You’ve finished your kanji deck. Whether that’s Kanji Kingdom, RTK, Wanikani, or something else along the lines of focused kanji study, you made it! You’ve done incredible work and set the stage for your abilities to soar.
Then months or years pass. Your sentence deck reviews continue to disappear into the night. But your kanji reviews always return. And when they do, you often need to fail them despite them being on long intervals you had worked hard to put them on.
You’ve been consistent. Maybe you even zero out your reviews daily. But they always seem to slip your memory. All of this means one thing: you are completely normal and it’s time to evaluate what you want to do with your kanji deck.
Why kanji and sentence reviews are so different
Sentence deck: you constantly see and use what you’ve learned all the time. Whether in later cards or in the real Japanese world.
Kanji deck: since a kanji card is passed when you can write it out (visually or on paper), you only recall a kanji when you review that specific kanji, on one specific card.
Quick reminder why learning kanji this way is good
When you are initially learning the kanji, it is a massive boost to firmly glue kanji deep into your memory. It gives you a real feel for all those similarly looking blobs of ink.
Why kanji recall fades
Unless you decide to frequently write Japanese by hand, time will take its toll on your kanji producing memory. Months and years passing with no reinforcement – what do you expect?
You might be thinking “but I use kanji everywhere!” This is a misunderstanding. You read and understand kanji everywhere. But this does not reinforce your ability to produce it. It’s an entirely different skill.
It’s just like if you listened and shadowed Japanese for years but never had a real conversation. Or if you are fully fluent in Japanese and English, but someone suddenly asks you to simultaneously interpret at a seminar.
What to do?
The first and most important question: do you want (need) the ability to write kanji by hand?
If yes (for the 5% of you), then you can stop reading this article. This probably isn’t even a problem for you because you practice writing letters, calligraphy, filling out forms and I don’t know what people do with a pen these days.
If no (for the 95% of you), time to consider a change. You don’t have to do kanji reviews forever. And nothing bad will happen to your Japanese.
Scaffolding can be removed
Learning Kanji separately in a keyword to recall(write) method is often compared to scaffolding. For those who need a reminder:
Scaffolding: “a temporary structure for holding workers and materials during the erection, repair, or decoration of a building.”
Kanji recall is scaffolding to help build your Japanese. But once it is built, that scaffolding is mostly removable.
And for those that fear just ripping it all out at once…
You have 5 options
1. Keep doing it as always.
For a long time, I liked doing kanji reviews. I strangely found them fun. If you like doing them, continue. No reason to stop.
2. Turn them into “loose kanji reviews”
My like waned over the years. I think it’s because I liked passing reviews but hated failing them (don’t we all?)
Instead of trying to remember the kanji exactly, as long as you can generally visualize them in your head then you are doing okay. This means no worrying about stroke orders, missed strokes, or writing out each stroke. Just see if you can create a quick mental image
3. Pass and fade out
Eventually your like may be completely gone with the chore and frustration growing.
Pass every kanji review regardless of whether you know it or not. This will lead to them eventually disappearing naturally over time without fear of them coming back too soon.
4. Review and delete
This is a variant on #3. Instead of giving everything a pass, once you review a kanji card, you delete it. This gives you a chance to give them one final farewell.
5. Delete everything now
Just get rid all 2000+ of them now in one shot. This can be ridiculously liberating.
But I’m worried my Japanese will suffer!
Two things to remember:
1. Many people who have done Jalup successfully have phased out kanji reviews long term, and their Japanese was fine.
2. Japanese people go through a similar thing. They have to recall and write kanji through their years of schooling. Then they get older and mostly stop writing completely by hand. Maybe they move abroad. Give a kanji deck to a Japanese person in their 30s with Japanese keyword to kanji. See how well they do. And their Japanese ability is just fine.
Saying farewell to kanji before you actually finish them?
I hear this question often. Can I stop at 1800, or 1500, or 1000, or 500, or 200, or 1?
Yes, you are allowed to. There is no fast and hard rule of having to finish all the kanji, or even study kanji separately. You will still learn them through sentences and immersion. It’s okay. The worst thing that can happen is hating kanji reviews turning into hating studying overall turning into hating Japanese. Kanji may be scaffolding, but it is not the only scaffolding you are working with.
How have you handled your kanji reviews over the years?
For those of you that have finished learning kanji (or decided to stop earlier), which option have you chosen above? What do you wish you knew sooner?
I’m currently in between #2 (loose kanji reviews) and #3 (pass and fade out). But that’s only because there is still a small part of me that has satisfaction in doing them… Otherwise I would have done #4 or #5 a long long time ago.
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.