Using Anki to Master Japanese – There Can be Only One — 48 Comments

  1. Just read through all three parts and really love the way you explain your method! I’m in a bit of an odd position where I had already been studying Japanese for a year or two before discovering Heisig/SRS/sentences/etc. So even though I’ve only just gotten through RTK and haven’t started sentences yet, I can already carry on a basic conversation and whatnot. I think I’m past the beginner level and so instead of starting with J-E sentences, I may start directly with J-J sentences. So I look forward to a more technical post about making cards, and I appreciate any tips for whether going straight to J-J is a good idea :)

    By the way, when you say ‘level 20,’ how do you figure that out? I’m not sure how to rank myself XD


    • I myself was in a similar position to you, as I also didn’t start using Anki or Heisig until about 2.5 years into my studying. I started directly straight with J-J sentences. I only know about the benefits of the first 1000 J-E sentences with my attempts at studying Chinese.

      So it is definitely worth trying to start directly with J-J, and see how it goes. The only problem is that it is hard to gauge if you are on the right track, because regardless if you do the J-E first or not, the J-J beginning is still very challenging. So if it is difficult at the beginning, that may have nothing to do with you skipping the 1000 J-E.

      The real juicy parts are coming up. I realized I had to split up the posts because they were becoming too long. I’ve really fine tuned how to do J-J sentences through Anki through my 3 years of experience with it.

      “Level 20” is according to the chart on the sidebar of the site. I probably will have a future post, explaining how to figure out your level on the chart .


  2. I currently have a little over 900 sentences and am starting to think about switching to J-J cards; for vocabulary it looks hard but doable as you say to expect at this stage. However I find grammar notes to be very helpful/necessary for some of my sentences and I haven’t found any beginner-appropriate reference for Japanese grammar terms in Japanese on the web. Is there anywhere you can point me, either on the web or a good book? Or should I just leave these in English and mar the J-J completeness? Or do you have some other recommendstion?

    • And I forgot to say: thank you for these guides! I have pieced my method together from various methods on the web plus a little I made up myself, and your way of entering sentences was a significant breakthrough in how to make it work well.

      • I’ve just started making J-J cards and haven’t been able to to go to Kinokuniya (I’m embarrassed by my English-speakers-ignore-vowels spelling error above… yet another reason not to use romaji) yet but since spending more time with the dictionary (I’m using the one at yahoo) and attempting to do as much as I could with just the internet I’ve figured out some useful things and I thought I’d report back in case anyone else is wondering the same question I was.

        I’m finding the dictionary more helpful than I expected it to be. Many things I think of as grammar are actually included, under the entry for a relevant verb, for example:



        Also, there are some things that I can write as equations so that I don’t have either English or potentially-wrong Japanese on my cards:

        お+〈 連用形〉+です= 尊敬語

        Wikipedia articles often include the Japanese grammar terms (I found this earlier but didn’t realize it was sufficient since that isn’t an example of usage and the Japanese versions of the pages are beyond me.)

        Also, for anyone daunted by the idea of J-J cards, I’d like to mention that I’m finding it easier than I expected it to be. You don’t need to understand every word in the definition, you just need to understand enough that you can figure it out between that and the context of the sentence.

        • *Sigh* I replied to a different post than I meant to… this post seems like it’s connected to every post in this thread except the one it’s a reply to. Also “above” is really “below”.

        • Thanks for the update on your progress. A lot of people have difficulty with switching from J-E to J-J, so your experience will be very informative to them!

          • An elaboration/further update: at my current level–I went J-J at 1000 sentences, without having done RTK (I am satisfied with the progress I am making with my kanji learning method, but I am behind people who did all of RTK first)–trees do not end within a reasonable size. Reasonable size to me would be within several days worth of cards; 40 for example. I have used a couple ways around this.

            At first I was looking the words in the definition up in a J-E dictionary. The definitions then only needed to be reminders, and the idea was that the Japanese definition would be what was reinforced and the English could theoretically fall away like a mnemonic. When a Japanese definition failed to remind me of a word, I looked up the words in it again and added new cards for words that seemed key.

