How To Survive Remembering The Kanji (RTK)

I recently mentioned in my personal story that I struggled greatly with RTK and that ended up taking me 11 months to finish RTK1. I thought I’d take some time to talk about a few of the difficulties I faced in greater depth, and share the strategies I ultimately used to overcome them.

Anyway, let’s jump right into the good stuff.

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Bring your stories to life

If you’ve done any amount of RTK, you know there are times where it’s just tough to make a character stand out in your memory. This becomes all the more true when you start piling up a bunch of keywords with similar meanings. For example, Heisig associates a water shortage with “Dwindle” (減), but “Drought” (乾) is also a keyword later on and “Parch” (燥) can easily intrude on that association as well.

If you want to keep these unruly mobs in check, or just help your retention in general, one of the most reliable ways to accomplish this is to make your stories as vivid as possible. How do you do that?

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1: Make it “Wrong”

Heisig makes an attempt to do this, but his book is politically correct even by 1970’s standards. The fact is, you can build very strong memories by making your stories bizarre, funny, shocking, violent, naughty, grotesque …really anything that causes a gut reaction of “wow, that’s just wrong” or makes you snicker like a 12 year old who just learned a dirty joke.  Pretend you’re playing Cards Against Humanity with RTK Primitives. The more obnoxious, the better for your retention.

I will caution you not to overuse any particular association too much, though. If, for example, you overdo “naughty” stories you’ll quickly find that you’re getting them mixed up with one-another. Not good. Keep your inappropriateness as varied as possible =)

2: Make it Dramatic

Another good way to build strong associations is to fire up your inner actor/actress and put on a good show. Tell your story dramatically. Raise your voice and add in gestures. Slap your knee and smack your forehead (gently, please). Sigh loudly.

For example, when I review Test (試), I imagine myself as a teacher who’s run out of patience with an especially disruptive student. I put on an irritated expression and voice to match, and run through the primitives like so: Miss, please do not SPEAK () about STYLE() during the TEST()!

If you need further inspiration, have a look at Adam’s article about Atsugiri Jason. His comedy routines about kanji are sure to give you something to strive for.

3: Draw on Personal Experience

Perhaps the best way to make a character special is to set the stage with events from your own personal history. Strong memories from your past or things that are important in your life are great memory anchors. The more *relevant* you can make your story, the more likely you are to remember it clearly later. References to your favorite movies, books, shows, games, etc. also work great for this purpose.

For example, my story for “Hang” (掛) uses an image of Link using his FINGERS to HANG onto the IVY as he climbs up to reach the MAGIC WAND. If you’ve played a Zelda game on the N64 or later, then you’ve climbed enough ivy as Link to get where I’m coming from.

Make the keywords your own

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Going off my point about relevance above, there will be times when Heisig’s chosen keyword for a Kanji or Primitive doesn’t resonate with you *at all*. This is because he chose keywords that were meaningful to him, in the context of his experiences and contemporary culture at the time the book was written. Many of these keywords are very uncommon in 21st century mainstream English. Mandala? Ridgepole? Godown?

It can be incredibly frustrating trying to craft a memorable story using a word that has no meaning to you. It’s like trying to hold down your tent with toothpicks during a blizzard on Mt Everest. Who has the time or patience for that? Fortunately, there are ways to tackle this problem as well.

1: Rename Difficult Keywords

If you ever look at the Reviewing the Kanji website for story ideas, you’ll notice that participants who submit stories there often use keywords that do not appear in RTK. “Thread” becomes “Spiderman”. “State of Mind” becomes “Data” (from Star Trek). “Sheaf” (which looks like an X) becomes “The X-Men”. These are all ways that others have found to cope with obscure keywords, by giving them a new meaning that’s more firmly grounded in personal experience and familiar cultural references.

