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Learn Kanji: Master 2,000 Japanese Characters in 3 Months


Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

Does it sound like an impossible task to learn Kanji? I’m here to help.

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to master the meaning and writing of 2,042 “Standard Use Kanji” (常用漢字・じょうようかんじ) in 90 days. This feat normally takes the Japanese themselves all the way through the end of junior high school, and most non-native learners of Japanese never make it even after years of study.

But worry not! Armed with the right psychology and tools, this seemingly impossible mission becomes a walk in the park.

Mission Mental: What’s the Best Way to Learn Kanji?

The world’s best methods and materials amount to jack-freaking-squat unless you are fired up to use them day in and day out. So before we get to the cool tools you will use to complete your mission, let’s first focus first on the internal.

To succeed in your mission, you are going to apply the holy trinity of motivation:

  • Social Accountability
  • S.M.A.R.T. Goals
  • Baby Steps

1. Use Social Accountability: Share Your Progress Publicly

Homo sapiens, a.k.a. us humans, are an interesting animal. We rarely do things that we know are good for us (or avoid doing things we know are bad for us) unless we know that other people are watching.

While one can argue that a mature, emotionally centered person shouldn’t care too much about what others think, the fact remains that almost all of us do.

Fortunately, the kanji learner can use this psychological phenomenon to their advantage:

Create a Kanji Learning Blog

Contrary to popular belief, blogs are not only tools for self-obsessed narcissists. They are also an extremely effective way to share goals publicly because they trigger our innate psychological programming to succeed in the eyes of others. With blogs, we develop a following that we will feel obligated not to let down.

Blogs are also an outlet for sharing successes and failures during our mission. As Benny Lewis, founder of Fluent in 3 Months, never stops saying, mistakes are a very necessary aspect of language learning.

There are countless blogging platforms to choose from, but don’t get caught up in the nitty gritty details. Just select one you feel comfortable with and get started now. And don’t worry too much about how your blog looks.

The goal is to create accountability, share your triumphs and tribulations, and develop a following (however small). It’s not to show how many hours or dollars you spent tweaking your theme.

Make Bets with a Friend or Colleague

The most powerful form of social accountability involves betting. You can use financial incentives (good) or punishments (better) to boost commitment to your goals.

For money-based bets, agree on an amount that you can both pay, but that will be somewhat painful.

Likewise, punishments should involve something sufficiently detestable, but not so outrageous that you both know from the get go that neither party will actually be forced to follow through when the other wins.

No matter the wager, make sure your competition centers around a specific goal tied to a specific timeframe.

This leads us to the next key for success: goal creation.

2. Set Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time Bound Goals

Most goals are doomed to failure from the beginning.

In a moment of seasonal, alcohol-induced inspiration, we make exciting goals that are too large, too far away, and not clearly defined. It’s no wonder that nearly all New Year’s resolutions never become reality.

Luckily, S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time Bound) goals come to the rescue.

You have likely heard this acronym before, and may brush it aside as nothing but fluffy motivational gibberish. That would be a mistake. If you’ve actually gone through the exercise of making such goals before, you know just how powerful they can be.

So what does a S.M.A.R.T. goal look like? Look no further than the title of this post: “Learn Kanji: Master 2,000 Japanese Characters in 3 Months.”

  • Specific: Notice I didn’t say something like “Get good at kanji next year”. “Good” is not clearly defined and is therefore meaningless for our purposes.
  • Measurable: The goal includes a specific number, so you know exactly how many kanji you have actually learned by the deadline.
  • Attainable: If you are properly motivated and use the tools I suggest, there is no reason you shouldn’t succeed.
  • Realistic: Learning 2,000 kanji in one week is stretching it, but 3 months is a very doable timeframe if you are consistent.
  • Time Bound: You will be choosing a specific date on the calendar to complete your mission, not some vague “later this year” goal.

Create Your List of S.M.A.R.T. Kanji Goals

Now it’s your turn. Take out a piece of paper (writing by hand is better than typing; trust me!) and write down your own S.M.A.R.T. kanji goals.

In addition to what you will do, also consider making goals about what you won’t do. For example, pursue unhealthy, time consuming activities that get in the way of your learning goals, like playing video games, watching T.V., sleeping too much, etc.

If you are stuck, start with the following two goals:

1. How many kanji will I learn each day?

Some simple math will show that you need to learn at least 23 kanji every day to complete your mission on schedule (2,042 kanji ÷ 90 days = 22.7).

What I suggest is learning 25 to 30 a day to buy yourself some breathing room in case of unforeseen emergencies, business trips, social events, or Godzilla attacks.

But no matter how many kanji you actually learn on a given day (even if the number is zero), keep track of it on your blog.

If you fall below 25 kanji on a given day, you can always just make them up the next day. Just don’t let yourself get into that habit or you will quickly find yourself way behind schedule.

2. How many minutes / hours will I commit to learning each day?

While not as crucial as the number of kanji you learn per day, your study time does matter.

After you have gotten into the swing of things, you should have a good idea of how many minutes it takes you on average to learn one kanji. You can then figure out how many minutes per day you need to meet your daily kanji goal.