            I have now completely ditched the J-E dictionary, using a J-J elementary school dictionary, making the compromise of accepting that for the time being I don’t get to learn every new word I come across. I’m building a collection of ever-growing trees (multiple trees since I start new ones when I’m trying to figure out a word from another source) which I add to at the rate of my curiosity, and add things from there to anki when it makes a new sentence clear.

            • Update again.

              I posted both of those approaches shortly after I thought of them and before they started paying off for me. Neither did. So I was hesitant to post approach number three until it had proven itself, but I’ve been using it for some time now and it has continued to work well for me for some time so I’m going to post it now.

              It is essentially a set of tricks so that I branch only as much as absolutely necessary:

              ・Using the elementary school dictionary. While agree with all the reasons why internet dictionaries are better, easy to understand definitions are entirely worth the cost for me (someone who has done RTK and learned English meanings for all the kanji may have a different experience with this; if a kanji isn’t learned in elementary school a it’s written in hiragana so you lose that advantage.)

              ・Using google image search liberally (as you suggest)

              ・If I have a good guess but I’m not sure about a word, I check it in J-E and consider it done (I think I currently do this with about one in a dozen words.)

              ・The core of my approach: If I look up a word and can’t figure it out between context, definition, and example sentence, I mark it and pick the one word in the definition or example sentence that I think is most likely to enlighten me. This results in a depth-first-search type branching process. When I come back to this word I’ll either understand and enter it or I’ll pick the next word that I think would help my understanding.

              ・If I’m not understanding anything but structural words in the definitions in a branch the lack of context makes it even harder to parse the hiragana-heavy definitions and I’ll look up a word in J-E after looking it up in J-J to gain some context; this will be good for at least a few words into the branching. I’m pleased to find that after just a bit more time with the dictionary the need to do this is disappearing.

              ・I am more likely to check-with-J-E or leave out some of the alternate definitions when I’m deeper into the branching process.

              I add the example sentences to anki when I feel I understand them rather than when I first encounter them. This generally means they are presented in a good order for beginning to review at any rate. It only occasionally happens that the understanding was too much based on a half-understood word that it branched from; if this happens when I’m reviewing I’ll use anki’s bury option to make it come up in the next review session instead.

              Occasionally I do give up on a tree when I feel like it’s branching too much to be worth it. I did this more often at first when my initial attempts at J-J had made me lose confidence that finishing trees was possible. It wastes some time to start a tree I don’t finish but as long as there are a bunch of things that I am entering, progress is being made.

              My biggest tree this week was around 35. Much better than “OMG I’m going to read the whole dictionary” which is how the J-J process felt when I first tried it.

              I doubt this precise approach is what anyone else wants to do (for one thing, I wonder if I’m the only person using most of Japanese Level Up but not RTK) but maybe ideas from it can be useful to other people.

    • I think the Minna no nihongo series has a Japanese version where it is all in Japanese and provides all grammar notes in Japanese. I did Minna no nihongo 2 at one point, and I remember it being beneficial. If anyone has any experience with these books and wants to chime in, please do.

      But you should definitely leave the English behind, trust me. Otherwise J-J will just keep getting postponed.

      • I didn’t find a book like that but I got another book that I am very happy with: どんなときどう使う日本語表現文型事典. Each sentence pattern has a number of very good example sentences and the patterns explained in both Japanese and English (as well as Chinese and Korean.) I’m SRSing both the explanations (when they have something new in them) and the example sentences (with the explanation in the answer.)

  3. Hi,

    I’m getting rather near to starting the J-J stage (I’m about 800 sentences in, distributed evenly between a “Genki” deck and a “Tae Kim” deck, and I should hit 1000 in two weeks or so), and I have some perhaps one major question:

    At this stage I would say the main challenge I have when reviewing sentences are the readings of the kanji compounds (as the meanings are usually pretty easy, since I’m reviewing sentences whose meanings I’ve seen beforehand), yet your description of J-J stage seems to focus more on the understanding. So my question is this: do you feel that at the J-J stage one should be “ruthless” about failing readings (which I’m being at the J-E stage), or more lenient in favor of valuing the understanding more? My fear is that the former attitude would lead to cards taking a very long time to stop being failed.

  4. Right now, I’m at 775 sentences, and when I finish Genki II, I will have about 1100. Does that sound like a great point to switch to J-J? Also, how beneficial will going through Intermediate something-something (a.k.a Genki III) be?

