Do you Need to Study Kanji Separately? — 23 Comments

  1. I used the natural approach and it had a more rote memorisation approach to it. You do end up learning the meanings of kanji by default but in a more abstract way. The downside is if you skipped the writing part like me, you’ll be able read with zero issues but you’ll never be able to recall the kanji you want to write. I have no plans to ever live in Japan, so for now I can get away without writing and just talking, listening and reading.

    One a side note, a friend of mine decided to go to university in Japanese, therefore all the courses were in Japanese. Tests are still hand written answers, so he had to get his writing skills up to scratch fast. If I decided to live in Japan, I would change my focus to individual kanji, but just the writing side of things.

  2. I went through RTK and still review it from time to time, which I found helpful for getting used to Kanji and learning how to find their meanings. Most of the ones I’ve retained are ones that I’ve learned vocabulary for.

    Separate learning is helpful at first but I think long term most people will learn most kanji in context.

  3. I have changed methods several times, but I’m currently doing a mixture of the two methods. I typically make a new kanji flashcard when one vocab word is giving me trouble or I accidentally get a kanji mixed up. I do want to catch them all one day though.

  4. I started off using the separate method,but it’s impossible to avoid three natural method, so i picked up kanji that way as well. I made my way through the rtk deck (the book wasn’t a big help to me) but as i went i found that i couldn’t recognize the kanji outside the deck environment. Not the meaning, not the hiragana, i couldn’t even register if I’d seen it before. Meanwhile the kanji i naturally picked up from reading and general study, i was able up recognize, identify, and even recreate (through typing) at will. For me this is working far better though it might be taking a little longer.

  5. I’ve been through several iterations of this and still haven’t really found “the way” (if there is any) But I feel like that’s just fine the way it is.

    Basically when I started, I heard people say “just learn kanji in context” and “you don’t need to learn how to write” and so I’d just start putting words written in kanji in my srs and get going and hope that I’d just pick the kanji up along the way. And that actually kind of worked for visually simple kanji. (Say, after learning 会話, 会う and 会社, I actually did feel like I had a pretty good grasp on 会) But I kind of got into the habit of “not looking properly” and so for a looot of words I only had a very very rough idea of the overall shape in my head. For example, I might have thought of 掃除 as “two kanji, the first has a hand thingy on the left and the rest is a lot of squiggles” or something like that. But the same goes for 授業 or well a lot of other words in general (I just made this up so no idea if I actually ever confused them, but you get the idea) For some words I’d get better after a while and the picture in my head somewhat cleared up, but there were just waaay more words where that wasn’t the case and I’d stumble again and again and just found myself lost a lot of times. (“Did I really learn this before? NO IDEA whatsoever” – and after looking at the reading I’d recognize the word, but had no idea based on the kanji) What seemed like an efficient way at first, kind of didn’t work in the long run for me.

    So yeah, second iteration was using wanikani. And this actually worked well for a while. But I was starting to pile up SRSystems everywhere. I used iknow, I used anki, I used wanikani, and I looked into memrise as well and then it just got all a bit too much. I had a bit of a stressful time overall but felt like “it’s fine if at least I’m keeping up with my srs reviews” and it resulted in me ONLY doing SRS reviews but that really started to drain my energy and motivation to touch Japanese at all. “So I got my 100 anki reviews done, let’s go to wanikani, urg” For quite a while I stopped reviewing anything at all. I then decided to cut some of the systems and do things I’d find more fun instead, and while I might get back at one point or the other, wanikani was one of the cut ones. I wasn’t using the mnemonics all that much and while I kind of liked how I’d learn kanji and words containing the kanji, it still felt a lot like learning random words out of context. Still, it definitely helped me be less afraid of kanji overall and let me build a nice foundation (I got some ~600 kanji in), so it definitely has a place in my heart.