Heisig actually does this himself for a number of keywords, such as renaming “Self” (己) to “Snake” as a primitive, but he only invites you to do the same for one specific element – “Person”. In reality, you can use this on a much broader basis and benefit greatly by doing so. However, keep in mind that the primitives referenced later in the book will not change, so don’t forget which ones you swapped out. You may want to keep a record somewhere for reference. Also, check to make sure your newly-chosen meaning isn’t used for a different character later in the book, or things could get awkward.

Here are a few examples of changes I made:

“Saint Bernard” -> “Great Beast” (Think Godzilla. For me, this better fit the original meaning of “Big”)

“Mandala” -> “Manga” (This element is also used when writing the word “Manga”: 漫画)

“Godown” -> “Storage Closet” (A more familiar type of “storage” space for me)

“Pup Tent” -> “Bonfire” (I saw “Big” + “Fire” in there, and had no idea what a “Pup Tent” was)

2: Add Meanings & Create New Primitives

Sometimes a primitive will suit you fine, but then you come across a character where it doesn’t fit well, and you wish it meant something slightly different. Guess what? You can do that, too!

I have three different people that I use for the “Person” primitive, and I switch between them depending on who’s the best fit for the story. I switch between using both the original “Thread” primitive, and the “Spiderman” alternate depending on the image I need. That’s totally OK and will make your life easier.

You can also use wordplay to give a single keyword multiple meanings. Keywords like “Correct” (正) can be an adjective, noun, verb, or adverb depending on the story. A primitive can be expanded to include related words, such as allowing “Say” (言) to also represent “Speak” when used in a story. You can even use puns or other associations to distinguish different “forms” a primitive can take. For the “Altar” (示) primitive, I instead used “Alter” (as in “Alteration”) to represent the modified version that appears to the left of some characters (like 社) and it saved me a lot of grief.

Finally, if the inspiration strikes you, it’s totally fine to take a group of elements and create your own primitive meaning. For example, I took the combination of “Flesh” and “Saber” (like in前) and dubbed it “Butcher”. Add in “Meeting” and it becomes a “Butchers’ Convention” (like in 愉). Add “Meeting” to “Scrapbook” and you get a “Scrapbook Convention” (like in 論). This trick will be especially handy later on when you want to learn Kanji that don’t appear in RTK.

What to do when it just doesn’t fit

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Sometimes, no matter what tricks or clever schemes you use, you will simply fail to come up with a good story on your own. None of your ideas make sense. You’re completely stumped. Your frustration over this impossible kanji is holding up your study and sapping your motivation. What do you do?

1: Check the “Reviewing The Kanji” Website for Story Ideas

I mentioned this site above, but it really is a fantastic resource. You’re not the first one to struggle with kanji, and you can often spare yourself a headache by taking a look at the stories others have come up with in your situation. Even if you don’t end up using exactly what you see there, it can still give you inspiration for a good story that suits your needs.

Another option is to run it by a friend or family member. Not only does this make them feel good, but you may be surprised by some of the clever suggestions they give you.

2: Give “Nonsense” a Try

When using mnemonics to organize a pile of information this enormous, uniqueness is an asset. While it’s ideal for your stories to make sense, it can also be OK to have some that don’t because they’ll stick out in your mind. How many silly, nonsensical kids’ rhymes are burned into your memory from your childhood? Have you ever actually seen a “Weasel” go “Pop”? And what the heck is a “Patty Cake” anyway?

My story for “Node” (節) is a good example: It’s amazing that BAMBOO has such complex NODEs, given how it grows almost INSTANTly.

What’s a “Bamboo Node”? No idea. I just made it up in desperation, and thankfully I remembered it.

3: Skip it and Come Back Later

Ok now you’ve tried everything, and there’s this one character that still refuses to cooperate. You’ve been staring at it for 10, 15, 20 minutes and you have nothing to show for it. It’s time to move on.

But what about the catastrophic effects of skipping this kanji? It’s on the list! You have to learn it, right?

Yeah, eventually. Some day you will own this kanji. But today you have lots of other kanji to get to, and this particularly troublesome one just isn’t worth the hassle. The best thing you can do for your progress right now is Suspend that character in Anki and immediately stop worrying about it. You can always come back for it later.

