Be warned: this post on how to learn the kanji easily and remember them is very long.

It’s long, because I’m going to give you a detailed, step-by-step breakdown of how you can and should learn the kanji in 97 days.

This post is actually an excerpt from my Hacking Japanese Supercourse, a practical, detailed guidebook for mastering the Japanese language.

Kanji Are Not Impossible

Learning the kanji is not as difficult as people make it out to be. I might even go out on a limb and say that it’s actually easy to learn and remember the kanji. (Don’t hate me, please).

Part of the reason that I say that it’s easy is that I know so many people who have learned the kanji in the span of only a few months.

My original post on how to learn the kanji is one of the most popular articles on this website. In that post, I described a system for learning and retaining all of the 2,136 general-use kanji characters in 97 days. This article is essentially a more-developed and time-efficient update to that system.

As a side note, if you like giving your brain lots of Japanese love, you might want to sign up for our newsletter.

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Learn ALL of the Jōyō Kanji Before Studying Japanese

If you really want to become fluent in Japanese, I absolutely recommend learning ALL of the 2,136 Jōyō Kanji before you seriously dive into your studies.

I have quite a few reasons why I recommend this…

 1) I made the mistake of NOT doing this, and it was horrible.

I spent the first year of my Japanese studies lackadaisically studying kanji the way that everyone told me to study kanji: write each character a zillion times until it sticks in your brain. And, yeah, that was a huge disaster. So, after a year of studying, I knew a pretty solid smattering of Japanese, but I only knew about 500 kanji, despite having studied the kanji a lot.

You might be thinking that 500 kanji is a pretty solid amount, but with kanji it’s kind of an all-or-nothing deal. Either you know them or you don’t. Knowing only the most common kanji is certainly better than nothing, but if you can’t read all the common-use characters, you’re still illiterate. And being illiterate sucks.

After that year of studying Japanese without knowing the kanji, I quit studying Japanese completely. I didn’t study Japanese at all for about a year after that. I left Japan and just resigned myself to failure. I thought I can’t do this. It’s not possible for me.

Then, about a year after that, I decided to try studying with a new system. Basically, I used a very rudimentary version of the system that I will walk you through in this book. It wasn’t nearly as fine-tuned at that time, but I still managed to get drastically different results.

I started over, and I learned all 2,136 of the Jōyō Kanji in about 90 days. Not bad, right? But let’s round up and say 100 days.

100 days.

It’s hard to put time into perspective when studying a language. I think that maybe this is why so many of us get discouraged and quit studying somewhere along the line. We expect to learn everything overnight. When we google “how to learn Japanese” or “how to learn kanji” or “how to master Spanish,” we always add words like fast, easily, in 3 months, whatever. I called my last e-book “How to Learn Japanese in 1 Year.” But the thing is, time frames are absolutely meaningless. And I think that searching for accelerated methods for learning languages, though potentially beneficial, is often nothing more than a lack of commitment.

I mean, I get it. I’m human, too. I love instant gratification. Modern-day society has conditioned me to expect it everywhere I go. But there is so much more satisfaction in achieving something that you really have to work for. And I think that that’s the type of mindset that is conducive to making great achievements—not just in language-learning, but in life in general. Yes, we should take the fastest route to our destination. However, the fastest route may still take quite a long time, and that’s okay.

What I’m trying to say is that 100 days is both a very long time and a very short time.

100 days is a long time, because we’re talking about 100 days in a row. Stop and actually think about where you were about 3 months ago. Between then and now, how many times did you go to work? How many times did you talk on the phone? How many minutes or hours did you spend watching TV shows, playing video games, reading books, looking at Facebook, hanging out with your friends? How often did you feel tired? How often did you feel like you really, really, really didn’t want to go to work? Because we are talking about studying the kanji for at least one hour every single one of those days. That’s a long time!

On the other hand, if you take a step back, 100 days is nothing. I started studying Japanese over 1,000 days ago. If I had spent my first 100 days learning all of the kanji in the method described in this book, then I would be much better at the language today. If I had followed all of the advice in this guide, I would be able to destroy my current level of Japanese. Looking back, I see so much wasted effort. So much wasted time. But, whatever. Live and learn… and share what you’ve learned, yeah?

So in my guide we’re shooting for about 100 days. Specifically, we’re going to try to learn all of the 2,136 Joyo Kanji in 97 days. However, you don’t need to strictly follow the schedules and advice in this guide. Go at your own pace. Decide what you like, what works for you. There are people that like to take the approach that I took: a painful 100-day intensive kanji study session. But if that doesn’t work for you, then don’t do it.

Do 10 new kanji a day and learn all of them in about 210 days or so.

Or do 5 new kanji a day and learn them in 420 days. That’s only a little bit over a year. And 5 characters per day isn’t too stressful. And if you miss a few days studying new kanji, it’s not a big deal (because the study system allows for that).

Maybe you’re thinking, over 400 days?! Forget it! I know that feeling. The thing is, though, that time is going to pass. 400 days will come and go, and at the end of them, you will either (A) know the kanji, or (B) not know the kanji. There is no gray area here. It is that simple. A or B. Your choice.

 2) Knowing kanji makes you faster at learning Japanese.

Once you know the kanji, you can often know the meaning of words the first time you see them, even without seeing their definition or English translation. Kanji make sense. Without them, Japanese is just a bunch of random sounds. And that makes it difficult to attach meaning to the pieces of the language.

Once you know kanji and their readings (which you’ll learn naturally by studying vocabulary), you’ll often be able to know the meaning of a word just by hearing it. I’ve done this many times. It’s awesome.

Once you know kanji, it’s easier to ask Japanese people what words mean. If you’ve ever studied a language, you may have noticed that most people are really, really bad at explaining what things mean. I used to be really bad at this in English before I started studying other languages and working as an English teacher. Because of this, in conversation with a Japanese person, sometimes if a new word comes up, and you ask them what it means, they’ll look at you like a brain-dead Neanderthal. The reason for this is that explaining the meaning of words is difficult, especially when you’re talking to non-native speakers.

With kanji, when you get the Neanderthal Stare, you can say: “What are the kanji?” Then the Japanese person tells you the kanji, and you automatically understand the meaning of the word. This doesn’t always work. But it does work quite a bit. “What are the kanji?” is always the first question I ask when trying to learn the meaning of a new word that I’ve heard in a conversation.

 3) If you learn all of the kanji at the beginning, the odds of you quitting Japanese decrease drastically.

I’m always saying this, but the most difficult part of learning any language is not quitting.

If you study effectively and consistently without quitting, you will learn Japanese. Actually, you’ll learn any language. It doesn’t matter how old you are. It doesn’t matter if you’re ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at languages. Scientific studies have shown that anyone, even old people, can learn a new language if they study consistently over time.

Not knowing kanji will make you feel like quitting Japanese. Therefore, it’s hazardous to your overall success, and you should get it out of the way as quickly as possible.

