It’s Never Too Late To Remember The Kanji

Remembering The Kanji (RTK): A beautiful masterpiece of a study method that has revolutionized the way Japanese learners progress through the unavoidable Kanji hurdle which you must face. One of the major elements of the JALUP method, and part of the beautiful trio of Anki and RTK/J-E/J-J. This is best place you can start your early leveling right from the beginning.

But wait . . . What if you’re not a beginner?

While beginners never question using it (ha! look at all the crazy mixed reviews on Amazon), intermediate levels often think they don’t need RTK, because well, they are intermediate, and it would be a waste of time to backtrack. They probably know a lot of kanji already, have gotten through a lot of J-E in some form of study or another, and may be up to J-J.

Alliance member Rachel M., who fits the above description, raised the question in a recent post. When seeing the success of beginners using RTK, she wondered whether she was missing something in her intermediate levels by not trying. As she says, “I never did RTK in the beginning, and now that I’m J-J, I really don’t want to go back to J-E to learn.”

So the question is posed!

Should a non-beginner (level 20+) go back and complete RTK?

Yes! Absolutely. Without a doubt. Start right now.

Why am I giving such a strong answer?

Because this is exactly what I did.

Contrary to the way the JALUP method is set up in the walkthrough, I didn’t progress like that. I would like to say that everything I did from the beginning was perfect and I formed this great method through my ability to not make study method mistakes. But this would be silly. The reason why I’ve found what works, in what order, and in what quantity, is because I’ve been through everything over my Japanese study years. I’ve tried so many methods,  textbooks, native material, and learning resources, and I naturally refined everything down to what I wish I would’ve done.

This is why I often say:

Those of you who use the methods on this site will level up faster than I did.

You have your answer. But why is RTK good to go through even though you are a non-beginner?

I think I’ll leave the answer to the insightful discussion by some commenters:


Since you’re already advanced, you can do it in one or two months, so I don’t think it would be time wasted.


It might help to look at things from more of a birds-eye perspective. You’ll be spending decades in the future with Japanese; one or two months to effectively “solve the kanji problem” won’t be so bad in the long run.

You’ll probably find that the English stories fade into instant recognition/recall more quickly since you’d be starting the book at a higher level than the average user, who tend to be nearly total beginners.


I’ve been studying Japanese for a total of 5 years now (only the past two were at all efficient – using native material/anki – but I was decently beyond the beginner level) and the first time I read the RTK sample I thought I didn’t need it because I already knew a lot of kanji, and I had my own anki kanji system down. Fast forward a few months later and I hit a major speed bump in my learning. It shook my confidence enough for me to give RTK a try, and it has been the best thing I’ve done for my Japanese after using Anki.

I know how you feel – it does seem like backtracking in your Japanese with the J-E, but just continue with your immersion environment and keep adding J-J sentences as you do it and you’ll be fine; like others have said, it only takes a few months. Also you could play around with translating the keywords, and writing your hints/stories in Japanese. The thing that is so wonderful about Heisig is how he teaches you how to use imaginative memory, and how the kanji are arranged in a way that makes it very efficient for you to remember them. It is something I have not seen in kanji books written in Japanese, and I’ve browsed through/purchased several in my quest to avoid RTK before I caved and tried it.

The final word

Don’t waste any more time thinking about it. Trust me. Trust us. Just do it. You will breeze through it compared to beginners, and you will start to notice your Japanese improve in new ways that you didn’t think possible.

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese. On a quest to become 日本語王 (king of the Japanese language).


It’s Never Too Late To Remember The Kanji — 14 Comments

  1. Excellent piece of advice! Though I’m not concerned, was lucky enough to find all those net-sempais insisting on doing RtK first thing (^^♪

    One remark though… Just how is doing RtK “going back to J-E” ?! RtK is no more Japanese than it could be Chinese, it doesn’t have anything to do with the language (I’m a little exaggerating here, but you get my point). It doesn’t even have to be English either, you can easily (and preferably, by the way) do it in your native language. I did it in French since RtK has a French translation, but even without a book in your native language, you can still translate the stories on the go.

