As a lot of you already know, this site has a gigantic, comprehensive guide to learning the meanings of the roughly 2,200 general-use kanji characters.

It’s a popular system for studying the kanji, and I often get emails from readers that have completed the 97-day challenge, all of them extremely excited to have learned so much Japanese in such a little time.

I also get a lot of emails with questions about that study system, though, and one of those questions that comes up again and again is how to effectively use mnemonics (specifically, spatial memory, i.e. memory palaces) to learn the meaning of the kanji.

Just a couple of days ago, I got an email from a reader that included the following question:

My question is about the memory palaces and mnemonics.

I definitely believe that they work and are a great idea. I’ve even read Joshua Foer’s book and a few others on learning and memory science that talk about them.

However, I’m still having a little trouble wrapping my brain around how to directly apply the technique to learning the Kanji through the Anki deck you provide with your course.

Do you just start at the first one in one memory palace and then keep using the same palace until the lesson changes?

And furthermore, do you have any tips for being able to create mnemonics for the kanji you are placing in the memory palace quickly?

That’s a tall order, but I’ll try to walk through a few mnemonics to give readers a better idea of how I personally would go through the kanji if I were to start over completely.

Learning Kanji With Memory Palaces

Building Memory Palaces In Order to Learn the Japanese Kanji

This might turn into a sort of long guide, but bear with me. This process is actually really fluid and natural once you get the hang of it.

Note: This is an in-depth look at using the system described in my primary guide to learning the kanji. If you haven’t read that yet, you should do so before reading this article, as it explains a lot of details that I’ll be leaving out here.

Another Note: All of this advice is just that–advice. You don’t need to follow all of these instructions 100%, because each person will have their individual preferences for how they’d like their flashcards to look, how they’d like to approach memorizing kanji, etc. Rather, these are just some more options to consider as you journey through the kanji.

Step #1 – Set Up Your Anki Deck

First let’s get our decks set up by downloading the Nihongo Shark Kanji Deck from AnkiWeb.

I also went ahead and downloaded the Nihongo Shark Blank Vocabulary Deck, as I’ll be looking at learning the words (i.e. the pronunciation) of these kanji in another post:

You don’t actually need to do this when you study personally, but I’m going to set the number of new cards really high so that I can get to a future lesson for this example (i.e. your decks number for new cards should be the number of new cards you want to learn per day; not a giant number like in the following example):

I’m also going to edit the Card’s style in order to show the current lesson number, as I’ll be separating my mnemonic groups (i.e. my memory palaces) by Lessons from Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji.

There are a number of ways to change the Cards’ style, but the simplest way is probably to click on the deck:

Then click on “Study Now:”

Then click on “Edit:”

Then click on “Cards:”

Then I can click on “Add Fields,” then select “lessonNo” and click “OK” to add it to the front of my cards:

Before where it says {{lessonNo}}, I wrote “Memory Palace:” like this:

As a result, the front side of my cards will now look like this:

My reason for doing this will make a lot more sense later on. I also added a new line to the Back Template of my card and deleted the part that denotes the lesson:

Here are the resulting changes:

So now the back of my cards look like this:

Of course, you can change all of that stuff. Some of my readers like to also remove the examples, as they find them to be distracting, in which case our cards look like this:

Looks like a good setup for focusing on our mnemonics, so I’m going to stick with this one.

Now let’s go and walk through a new memory palace.

Step #2 – Choose Your Memory Palace

Since I want to look at some slightly more difficult examples, I’m going to be using Lesson #9 for this example. In other words, this would be the ninth memory palace that I built (out of 56 total) in my kanji-learning journey:

So the first thing I need to do is to decide where I want this memory palace to be. Really, you should probably consult expert advice for something like this such as Josh Foer’s book (or any book about memory palaces), but I don’t really feel like studying anything but Japanese, so I’m going to save time (maybe) by winging it.

Here are my personal criteria for choosing a memory palace:

  1. It must be a place that I know like the back of my hand.

  2. It helps if there is a clear “path” that I follow, which is the same each time.

For this particular memory palace, I’m going to use the following location/path…

My Memory Palace:

The walk from the basement of Odakyu Line at Shinjuku Station to my former workplace in Eastern Shinjuku.

This is a walk that I have done more times than I can count. At least 500 times, because I had to follow this walk every time I went to work over the course of two years. I can close my eyes and go there anytime I want.

Now that I’ve chosen my Memory Palace, I’m going to insert it into my deck. I do this by clicking “Edit” once more:

Although this is actually optional, I’m going to rearrange the fields of these cards so that the items that I often edit will always show up at the top of the editing. I do this by clicking “Fields:”

Then I click “lessonNo” and click “Reposition:”

I set the new position as 1, then click “OK:”

I then do the same thing with the “myStory” field:

Only this time, I’m going to set the position as 2:

So now whenever I go to edit my cards, “lessonNo” and “myStory” are always the top two fields:

Now I’m going to insert the name of my chosen Memory Palace under the “lessonNo” field. For this example, I’m going to call it “Odakyu to Work:”

After clicking “Close,” I can see that this now shows on my cards:

Having the memory palace I chose listed on the front of the card will serve as my hint when I forget the meaning of a certain character.