 4) It’s entirely feasible.

While you read through the remainder of Phase #2, I’m hoping that you’ll begin to realize something that is essential to completing this course: It is entirely feasible to remember thousands of facts, numbers, symbols, etc. in a short amount of time if you use a systematic approach that utilizes your brain’s amazing potential.

Follow the instructions, and you will succeed. There is a simple process to all of this, and mental barriers are the biggest obstacle to overcome in your language-learning journey. Every setback that you may encounter along the way has already been encountered and overcome by someone else that came before you. So believe in yourself, and let’s stick this thing out. I’ve got your back.

 The 97-Day Kanji Challenge (Version 2.0)

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 if you count the year that I spent trying and failing to learn the kanji, back before I started over with a basic version of this system, then it took me a lot 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.

However, I know many people, young and old, who have learned the kanji in under 97 days using highly similar methods to the one I am about to explain to you. Getting emails from people thanking me for helping them to learn the kanji is my favorite thing about running NihongoShark.com. This site just started as a hobby, and I probably would have shut it down if I didn’t get one of those emails from time to time. And, getting those emails, I started to feel that I could help people like that even more. I thought that I could create an even better system than the one described in my original 2012 post on how to learn the kanji.

I did a lot of research, and I asked a lot of people a lot of questions. As a result, I created a new system for learning the kanji, which I will now explain to you.

How NOT to Learn the Kanji

Before we get into my system, I should clarify some ineffective kanji study methods. Your Japanese teacher, Japanese friend, study buddy, etc. may very well encourage you to do one or all of the following. Don’t listen to them.

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 pay us 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 methods into one super-method. And that’s what this 97-Day Kanji Challenge is all about: an amalgamation of the best tools and tactics available for learning kanji.

How You SHOULD Learn the Kanji

how you should learn the kanji

As we continue through this 97-Day Kanji Challenge section, we’re going to look at two things:

  1. A practical, step-by-step process for getting the kanji into your brain.
  2. Thorough explanations as to why we’ll study in this manner.

First I’ll give a brief overview of the theory behind my method, and then I’ll explore that theory in depth as we walk through the step-by-step process.

Divide the Kanji into Constituents

We talked about this earlier with the turkey in the tree example, right?

Say I want to learn the kanji for gather. My Japanese teacher might have told me to write this 1,000 times while repeating the meaning in my head:

集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集集

Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Forget it. I quit.

Instead, we’re going to take the (now highly evolved) Heisig approach, yeah?

(turkey) + (tree) = (gather)

“I saw a bunch of turkeys gathered in the tree outside my window.”

I’ll see the constituents隹 (turkey) and 木 (tree) in a lot of kanji. So, I’m pretty much guaranteed to remember what those mean, because they’ll appear in a story for every kanji that includes them. This means that if I create a good mnemonic (memory device) for remembering that those two add up to mean gather, then I will learn the kanji集 and it will stick. Luckily, there is a trick to making stories stick.

Create Effective Mnemonics

If you take a look at the story that I wrote above, I said:

“I saw a bunch of turkeys gathered in the tree outside my window.”

There is a very specific reason that I said “outside my window.” In the house that I grew up in, there was a big ash tree outside of my bedroom window. It is a vivid place in my memory, and I won’t forget it my entire life. That is the tree I am picturing when I say: “I saw a bunch of turkeys gathered in the tree outside my window.”

What’s a mnemonic?A mnemonic (RpE: /nəˈmɒnɨk/,[1] AmE: /nɛˈmɑːnɪk/ the first “m” is silent), or mnemonic device, is any learning technique that aids information retention. Mnemonics aim to translate information into a form that the brain can retain better than its original form.²  Wikipedia

There’s a really awesome TED Talk by Joshua Foer, a science writer who ‘accidentally’ won the U.S. Memory Championship.

Here’s the video:

I first learned about this person from the website Hacking Chinese, which has an amazing article titled “Remembering is a skill you can learn.”

If you go look at that article, it will talk about the mechanics of memory. And the author gives a list of random words. I’ve probably read that article four or five times. The last time that I read it was probably about 6-8 months ago. However, without looking at it again, I’m pretty sure that I can remember that random list of words:

  1. Balloon
  2. Cannon
  3. Sun
  4. Child*
  5. King
  6. Tree
  7. Rabbit
  8. Sword
  9. Bottle
  10. Rain
  11. Ship
  12. Book
  13. Mountain
  14. Shovel
  15. Water

So, I just wrote that list from memory, and I was only missing one item: #4, Child. I read a list of random words over half a year ago, and I remembered over 90% of it without reviewing at all. I was able to do so, because I made a mnemonic story that utilizes my spatial memory (my actual memory of places and things that really exist). If anyone is interested, here’s the story:

 I stepped out of my apartment in Shimokitazawa, and I noticed a balloon tied to the banister at the top of the stairs. I went over to look at it, and there was a cannon at the bottom of the stairs aimed right at me! It fired, and I dodged it, but it made a hole in the roof, and the sun shined through it and hurt my eyes. I tried to climb up through the hole to get away, but it was hard to get through. Luckily, a child helped pull me through the hole. “You have to kill the king,” he said, pointing at a king sitting on my roof. Instead, I jumped off the roof into the big tree behind my house. In the tree, there was a rabbit, and the rabbit said, “Take this sword to kill the king with.” I said, “No way.” So then he gave me a huge bottle of beer, and he said “Drink this for courage.” Suddenly it started to rain, and it flooded the entire neighborhood. I thought I was going to drown, but luckily a ship came by. So I climbed into the ship. In the ship, the captain was reading a giant book. “How do you build a mountain?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “You start with a shovel,” he said. I looked out around the ship, and there was water everywhere.

That might seem like a very long, detailed story, but it only takes me about 10-15 seconds to go through the whole thing in my mind. There are some notable aspects of it that I’d like to point out:

  • The story is full of real places that I am extremely familiar with:
    • The banister at the top of the staircase outside of my real apartment in Shimokitazawa (where the balloon is tied).
    • The bottom of the staircase I walked down every day (where the cannon is).
    • The metal roof over the area outside of my front door (which the sun shines through and hurts my eyes after the cannon blows a hole through it).
    • The big tree right behind my house.
  • The story is a little bit ridiculous, because ridiculous stuff is easy to remember.

feats of memory anyone can do

Our minds are capable of amazing things. In particular, scientific studies have shown that our spatial memories are particularly reliable. For example, it’s pretty easy to find your way to work/school/home only a few days after moving to a new place, right? But reading directions for those things might seem confusing.

Luckily, the same type of memory can be utilized when tackling tedious numbers, facts, and (you guessed it) kanji characters. I’ll get more into the specifics of forming your mnemonics later in this article.

