Be Careful of Trying too Many New Tools and Methods — 18 Comments

  1. Interesting, and highly appropriate for me! I was looking for a place to ask this question, and this seems perfect. I have been starting to study Japanese for at least 3 years now. I say starting, because that’s what I’ve been doing. I tend to gather motivation, collect my resources (which are numerous…TOO numerous), and then get going. Inevitably, I begin with learning Kanji via Heisig and Anki. I take to heart Heisig’s admonishment (and Katzumoto’s as well) that I learn Kanji FIRST, to the exclusion of all else, until RTK is complete. I use Anki (your deck as well, and THANKS for the Yellow-on-Blue advice), the book, and Reviewing the Kanji website as well. I can keep this up for a while, but learning Kanji readings and nothing else re: Japanese eventually takes it’s toll and I lose steam.

    During this time, I’m doing a lot of listening to content, but since I’m nowhere near even basically fluent (well, that’s not quite true, the more I listen the more I understand, but it’s intermittent words and phrases (very intermittent) rather than context) this isn’t actually very productive. Reading simple material is difficult because there isn’t much physical simple material out there that’s easy to come by. I also have accounts on Lingq and Memrise, but I’m not sure what to do with them since learning the Kanji is my first goal…..see where I’m going with this? Finally, there’s the various “radical” systems and which to use? Do I use pure Heisig? How about Koichi’s system on Texfugu (where I’m a member). Finally, what about Kanjidamage, which gives the meaning, on and kun readings and examples of grammatical use in each rather overwhelming kanji block?

    As you can see, I have no shortage of resources, but I feel hamstrung in my efforts to use them because I MUST LEARN KANJI FIRST, and that’s taking quite a bit of time. My motivation to learn Japanese is that it’s a beautiful, fascinating language, I love it’s sonority and nuance, and I would LOVE to watch Anime and Japanese films, read Manga and speak with friends in their native language!!! I’m very motivated, but for whatever reason, lose it when I don’t know how to keep my interest during the obligatory Kanji assault.

    Help!!!!! Adam, can you, with your experience, sort out a good way to approach this dilemma? I’ll be happy to take advice from all experienced Japanese learners. I fear my ADD is getting in the way of concentrating on the Kanji, but I do enjoy learning them….it’s just that it’s such a block to doing anything else. Hope I’ve made my dilemma clear, and that I don’t sound like a total dork……..


    Oh, and yeah; my avatar is a portrait of Viggo as Aragorn, and yes, I did draw it myself.


    • The people telling you that “you must do kanji first” are very smart people. Their experiences have helped many other people find a path to success. HOWEVER, I’d like you to consider the following:

      Because this is your journey, and nobody else’s, it’s ultimately up to you to decide what path to take. What worked for Katz or Heisig or Koichi or even Adam may not work for you. It’s OK to deviate from their advice and not feel bad about it.

      When I first asked Adam about this, he said it was fine to start RTK and sentences at the same time. Most of the people I’ve talked to in the JALUP community did (or are still doing) RTK and sentences in parallel. While RTK simplifies learning kanji in an almost miraculous way (compared to traditional methods), it’s still an enormous mountain of work, and I imagine only a rare individual having the will to push through it without having any chances to really apply that knowledge. I personally went something like this-

      -Started JALUP Beginner and RTK at the same time
      -Finished JALUP Beginner with ~1000 RTK complete
      -Finished JALUP Intermediate with ~1600 RTK complete
      -Now working on JALUP Advanced and the rest of RTK

      I might be a particularly slow example, as many people finish RTK during the Beginner or Intermediate stages, but the point is that you can take Kanji at your own pace and still succeed. Just don’t neglect it completely.

      My advice to you, is start actually learning Japanese and having fun with the language. Find a balance between RTK time, sentence time, and immersion time that keeps your Motivation up, because Motivation is your most precious resource. Do as much RTK as you can stomach, because it *is* extremely helpful, but don’t burn yourself out. Even if it takes you a whole year, that knowledge will eventually be yours, and at that point you’ll kick just as much ass as the people who did it in a month.

