I felt I should explain more how I personally used Anki to success. Before you read any further, check out the Anki website which provides tutorials on the basics, and even has videos taking you through the mechanics of how to use the program. I’ve gone through a lot of trial and error to figure out what works best, and since I’ve been using Anki for around 3.5 years now, I felt I should teach you how I get the most out of it.
You start with Heisig’s “Remembering The Kanji”(RTK). It works very well if used in the right way. Ignore negative reviews of it. You will insert all 2042 of the kanji into Anki or you can actually download the RTK deck directly from the Anki server if you don’t want to manually input them. Either way is fine.
Your Kanji cards will have 2 fields and look like this:
All other fields are irrelevant. If you are using normal non-kanji format cards with only question-answer fields, the question field will be “English keyword + Japanese keyword” and the answer field will be the kanji itself.
What you will see when you are reviewing will look like this:
Obviously since Japanese keywords aren’t given, you will have to find them on your own. For this you can either use RTK2 to take the keywords from there, use a dictionary, use Rikaichan on Heisig’s Kanji Index, use Google, or whatever. If it is a simple kanji where there is only one kanji element for a word, try to put that in (ex. 夜、朝、魚). If you can’t find that, choose a kanji compound word like the one above (話題・わだい) and use hiragana for the Japanese part of the keyword you are trying to guess (だい), and kanji for the other part of the compound (話). Doing this will prevent you from getting confused which kanji you are trying to recall. (Updated 5/2/2013): Click here to download the Japanese Level Up RTK Anki deck with all Japanese keywords already added.)
Now let me try to answer questions you probably have:
Q: Does your method mean I don’t use the mnemonic devices that RTK suggests?
No, you use them since they are very beneficial in the short term (~1-2 years). However you are using them in conjunction with the Japanese keyword you add.
Q: I heard you should only try to learn the kanji from the English keyword. Doesn’t the Japanese keyword get in the way and make it too difficult?
Using only the English keyword has only a temporary positive effect (maybe around 6+ months). I can tell you right now, that whatever stories you use, and however you memorize the keywords, in 3 years, the stories/keywords will have faded away. Of course that is what is supposed to happen, since you will be able to read kanji just fine and keywords and stories are irrelevant. The problem that arises is that when you do the kanji reviews that appear in your Anki, you will get them wrong. Not because you don’t know the kanji, but because they keywords blend together and could easily be the kanji that you recall.
1. You see the keyword “stomach”, which should be written 胃, but with your knowledge of Japanese, stomach makes you think of 腹 which is really the keyword for “abdomen”.
2. You see the keyword “soft”, and think obviously that is 柔（やわ）らかい, so you write the kanji 柔 which is actually the keyword for “tender”, when it should be 軟 as in 軟体.
3. You see the keyword “products”, which brings the image 品 to your mind, since that is often used in Japanese with that meaning, but 品 is for the keyword “goods”, the proper keyword is 産.
When you first start using keywords and stories it is great when you don’t know much other Japanese. As your Japanese improves, the keywords will actually start to get in the way. This is why you need the Japanese keyword in there. It is to remind you what keyword is actually proper. So if you see the keyword “products 財さん”, with your Japanese knowledge you will know that it isn’t 品, and must be 産。
Q: Does that mean I need to learn a Japanese keyword with every English keyword?
No, that is not the point, and it will slow you down if you try. You will eventually learn the japanese keyword in more natural and fun ways. The real purpose is to save you far in the future when you have reviews of these cards. Since I didn’t know this, I have had to go back and add Japanese keywords when I get a kanji review wrong. These are kanji reviews that I should’ve never gotten wrong, since I know the kanji, can write it, and can name a dozen words with it.
Q: Why not just stop using Anki for kanji after you get good?
Because when do you actually “get good”? It’s too hard to judge. You’ve worked very hard to master all these kanji. Just dropping the system will leave your kanji to face the inevitable memory decline everyone encounters. By just putting in the japanese keywords, you can still keep the valuable tool, and not have it interfere with your later studies.
Q: Should I also put in RTK 3, the extra 965 kanji?
I did, and have found it useful. But you need to abide by what I talk about below if you want to get the most out of RTK 3.
Q: There are just some kanji I can’t seem to remember now matter how much I review them, especially when it comes to RTK3 kanji. What should I do?
There is a reason why some keywords/kanji appear that you just can’t remember. This is because you probably have never come across the word/kanji anywhere in your Japanese materials or the real world. This leads to the important delete function you must engage in with certain kanji. Here is how to proceed:
Do a search in your Anki for whether that kanji appears in any sentences you have in your deck. If it appears in less than 3-4 sentences, you can safely delete it with no worries. As you can probably guess, you can’t use this method until you have a large number of sentences in your deck (6500+ sentences). If you have less than that, not seeing a kanji in any of your sentences may merely mean you don’t have enough sentences yet.
This is why I would wait on adding RTK3 words until you have a large number of sentences, because I would say 30% of them have kanji you will probably never see anywhere. I have about 12,500 sentences in my deck, and I’ve seen keywords that were used in 0 sentences, so I deleted them.
(Updated 5/2/2013): To save you the time from figuring what to delete yourself, I made a list of all the unnecessary kanji you should delete from RTK1. Found in this 3-part post: part 1, part 2, and part 3.
Q: I don’t want to keep or delete too many kanji. Can you give me an idea of how many kanji should be deleted?
It’s hard to say, because depending on your interests, you may keep ones that I won’t. For example, if you are a tree fanatic, you may want to keep the dozen tree kanji that RTK3 gives you.
But my deck, out of the full 3007 kanji from RTK1 and 3, has been deleted down to 2040 kanji. Deleted kanji came from both RTK1 and 3.
Q: How long should I do reviews for on kanji? Forever?
You’ll notice your required reviews go down tremendously after a few years (I will get into this on an Anki post about sentences). For me, probably about 10-15 kanji reviews come due a day. So usually I do them once every few days and it takes a very brief amount of time.
Q: Do you use separate decks in Anki?
My kanji deck is the same as my sentence deck? Why? Because it makes it easier to do them both together.
Q: Do you have to write kanji out?
I probably did write out the kanji for a few years. But then I got tired of it, and also because I changed the way I physically use Anki (more in another post). I mentally draw them with my mind or my finger, and I find this works just as well. This becomes especially useful when you are reviewing on your cell phone while you are out somewhere.
Q: When should I start doing this in my Japanese studies?
As soon as possible. While you can add sentences while adding kanji, your sentence adding will go much smoother with your knowledge of kanji. However, do whatever keeps you motivated, and if that is doing both together, then go for it.
Q: You write a lot about it, but can you physically take me through the steps how to review the kanji once they are in Anki?
1. See English/Japanese keyword
2. Try to write out the kanji by hand, mind, or finger.
3. Hit enter, see if you were correct.
4. If you were wrong, hit 1 (when it is repeated again in a few minutes, even if you get it wrong again hit space or 3)
5. If you were right, hit space/3 (I sometimes give myself leniency if I miss a tiny stroke)
6. Next English/Japanese keyword
Q: Are you sure this is the best way to do it? I read somewhere else that . . .
I have gone through dozens of methods in learning kanji, including those with and without anki. I have found this to be the most efficient, for the present and future you.