Only Worry About 1 Thing: Recognizing the Meaning of Characters

As you will learn very early in your Japanese studies, there are many different elements to “learning the kanji,” which, by itself, is quite a vague statement. For example, consider the following. Say we have the kanji 食, which means “eat.” There are many aspects to “knowing” this kanji:

taberu kanji

(Image from Jisho.org)

  1. In general, it means “eat,” “eating,” or “food.”
  2. The On’Yomi (Chinese-derived reading) is しょく / shoku or じき / jiki.
    • Yeah, by the way, there are different sounds for each kanji. This is one of the side effects of smashing Japanese into the Chinese writing system. So, for one characters, there are many possible readings (ways to pronounce it). We’ll worry about this later. Also, it won’t be stressful at all.
  3. The Kun’Yomi (Japanese reading) is た.べる / taberu or く.う / kuu or く.らう kurau.
  4. This is the stroke order:

taberu stroke order

That’s a lot of info, right? And I’ve had so many readers email me saying that they think they should just learn all of that at once in a sort of get-it-over-with attack on kanji. I also have readers that look at all of that information and just say, “You know what? This just isn’t for me after all.”

There is a much simpler and more positive solution, however:

Only learn the meaning of the character (#1 above).

Use the process that I’ll walk you through in Phase #2 so that when you come across 食, you will know that it means “eat.” And then the rest of that information above you can learn gradually and naturally throughout your studies.

Perhaps there are some of you who disagree with this. I know that there are so many students of Japanese that stress learning the readings of characters, after all. If you don’t mind, I’d like to elaborate (using the example above) as to why this is such a waste of time.

So, for example, say you want to learn the readings of 食. First you’re like, okay. しょく (shoku) and じき (jiki). Only, those are not words by themselves. They only form parts of other words. Yeah, しょく is a super common reading of this character, and you see it in common words like:

  • 食事 (しょくじ / shokuji / “meal”)
  • 食欲 (しょくよく / shokuyoku / “appetite”)
  • 朝食 (ちょうしょく / choushoku / “breakfast”)
  • 昼食 (ちゅうしょく / chuushoku / “lunch”)
  • 定食 (ていしょく / teishoku / “set meal (and type of Japanese food)” )

But memorizing the reading of this character does not teach you any of these words. And trying to learn the reading of this character as you learn the meanings of the kanji will only slow down your kanji learning, which will in turn push back your vocabulary learning, will which in turn push back your progress in Japanese.

Instead, later in Phase #3, you’ll learn a couple of words that use the On’Yomi reading しょく / shoku, and you’ll naturally start to associate it with that kanji (making all of those words above a cinch to remember). You’ll learn to pronounce a word that you already know the meaning of just by looking at its characters. You will know the meaning, because you will have learned all the meanings in Phase #2. So just by looking at that list, you could guess the meaning for most of them:

  • 食事 =            “eat” + “matter”               =            “meal”
  • 食欲 =            “eat”+ “longing”              =            “appetite”
  • 朝食 =            “morning” + “eat”            =           “breakfast”
  • 昼食 =            “daytime” + “eat”            =           “lunch”
  • 定食 =           “determine” + “eat”         =           “set meal”

As you learned words like this, you would naturally get a feel for the reading of the kanji. You would also notice that the reading じき / jiki is much less common than しょく / shoku and probably not very relevant at all for a beginner student of Japanese.

Instead of blindly learning the Kun’Yomi without any words attached to the reading, in Phase #3 you could naturally figure out that 食べる / た.べる / taberu is the most common usage, as it simply means “to eat.” And then you’d learn that 食う / く.う / kuu is a much less polite (though still exceptionally common) version of the same word: “to eat.” You’d learn that 食らう / く.らう kurau, while occasionally used to mean “to eat,” is often used to mean “to receive (something bad),” kind of in the sense of “to (figuratively) eat (something that you don’t want to eat).”

There will come a time when you have to learn all of these things. However, when you learn them, already knowing the readings of the kanji won’t really help you much at all. So, in a way, you could say that studying them is kind of meaningless. Some kids, such as myself, might even say that it’s a waste of time.

I have never studied the On’Yomi and Kun’Yomi readings. In fact, I had to look up online which one was which before I wrote this section of the guide. And yet (although I don’t like talking about it), my Japanese skills are pretty solid. And yet, I have steady work as a translator of Japanese, friends that don’t speak English, and I read Japanese novels for fun. I did all of this without even caring to make a note of the difference between On’Yomi and Kun’Yomi. So I’m going to go ahead and say that we don’t need to worry about it. At least not until Phase #3 when we start filling our heads with a ton of Japanese vocabulary.

Last but not least: the stroke order. If you think that learning the stroke order is fun, then I totally encourage you to study it as you go along (I’ll show you how). I don’t think that it’s totally necessary for learning the kanji, but writing kanji can actually be a lot of fun. And if you’re having fun studying, then that’s always a good thing. It’s also pretty cool once you start to get accustomed to the writing patterns of Japanese characters. So, yeah, learn it if you feel like it. Or, you know, don’t. Whatever.

Review Them with an SRS Program (Anki)

I’m not going to talk much about this here, as I talk about it every three seconds throughout this whole guide. But, yeah, let’s use Anki so that we can remember these characters long-term. Also, because Anki is set up very nicely to walk us through the kanji one at a time… which I’ll be showing you in just a moment here.

How Long Will It Actually Take?

That’s a difficult question to answer, because it depends on a number of things. Specifically, it depends on the frequency and quantity of your studying.

Using a less-developed version of the system that I’m going to explain in this section, I learned all of the kanji in about three months.

One of the readers on my website used this system, kept track of his progress, and said that he learned all of the joyo kanji in just over 80 days. And that was while he was studying full-time at university.

Honestly, though, I wouldn’t worry about how fast you’re moving forward, as that might just stress you out. Instead, maybe just try to make sure that you are in fact moving, both consistently and efficiently, and you’re sure to learn the kanji in no time.

If you follow the Phase #2 instructions exactly, it will take you 97 days.

Even the Best Way Will Not Be Easy

I tried to think of a method where you could just go to sleep, then wake up in the morning with a bunch of kanji memorized. But, uh… it’s a work in progress.

I think that what I’m about to present is the fastest method currently available for learning and retaining the meaning of the each of the 2,136 Jōyō Kanji.

However!

The “best,” “easiest,” “fastest,” “whatever” way to learn the kanji is still kind of a nightmare. 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. The opposite sex makes more sense. So what are you waiting for? 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…

Ninja Tool Amalgamation

I love the word amalgamation. If I was going to say it in Japanese, though, I guess I’d opt for the word 融合(ゆうごう) / yuugou, but that actually means “fusion,” like in 核融合(かくゆうごう) / kakuyuugou, which means “nuclear fusion,” a word that I learned a long time ago but have yet to come across in a daily conversation. WTF?! Sounds like a difficult word, but it’s not, because you can know it’s meaning just by looking at the kanji: 核 (nucleus) + 融 (dissolve) + 合 (fit)… if you take some nuclei, then dissolve them so that they fit, then you’re performing nuclear fusion! Now I get it!