  2. Matt,

    Thanks for your great reply. I agree, I think it’s miraculous how well RTK works…I’m up to about 300 kanji so far, and I do enjoy it while I’m doing it….it’s just that I’d LOVE to do it along with application of the language, just as you suggest. Doing sentences without knowing a large number of kanji has always been a puzzle to me, because I generally feel like I spend way too much time looking up kanji I’m not working on just so that I can understand the sentence…..but I’ll have to look at my JALUP beginner deck again in the context of your experience.

    Thanks again for the suggestions…sounds like something that might help quite a bit!

    • Matt gave a great answer. Rather than rehash what he said I’ll just add a few points

      – You probably want to try to focus on a few tools at once. You have a lot to work with, but you don’t want to spread yourself too thin doing too many things. This will get rid of that overwhelmed feeling.

      – You don’t need to learn kanji first unless you can and really want to. Most learners do it at the same time which is why the walkthrough is structured the way it is. If you already feel discouraged at the thought of doing 2000 characters before you even touch the language, then stay away from that path.

      In the end who really knows which one is actually better. The important thing is to learn the kanji and learn them early. The exact details are a matter of the way you learn.

      – There are only 269 kanji in Jalup Beginner and 407 kanji in Intermediate. This is why you don’t need to know all 2000 immediately to successfully go through them. And even when you come across kanji in them before you see it in RTK, it doesn’t mean you can’t learn the word. It just means you’ll have a slightly weaker association with it that will soon be strengthened when it comes around.

      If anything, you’ll have more motivation to go through RTK as you start working through sentences and want to understand them even better.

      – And nice avatar picture! ロードオブザリング最高!

  3. I have a lot of respect for learning Kanji first- and everyone learns in their own way- but personally I would never touch RTK. I too learn Kanji from the get go, but I learn them in actual words and sentences(for example, in tandem with Jalup’s beginner-advanced flashcards).

    For my style of learning there simply isn’t a point to learning a symbol without a word. To me, you don’t “know” a kanji until you know many of the words it actually appears in. Everyone has their own path, but if I had tried to do rtk I would’ve burnt out at the beginning as well.

    • I agree. I finished RTK, but by the end I found it so boring, I eventually stopped reviewing it and I forgot most of it. I found another method of learning kanji, which I’ve been using since then and with much more success. I know what the reasoning behind Heisig’s method is, but I simply found it much more fun to learn kanji together with readings and vocab. Not to mention that after a year I can actually, y’know, READ a lot of the stuff I come across.

      I don’t consider RTK to have been a complete waste of time, though. I feel that it taught me a lot about how kanji and radicals work and it led to me discovering what an SRS is. And most importantly, after doing RTK I was no longer afraid of having to learn kanji, since they weren’t random squiggles to me anymore.

  4. I like this post and it hits home for me. Right now I’m doing RTK, the JALUP beginner and the kanji assist. What I find hard is when RTK and the kanji assist use the same keyword for different kanji. I’m not sure if RTK isn’t right or if there is just more than one kanji.

    I also feel like even though I’m about 125 ish kanji in the kanji assist, about 450 kanji in RTK and 250 sentences in JALUP beginner, I feel like I still know absolutely nothing about the language. For the past week I’ve felt so defeated that I haven’t actually done any new cards, just reviewed the cards I already have on anki. When this happens I start looking at other sources and methods but I keep jumping and don’t get much accomplished. It’s tough.

    • I didn’t like some of RTK’s keywords and their placement. Some feel more convenient than precise. So Assist will vary from RTK.

      You are still early on in your journey. The information is going in your brain. It’s being input, and you are slowly building your massive Japanese network. In the early stages though it can be hard to see the quantifiable results just yet making you feel like even if you’ve been studying for a few months you know nothing. You are still at the first below the line curve here (

      Always try to focus on whatever you can do, rather than what you can’t. Things will get better soon though.

      • Makes sense.

