled with awesomeness (and love):

Niko

Yo! I'm Niko, the founder of NihongoShark. I'm also a Japanese translator, writer, and all-around language nerd.

I created this site to help as many people master Japanese (any language, really) as possible.

Uh, what else? Well... I live in Tokyo, Bangkok, Sapporo, Saigon, San Diego, Tokyo, Chiang Mai, Portland, Oregon! So if anyone wants to meet up for a refreshing nama beer, I'm probably down for that. Or a coffee. Learning Japanese is tricky-tikki-tavi. But we're in this together. ファイト!

Good luck with your studies!

Niko

p.s. If you like my articles, you may very well love my daily lessons.