    And then? Well, I’m kind of back to learning “kanji in context” but make more of an effort to individualize them in the process. If I learn a new word (nowadays in the context of sentences) and don’t know one of the kanji (which still feels like every word ever), I’ll look it up. I like to use a German kanji dictionary website for that, that contains keywords from different dictionaries and also has a list of words containing the kanji. I often-times also try to write the word down a few times, because I noticed it helps me break it down properly (usually don’t do it much during reviews, just when I first add a new word). And then I usually make a note on the back of the sentence card as well (I don’t really have a system for that, sometimes I’d write some keywords for the kanji or sometimes I’d just jot down other words that contain it, if I already know some of them but just didn’t recognize the kanji this time around)

    So far I’m quite happy this way, but I don’t know if I’ll stick to it forever. We’ll see :)

    > You don’t need to choose your lifelong kanji study route right from day 1.

    I definitely agree with this. I might be further along if I just stuck to one way, but who knows, I might also just have given up altogether. It’ll work out somehow~

    TLDR; Started learning in context, switched to wanikani, then back to learning in context but making notes on individual kanji, and am wondering what’ll come next :P

    • Thanks for this. Amidst all the ‘I became fluent in six months’ blogs, it’s nice to hear a ‘real’ story about what a mess learning this ridiculous language can be!

      • When I hear someone say that they became ‘fluent’ in six months, the only thing that impresses me is how low their standards for fluency must be.

      • Glad you liked it, I usually ramble on for a bit too long, sorry about that~

        Truly, I sometimes wish I was a bit more consistent overall, but I’ve become more relaxed about it. I’m having fun with what I’m doing and it does seem to work out somewhat for me.

        Keep going! Or keep running, walking, lurching, jumping on one leg with your eyes blindfold, whatever moves you into the right direction :>

  6. I’ve got through about 1400 kanji in my separate Anki deck. However, as time went on, I feel it has become a bit unwieldy to remember everything. So now, I just add new kanji as I come across them in my reading, and I feel this helps me to remember things a lot easier. Even at 1400 kanji, I still find 5-15 new kanji a week to add to my reviews, so it isn’t like progress has slowed to a halt. Just remember that kids in Japan don’t even get through all the kanji in a matter of one or two years, so it isn’t so bad if you can’t either!

    I would still think that it is very beneficial to get at least a few hundred kanji into the list separately before trying to tackle native material, just to get the feel of the structure of kanji. Otherwise, they just look like a random patch of lines. Even just studying some of the base radicals can help out a lot, since the base radicals (e.g. 人, 糸, 言, 日, 火) are often the semantic components of the kanji.

  7. I keep going back and forth. I have been pretty vocal about my latest experiment with Kanji Kingdom, only learning the pneumonic as a whole instead of each individual Kanji. It is “easier” but has questionable results. “easier” because fewer reviews in the short term. But even 30 reviews at a time can be frustrating because you have to remember the english meaning for 3+ Kanji instead of just 1+. Also, I seem to mostly be learning the sentence and not the individual Kanji meanings which, though “easier” isn’t really producing any results, or not producing them right away. I’m just not sure how effective it is.

    Right now I am only reviewing 3 – 5 kanji a day via Anki because I scattered the sentences across the span of a year. This was done after I finished the deck, (700+ pneumonic sentences) and the reviews were getting overwhelming.

    I think an ideal situation would be if you had a deck that was J-J, and introduced at least one new word for each Kanji, so after completing it, you knew all the Joyou kanji and more.

  8. I started out by completing RTK, but made the mistake of not reviewing them, so I lost a lot of it again over the following year. It gave me enough of a foundation to work with, but my vocabulary retention was definitely negatively affected by not being able to tell similar kanji apart.

    At the one year point I decided to reboot my kanji studies and have now learned all the grades 1-6 kanji as J-J over the last year and a half, and this has dramatically improved my retention, so I consider the problem fixed. I still have some issues with the remaining half of the standard kanji that I have not learned, yet, but I have decided to add them organically when I feel the need. I find that there are too many that are infrequently used, so they are not worth the effort and would be hard to retain without enough matching vocabulary (my J-J kanji deck is dependent on having vocabulary for each kanji).

    I would say that kanji studies are definitely worth it, but like always it’s a balance. I think I’m in a good spot right now with a good balance between vocabulary and kanji studies.