Wow, kanji are awesome. Let’s learn 2,000 of them. We can start by 融合-ing the three tools that we picked up in Phase #1:

3 kanji tools

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.
  3. Reviewing the Kanji will save us when we have a hard time coming up with our own kanji stories and mnemonics.

Used together, these three tools can speed up your kanji acquisition exponentially. So let’s get started! The first thing you want to do is…

Set Up Your Anki Deck

In my old guide, I had you alter someone else’s deck to fit into this system of studying. This time, instead, I’ve created a deck for you, and now I’ll show you how to set it up.

  1. Download Anki. You should have already done this in Phase #1. But I know some of you are slackers. Seriously, go here, download it onto your PC, install it, and then open it. (If you have problems, then consult the help pages.) When you open it, you will see a screen like this:

anki blank

You did it. Yay! Only, you don’t have any decks, and you feel a gaping hole in your heart. So, you should…

Download the NihongoShark.com Kanji Deck

See in that photo above? My mouse is hovering over the “Get Shared” button. That’s because the next thing we are going to do is get the NihongoShark.com shared kanji deck of glory and awesomeness.

  1. Download the Nihongoshark.com Kanji Deck. Use this link to get it. You don’t actually have to use the “Get Shared” button above. If you do use it, however, then just type “NihongoShark.com Kanji” into the search box on the Anki Shared Decks page.

Either way, you should come to a page that looks like this:

Scroll down to the bottom, and then click the “Download” button:

Clicking that will bring up a Save box:

Clicking “Save” will download it. In my case, I downloaded it to my desktop. So I double-click the desktop icon:

 Anki will start processing the file:

Then, success! It has imported 2,200 cards:

Set Anki Preferences for Efficient Studying

  1. Set Anki’s preferences.

Before we start studying, let’s double-check that Anki’s settings are optimized for learning the kanji. To do this, in Anki I go to Tools à Preferences:

That will bring up this box:

Our main item of concern is that second drop-down box. See how it says “Mix new cards and reviews?” We need to change that! (I’ll explain why later.) So click the dropdown and select “Show new cards after reviews:”

 Then you can go ahead and close the preferences box.

Now we’re all ready to start learning some kanji! Let’s get started…

Understanding the Formatting of This Deck

If you open this deck, you will see this page:

 Click the “Study Now” button, because…

  1. Start learning new kanji.

That’s right. It’s time to start learning kanji right from the start. So clicking “Study Now” will bring up the kanji :

If you click “Show Answer,” it will bring up the back of this flashcard:

There’s a lot of interesting information there, but none of it really helps us to remember this kanji. Well, maybe we don’t need any info for remembering the kanji for “One,” but you know what I mean. So what we want to do is click the “Edit” button down in the bottom right:

Clicking “Edit” will bring up the data for each of this card’s field. There’s quite a lot of it:

 Everything we might need is there, things like stroke order, kanji numbers (in the Heisig system), etc. But the real item of concern is the mnemonic. So, let’s scroll down and look at the mnemonic fields:

Here’s a breakdown of what each of these is referring to:

  • myStory – This field is where we’re going to enter our mnemonics. That is, here is where we write the story or memory device that we want to see for this flashcard when we review it.
  • heisigStory – This field has the story that appears in the Remembering the Kanji Some of you will realize that this means that you probably don’t even need to be buying this book, then. I feel like that’s not totally fair to Heisig himself, though. So if you have the funds, maybe buy it anyways?
  • heisigComment – This field has the comment that appears in the Remembering the Kanji book as a supplement to the kanji’s story.
  • koohiiStory1 – This field has the most popular story on the koohii Reviewing the Kanji site.
  • koohiiStory2 – This field has the most popular story on the koohii Reviewing the Kanji site.

The kanji is so incredibly basic that I probably don’t need to spend any time at all making a story for it. So, I’ll just swipe koohiiStory1:

I select and copy it (above), then I paste it into the myStory field:

 Now I click “Close:”

Doing so, I will once more be faced with the front side of the card:

 I click “Show Answer,” and…

 As you can see, now my story [ = my mnemonic] appears right under the list of constituents [ = parts] of this kanji. I click “Good” and that kanji hides away for a few minutes, programmed to pop up at whatever time I might be prone to forgetting it today, next week, a month from now, in a year—whenever:

 So now we have learned our first kanji! And because it’s in our Anki deck, we will never forget it. That’s amazing!

Go ahead and repeat that same process for the second and third kanji, which, as you might have guessed, are the kanji for “two” and “three.”

Learning New Kanji

I’d like to take an in-depth look at the kanji learning process. In doing so, let’s walk through the kanji for “four:”

Dividing Kanji into Constituents

You might see this kanji for “four” and think, “Hey, things are starting to get complicated.” You hit “Show Answer,” and you even get some new constituents that you’ve never heard of:

“Pent in?” “Human legs?” Those “constituents” are referring to the parts of the kanji. If you have the Remembering the Kanji book, these are written out for you: The outside “mouth” (strokes #1, 2, 5) is written separately for you, and the inside “human legs” (strokes #3, 4) are written separately for you. This makes it very easy to understand what these “constituents” are referring to.

For those of us who don’t have the Remembering the Kanji book, however, the next best thing we can do is look at the heisigStory and heisigComment fields. So let’s click “Edit” and take a look at it:

Okay, whatever. That didn’t help me figure out these “constituents” much at all. Sometimes it does, but not this time. Luckily, it’s kind of obvious what is referring to “mouth” and what is referring to “human legs,” so maybe we’ll be okay without the Remembering the Kanji book after all.

Using Constituents to Make Mnemonics

Once I figure out what each “constituent” is, I need to decide what myStory is going to be. As for 四, the story for koohiiStory1 isn’t bad:

This story is a great example of why I encourage writing your own mnemonics. This story seems great, and it seems easy to remember. But a lot of stories that seem to have great mnemonics just don’t stick, and I think that the reason is a lack of connection to the learner.

Just because the mnemonic is clever or makes sense does not mean that you will remember it.

However, koohiiStory1 has given me an idea for a story that will stick, which I write in myStory:

You might be thinking, “That story sucks, Niko.” Well, perhaps. However, there are some features to it that I’d like to point out, features that make it very easy for me personally to remember:

  1. This is a real place that I am extremely familiar with.
  2. I know exactly what I looked like when I was four, because I have seen a picture of myself at the age of four (a specific picture that I’m recalling).
  3. This story is kind of creepy. And anything that’s creepy, ridiculous, frightening, hilarious, or shocking is much more likely to stick in my mind.
  4. I will never use this exact spot (on the floor next to my bedroom door at my apartment in Sapporo) ever again. The kanji 四 now owns this spot. Every time I see this spot, there should be a four-year-old version of myself with his four legs in his mouth. Every time I imagine this spot, it should have a four-year-old version of myself with his four legs in his mouth. It’s almost like I’m pretending that this actually happened in this place that exists in the real world that I am familiar with.