        Yeah I know I’m still early and its mostly cause I pick it up and put it down and do it 10000 times. This is probably…. solid second month with very few days missed. I spend probably an hour a day. I do my anki reviews but honestly past that I’m not sure what to do. I listen to music and shows in the background and try to pick out words I know and watch the subtitles when they’re available.

        Thanks for the advice though.

  5. Hi, I am just starting out but I hope I can offer some encouragement to others who are also starting out.
    I’m up to about 500 beginner sentences and 1100+ Kanji, so halfway through the early battles.

    I had a few false starts before I discovered Jalup.

    Must I do Kanji first?

    The most respected internet sites recommend this. I completely understand the logic, because real written Japanese uses Kanji. The sooner you can start interacting with real Japanese, the sooner you can find material that is actually interesting, and that will keep you going in a way that children’s books and beginner textbooks won’t.

    But it’s a mountain of work, which is pure grind, and hardly ever fun. I found it novel doing the first 400 or so but it got old fast. I corresponded with Adam and had this conversation:

    Me: “Now, Heisig recommends that you work through his RTK using only his method and that you do not try to learn Kanji any other way alongside it. So I am not sure if it is wise to start with your sentences just now because they have unfamiliar Kanji in them.”

    Adam: “I usually encourage people to work on RTK and Jalup beginner at the same time, because many people face burnout when just spending all their time on RTK. However I’d put a higher focus on RTK. Maybe like 70/30.”

    Slovien also says:
    “What I find hard is when RTK and the kanji assist use the same keyword for different kanji. I’m not sure if RTK isn’t right or if there is just more than one kanji.”

    The best answer I got to this sort of question was here:

    “RTK doesn’t help by teaching you Japanese. It helps by creating a sort of mental address space where the kanji can live. You have a clear image of the character in your head, with meaning attached, which allows you to distinguish it from other, similar characters. That in turn makes it easier to assign additional meaning to it down the line as you learn more Japanese.”

    “If we are sticking with building analogies, the thing about RTK is that a lot of it (if not most) is actually “scaffolding”, i.e., the temporary stuff that helps support the building during the construction process but which is removed once the thing can sustain itself.
    One of the most common arguments you’ll find against RTK is then that learning the english keywords isn’t worth it since they aren’t part of actual Japanese, but ultimately such an argument is akin to dismissing the usefulness of scaffolding when building a skyscrapper.”

    This exactly chimes with my experience.
    When I do beginner sentences, if they use Kanji I have already seen in RTK then I can clearly see the Kanji and distinguish them effortlessly from other similar Kanji, and I find it very easy to remember the reading and meaning given in Jalup beginner. If I have not yet encountered it in RTK then it is just squiggles. I can, to an extent, remember the pattern of squiggles. But it is much harder and I easily mix up similar Kanji.

    For example I got these pairs muddled very easily:
    I worked around this fine, because the context of the sentences let’s me figure out which is which. But when I caught up to these in RTK, the ambiguity resolved into clarity. If you had told me this even a couple of months ago I would have been incredulous, but the above Kanji now look completely different to me and I can instantly and effortlessly tell which is which with no possible confusion.

    I think some of the negativity around RTK is due to a misunderstanding of its ambition. What it is trying to do is really very limited. It is just priming your memory and visual recognition systems to handle the Kanji. You then build on this. If you come across Kanji you aren’t primed to handle, you can just muddle through with brute visual memory. The keywords are not ‘the’ meaning of Kanji. They are a mental index system to organise the chaos. The brain can remember structured information very well, but unstructured information is really hard. The keywords are just Heisig’s approximation to one of the possible meanings of the Kanji.

    I didn’t bother with RTK at first because I couldn’t see the point of it. Consequently I found myself fighting a mental morass of squiggles. Now I get what it is trying to do. It isn’t trying to do very much – but that limited goal is an important goal. Putting up scaffolding doesn’t feel like you are making any progress on an actual building. But down the road, it makes building much smoother.

    Bottom line: do both at once. Expect to be confused. Do not get upset that you are confused. Plow on regardless and trust that in time the tetris blocks will fall into place.