  9. The weird thing about studying kanji is that it doesn’t do what you think it will. I tried RTK several times, hated it, and then tried kanji-in-context, which just left me confusing similar kanji because I wasn’t writing them and really internalising their elements (and thus differences)

    Kanji Kingdom made kanji studying way less of a chore, and I’m actually remembering them – but when I encounter them in the “wild” I often still don’t remember the keyword or meaning, even if I recognise the kanji. Which sounds like a terrible failure! But what’s ACTUALLY happening is

    1) I think to myself, “I know that kanji”

    2) I often have some vague general idea of the meaning

    3) I remember how to write it, and could clearly differentiate it from another similar kanji.

    And most interetingly:

    4) when I learn a word containing that kanji in JALUP Intermediate, the word sticks MUCH quicker, and

    5) I have a much easier time reading and even remembering how to write it (the vocab word) outside of anki.

    So overall I’m really pleased with how it works, there’s just this really frustrating intermediate stage where you know lots of kanji but very few vocab words and though you recognise lots of kanji you still can’t actually remember what they mean. It feels like your kanji learning is all for naught, but it’s just there in reserve, waiting to help you out with your vocabulary.

    • I have the same issue with “wild” kanji! Even after I had completed RTK twice, I would look at native material and see kanji and go “you look familiar! You’re…you’re…squiggly line?”

      • Yeah – it’s very weird and frustrating! But it’s strange how quickly this problem fixes itself when you start actually learning vocabulary words, and how much easier it is to recognise those words if you’ve studied the kanji in them properly.

  10. I might sound weird, but I just love kanji. I’ve been learning kanji even before various other stuff in Japanese, I think it helped one on hand, on the other it also made me spent a lot time learning a writing system without being able to speak.
    But yeah, this system of Chinese characters are just so different from the alphabet used for my mother tongue nowadays(we used to use runes) that it’s really interesting to learn !!

  11. I still study them separately. I find it easier to remember new vocabulary if I already know the Kanji (and the core meaning is similar to what the word actually means).

  12. I learned them separately. It looks 6 months, 10 new cards per day using Kanji Kingdom. If I was unable to draw every line correctly from memory, the card was marked wrong. It was painful but worth it. Now it takes 10-15 min to go through my reviews (with the kanji is on the front rather than the keyword).

    Knowing the keyword meanings makes it so much easier to learn new words when they appear in sentence decks or other study materials. It hard enough to learn the pronunciation. It is also nice to be able to get the gist of a Japanese article, book or sign just by knowing what the Kanji means even without yet being able to pronounce it.

    I’m sure that some folks are sharp enough and disciplined enough to learn the kanji naturally. However, based on my own experience, I highly recommend learning it separately. -arthur

  13. I study kanji meanings separately, but I think it quickly becomes more valuable to learn vocabulary that are formed from the kanji that you already know well.

    On an unrelated note in terms of vocabulary and learning other things in general, it’s useful to scaffold your learning in such a way that you can go from recognition of a particular word / grammar point / whatever to production of a particular word / grammar point / whatever.

  14. I read and crammed an RTK deck from quizlet using an SRS app but I didn’t maintain it. I did mostly retain the primitives and when I studied vocabulary I would reread the RTK story for the kanji if I had forgotten it. I’ve pretty much kept this study style going – just add RTK info to my Vocab flashcards. I am throwing in some isolated kanji ‘Vocab’ cards for new kanji now too to get the common オン reading to stick. But I didn’t do these seperate オン reading cards for years and I would say the more common 1000 kanji or so and their オン readings stuck fine. I feel like this is a compromise between studying kanji separately and just doing it in context or throwing unknown kanji onto vocabulary SRS cards and hoping it sticks. As a beginner, learning 2000 RTK kanji seems really nice and it takes a lot of the kanji intimidation out of Japanese but once I started studying Japanese for real, I just couldn’t motivate myself to do RTK reviews.

  15. At first I tried the so called “natural approach”, but since I only knew a very few kanji, I couldn’t properly enjoy the material, so it turned out to be a miserable experience. Then, for a long time I was a big fan of SRS+RTK systems when it comes to learning kanji, and, while the idea itself still appeals to me a lot, I fell into the usual pitfalls of not reviewing cards and getting discouraged. But the worst by far was that I had a lot of trouble READING the kanji I learned when they were actually used in a word, in a sentence. That was to be expected, what I already knew about myself by then is that I’m incapable of learning words without context, based on my experience with teaching myself English. When it comes to English, natural approach is what finally did it for me (after being convinced for years upon years that learning any foreign language is virtually impossible for me). Because of that, kanji were a massive block for me, as I couldn’t access the context without knowing kanji, and I couldn’t learn the kanji without the context. Overall it was all terribly frustrating.