The Science of Memory

When I first read Remembering the Kanji, Heisig told me about 1,000 times to make sure that my mnemonics were visual. Only, never in my life have I considered myself to have a “visual memory.” So usually that advice didn’t do me any good at all. When I wrote stories for mnemonics I used to try really hard to “visualize” what I was writing so that I could recall the kanji in this magic way that Heisig was describing. Yet, it almost never worked.

It wasn’t until years later (while I was researching the science of memory) that I realized that my memory, though not “visual,” was highly “spatial.” Because all humans have an incredible spatial memory. There are some places in this world that you know really well. You know every nook and cranny of your home. You know how to get from your bed to the front door of your office (or classroom, whatever). You could close your eyes and make that trip in your mind, seeing thousands of details along the way—the height of the roof in your bedroom; the type and size of window in your living room; the type of handle on your front door; the corner at the end of your street.

We can take those little pieces of your incredible spatial memory, and we can add kanji mnemonics to them. Maybe the moment you open the curtains of your living room window, there is both a sun and a moon shining outside, making it so bright that you can’t see [whatever you would normally see outside of your living room window].

Assuming you have a living room window, that story should be pretty easy to conjure up. You can picture yourself opening up the blinds, curtains, whatever. You know exactly where you would be standing when that happened. You know exactly what you would not be seeing because of the giant, bright sun and moon filling up the entire scene. And that’s probably more memorable than any of these:

Some of you may have already realized this, but what I’m talking about specifically is creating Memory Palaces. I didn’t talk about it too much, but that is essentially what Joshua Foer (the science writer I talked about earlier) was doing when he “accidentally” won the U.S. Memory Championship.

Memory Palaces are all the rave these days. You can read about them on Wikipedia. You can look at sites dedicated to them, and you can even read entire books on how to create them. Even BBC’s Sherlock Holmes uses them. I’m not really going to get into them in too much depth, though, because every time I read an article about them, I get distracted and give up on whatever it was I was trying to memorize in the first place… in this case, the kanji!

Let’s just say, for the sake of brevity, that you can turn any place that you know really well into a memory palace, and then you can have kanji stories take place in them. This is sweet, because our spatial memory is super-powered.

Living in a World of Kanji

The reason that I don’t like guides on building memory palaces is that they’re usually quite time-consuming. You read long explanations about how to make these memories stick, about how to walk through your “Memory Palace” 8,000 times until you really get to know it well.

For me, though, the only way this has ever worked was just to start doing it. Then, I took note of what worked (i.e. what I was remembering) and what didn’t work (i.e. what I was still forgetting over and over again).

Practice makes perfect, right? So let’s make 10 bad memory palaces before we try to start making a bunch more really awesome ones. Specifically, I’m going to ask you to create 56!

56 Memory Palaces?! Yeah, it sounds like a lot. But they don’t have to be big. Why 56, you ask? Because Remembering the Kanji has 56 lessons, and in each lesson we can use one memory palace. If you look at the fields in your kanji deck, you will see that each card also lists the kanji lesson. For “bright,” it was lesson number 2 (look at where my mouse is):

I have found that my memory palaces always work best if I walk through them in the same order every time. So, as we go through a lesson, we can try to write stories in order as well. This will help us connect stories to one another and bring up points that we are nearly forgetting. For example, in the random list of words from Hacking Chinese, I remembered that “cannon” came after “balloon,” because the moment I looked at the “balloon,” a “cannon” fired at me, and this opened up a hole in the roof, through which the “sun” (the next word) was shining brightly.

Some of you might still be thinking: But 56 Memory Palaces?! Yeah. It’s not a lot. Let’s see how many I can think of giving myself a 5-minute limit:

  1. My apartment in Sapporo.
  2. My old apartment in Shimokitazawa.
  3. The walk from my apartment in Sapporo to the gym in Odori.
  4. The walk from my apartment in Shimokitazawa to my workplace in Shinjuku.
  5. The walk from Shinjuku to Yoyogi along Meiji-dori.
  6. The walk from Yoyogi to Harajuku along Meiji-dori.
  7. The walk from Harajuku to Shibuya along Meiji-dori.
  8. My parents’ condo in San Diego.
  9. My high school.
  10. My college campus.
  11. My middle school.
  12. My elementary school.
  13. The walk from my parent’s condo in San Diego to the beach.
  14. My apartment in college.
  15. The walk from my apartment in college to the beach.
  16. The drive from my hometown to San Diego (where I went to college).
  17. My last workplace.
  18. The workplace before that.
  19. The workplace before that.
  20. The workplace before that.
  21. My apartment in Bangkok.
  22. The walk from my apartment in Bangkok to the BTS Station.
  23. The BTS stations between On Nut and Asok in Bangkok.
  24. East Shinjuku.
  25. Senta-gai in Shibuya.

All of these are places and routes that I know extremely well, because I have passed through them countless times. They are all probably meaningless to you, but each of these places is concretely imprinted into my spatial memory. I do a lot of walking, so a lot of those are walks. Actually, I’m pretty sure I could just list 25 different walks in Tokyo. But that’s because I’m kind of obsessed with going for long walks, especially in big cities. But maybe you like going for drives. Or maybe you know the world of a video game in depth. Whatever works for you.

We can take these vivid places, and then we can place ridiculous, frightening, sexual, disgusting stories in them in order to memorize the meaning (and writing) of all of the kanji.

For more about using memory palaces to learn the kanji, please take a look at this (even more) detailed walkthrough of the entire process:
Building Memory Palaces In Order to Learn the Japanese Kanji

Using a Memory Palace to Learn the Kanji

So, not only will you be learning to read Japanese, but you’ll also be improving your memory and studying how to become a master of it. I don’t know about you, but I think that that’s downright amazing.

Why We’re Doing Kanji (Front) → Keyword (Back) Flashcards

If any of you read my last book, or looked at any of the other kanji decks and advice in the world, almost everyone will tell you to study your kanji flashcards the other way around: With the keyword on the front side and the kanji itself on the backside.

Specifically, there are two reasons why I choose to do this the other way around:

  1. It’s easier. And easy is good, because easy is fast. And if we can learn kanji quickly and easily, then we are less likely to give up, more likely to complete this kanji journey, and therefore extremely likely to stick with our Japanese studies until we reach pro ninja status.

  2. It’s more useful. You don’t need to know how to write the kanji. At least, not from memory. Sometimes you might have to write some kanji on an address or a form at the city office or something, but 99.99% of your interaction with kanji will be recognizing and reading the characters. So, I think that we should prioritize recognizing and reading the characters. We’re mastering the meaning here in Phase #2, and we’re mastering the pronunciation through vocabulary acquisition in Phase #3. To the best of my knowledge, that’s the most efficient way to spend our time.

Keep a Time-Efficient Flow

One downside to writing your own mnemonics, especially if you’re anything like me, is that it can give rise to unbridled daydreaming. There are far too many times when I have been trying to think of a story for a kanji, and I got lost in my thoughts and wasted a lot of time that I could have spent learning more kanji.