3. Take Baby Steps

If you ever catch yourself getting overwhelmed by your final kanji goal (we all do once in a while), just take a breath and remember to take things one kanji at a time.

Or as Anne Lamott puts it in Bird by Bird, her must-read book on writing and life:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

Your Kanji-Learning Toolkit

Now that we have established these needed psychological factors, let’s talk about the tools and technology you will use to accomplish your mission:

  • Remembering the Kanji (book and iOS app)
  • Anki (spaced repetition software)
  • WWWJDIC (web and app-based Japanese dictionary)

1. Remembering the Kanji (RTK)

There is a simple reason why it takes Japanese children a decade to learn all standard-use kanji. The same reason is why most foreign adult learners fail to master Chinese characters. It’s rote memory.

Whether in a Japanese elementary school or a Japanese university class in the West, this same tired, ineffective method of learning is applied year after year despite its terrible track record.

Fortunately, James Heisig’s breakthrough work Remembering the Kanji: A Complete Guide on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters provides us with a far more effective and adult-friendly approach to learning kanji.

Instead of trying to force characters into memory through tedious repetition, Heisig’s approach leverages what he calls “imaginative memory”.

Simply, the technique involves using your creativity and experience to create vivid, unforgettable stories. These stories conjure up the basic meaning of a given kanji and the “primitive elements” of which it is composed.

In Heisig’s words:

“The aim is to shock the mind’s eye, to disgust it, enchant it, to tease it, or to entertain it in any way possible so as to brand it with an image intimately associated with the key word.”

Benny tried something similar himself with Thai symbols. He explained how he learned to be able to read Thai in just a few hours in this post – so with a good imagination, you can also attempt to create the associations yourself.

Some Tips to Get the Most Out of Remember the Kanji

  • Do not start going through the kanji until you have read the book’s introduction. The study method employed in RTK is very different from traditional study and it is essential that you understand the “how” and “why” behind it.
  • Don’t just say the keywords out loud; literally see, hear, taste, smell and feel the stories.
  • Make sure you know the exact meaning of each and every keyword. Look them up on Wikipedia or do a Google Image search if necessary.
  • Study before bed and upon waking. Studying right before bed is a great way to unwind from your busy day. Moreover, our brains consolidate new information while we sleep, so anything you get into your head before the lights go out has a better chance of being retained. Reviewing last night’s kanji upon waking ensures you get some study time in, no matter how hectic your day becomes.
  • Get the official RTK iOS app. It is not a replacement for the book (as it does not include the stories or instructions, but it does provide an excellent, portable way to review what you’ve already learned.
  • Use what Barry M. Farber, author of How to Learn Any Language, calls hidden moments: “those otherwise meaningless scraps of time you’d never normally think of putting to any practical use, and using them for language study—even if it’s no more than fifteen, ten, or five seconds at a time—can turn you into a triumphant tortoise.”

Benny shares his thoughts on utilizing your time better in this post, and how he does it with Anki explained below here].

2. Anki

You may love flashcards or think they are the root of all evil. I personally find them a useful addition to (not replacement of) authentic content and communication with native speakers.

Anki (暗記・あんき), a name which literally means “memorization”, is a computer, web, and app-based flashcard system. It uses the powers of “spaced repetition” to help you better remember words, phrases, and yes, kanji.

Like other spaced repetition systems (SRS), Anki automatically schedules re-exposures to specific cards based on how difficult you rate them. Easier cards will be shown less often while those more difficult will come back around right away.

This makes your study time and energy far more efficient since you won’t have to waste your time going through items you already know.

Thankfully, other studious Anki users have already gone to the trouble of creating Remembering the Kanji flashcard decks. So all you have to do is download them onto your computer or mobile device and use your “hidden moments” for quick reviews throughout the day.

Just make sure that you have actually created strong, imaginative stories for each character first and don’t use Anki to fall back on the highly inefficient rote memorization track.

3. WWWJDIC

Jim Breen’s WWWJDIC is the de facto online Japanese dictionary for non-native speakers.

You can look up kanji dozens of ways, including the character itself, the stroke count, the radical, the reading (in kana, romaji, or Chinese Pinyin), or the index code from any of the major kanji dictionaries.

You can access the dictionary free online or via the iOS app (Kotoba!) and Android app (WWWJDIC)

Use the dictionary any time you come across kanji in Remembering the Kanji that you are not 100% sure of the exact keyword meaning.

Takeaway: The 5 Steps to Learn Kanji in 3 Months

This blog post will self-destruct in five seconds…

  • 5… Set up your kanji blog
  • 4… Make bets with your friends
  • 3… Create your S.M.A.R.T. goals
  • 2… Get Remembering the Kanji
  • 1… Download Anki and the WWW JDIC apps.
  • Poof!

You now have everything you need to learn 2,042 kanji in 90 days. Good luck, Mr. Hunt.

Original article by John Fotheringham, updated by the Fluent in 3 Months team.

author headshot

John Fotheringham

Founder, LanguageMastery.com

John is a linguist and the author of Master Japanese. He teaches independent Japanese learners how to get fluent anywhere in the world.

Speaks: English, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese

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