Step #3 – Start Learning Characters

We’re all set up. Sweet! Now let’s start putting kanji in our brain.

First I’ll check the back side of my kanji to see what I’m dealing with. And, of course, I’m totally thrown off, because I don’t even know what the “keyword” (i.e. the meaning of the kanji) is referring to:

When this happens, you should first consult the notes in Remembering the Kanji, which usually explain obscure keywords like this. The back of this card has these notes under “heisigStory:”

To be honest, I’m not super comfortable with having these notes in this flashcard deck, because I think that anyone following this system should buy Heisig’s book (out of respect, at least)… but, yeah, there they are.

So reading that, I see that ri is a unit of measurement for rice fields.

OK. Whatever. Let’s make a mnemonic.

If you look under “Constituents,” you will see the “parts” that make up this kanji. This can be kind of confusing, because sometimes the constituents are substitute keywords that we can use when making future mnemonics, and sometimes the constituents listed are the parts of the kanji.

For example, with this kanji “ri” and “computer” can be used as keywords for the entire kanji, while “rice field” or “brains” can be used for the top part of the kanji, and “soil,” “dirt,” or “ground” can be used for the bottom part of the kanji:

Again, all of this is explained in detail if you own Heisig’s book.

Usually I’ll start by trying to get an idea for a story from “koohiiStory1,” which can be found on the back side of the card:

I can also click on the Link of the card that says “Constituents” to see the web page that this was taken from:

In this case, it will take me to this page:

Anyways…

I’m going to take the two constituents used in koohiiStory1, then I’m going to insert them into my memory palace.

In other words, I’m going to “create” a spatial memory that includes the consituents “ground” and “rice field” in order to help me remember the keyword “ri” every time I see the kanji 里.

Mnemonic: Maybe when I step off the train, I step into deep, sinking DIRT up to my knees. Then I realize that the train platform has been turned into a RICE FIELD, and “Ri Markers,” i.e. signs with the kanji 里 are set up all over the platform to mark the length of each section of the DIRTY RICE FIELD.

Maybe not the best story that I’ve ever written, but:

  1. I can see this image, because it is in a real place that I am extremely familiar with.
  2. Every time I remember that train on Odakyu Line that pulls into Shinjuku station, I will “remember” that the train platform is covered in DIRT, because it has been turned into a RICE FIELD, and it is divided up by “RI markers.”

So then I add the story to the back of my card under the “myStory” field:

Now the back side of my card looks like this:

Now, since I’m a weirdo, I don’t really like the layout of this card, and I’m going to change it so that the story is on top, just under “ri,” but above the kanji drawing:

For those of you out there that like this style, here is (a simple version of) the code for the Back Template of my kanji cards:

<div class="back">
<span class="large japanese">{{kanji}}</span>
<hr>
<span class="medium"><a href="http://jisho.org/kanji/details/{{kanji}}">{{keyword}}</a></span>
<br/><br/>
<span style="font-size:20px;">{{myStory}}</span><br/><br/>

<span class="tiny" >Memory Palace: {{lessonNo}}</span>
<hr>
{{strokeDiagram}}<br/><br/>

<span class="tiny"><a href="http://kanji.koohii.com/study/kanji/{{kanji}}">Constituents:</a> {{constituent}}</span><br/><br/>

<span class="tiny"> Frame: {{frameNoV6}} &nbsp; Strokes: {{strokeCount}} &nbsp; &mdash; &nbsp; Jouyou Grade: {{jouYou}} &nbsp; JLPT: {{jlpt}}</span><br/>

So, yeah, there’s that.

Just to be clear, don’t worry so much about the words used for the story (something that I am prone to do). Rather, worry about the spatial “memory” that you are creating. If you manage that, you’ll be surprised at how well it sticks.

Okay, so I got that kanji finished. So I click “Good,” and it will show up again in 10 minutes (at which point we’ll see if my story was any good):

Step #4 – Continue Learning Other Kanji

When I click “Good,” Anki will automatically show me the next kanji in my memory palace, which is this one:

First I’ll add my Memory Palace note:

If you notice how the field is not white in the background, that means that this field is identical to the same field in a different card. In other words, the words written are the exact same as they are in my other “Odakyu to Work (9)” cards. This doesn’t really matter unless you’re like me and you like everything to match up nicely. Anyways, now we have this:

So, “black = computer (rice field + dirt) + barbecue/oven-fire.”

Here are the stories on the back of the card:

Here, then, is a story that took me about ten seconds to think of:

The moment that I stepped out of the ri-marked rice field (at the stairs leading away from the platform), the GROUND of the RICE FIELD caught on FIRE, and in seconds it was all completely BLACK.

