Kanji can make life difficult. Living in Japan or trying to enjoy manga or books can present giant walls of squiggles separating you from finding a location, getting lunch, or enjoying free time and hobbies. Kanji can seem like this huge, single unapproachable behemoth; something to be put off as long as possible or something to take piece meal and dealt with the help of tools.
For a long time to me, KANJI was like a single citadel with giant barbed gates surrounded by a moat filled with acid guarded by a dragon and for good measure constantly on fire. It was intimidating to say the least.
Because of difficulty with kanji, I got mired down in the 20s (about JLPT N3) and could not get any traction. But I kept going and pushing forward, getting more frustrated by the day until it hit me. I was working hard but not working smart.
Attacking kanji as if it was just one thing with only a single way in is just ridiculous.
It was not so much a castle siege as the strategic acquisition of territory through many small victories. I realized that if I divided kanji into meaningful chunks then I could gain real ground. And so I’ve broken down those meaningful chunks into my five guiding pillars.
1. Basic Kanji Meanings
Whether you want to call them kanji radicals, primitives, or components, they are all getting at the same basic idea. There are some basic units of kanji that contain core meanings, like 猫(cat), 水(water), and 上 (up) etc. You need to choose 1 meaning system to follow and do it until its completion.
These systems help give you a way to start making sense of the giant squiggle wall. They give you a way to parse and divide it into meaningful pieces. Thus making a place to start, which might sound small, but consider if you cannot find solid ground then you will never be able to control where you walk.
“[Meaning systems such as] RTK [don’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.”
—Matt JALUP USER
You have many choices for your meaning system. For example, Heisig’s Method called Remember The Kanji (RTK) comes highly recommended on this site. There are many articles that tell you how to use the RTK Method. There is the JALUP RTK streamlined anki deck and the review of the user community kanjikoohi.com that supports the RTK community.
Many JALUP users support going back and trying RTK again even if you are a seasoned learner. However, you may end up making the decision that RTK is not for you and that is not the end of the world.
You could go up through using Kanji Damage OR Wanikani OR JALUP Kanji Assist and the JALUP 1000 Beginner Decks OR base yourself in a solid ground-up kanji text book, like Basic Kanji Book, Vol. 1 ISBN: 978-4893580917 or 留学生のための漢字の教科書 初級３００ ISBN 4336051062. The method does not matter so much as the systematic knowledge of various kanji shape with their base meanings.
What matters is that you pick one system and stick to it. Most of the systems do not play nice with each other and to gain the benefits from one of them you need to focus on it and put in the necessary time to develop and maintain it. (Note this does not preclude doing other kanji/Japanese study simultaneously but it should be a constant thing).
2. Kanji with Strong Readings aka 音記号 (おんきごう)
音記号 are the kanji components that govern sound. For example, consider these kanji 静, 清 and 晴. These kanji are read with the “on” reading of せい, because of their shared kanji component 青. If you are familiar with these phonetic components then you can approximate the reading of new kanji, even if you have not seen the kanji before. You can read the full article and get a list here.
For items 3-5
* These lists below are not meant to be complete. These lists are meant to provide a kind of sign post for learners who are trying to move out the level 20s or studying JLPT material N3+.
**You can find the kanji followed by its main reading when being used as described with the definition in ( ) brackets.
3. Kanji Used as Prefixes
不 ふ (―ではない・－しない)
未 み (まだ －していない)
非 ひ (―ではない)
無 む (―がない)
予 よ (先に [前に] －する)
好 こう (いい・いいと思う)
再 さい (もう一度・また)
最 さい (一番)
全 ぜん (ぜんぶ)
満 まん (いっぱいになる)
両 りょう (どちらも・二つ)
共 きょう (一緒に)
独 どく (ひとり・自分だけ)
失 しつ (なくす lose)
告 こく (知らせる・伝える, RTK revelation)
要 よう (いる・大切な)
連 れん (つながる・続く)
収 しゅう (集める・入る)
有 ゆう (ある)
応 おう (こたえる – respond)
保 ほ (必ず – する・守る)
定 てい (決まっている)
補 ほ (足りないものを足す)
超 ちょう (非常に, RTK transcend)
高 こう (たかい)
名 めい (ゆうめい)
総 そう (全部あわせた the total number, RTK general)
現 げん (今の)
前 ぜん (まえの)
元 もと (ex-)
故 こ (亡くなった, the late _ )
副 ふく (第２番目の, vice-)
長 なが (RTK long)
4. Kanji Used as Suffixes
場 じょう (場所・建物, as in 駐車＿)
所 しょ (場所・建物, as in 事務＿)
館 かん (場所・建物)
地 ち (場所・建物)
費 ひ (お金)
賃 ちん (お金)
代 だい (お金)
料 りょう (お金)
師 し (仕事をする人, as in 教＿)
手 しゅ (仕事をする人)
家 か (仕事をする人)
士 し (仕事をする人, as in 武＿)
的 てき (物の性質)
風 ふう (物の性質)
性 せい (物の性質)
書 しょ (書類・紙の物)
状 じょう (書類・紙の物)
証 しょう (書類・紙の物)
心 しん (気持ち・感情)
気 き (気持ち・感情)
感 かん (気持ち・感情)
内 ない (within)
外 がい (そと、outside/over)
製 せい (made in-)
5. Kanji in Opposite Pairs
安定する・不安定な あんてい・ふあんてい (stability)
参加する・不参加 さんか・ふさんか (participate)
有力な・無力な ゆうりょく・むりょく (influential)
有料・無料 ゆうりょう・むりょう (料金はいる.)