    If the implied meaning was that “RtK makes you stick English keywords on the characters”, well sure. But it doesn’t have anything to do with the “avoid English↔Japanese mental conversion” problem. The minute you finish RtK and encounter 光 in the word 観光, you just cram in your head with Anki that 光 reads as こう in this word. Of course you can’t help thinking “oh yeah, 光 is light”, and that tremendously helps you stick the reading to the kanji (that was the whole point of RtK, assigning a unique and easily discernible label to each character), but that’s it. Who is seriously thinking “観光 is outlook + light” whenever reading/writing this word? Especially when the word means “sightseeing”, which isn’t related in any obvious way to “light”…

    The more you learn Japanese vocabulary, the stronger will be your association between kanji and pronunciation, to a point where the whole story will just fade away. But the keyword itself will remain, and will be enriched by other meanings you’ll naturally derive from the different uses of the kanji. It’s something everybody who has completed RtK and has learned Japanese for about 6-12 months afterwards will start to notice.

    That’s why I want to give some good piece of advice. Like me, you will probably start to fail more and more your RtK reviews on the long term, because you won’t remember the stories and how they are associated with the keywords. Therefore, you should put ALL ON-yomi and Kun-yomi of the kanji on the question part of your cards, as additional info to the keyword itself. During the reviews, it will help you deal with the similar keywords.

    Let’s take an example :
    – 交 : mingle, コウ まじ.わる まじ.える ま.じる まじ.る ま.ざる ま.ぜる -か.う か.わす かわ.す こもごも
    – 換 : interchange, カン か.える -か.える か.わる
    – 代 : substitute, ダイ タイ か.わる かわ.る かわ.り -がわ.り か.える よ しろ
    – 替 : exchange, タイ か.える か.え- か.わる
    (notice how all of them have the bad taste of having some of their Kun-yomi being the same か. ?)

    When you’re still doing RtK, they are fresh in your memory, and you still easily differentiate them. I finished RtK a little more than one year ago, however, and now if you asked me what keyword I would put on these 4 kanjis, I’d give them the exact same one, “exchange”… For me it’s just the idea of swapping stuff, and when doing my reviews I don’t want to waste time remembering which one is exactly which one. What I do remember though, and very distinctively since it corresponds to real Japanese usage, is the reading associated to each one, plus ovbiously the words in which they are used (交換、交代・交替, 代替 are fairly common words, just to take the ON-yomi). So I just have to look at the ON-yomi. Usually it’s the most reliable hint because, well, most kanjis are still phono-semantic characters : the ON-yomi will give away one of the components, the phonetic component, and reciprocally, even though this is NOT something that can be used systematically. コウ is a straight give away for our dear 交, while カン should lead you fairly easily to 換… For 代 and 替 however, it’s quite harder since all their readings are nearly the same… So you can either remember that 替 can’t be read as ダイ, or fall back to the keywords, which are not SO bad (looking back at them, I’m thinking those 4 keywords at least represent very accurately the actual usage of these kanjis). Clearly “substitute” can only be 代 (think about : 彼は上司の代わり、会議に出席した).

    This way of retrieving the kanji from keyword PLUS readings is NOT “cheating”. On the contrary, it is a much more interesting exercise, since it truly relies on your Japanese knowledge, and will reinforce your sound-kanji associations. I’ve come to understand a lot better the phono-semantic property of characters (if you don’t still don’t really understand what is it, you MUST look it up, it’s extremely important and not complicated at all, the name says it all : “a sound and a meaning”, look here for a start : It also helped me differentiate more accurately between semantically similar kanjis, just like the 4 kanjis in the above example.

    You shouldn’t keep your RtK reviews separated from actual Japanese knowledge. On the contrary, start bridging kanji and sounds as soon as you finish RtK and start accumulating vocabulary.

  2. I did exactly that and I have found it very helpful.

    A few months ago I was stuck at about level 40(Passed JLPT 2) and kanji was the biggest problem to my progress with japanese. Studying more kanji the same way as before, i.e. rote memorization, was difficult because the of the sheer number of new kanji. Trying to learn them from context was also difficult, since there was nothing I could anchor reading/vocabulary to. Then I took your advice and finished RTK. Since then I am not stuck anymore. My learning speed has picked up a great deal, and I am even trying my luck with JLPT 1 this chritsmas.

    If you are intermediate, doing RtK does not provide you with the same level of familiarity with kanji you are already used to. You wont know the kunyomi, the onyomi, and often you will forget how to go from kanji to meaning. BUT it provides you with ton of “hooks”. It is hard to explain, but after RTK, when I read a novel for example, I knew about 50% of the kanji there, but the other 50% was not foreign anymore. For some of them I remembered the keyword, then also from my anki reviews, possible words popped into my head and sometimes I was even sure which word corresponded to the kanji combination and BINGO, learnt onyomi/kunyomi from context. This effect snowballs as you fill more pieces, making it very easy to learn a ton of kanji readings and combinations as a byproduct of your usual reading. If you complement this with focused study of kanji(for example with JLPT test prepartion books) you can get rid of most of the kanji problem very fast.