Part of this study process is digging into the recesses of our brains, which is really awesome. However, a side effect of doing so is that we can get lost in the recesses of your brain. As a countermeasure, it might be a good idea to write new kanji stories with a timer that buzzes at you every 5 minutes. Then, if you are taking longer than 5 minutes to come up with a rad mnemonic connected to a spatial memory (a place [in a memory palace] that you know), then copy one of the stories taken from Heisig or koohii and move onto the next kanji. Doing this is okay, because we’re going to…

Clean Up Mnemonics over Time

There is a delicate balance between creating mnemonics that work and optimizing the time spent writing them. If you feel like your mnemonic is “just okay,” but you don’t want to waste more time working on it, then just save it and move onto the next kanji.

The cool thing about Anki is that every card you save will show up in the future (over and over and over again). So, if you find that you’re forgetting the meaning of a kanji multiple times during review, then it’s probably a sign that your mnemonic isn’t so good. At that time, you can just hit “Edit,” clean up the story, and keep on moving forward.

Perfectionism will be your doom. Small, consistent improvements over a long period of time are the key to huge successes, especially when talking about the acquisition and mastery of skills.

Using Other Peoples’ Mnemonics

As a said before, if you’re taking too long to make up your own awesome mnemonic, you always have the option of simply hitting “Edit,” copying one of the stories already filled into the “koohi” or “Heisig” field, then pasting it into the “myStory” field.

Also, as I’m sure many of you have already realized, you do have the option of just setting up your cards so that the koohi stories automatically show up in cards. Personally, I don’t think that this is the best way to learn these characters long-term, as I have forgotten A LOT of characters using other people’s stories. This makes sense if you think about the mnemonic techniques discussed above, because these stories had no spatial or emotional connection to my world.

Still, just because I don’t think it’s effective does not give me the right to keep from divulging this option to you. In the end, it’s your decision. Therefore, for those of you who want to have koohiiStory1 show up in the cards automatically, this is what you need to do (you can skip this step if you’re following my method):

Click on your kanji deck, bringing you to the screen above, then click “Browse.” You should see this:

Hit “Enter” on your keyboard to bring up all the cards in the deck. Select one of the cards and hit “Cards:”

This will bring up a very scary look at the html going into your cards’ formatting:

Looking at the “Back Template,” scroll down until you see “{{koohiiStory1}}”:

Copy that, then scroll up and paste it where it says “{{myStory}}”:

After pasting “{{koohiiStory1}}” in place of “{{myStory}}”, the back side of your flashcards will automatically show the koohiiStory1 every time. It’s the lazy study kid’s ultimate dream approach, I suppose.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat… 2,131 Times.

So now we’ve walked through the process of learning new kanji. If you’re still feeling lost or confused about some of this, please don’t hesitate to email me. Sometimes I am painfully slow to respond, but I promise that I will get back to you eventually!

The next step is:

  1. Repeat new-kanji-learning process 2,131 times.

If you’re feeling like you’re ready to dive headfirst into this, then go for it! The only thing left to do now is to finalize your attack plan. The main aspect of this will be decideing the time period that you’re going to shoot for to get through this whole thing.

Decide Your Challenge Time Period

I called this the 97-Day Challenge, because it was originally designed for learning 22 new kanji per day for 97 days, which would get you through all of the Jōyō Kanji.

If you have the time and motivation, though, I think it’s feasible to do up to 30 new kanji per day. This would get you through all 2,136 of the Joyo Kanji in about 72 days. I think trying to shoot for anything better than that would be a bad idea. 30 kanji per day is a lot, and you might burn out as soon as you have a couple of bad days.

If it takes you an average of 5 minutes to learn a new kanji, then that’s only 12 per hour. Doing one hour of new kanji study per day this way would put you at 178 days! Yikes! But if you could speed up to a 3-minute average for each new kanji, then you could get through 20 in one hour, and doing that every day would get you through all of the kanji in around 107 days—a pretty short amount of time, if you put everything into perspective.

I’m going to list a table of possible daily goals and how long it would take to get through all of the Jōyō Kanji if you hit those goals every single day. Really, though, I think you should just start studying new cards without any time schedules or rules for the first few days and try to get a sense of what a comfortable pace is for you personally. This is not a race. It’s an endurance test. You could run 100 miles at top speed and then drop dead. Or, you could walk quickly for 1,000 miles and not die. And maybe some awesome people can even maintain a light jog for that amount of time (given breaks for food, friends, and lovers). In short, go at a pace that you won’t quit. That’s all you need to succeed.

It’s fun to imagine that charts like this are accurate, but realistically we’re probably way off. For example, this is just talking about the time required for learning new kanji. It doesn’t take into account the amount of time we’ll be spending each day as we review kanji we’ve already learned, which we’ll talk about next.

Prioritizing Your Study Flow

That chart above details how long it would take to learn all of the kanji if you learned a certain amount of them regularly on a daily basis. The truth is, though, that you don’t have to learn new kanji every day if you don’t feel like it. Everyone has their own rhythms. Maybe you can only get to new kanji on the weekend, or weekdays before/after work. That’s cool. It’s not a big deal if you don’t learn new kanji every day, as long as you are still consistently studying new kanji and making progress. Slow progress is better than no progress, right?

But please be careful. Because review cards are not so kind. That’s why the next item is:

  1. Review kanji flashcards every day.

Every day, before you learn a single new kanji, you need to review the kanji that you have already studied in order to ensure that you have not forgotten them. That’s why, earlier, I told you to set your Anki preferences so that new cards show after review cards. Review cards are 2,136 times more important than new cards.

Do every single review card every single day. This is so important, and it’s the only way to avoid a painful death caused by Anki Avalanche.

Anki Avalanche: How I Lost 2 Years’ Worth of Japanese

Did you know that 1 in 250 million people are killed by fallen satellites? You don’t think it’s going to be you. You think, I don’t even know anyone that’s been killed by a satellite! But then, there are you are, walking to tennis practice, and BAM! Satellite on your face and you’re dead. Or, you might have been dead if I hadn’t just warned you about it.

Well, no one ever warned me about the Anki Avalanche. I didn’t even know that it existed!

It was 2010. I had just left Japan because I’d run out of money, and I was living at my parents’ house. I was a lost, unemployed college graduate, and I had no idea what I was doing with my life. All of my friends seemed to be getting good jobs and moving forward. Meanwhile, I was blowing all of my savings living in Tokyo and poring through texts about the Japanese language. I’d been studying for almost two years, and I had absolutely nothing to show for it.

So, I went one day without reviewing my Anki cards. Maybe I had like 80 review cards due (about 20 minutes of study time back then). I don’t really remember. Then I let two days go by, and 80 cards became 150 cards due for review. A week passed, and I think it was up to 500-something.