最高・最低 さいこう・さいてい (highest, lowest)
高気圧・低気圧 こうきあつ・ていきあつ (high/low atmosphere pressure)
長所・短所 ちょうしょ・たんしょ (strong/weak point)
多数・少数 たすう・しょうすう (majority/minority)
多量・少量 たりょう・しょうりょう (large/small #)
拡大する・縮小する かくだい・しゅくしょう (enlarge/ reduce)
硬化する・軟化する こうか・なんか (to stiffen/soften)
強硬な・柔軟な きょうこう・じゅうなん (stubborn/ flexible)
強固な・軟弱な＆薄弱 きょうこ・なんじゃく＆はくじゃく (firm/strong, feeble/weak)
開始する・終了する かいし・しゅうりょう (to start/ finish)
出力・入力 しゅつりょく・にゅうりょく (output/input)
支出・収入 ししゅつ・しゅうにゅう (expenses/income)
出る・欠く でる・かく (attend/to be absent)
入る・退く はいる・しりぞく (to enter/to step aside)
進化する・退化する しんか・たいか (to evolve/degenerate)
発つ・着く たつ・つく (depart・arrive at)
勝者・敗者 しょうしゃ・はいしゃ (winner/loser)
勝利・敗北 しょうり・はいぼく (victory/defeat)
完勝・完敗 かんしょう・かんぱい (total victory/defeat)
勝負 しょうぶ (match/game)
戦前・戦後 せんぜん・せんご (prewar/postwar)
上層・下層 じょうそう・かそう (upper/lower class)
上昇する・下降する じょうしょう・かこう (to rise/fall)
内部・外部 ないぶ・がいぶ (the inside/outside)
需要・供給 じゅよう・きょうきゅう (demand/supply)
前後 ぜんご (front/back)
左右 さゆう (left and right)
内外 ないがい (inside and outside)
公私 こうし (public and private)
多少 たしょう (more or less, a little)
終始 しゅうし (from beginning to end)
How can I study with them?
There are numerous ways to study this information. You could create an anki deck. You could make good old fashion paper flash cards or study them from a reference sheet. You could keep a cheat sheet of them around to check yourself as you study or read.
I personally used an online flash card website called Quizlet. Quizlet is a powerful tool for discreet amounts of information you want to study. It allows users to create sets of flash cards and share them with the world. Within the set, it creates various way of study including memory games, multi-facet tests, and speed races using the inputted information.
Want to use a text book with examples and practice built in? : Kanji にほんご漢字トレーニング ISBN-13: 978-4872177947 and the entire series from Basic Kanji Book, Vol. 1 ISBN: 978-4893580917 up through INTERMEDIATE KANJI BOOK VOL.1 ISBN-13: 978-4893588104.
One Last Analogy:
You do not want to spend all of your time building and depending on an outside force/tool to deal with kanji. (The classic DBZ scouter)…
…because if exposed to something unknown or too high level either it breaks down or our frustration with it leads us to destroy it. (The fate of the scouter)
Being able to use your own internal power to gauge the level of your next challenge is the most sure fire to keep our motivation up and provide long term viability. After all, we all know which method our heroes used and hey there were even a few converts along the way.
Immerse yourself in kanji and never look back!
How are you developing your internal kanji sense?
A writer for Japanese Level up and a 4th Year JET. Has the ability to consume anime and J-dramas at an alarming pace and may be too in love with kanji.