I’ve actually been trying to knock out my own suspended list in the last month or so. The only straggler I have left now is “Wisteria” (藤), and it won’t be long before I go back and conquer that one, as well.

Pace yourself

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When you’re taking on a challenge of this scale, it’s important to have goals to keep yourself moving forward. An overall goal, like “I want to finish in 3 months!” is great, but you also need some more bite-sized goals to get excited about along the way.

Maybe you want to do a specific number of lessons per week? That’s a pretty good goal, and easy to evaluate in the short term. Or maybe you want to base it on character count, and say you’ll do 140 characters a week? That’s also works. You can even do specific daily goals, like “I’m free on Sunday, so I’m going to sit down and knock out this huge 50-character lesson in one shot”. That’s great too.

One thing I will suggest, though, is to be flexible with how many you do in a given day. Your motivation levels will shift from day to day, and life circumstances play a role as well. Get more done on your good days, and don’t stress too hard if you get less done on bad days. My daily progress varied anywhere from 5 to 50 new characters depending on how I was feeling and what I had going on.

Of course, everyone’s learning style is different, so if you’re the kind of person who really thrives on strict adherence to a daily routine then by all means go for it. The sooner you slay the RTK boss, the sooner you get to enjoy the benefits!

Now it’s your turn to return victorious from your battle with RTK

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Have your own story of kanji struggles and triumphs? Maybe some great advice I didn’t cover here? Leave a message in the comments!

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Matt V

Matt V

Video game designer and lover of JRPGs.


How To Survive Remembering The Kanji (RTK) — 12 Comments

  1. This, that’s it.
    Great article, wish I read it two years ago when I did RTK.
    today I am already up to my neck with sentences but I still have about 40 reviews a day of RTK which is way too much because I struggled with rote memorizing some of the characters.
    Reviews takes less time as you advance.
    never give up!

    • Better late than never, right? Hopefully this makes RTK+Reviews a bit less painful going forward, especially for our courageous Summer Kanji Riders =)


  2. 本当に凄い記事マットさん!この情報はとても使えるだと思う。生徒はマットさんのアドバイスを通れば直に高い読解力になります。マットさんは新しいJalupユザーを援助するから素晴らしい!

  3. Great article, lots of technical details. I agree completely with skipping Kanji that just don’t stick, and that goes with sentences as well. I also completely agree with pacing yourself and realizing some days are going to be good and you will cruise through reviews, and some days will be bad and you will struggle, no big deal.

    • Yeah. It’s a little different with Sentences because you’re not really going to Suspend (in an i+1 deck), but you often have to accept hitting Hard or Good on a card you don’t 100% understand yet, and just give it time to sink in while you move on to doing other cards.

  4. Heisig does have some odd keywords, and some that I can’t find in my dictionaries. I always look in the Halpern dictionary to see if there is something better than Heisig uses for making stories. Many times there is.

    • Because of trying Heisig, I cannot for the life of me remember the reading for 旬 because Heisig gives the word “decameron” as the keyword and I had no idea what it meant. And so now, every time I see the 旬 kanji, instead of my brain working on bringing up the Japanese reading, my head immediately goes to the frustration I had with the word “decameron”.

      • Yeah, that kind of stuff makes me wish RTK could get a well-deserved modernization. It’d solve a lot of problems.

        For what it’s worth, you *will* eventually overcome that issue. Given enough time, your association with the Japanese meaning/reading will overtake the RTK memory and associated sense of frustration. This is natural in the same way that you’ll steadily forget the English RTK keywords and stories as you spend more time working with kanji in native text.

        • I wish there was something like RTK, except with the keywords replaced with appropriate japanese vocabulary. It would probably need to build up the primitives in a fashion similar to how RTK does it to get the same effect.

        • That is actually why I stopped Heisig immediately and decided just to continue with my only using native materials approach to learning Japanese. I might learn kanji at a slower rate than Heisig-ers but I also have avoided the English dependence. Just need to get that 旬 kanji. :P

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