And the avalanche destroyed me. After a few months, Anki was telling me that around 4,000 cards were due for review. Obviously that’s impossible, I figured. And like that, I gave up on the Japanese language. I quit studying Japanese completely.

This is why you need to do all of your review cards every day. Even if you’re in a rut. Because as long as you’re still reviewing those cards every day, then you won’t lose the investment that you’ve put into this. And eventually, the value of that investment will pull you out of your rut, and you’ll start moving forward again.

This happened to me just last year with Spanish, actually. I had been studying for half a year or so when I just lost all of my motivation. And, for the most part, I totally quit learning Spanish. Except, I still did my review cards on Anki every day. Fast forward to about a month ago, when I suddenly started getting back into my studies with a renewed vigor. It was so liberating to “start” studying with over 3,000 mature review cards up to date in my Anki deck. I’d been reviewing them every day even though I’d lost all of my interest in Spanish. I mean, after all, it only took like 10-15 minutes to get through them every day. So why not? And it’s really paying off now.

Even if you are not engaged, just look at the screen of your phone or computer and click “Good” for every review card. Things will still work out this way, because later when you’re feeling more motivated, Anki will help you pick out which cards are not “Good,” which cards you should actually take a fresh look at again.

Please review your cards every day. Do not get hit by the Anki Avalanche.

So, to recap, the rule is:

Study review cards every day; study new cards if you have time.

Enjoy yourself and keep moving…

Sticking With It for 97 Days

If you were ever going to step up and really put some serious, concentrated effort into your studies, now is the time. Phase #2 is the biggest barrier between you and Japanese fluency. We just need to get past it.

But sticking with this for 97 days (if you’re doing 22 new kanji per day) is a serious commitment. Here are some more tactics that might help us stick to that commitment…

Find Your Study Sanctuary

For the course of this 97 days, you’re going to need to find a time and place to do your daily studying for at least one hour.

Back when I went through the kanji challenge, I went to my favorite coffee shop every single morning. Usually I went around 6am, when it was totally empty. Most mornings a thin fog was hanging in the air. The lights were dim. People were calm, and I had a delicious coffee and a fresh, toasted bagel with cream cheese. It was my favorite time of day. The ambiance was perfect. The food and drinks were perfect. And it was the place that I turned into my study sanctuary. Every morning, I sat down with that coffee and that bagel, and I didn’t leave the coffee shop until I’d learned all of the new kanji for that day.

Most likely, your study sanctuary will be different. Maybe you don’t like coffee. Or (more likely) maybe you don’t like waking up before 6am. Or maybe you work mornings and it’s not feasible to study before work. I was working evenings at a restaurant back then, so it was feasible for me. What’s feasible for you might be at home, or in your car, or at the public library. The key is to find a study sanctuary that fits into your lifestyle.

Qualities of a Good Study Sanctuary

  • You can go there every day.
  • It’s a blocked off time in your schedule.
  • You enjoy going there.
  • You look forward to going there.
  • It’s peaceful (i.e. it’s conducive to concentration).
  • It has an internet connection.
  • It’s free from distractions.

Maybe you’ve heard the phrase that goes something like this: “If you don’t like exercising, it just means that you haven’t found the right type of exercise for you yet.” I think that the same can be said of studying Japanese. We just have to trick our idiot brains into enjoying it.

For example, I absolutely loved going to coffee shops, but the idea of studying Japanese kind of freaked me out, because every time I thought about it I put pressure on myself, felt stressed, and wanted to quit. In order to avoid those negative feelings, I had to focus on the extremely enjoyable process of going to a coffee shop and studying and ignore the extremely stressful process of pressuring myself to succeed. Studying at a coffee shop was also the only time in my daily life that I listened to music, because whenever I was in my car, or running, or going for walks I was always listening to JapanesePod101. Seeing as how I’m a human, I love music. So I wanted to listen to music. So I wanted to go to the coffee shop. So I wanted to study Japanese. I was creating a series of rules that formed into enjoyable, positive study motivators.

The hierarchy of rules that formed my study sanctuary looked like this:

  • Rules
    • Every time I go to the coffee shop, I have to study Japanese.
    • I cannot leave the coffee shop until I finish my flashcards for the day.
    • I can only listen to music at the coffee shop. I can’t listen to it anywhere else.
  • Mental Process
    • I want delicious coffee and a bagel! I love coffee and bagels!
      • So let’s go to my favorite coffee shop.
        • So let’s study Japanese.
    • I want to listen to music! I love listening to music!
      • So let’s go to my favorite coffee shop.
        • So let’s study Japanese.
    • I hate living with my parents. I need to get out of the house.
      • So let’s go to my favorite coffee shop.
        • So let’s study Japanese.

In time, my brain started to think that studying Japanese was fun. It was something that seemed intrinsically positive and exciting. I wanted to study Japanese every day, because it gave me that relaxed, drinking-a-coffee-and-listening-to-awesome-music good feeling. Just writing about it here, I want to put on my headphones and drift away into hours of studying. It is my sanctuary, my place of peace. I am so happy when I go there.

That is the kind of study sanctuary that I want you to search for.

Focus on the Habit

This was one of the assignments in Phase #1:

Study Habit Assignment:So, in Phase #2, I’m going to talk about a daily study routine. You don’t need to worry about it yet, but as a little bit of preparation it might be a good idea to think about and write down a list of your deeply ingrained, enjoyable habits. Then put stars by the ones that you do every day.

Above, when I was listing the qualities of a good study sanctuary, I wrote: You can go there every day. That’s because we need to turn your study habits into a reliable routine. We don’t want to waste willpower working up the motivation to start studying. It should be something that you just do without even thinking about. No, it won’t be like that at the start. But if you do it in the same exact way at the same exact time every single day, then it will become a habit, and it will almost be like second nature to you.

For me, my study habits only ever stick when they’re the first thing that I do in the morning. Recently, for example, I’ve been working on writing projects when I first wake up, then doing my flashcards in the evening, and it’s 100 times more difficult than doing them in the morning. I suppose because it’s such a simple routine: Wake up à Study.

But your study time might be a long lunch break at work, or just after you’ve finished dinner (if you eat dinner in the same place at the same time every night).

We’re not trying to form a new routine. We’re just trying to add studying flashcards to a routine that you already have. I wake up every morning, so that’s a very easy routine for me to have.

So if you can, try to take one of your daily habits and append your flashcard study to it. If you manage to study the kanji at the same time, in the same way, every single day, then your studies will also flow very nicely into Phase #3.

Just please don’t turn this into a task. If you find that you have negative feelings about the study habit that you’re trying to create (e.g. “Ugh, I really don’t feel like studying today!”) then please try to take a deep look at why you don’t want to study: Why does it feel like a chore? Why do you have negative feelings about it? Why is it hard to do it at this particular time of day? What do you dislike about the actual process of studying the flashcards? These are all barriers to creating an enjoyable routine. And your routine must be enjoyable, because if it’s not enjoyable, then it won’t become a routine.