To reiterate, this memory palace is beginning in the basement floor of the Odakyu Train Line at Shinjuku station. The moment I stepped off the train, I was sinking in the DIRT of a RICE FIELD marked with “RI Markers.”

If you walk from the train towards the ticket gates, there is a tiny set of stairs (maybe only five or six) that lead up away from the platform. If you look at this picture, in my memory palace, we are walking towards the person holding the camera:

Odakyu Line Shinjuku Station Underground

As we walk towards the person holding the camera, we are wading through the deep DIRT of a RICE FIELD marked by RI / 里.

Then, the second we hit that first stair in this picture, the GROUND of the RICE FIELD behind us catches FIRE and turns BLACK.

I am seeing all of this in my head as I walk through these stories. It is a real place that I am extremely familiar with, and every time I “go there” in my head from now on, this is what I’m going to see.

So that’s why I write this on the back of my card:

Which makes it look like this:

You might be thinking that these mnemonics are kind of long, but I’m not actually reading all of that stuff when I review these cards. I only read the mnemonics when I can’t “remember” the spatial memory that I’ve created.

I might also try drawing the kanji out with my finger as I recall the story, as I’ve found that helps me a bit, too.

Again, I click “Good” and move onto the next kanji:

 Step #5 – Review Character & Check for Quality

Ten minutes after I create that first kanji’s card, it will show again:

If I can’t recall the spatial “memory” for this card, then I either need to (1) try to change the story so that it is more memorable or (2) do a better job at visualizing the “memory.”

Luckily, I totally remember that this is “Ri,” so I am free to click “Good” and bury this card away until tomorrow:

Step #6 – Move Through Your Memory Palace

If at all possible, we want to be learning a new kanji every few minutes or so. This means that we need to be relatively speedy as we move through our new cards–which also means moving through our memory palace.

This next card is looking a little more complicated:

I add the Memory Palace note:

Check the back side:

Check the other mnemonics:

The mnemonic for koohiiStory1 gives me a good idea, and it only takes me a moment to think of this “spatial memory:”

I reach down and touch the BLACK GROUND, only to find that it is covered in BLACK INK.

If you will remember from the last kanji, the moment I touched the stairs, the RI-marked train platform catches fire and turns BLACK. So now I’m standing on that first stair step looking at this BLACK GROUND. I then imagine myself reaching down to touch it, and I’m surprised to find that its actually covered in BLACK INK now.

This story is:

  • Rooted in a place–in other words, connected to my spatial memory.
  • Connected to the stories that come before it (which means that it will be easier to remember any time I need to pass through my memory palace when trying to recall it).

It took me about 30 seconds to make this new card. That is really fast. In fact, it might even be too fast, and I run the risk of forgetting this card later if I don’t have a good enough mnemonic for it.

However, if I do forget the story later, I can just rework the “memory” in order to make it stand out more–in order to make it easier to recall.

As I move this this lesson, I will also move through my chosen memory palace.

If I finish this lesson, but I’m only about halfway from the Odakyu train platform to my workplace in East Shinjuku, then I can also use this memory palace for Lesson 10.

When I run out of places in this memory palace (i.e. when I have gone all the way from the station to my work, and even into each room and bathroom at my workplace that I am super familiar with), then I can move onto another memory palace.

Step #7 – Make Anki and Memory Palaces Play Nicely

There’s a good chance that you’ve already noticed this, but memory palaces go in order, whereas Anki will mix your review cards up.

This means that your review cards will not show up in the order that you learned them in–the order of the story.

Some readers have told me that they’re kind of concerned about this, but I don’t really think that it’s a problem. The order of the story is helpful for recalling items when you don’t remember them, but it’s not absolutely necessary to go through them every time.

If I think of the stairs in the basement of Odakyu line in Shinjuku Station, I can immediately “recall” myself reaching down and touching the BLACK GROUND and finding that it’s covered in BLACK INK. I don’t need the stories before or after that… although they are there to help me remember in case I forget this particular “memory.”

Step #8 – Tweak the System

If I were to start over completely with the kanji, this is absolutely how I would go through learning their meanings. And, as I’ve said a million times, I would only try to learn their meanings at first, not their meanings and pronunciation, which is a topic for another article (which I’m hoping to post very soon).

At the end of the day, though, this is your journey to fluency, and you should make sure that you enjoy it. If there’s anything here that doesn’t appeal to you, just change it.

As long as you follow a detailed system for getting consistent, high volumes of level-appropriate language exposure over a significant period of time, you will absolutely master Japanese.

The “best way” to learn Japanese, after all, is the way you don’t quit.

Just keep swimming.

Good luck with your studies everyone! Please comment if you have any questions.

Niko

p.s. For more awesome guidance on learning Japanese, you should probably check this out:

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.