    It is so true that not everything works for everyone and people need to find their own method, I know that, and it took me a while to figure out, but I think I finally found the approach that’s working. I’m trying to combine the two methods in a way that won’t overwhelm me and frustrate me to no end.

    So, if I had to teach kanji to a clone of myself, then, based on my experience and the amazing powers of introspection (so, so awesome after the fact) I will give her the following advice:

    First learn the rules of stroke order (note to self: they’re far more important than I initially thought, even if my goal was to just recognize the kanji and not write them!).

    Then, learn the shapes of simple, frequently used radicals with some SRS system, so you’ll have the building blocks that other kanji are made of. There isn’t all that many of them, and they’re usually simple pictographs or ideograms. Basically go to a Wikipedia page about radicals, chose those that are used often, look nice and simple to you and have straightforward meanings. Focus on those radicals that are kanji on its own.

    Do the base research – although at this point trying to decompose them into simpler shapes is a bit pointless, make sure you’re not missing something obvious. If you’re assigning keywords to the radicals, choose them VERY CAREFULLY. Make sure you know what forms it can take in other kanji. If the radical is a common kanji on its own, search for it in the Wiktionary, you will often find its etymology, which can be surprisingly helpful. Use pictures with the kanji on SRS, one picture is worth a thousand words, and at this stage finding a picture is easy and rewarding (in fact, ALWAYS do a Google image search for any new kanji you’re learning!). Then search for something I call “single kanji words” which are words made out of a single kanji, eventually with some okurigana: nouns, adjectives, verbs (I do a search on with the tag “#common words” for this), choose the one you like most, ignore everything else. This way you won’t overwhelm yourself and it’s still one more word that you knew before, and you probably just learned a kun reading of that kanji.

    Then, if you want, you may to do a search for more simple kanji that are pictographs or ideograms, and chose the ones that you like, then learn them using the above method.

    After that, you’ll have a base of about a 100+ kanji and radicals (mostly shapes and meanings at this point, although a word or two will stick) without that much effort. This is where the usefulness of a simple SRS+Kanji approach ends in my opinion, and this is where I should have changed approaches a long time ago. I didn’t and I fell straight into RTK without thinking it through.

    The problem with the standard systems based on RTK for me is that it encourages/forces me to relay on someone else’s choice for key meanings, decomposition and often also mnemonics. The worst problem I have with it is, maybe surprisingly, the decomposition. In my opinion, usually when kanji are cut into pieces they are:
    – far too many and fragmented
    – too reliant on the radicals
    – sometimes parts are not kanji or radicals, but are made up in a strange way that is very unintuitive for me
    – using the version of the decomposition out of all the possibilities that I personally don’t like

    That’s why now I like to research the decomposition of the given kanji on my own, even if I “learned” it before using a different one. The resources that I most frequently use is, again, the Wiktionary, and this page: (you have to remember it’s for Chinese, so when you click on the star under a kanji entry to find which other characters contain it, there are a lot of characters that are not used in Japanese). Optimally I try to break the kanji down into two-three pieces max, the only exception is when the parts are very rare kanji that aren’t used in other characters, or it is otherwise impossible.

    Based on the above, now I use a combination of SRS+RTK+natural approach. What I do is take the kanji from the base set that I already somehow know, search for a sentences that use it on (that are verified as native), choose 2-3 of those that look not entirely impossible for me to read and use familiar kanji, try to understand the grammar (study it some if I have to), break it down into vocab, and then put the whole thing into Anki. O the back of the card there will be a very literal word-by-word-concept-by-concept translation if I feel insecure about understanding it, with the most visible part on the card being READINGS of the words in kanji, and kanji decomposition.