    (Forgive me if it is arrogant as a beginner to offer advice. I’ve just faced similar struggles and found these ideas helpful).

    • “I didn’t bother with RTK at first because I couldn’t see the point of it. Consequently I found myself fighting a mental morass of squiggles.”

      That’s exactly the thing, I think it becomes evident fairly quickly if you need to supplement your learning with RTK or not. Some people need it to change their frame of memorization. Others don’t.

      Through reading real words I’ve learned the use of around 1000 kanji, by using real-word-associated mnemonics. Once you’ve seen a kanji used in 3 or 4 different words, it usually becomes clear what the kanji is associated with. When I see 突破、破産、破船、破獄、破壊、破滅、 破れる, etc. I can’t AVOID associating 「破」 with “breaking(through)” anymore. I see the kanji for “stone” and the kanji for “surface/skin” put together, I don’t need a book to tell me how to associate a stone with breaking through a surface hehe.

      • “I don’t need a book to tell me how to associate a stone with breaking through a surface hehe.”

        I’m pretty sure you did need some resource where to get the meanings for “突破、破産、破船、破獄、破壊、破滅、 破れる, etc.” from, not to mention 石 and 皮, so I really fail to see the point here…
        Ultimately whether you start with RTK or with “real words” your understanding of each kanji isn’t static, and naturally evolves the more you see it used. In that sense, RTK is just a more efficient way of putting into place (in your mind) approximate initial meanings to a wide range of kanji.
        And it’s not like your average kanji is as easy to decode as 破… 彼, 裁, 栽, 依, 休, 漱, 瀬, 察, 際, just to list a few, all come to mind as kanji were simply breaking them into primitives won’t get you nearly as far, and when dealing with such kanji with much less intuitive primitives it can be quite easy to confuse them with similar ones… The book is quite helpful in this scenario…

        • the point wasn’t that I was learning without resources, not sure what would’ve made you think that. My point was that learning kanji from words you come across directly (i.e. learn the written-kanji/reading/word, all at once. i’d soon see what words it’s associated with and understand the kanji meaning) was by far more efficient and intuitive for my learning style, using my own mnemonic imagery on the fly. You may think 破 was just convenient, but honestly I’ve never had issues with just making my own “story”. I understand that it doesn’t work this way for everybody, so if RTK is what works for you instead, go for it.

          • “the point wasn’t that I was learning without resources, not sure what would’ve made you think that.”
            Oh, it’s not so much that I thought that as it is that I was trying to point out that your claim of “not needing a book to tell you that” is a significant exaggeration, as indeed you needed a resource to tell you what the 熟語 using 破 meant in the first place.

            Now obviously I don’t know exactly how you go about things, but if I had to hazard a guess it would be that in order to tackle kanji the way you describe you are making heavy use of a J-E dictionary, which is where I would expect such a strategy to lose efficiency.
            Maybe things are different nowadays (with Adshap’s decks making the transition into J-J easier), but 2 1/2 years ago when I made my transition (fresh out of ~1000 J-E cards), having covered the full RTK was pretty much essential to succeed, and I don’t see how the kind of strategy you describe works with an early J-J transition.

    • Very nicely put together, especially pulling in the relevant comments and links from different posts. I think this will definitely help other struggling beginners. Thanks!

  6. Wow, this is what I’ve been struggling with, in not only learning Japanese, but also my whole life.
    I always feel excited when it comes to finding new things, especially learning tools and it’s true that I somehow became addicted to that fresh feeling of starting to dig in something. Eventually, I get bored after a while and it’s exactly what you said there, I would lose all the motives I have at the beginning. It’s more like I can’t feel safe without feeding my desire of having new things and sticking to the old stuffs just isn’t enough. Although I’m aware of this “habit” of mine, until now I haven’t found any way to really change it…
    Anyway, really great post, I appreciate your way of thinking, just exactly what I need to tell myself again.

    • It can be helpful sometimes just knowing that many people face the same problem and being aware that this is something that needs to be kept in check. I’m happy this post was able to assist!

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