    At my current pace, I will not be done with RtK before the 8th of September. I will reach 1100 sentences in about 13 days. Should I wait until I’m done with RtK or should I just start with J-J right away?

    Furthermore, what should I do if a definiton-branch raech about 30 new cards? Does it hurt if I stop the branching by adding the next few cards as J-E cards?

    J-J is less than two weeks away for me… 怖い・・・

    • Yes, 1,100 and the end of Genki II is a perfect time to make the switch. The intermediate (Genki III) book is definitely optional, and not necessary at all. However, if you were going to use it, I’d do it J-J style.

      Finishing RTK before going J-J is an absolute. You need to know all the kanji to assist you. The process is already hard enough and you don’t want to be giving yourself any additional issues. Use the time you would’ve used on J-J to finish RTK quicker.

      Have you seen this 2-post series on tips about branching?

      30 new cards is fine. You should avoid J-E cards as a crutch at all costs. Otherwise this will always be your fallback and it will slow your progress. Use the methods in the above 2 posts. You can also use pictures in addition to the sentences to help (Google Image is your friend here).

      Good luck!

  5. Thank you. :)

    But I will have gone through at least 1700-1800 kanji by the time I finish Genki. The truth is, I find the kanji stuff alone to be the least fun part about it. That’s why I started with J-E sentences after only having gone through 508 kanji.

    • Sounds too good to be true… I may be mistaken, but I don’t even think the spaced repetitions algorithms used are the same, which might mean that RtK’s SRS data wouldn’t even necessarily make much sense to Anki.

      • Actually, a plugin for that was recently made, and my RtK cards are now all imported to Anki with all the review stats and stories, etc.

        search for koohii importer in the plugins browser for Anki 2 and you’ll find it ;)

  6. Today I was on twitter scrolling through Japanese tweets (I only follow Japanese people) and saw two sentences. I read them and realised I understood it. (Apart from 2 words). My mouth hung open for about 5 minutes. I was so shocked.
    I’ve only done 300 J-E sentences so far, but I’ve wrote these sentences down for when I do J-J sentences. I’m really excited!

    • LOL…
      I think you’ll find that that “shock” will be shortlived. As you move along you’ll just start finding more and more sentences you can read.

      But here’s a suggestion: do not save those sentences for J-J… add them now, even if in J-E. Check those few words you don’t know in a dictionary and add them. Having sentences you really care about in Anki makes reviewing more enjoyable. Plus, by the point you actually get to J-J, you will likely not find those sentences that impressive anymore…

  7. Recently I got completely sick of the pre-made Core 6k deck I’d been doing so far. I had about 2000 active cards (not in order though) and I think I’m somewhere in the lower/middle twenties going by this blog’s level system, so I decided to try making a handpicked J-J deck. I foresee quite a few problems (reading speed, low retention, too much time spent on inputting, etc.) but I want to try anyway; I think it’s time for a radical change. I’ve got a few questions though, it’d be great if someone with experience could answer them.

    – How do I handle the following situation: I understand a sentence and its individual words, but forgot the reading of some word’s kanji. In other words, I know the word by its kanji, but can’t recall (a part of) the reading. Based on experience with my previous deck I expect to run into this a lot.

    – I try to adjust most of my reading material to my current level, since I find input I can’t seem to comprehend at all to be very frustrating. So I read shounen manga, NHK News Easy, graded readers, etc. The thing is, these kind of writings often use kana for words where kanji could’ve been used, especially if the kanji isn’t very common. And in my experience even in “harder” texts this often occurs (seemingly at random). Should I edit mined sentences to use more kanji in order to learn them better and if so, where should I draw the line of what not to transform?

    • 1st question:
      Even if you know the meaning for the kanji, you don’t know the reading, right? Then still make it a card. Just simplify it.
      Question field: このビルは幼稚園です。
      Answer field: ようちえん

      The card should go quickly as you’re not distracted by grammar or other words so you can just focus on learning to read the kanji where you know the meaning, but just can’t remember the reading.

      2nd question:
      If the sentence is using kana but you know the kanji, then change the kana to kanji when you input it into anki. This way you’re constantly revising known kanji and allowing your eyes to get used to seeing more kanji.