    Now I’m trying to move on to reading simple texts and putting the interesting sentences with new kanji into Anki (Did you know there is an entire text of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on Aoi Bunko? and a lot of other texts for children that you probably already read at least once and thus will know what’s going on even if you don’t understand everything), and using Japanese translations of words, instead of English.

    So, if someone knows a nice online dictionary for children and can share I would be immensely grateful.

  16. I’ve been studying on and off for years. Jalup Anki decks is one of the best ways for learning grammar and learning to read Japanese that exists.
    Through moderate exposure to new words, new grammar, the kanji is fairly easy to recall and associate through usage.

    One of the best study combos I’ve come across for learning kanji along with Jalup is kanjidamage. If you don’t know what kanjidamage is, you need to check it out. It’s an extremely intuitive breakdown of kanji.

    The best way to pair it with Jalup is to create a flashcard, on an index card, and search the kanjidamage kanji index each time you realize Jalup has a new kanji you don’t know how to read or write yet. If you do this, you need to make a notebook of which kanji you have made a flashcard for, which I found out the hard way, so that you can ensure you are reviewing them accordingly. You can even organize it like how Anki works, and sort the cards into “New”, “Review”, or “Learned” if you will. There are other ways to break down storing them as well.

    You NEED to learn how to write the characters, with a pencil in your hand, and by grinding it out on paper. There simply is no other way.

    Think of it like this, by writing the characters and learning to write with pen and paper, you are honoring and respecting those who created the writing system. There is something spiritual about Kanji. And with which humans long before you have communicated, you are connected with one another.

    Another Pro-Tip. I have a journal where I log what studying I’m planning to do, what I completed each day, and notes to myself. You can even start writing a journal in Japanese, so you can look back someday and admire your progress.

    You should also write EVERY sentence you review, once or twice, and make notes in a journal when you have new grammar.

    If you’ve ever played a sport, you can understand what this does to your brain from a learning perspective.

    Muscle Memory.

    Let’s continue to dominate Kanji.

    Thank you and hope you all continue to learn and share experiences with one another.

  17. Ok, it has been roughly one year since I added my last Joyo Kanji to my kanji meaning deck, and almost three years since I began it. Here are some of my thoughts after all this.

    – One year after adding the last one, I am still getting between 40 and 50 reviews per day. I set my starting easy way too low (130), mistakenly believing that this would help. After a while, I ended up striking easy on most of the cards I got right, and I think that has helped a lot to reduce the workload and make it more bearable. There are plenty of kanji that have not stuck in my head, and still get wrong all the time.

    – My wife (who is Japanese), looked at my practice sheet (since I write every kanji down), and remarked how there were a number of kanji that she did not even know. I said “these are on the list that are supposed to be learned by the end of high school”, but apparently this is not precisely correct.

    – The problem, as above, is that it is hard to know which kanji are useful to learn, and which are not. This, I think is a huge issue since I am basically a casual learner. I am only about 1500 sentences into my self-made deck, and I would estimate that about 30% of the kanji in my joyo pile appear in my sentences. This definitely contributes to my failure on many of the kanji.

    Although it is logical to want to go all in and learn the whole RTK or Joyo only pile, I think this was a mistake as a casual learner. This is not to say there aren’t benefits to doing this – when I encounter a new word, I do not have to spend time thinking about the structure of the kanji in it. However, I expended so much effort on the kanji at the expense of learning words, and in the end this probably made the process of memorizing the meaning of the kanji so much harder.

    If I were to start again, I would probably follow this route:

    – Start with learning the meaning of the major radicals. There is this great book I got called “The World of Kanji” by Alex Adler that is the perfect resource to find out the origins of the radicals. I would say this should not be done strictly on stroke count, but rather on frequency of occurrence. For instance, there is no point in putting off learning the radical 金 simply because it has a relatively high stroke count, because it is one of the most important radicals.

    – Go through the kyoiku kanji list, which should contain the most frequently used kanji that you will see in your early studies. The sum of this list and the major radicals probably will bring you up to 1100 or so kanji and radicals.

    – From then on, only add new kanji when they appear in the sentence deck.

    I think that this approach would have been a much more balanced way to have learned the kanji by meaning. It would also help to not get bogged down with kanji that are not really used much in modern Japanese.

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