How to learn Kanji for busy people

When I studied Japanese in Japan, I learned about 400 kanji, but I forgot most of them over time. I am re-learning everything again and my plan is now to learn all 2,000+ jōyō kanji.

I understand that it’s not going to happen over night, in a week or a couple of months. I have estimated that it will take me over two years with my routine. But first 1,000 kanji make more than 90% of all characters you will encounter in daily life and I will be at 1,000 in just over a year.

Choosing the right materials for Kanji

For the routine, any kanji list is fine. Traditional approach is jōyō kanji which is the order Japanese people learn. The best book I found so far is Kanji in Context. It contains the whole list with a lot of examples. It also tries to find connections between characters (too some extent) and group characters with similar traits.

Some non-Japanese prefer books like Remembering the Kanji. This book tries to find “primitives” inside the kanji (something like radicals, but not all primitives are radicals) and use mnemonics.

Kanji Damage website uses another approach, identifying “radicals” (something like an extended set of the traditional radicals) and kanji connections. However this website uses coarse language and might not suit everyone.

Nobody can tell you which book/website will be the best for you. Try for a while and see.

Kanji flashcards

Unless you are a fan of pen and paper, simply the best flashcards application is Anki. It’s free (apart from iPhone app) and allows a great flexibility. It uses spaced repetition. It serves you the cards based on science.

However downloading an Anki card stack did not work for me at all. What does work is creating my own cards. Anki needs a basic knowledge of HTML to create nice and useful cards, but it is really worth it. I tried using a few stacks before (e.g. the Genki I and II stacks and Kanji Damage stack), but my own stack works the best and I am in control of what Anki serves me.

Another problem with Anki is that you need practice every day and you need to add more cards slowly. Otherwise you won’t be able to catch up with new cards and it will only result in frustration.

My routine

Kanji in Context divides kanji into small units. I try to learn a single unit per week. The first few units contained a lot of kanji, but the more advanced the kanji is the less kanji are in one unit.

Every day I am practicing whatever Anki serves me to practice. It takes me about 20 minutes per day. At the end of the week, I add another unit to my stack. Each card contains the kanji, reading and a few examples of usage. This takes a couple of hours. Next week Anki will serve me these new kanji along with all previous kanji I need to practice.

I use a small brush to practice writing because it forces me to write the strokes properly. It also helps remembering stroke order because a lot of rules come from the fact that it’s just easier to write that way with a brush.

So far it works very well for me…


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