  3. I was wondering if anyone else came across the odd word that, no matter what, just do not seem to stick.For me, one of those is 経済学. The がく bit is fine, but I never remember the readings of the first two kanji. I have it in my deck in a straightforward sentence (well I did, until it got suspended as a leech yesterday…): 専攻は、経済学です。, I have it as a vocab word on its own, with a nice picture to go with it. Nope, no good. It should be simple, but in each case I fail it almost every single time. I can’t even remember the reading now, even though I saw it with Rikaichan a second ago. >_<So, which words, if any, have you had problems with? What did you do with them, especially if they were in your deck, find a way to remember them, delete them, leave them till they got suspended?

    • Words or kanji I have trouble with go on THE WALL.
      Basically, I get out the sharpie maker, write the word on an index card and tape it to my wall. Having the word out for all to see somehow makes me instantly remember the word.

    • Short answer: I trust that if it’s important, it will come up in my input material and sort itself out eventually.

      Long answer: For me at least, fails are almost always readings rather than meanings. When a card leeches I activate a recognition-with-furigana template on it, where the reading is shown on the question side, and continue studying it in this more passive way. If the word comes up again in potential card making material, I’ll make a new card with the word in that new sentence. For some reason I find things stick a lot better if I’ve come across them in very different contexts. Then if I happen to notice that I have a recognition-with-furigana card where I really do know the word now, I’ll switch it back to regular.

  4. I really wondering if going through RTK would be useful at all as a beginner, and I thought I should be spending my time just learning Japanese itself.

    I’ve had some issues with remembering adjectives and other words, and RTK has actually helped me with these!

    For instance, I could not for the life of me remember the adjective for old:

    ふるい, or 古い with Kanji. After the first few lessons of RTK, I learned that 古 was the Kanji for old, and it made it a lot easier to remember ふるい. Crazy awesome!

    Personally, I use with great success.

  5. I’m mid-beginner level (high teens approximately), from learning 7 chapters of Genki I. I recently found JALUP and have started RTK using Anki and am very pleased with the results.

    I’ve begun the J-E sentences, but I’m having a little bit of difficulty since I know most of the vocabulary from the first half of the book. I’m wondering if I should go through and build/find sentences for ALL of the relatively specific vocabulary (card for 経済 vs これ), or just the ones I don’t know now/have forgotten.

    Side note: I get the impression that the J-E sentences don’t have to cover all of the vocabulary within each chapter. I suppose you end up learning all these words later on when you switch to J-J? If this is the case; would skipping ahead ~chapter 7 for J-E be suggested, since I already know the basics?

  6. I skipped this originally because sticking an English word onto every kanji was distasteful to me and I wanted to give the power of input a chance.

    Early on I discovered that kanji were just too complicated to stick in my brain properly for exposure to ever work out. I started learning stroke order as a way to interact with them more and that did help; it stopped feeling like they were all the same and I made progress. But eventually (recently) I felt that while I was making progress it wasn’t on par with the rest of my progression; most importantly it to common to not to recognize a kanji if I came across it in a different word/context than I learned it. I felt I needed to practice production of kanji as well. I experimented a bit with a J-J method of doing this and decided it was going to take much too long, especially since I’d have to construct all the cards myself. RTK is the fastest way to practice output of kanji and get past it and move on to other things.

    Not far into RTK, I switched to something slightly different: instead of studying them in RTK order, I put the kanji cards for the new kanji in a new sentence before the sentence in the new card queue, and the cards for the components of any kanji before that kanji. I find this works really well for me because it accomplishes the RTK goal of learning the components before the whole, but I also reinforce everything as part of something else, either another kanji or actual Japanese. Not to mention that it feels more satisfying to eventually have it lead to actual sentences that I’m learning. (I don’t do the ordering of cards manually; I threw together an addon. I’m sorry, it’s not in a shareable state, and since getting a full time programming job I really haven’t had the energy to spend working on my own code afterwards so I’m not sure I’ll ever get it fixed up to work for other people.)