      So if the sample sentence is:
      Change it to:
      この食べ物は美味しいです!(Even if おいしい is usually written in hiragana, having it in kanji prepares you for those moments where the author wants to express the word in kanji)

      Because you want to start testing yourself and adding difficulty and not just staying with what you’re comfortable, you’ll want to start adding sentences with kanji you don’t know. Just limit to one unknown word/kanji per sentence. For example, if you didn’t know the kanji for 食べ物 and 美味しい then make two cards.

      Card 1 question: この食べ物はおいしいです。
      Card 1 answer: このたべものはおいしいです。

      Card 2 question: このたべものは美味しいです。
      Card 2 answer: このたべものはおいしいです。

      Does that aid with your question? I hope it does. I’m not a huge anki user myself. I tend to input sentences but never review them which I know defeats the purpose.

      • Thanks, it helps. You’ve convinced me substituting the relevant kanji for kana is useful, and you’ve also made me realize I should watch out for long sentences (esp. with multiple unknowns).

        Anki auto-generates a reading field for me (just have to check for errors) so that’s covered on every card. I was mainly concerned on how to grade my performance on borderline cases (e.g. whether to choose fail or hard when I forgot a single kanji’s reading but know the meaning).

        I plan on leaving the answer side at just the reading for the most part by the way. I think interpreting Japanese dictionary entries or other hints during review will take way too much time and break the ‘review flow’. If I don’t get a sentence I’ll do the necessary lookups sometime after reviewing.

        There’s one more thing I’m a bit “afraid” of: what if I enter and review a sentence of which I *think* I know the meaning, but it’s actually a misinterpretation? Since there’s no translation, there’s no way to be sure…

        • I would fail it; it’s better to memorise both the meaning and reading. I always fail cards I fail to read properly even though I understand them.

  8. I need a little bit of guidance.
    I started J-J about 2 weeks ago, with one sentence which had 2 words I didn’t know (pulled from a manga). I added the definitions for the two words to the card, and pulled the words I didn’t know from the definitions to make new cards. Before I knew it, I had created a backlog of ~100 words which I don’t know from definitions, which I need to create cards for. Some new definitions I can read fine, but some add 3+ words to my backlog. I was going to put off studying the cards until I had closed the “loop” but I believe it’s beginning to get out of hand. So my question is multi-fold:
    1. For multi-kanji words, should I be defining them in my mind based off the keywords from RTK? This seems a little risky, since the keywords don’t necessarily match the definitions, or at least they can sometimes be difficult to define based on the keywords.
    2. Should I scrap it and start from something simpler? I was thinking of diving into Intermediate Genki as a back-up, but really wanted to get into the branching method I’ve been reading about for months. Plus, even if I started “Genki3” I’m going to have to utilize Yahoo, and will possibly run into the same issue of words in the definitions that I don’t know…
    3. Other suggestions, tips, people with the same problem or people who overcame the same problem?
    Thank you!

    • First I would check out all the posts/comments in World 9: Taking the Japanese-only plunge. There is extensive info on tips/techniques to get through branching here from me and other readers:

      1. RTK keywords are always just guidance. Yes sometimes they manage to hit on the definition of the word exactly, but a lot of the time they don’t do well in multi-kanji words. You still need to define them the proper way.

      2. Some people scrap a branch if it gets too out of hand. Others use techniques in the other posts to aid them (like pictures, simpler dictionary). Some people always try to keep it simple and don’t add difficult words from the beginning.

    • Something I did early in the branching process was marking words as “safe” if the definition contained familiar words (or other words from the branch that are “safe”).

      Thus, even if a branch got way out of hand, I could still save about 5-10 cards. It meant a lot of wasted time, but it was better than getting nothing out of it. Sadly, the original cards can’t always be “saved” in the beginning, but you get one step closer each time. :)

    • Thanks for the replies, for now I will continue to press forward. It feels a tad counterproductive to add a huge number of cards at once (biting-off-more-than-you-can-chew) but it should work out in the end.
      One thing I’m changing is where I pull my sentences from. Rather than pull from Yahoo, which often contains 1+ additional difficult word I’m not familiar with in a sentence, I’ve started pulling from where the sentences seem a little simpler. Of course, the definition is still pulled from Yahoo.
      Right now I have 70 new cards, and 2 microsoft word pages (3 columns per page) of backlog words (some repeats). Time to roll up my sleeves and get to work!