Get Your Grit On

I read this really awesome article on grit recently, and I thought that it could definitely apply to language learning. I probably sound like a broken record talking about how we need to make studying into an enjoyable, routine process full of flowers and sexy anime girls. But there’s no sugarcoating the fact that this will be difficult. This will be work. This will require grit and resilience.

In that article above, you’ll find a really awesome (scientific) exploration of why some people stick it out when others throw in the towel. I recommend reading the whole thing, but for those who are way too excited about learning Japanese to go look at it, I’ll take a quote from when he sums up the factors that contribute to grit:

A Navy SEAL Explains 8 Secrets To Grit And Resilience

What we can learn from James, the SEALs and the research on how to have grit:

  1. Purpose and meaning. It’s easier to be persistent when what we’re doing is tied to something personally meaningful.
  2. Make it a game. It’s the best way to stay in a competitive mindset without stressing yourself out.
  3. Be confident — but realistic. See the challenges honestly but believe in your own ability to take them on.
  4. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Grit comes a lot easier when you’ve done the work to make sure you’re ready.
  5. [For #5-8, Please read the original article, below.]

–            Eric Barker, from “A Navy SEAL Explains 8 Secrets To Grit And Resilience,” from Barking Up The Wrong Tree

That advice sounds a lot like what we’re doing here, don’t you think?

We got this, yo. Easy peasy Japanesy.

Don’t Make Kanji the Enemy

Have you ever gone on a road trip before? In my experience, there are only two types of people on road trips: (1) How-Much-Longer people (HMLs… only, Japanese people can’t always distinguish between the ‘F’ sound and the ‘H’ sound, so I’m going to call these people FMLs) and (2) Really-Awesome-Drive people (RADs).

Say, for example, that you’re driving from San Diego to Las Vegas (which, for some reason, I’ve done way too many times). If you’re fast, it’s about a five-hour drive. And no, there’s not a whole lot to see between San Diego and Las Vegas. It’s mostly just desert. And the desert stops being interesting after about five seconds.

However, I’ve found that my experience of this drive is totally variable. Sometimes it feels like the longest drive in the world. Other times, I don’t get burned out by it at all, and the time just flies by. I haven’t conducted any scientific studies on this or anything, but I’m pretty sure that there is one huge reason for this: The other people in the car.

If you drive to Vegas with a bunch of FMLs, then this is going to be a long, miserable drive, and you’re going to be dying to get out of the car. If you yourself have an FML mindset, then you are going to be a miserable person, too, and I don’t want to go to Vegas with you.

On the other hand, if everyone in the car is a RAD person, then you’re gonna have a RAD time. And if you yourself have a RAD mindset, then you won’t even care how much longer it is until you get to Vegas.

I think getting through the kanji is pretty much the same way. You can have a RAD mindset, or you can have a FML mindset. It’s up to you.

FML Mindset:

  • There are so many kanji! Too many. I hate Japanese people. FML.
  • I have to make another kanji story? This is so lame. FML.
  • Is it even possible for me to get through all of this? FML.
  • Even if I get through all of these, I still won’t know the readings of the kanji. What’s the point?! FML.
  • It’s 7pm, and I still haven’t done my flashcards. FML.
  • I haven’t reviewed my flashcards yet. I’m dreading it! FML.
  • I forget this kanji character’s meaning every time! This is impossible! FML.
  • I can’t do this. FML.

RAD Mindset:

  • I just learned a Japanese character! This is awesome! RAD.
  • I’m using my brain in new ways and creating new neural pathways, making me a smarter person. RAD.
  • If I can get through this, I can brag to everyone. RAD.
  • If I can get through this, I’ll be so proud of myself. RAD.
  • I can’t wait to learn some new kanji today. It’s so cool to swim around in my thoughts and memories, engraving these beautiful characters into my mind. RAD.
  • I’m exhausted. It’s 7pm, and I still haven’t done my flashcards. I’m stoked to chill out and look at some Japanese ridiculousness. RAD.
  • It’s so hard for me to remember this character. I forget it every time. I wonder if there is some way for me to get it to stick in my mind. Maybe I can dig a little deeper to make an even more awesome mnemonic that sticks. RAD.
  • I’m still forgetting this character every time. Oh well. Who cares. Eventually it will stick, because I do Anki every day. Wow, this is a breeze. RAD.
  • I can’t believe I’m actually doing this. RAD.

Kanji don’t have to be a burden or a chore or a nightmare.

Part of getting through the kanji is about developing a greater love and appreciation for this language. There is a deep history in these characters. They go back hundreds and hundreds of years, and they are a testimony to mankind’s effort to share their knowledge with his/her contemporaries and descendants.

While we are on the topic of developing an appreciation for kanji (and Japanese in general), there is a cool quote that I’d like to share:

“Passion is a volume knob, not a light switch.”

Cameron Dare

You can’t expect to simply flip some switch that makes studying Japanese fun and exciting for you. Yeah, some of you will be gifted with that switch from the beginning, but a lot of us don’t have it. And yet, if you give love, attention, and effort to this challenge, if you really put your heart into it, I guarantee you that you will develop a passion for this language. You will slowly turn up the volume on your interest in Japanese. And at some point, it won’t feel like a chore at all. You’ll get to chill and drink beer with friends speaking Japanese. You’ll get to relax in bed with an interesting Japanese novel or manga. You’ll get to go through marathon sessions of anime without melting your brain even the slightest bit.

You might not like studying Japanese at first, but (if you stick with it) over time you can come to appreciate this language. So instead of making the kanji into some enemy that must be toppled, try to have a RAD mindset, and you might actually enjoy the 97-Day Challenge.

Focus on the Awesomeness

Back with a vengeance from my original post on the kanji, we have:

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

(Seriously, a hawk stole my pizza dumpling right out of my hand. It was both incredible and tragic, and a Japanese lady laughed at me.)

Keep Swimming

Just keep at it. I thought that learning all of the Jōyō 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.

1 Kanji at a Time

Just take it 1 kanji at a time. Don’t look forward. Look at the one kanji. Some day in the future, that kanji will be the last kanji. It doesn’t matter when that day is. All that matters is knowing that such a day exists, and it will come eventually.

Kanji Challenge Recap

  1. Download Anki.
  2. Download the Nihongoshark.com Kanji Deck.
  3. Set Anki’s preferences.
  4. Start learning new kanji.
  5. Repeat new-kanji-learning process 2,131 times.
  6. Review kanji flashcards every day.

Hacking Japanese Supercourse

Like I said at the beginning of this article, this is an excerpt from the Hacking Japanese Supercourse.

It’s probably the most beautiful thing I’ve created thus far in life. (No, I don’t have any human children. Maybe one day… if I grow up a bit.)

 Japanese for Poor People

I feel your pain, man. Student loans… credit cards… beer… sushi…

This Japanese is totally free, though:

Anyways, good luck with your studies everyone.

You got this!

Niko

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.