    I find that Japanese keywords make it a lot easier, and I add my own when I don’t recognize the Japanese keyword from the Jalup RTK download deck but do recognize the kanji after I see it. Honestly I’m often not going by the RTK keyword to learn the kanji. But the pair of an English word and a Japanese word is a very effective prompt. I think I might also want to add the list of readings to the question side, but haven’t gotten around to it.

    I’m only around 450 kanji in, but I’m definitely getting better at things like distinguishing similar kanji when reading when it involves one that I studied as an RTK card so I think it’s working.

    • Oh, one other way doing RTK/something similar can be different when one already half-knows a large number of kanji: I don’t bother with a full mnemonic unless I fail a card a few times.

  7. Hi, I’m relatively new to RTK – only at 300 kanji so far – but having been a start-stop student of Japanese for 19 years, I finally see my ticket to acquiring fluency in the written language. Now I’m looking for advice. Here’s the background.

    While my JALUP proficiency level is only high teens, I have a rather large gap between my verbal proficiency and my reading skills. For example, while my reading is poor (I would have said 10 years ago that I casually recognized maybe 750 kanji – but never well), I can sit down in an izakaya and talk to a salariman about Japanese politics and current affairs for two hours straight. It may not be pretty — in fact, there will be tons of stuff I can’t say or don’t understand. But I can converse without stop and without using English. Likewise, when I left Japan 10 years ago, I was at a stage where I could conduct a business meeting entirely in Japanese, with no English. There, too, it wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was ugly at times. But I could visit a client of my company who spoke no English and we could accomplish what we needed to accomplish. That verbal fluency (spoken much better than listening I might add) was always miles ahead of my reading and writing.

    So here’s my question: as I dive into RTK to have my reading and writing catch up with my spoken Japanese, I’m finding it impossible to take Heisig’s guidance not to peek at the readings of kanji I learn. I know so many of those kanji by sight and know so many readings from my verbal / listening skills that I’m actually finding it to be immensely HELPFUL to peek at both on- and kun-yomi. (It’s easy to do in the official RTK iPad app, which bundles RTK 1, 2, and 3 content. And I’m also using the helpful JALUP default Anki deck which of course has some J readings embedded.) When I look at those readings, it’s like a light-bulb going off to say, “Ah, that’s right; THAT’S the kanji for that word I know so well!”

    Is this wrong? Am I violating some sacred principle in the RTK methodology by seemingly smashing the RTK1 and RTK2 steps together? Appreciate any advice from other intermediates who are on the RTK path or have completed it. Thank you!!

    • I think having a Japanese keyword (or an on- or kun- reading) next to it is fine. Some people with the English keywords actually write in additional hints and stories with the keywords written on the front of the card to help them. So having your hint be a Japanese word (in hiragana) will be fine.

      As long as you are able to write the kanji out from memory after seeing the English keyword (and Japanese keyword), then you are fine. Some words you will probably find that you don’t even need to look at the English keyword. Others, having the English keywords and story will help immensely. I say use the best of both worlds to get through it.

      I’d still learn each story the first time you come across the kanji. If you find the story unnecessary when reviewing because the Japanese word instantly enables you to write the kanji, then don’t worry about the story for that kanji.

      The goal of RTK is ultimately to have the stories fade away eventually. So if some stories are unnecessary and need to fade away now, you are fine.

  8. Thanks for this. My learning hit a stalemate years ago when, after a few bouts with a “learn kanji through pictographs!” book, I refused to learn kanji (“I’ll just be verbal-only”). I crammed grammar and got really good at that, but couldn’t learn words and couldn’t read native materiel. After a couple years of my Japanese study dwindling sadly and me losing interest and hope, I discovered RTK. I went through RTK1 in a month. I had never felt so powerful or so full of hope for really, truly mastering the Japanese language.
    And then I stopped reviewing.
    I’m about 1,000 words into core2k and have decided to go back. My idea was “I’ll just review kanji as I see them in the core2k,” but I don’t practice writing out the correct stroke order as I breeze through my daily vocab. I can recognize kanji, but can’t tell what they mean or how to write them and can’t recall them without a reference there. I can barely handwrite anything anymore.
    I’ve finally decided to go back to RTK, using your deck. I’m going to keep up with my reviews this time, and not stop reviewing until every card in there is due in 10+ years.
    I want to be able to handwrite. I want that powerful feeling back. I want to truly *get* Japanese…so back to basics for a couple months!

    • Sounds like you got a good plan set up for yourself. Once you get your card intervals into the years, it becomes such a minor upkeep for a major return. Good luck!

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