      • Just be careful with the sentences – quite a few of them contain mistakes – you can even see the disclaimer on Also, have you looked at the J-E dictionary at Yahoo? It often contains longer but simpler sentences.
        You might also find these useful:

  9. I’m only at 500 sentences but I’m already Level 15. Should I just switch to J-J cards at level 20, even though I wont have 1000 sentences by then?

    • With 5 more levels to go, you should get closer to the 1000 mark. However, I would consider the 1000 number more important than starting at exactly level 20. If you start a few levels over 20 (or under for some people), there will be no problems. It’s more key that you finish your solid J-E base before venturing into J-J.

  10. Regarding electronic dictionaries: I haven’t used any of the physical ones, but I would recommend at least having a look at the Midori iOS app before shelling out $600. It’s easily the best $20 I’ve spent on learning Japanese so far. I’ve been able to look up kanji by radicals without too much pain, and you can also draw them with your finger, which I have not tried. You can mine from it, as most entries have a huge number of example sentences. I’ve been able to paste whole sentences from a text message in Japanese, and get separate search result entries from each word.

    I don’t work for them – I’m just madly in love with the app. :)

    • I’ve never used that app, but I agree, electronic dictionaries are a thing of the past. There are too many good apps and websites accessible by smartphone to need to spend such a large amount of money.

  11. As a naive level ~15, the whole J-J process still seems very confusing to me. If I want to learn the meaning of a word I haven’t seen ever before in Japanese, isn’t the process going to either a) reduce to words that I can translate to English or b) never ending series of more words I don’t understand. Is it that once you know a certain number of elementary words (translatable to English), these loops will eventually terminate?

    • Adshap wrote, “while I do occasionally find sentences I really want, I 90% of the time find words that I want to know, and couldn’t care less about the sentence.”

      When you learn a word, you want to understand it and its definition. At the beginning, you’ll have to look for words that you understand through a ~1000 JE sentence base (similar kanji, easy context, definition is fairly simple, etc.). The idea is that surrounding context would make you want to learn a new word.

      Note that there are usually multiple definitions, so you might want to selectively choose a portion of the whole definition.

      At the beginning (and for most of the transition period), you’d rely primarily on context. The whole idea of “transitioning” into J-J is that you’d eventually become comfortable defining Japanese words by its own standards.

      At first there may only be a few words you’d be willing to enter through j-j. But if you keep searching, it becomes easier to find suitable words.

      I won’t lie though, the J-J transition isn’t easy.
      *The clicking point is around ~900 sentences, so I’ve heard
      *By “easy context” I’m referring to i+1 sentences, in which the only new piece of knowledge is the word you’re focusing on.

  12. For picking and choosing the sentences for J-J I actually have a vocab list of verbs adjectives nouns etc… Can I just input those into yahoo dict and use the sentences from there? and the definitions ?

  13. Hey Adshap! I am currently in the process of moving to Japan right now! I have just entered the J-J stage. Will living in Japan while doing the J-J “skyrocket” my japanese? How much faster will I learn in Japan rather than Canada?

    • It really depends how much you make of the experience. It’s a major added boost of motivation, resources and opportunity. So if you fully utilize this you will definitely have an edge.

  14. I have a question about reviewing the cards after I have them in Anki. I feel like it takes me forever to go through all of my review cards each day. Before I check the answer, I try to recall the exact definition from the dictionary. Should I try to have the definition memorized exactly, or should I mark it wrong if I get sort of the general idea of the definition in my own words? I’m really not sure how I should be reviewing these so sorry if these are stupid questions ^_^;

    • If you understand the sentence, it’s right.
      It’s a complete misallocation of resources to obsess over definitions.
      You learn a word’s real meaning by seeing it hundreds of times in context in real media, conversations and the like.
      But to get to a point where you have sufficient understanding of native media, you need a general grasp of the meaning of many words.
      Go for large volume of imperfect (but reasonable) understanding.

  15. If you have a vague feeling and more importantly, if you are able to understand the sentence, mark it good. Don’t try to recall the exact definition (unless it helps you in understanding the meaning of the sentence).

  16. So what even does a J-J card look like? I don’t know how I am supposed to make one or what to put in one.

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