The Kanji writing script in Japanese is the most difficult to master, not only in terms of putting pen to paper, but also in terms of quantity. There are more than 45,000 Kanji, and each ideogram can consist of as many as 20 different strokes. It’s easy to want to give up when you first learn the dizzying extent of this writing system, especially when you find out that it is just one of three different scripts used in the Japanese language. Don’t be disheartened though. While it might be more challenging to learn than both the Japanese Hiragana and Katakana scripts, it can also be the most satisfying. In this guide we’re going to try and demystify the curious-looking Kanji characters by filling you in on the backstory, some of the most common uses, and some of the best resources you can use to learn the numerous ideograms.
The History of Kanji
Before we jump straight into the modern day usage of Kanji in Japanese writing, we’re going to see how this fascinating writing system first came to be. Interestingly, the Kanji writing system didn’t originate in Japan. The ideograms you see in modern Japanese writing were in fact borrowed from Chinese, and simply adjusted for Japanese pronunciation. If this seems odd, then just wait until you find out about the other two Japanese writing systems, since their origins are much less clear. Many people claim that Japanese is one of the only languages for a major nation that has origins which are exceptionally hard to pin down for linguists. The difficulty with borrowing Kanji from Chinese is that it means each ideogram can have several meanings and pronunciations and as a result can be very confusing for language-learners.
Unlike the other two systems of writing in Japanese, Kanji’s characters represent ideas and words as opposed to just sounds and syllables. This means that each Kanji ideogram you come across will have its own distinct meaning, and makes up a solid building block in its own right.
It’s worth looking at Kanji as the foundations of the Japanese language, or as the structure. By knowing the Kanji alone, you can create a picture in another Japanese-speaker’s mind of what you are trying to say. To the extent that you can communicate just about anything using just Kanji. Where Kanji fall short is in the nuance and the small details. While there is an ideogram for the verb ‘to watch’, there isn’t one for ‘watching’. To get the exact meaning you want to convey, you’ll likely need to use the Hiragana script too, since it is responsible for providing suffixes to Kanji stems. This applies to all the main parts of speech, which includes nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. This is different from Chinese, which can be written entirely in Kanji. One of the best ways to study these characters is by consulting one of the many Kanji charts available, as this will give you many common ideograms at a glance. Such charts are often divided into themes for convenience, so you might have one for numbers, another for verbs, and another for places or objects.
We’ve established that Kanji ideograms are used for different parts of speech, but just how important is it that you take the time to learn them if you study Japanese? In short, it’s crucial. Not only do Japanese Kanji appear more so than the other two writing systems in texts, but knowing the most common ideograms can accelerate your progress exponentially. If you’ve come here looking for a language hack for studying the tough to master language of Japanese, then we’d recommend that you take the time to learn the most common Kanji. If you know the top 100-200 most common Kanji characters, then you should be able to recognise and understand around half of what you see in texts. If you go a step further and learn as many as 3000, your reading comprehension will be nigh on perfect and you should grasp all but the most niche of words you come across. Knowing this can be empowering since it’s easy to feel defeated at the prospect of learning over 45,000 intricately designed Kanji ideograms. Commit to learning the most common Kanji and you will be well on your way to better reading comprehension and writing skills in Japanese. Of course, the caveat here is that you shouldn’t do so completely at the expense of the other two scripts, since they are also important in Japanese writing.
Once you’ve achieved the great feat of learning and committing to memory some of the most common kanji, the next stage is to learn to produce them yourself. While writing in any foreign language is a challenge, few come close to the difficulty of nailing the Japanese Kanji. Since each character is an intricate ideogram, it will take you some time just to learn how to write a single character. While this means that written Japanese looks amazing and worthy of recreating carefully through calligraphy, it can be quite a challenge. Each ideogram can have anywhere between 2-20 strokes, so make sure you’ve got a comfortable writing position, as this could take some time.
The first thing you need to do before you try to write a Kanji character is find it in the dictionary. In the dictionary, not only will you find the definition, but you will also come across the stroke order. As a general rule though, horizontal strokes should come first and vertical ones afterwards. There are exceptions though, like the Kanji for ‘tree’ and ‘water’ which require you to write the vertical line first. This is because it makes more sense due to the horizontal lines branching off the main horizontal line. Right to left diagonals should come before left to right diagonals. Dots and dashes are always the last things you should draw for any Kanji.
If you have a horizontal stroke you should make it from left to right, and if it's a vertical stroke you should do it from top to bottom. Whenever you draw a box, it should be done with three strokes. While this may seem counterintuitive, it’s easy to do once you get the hang of it. As for characters enclosed in boxes, you should make the outside walls of the box first with two strokes, then draw the inside as normal, and with your last stroke draw the base of the box.
Resources to Learn Kanji
Learning Kanji is one of the best things you can do to improve your Japanese, and also one of the most challenging. As a result, you would be wise to make the most of the many incredible resources out there which can make things a lot easier and even more entertaining. Before looking at any of the fun multimedia resources, the first thing you should do is invest in a good Kanji dictionary. This dictionary will be something you consult on a regular basis, not only for meaning, but to see how the ideogram looks, and how to produce it with correct stroke order. Once you have your dictionary, you will have a reference point to return to whenever you have any doubts.
- Kanji in Context
One of the best books you can get for learning Kanji is the textbook course called Kanji in context. This course details everything you need to know to pass the JLPT to the level of N1, which is approximately 2000 characters. It gives you a detailed explanation of each ideogram, which are in two different colours so you can get the information you need quickly. There is also a workbook for practising.
- Kanji Pict-o-Graphix
This clever book plays on the visual aspect of Kanji and provides useful mnemonic devices to aid memorisation. Providing visual images that mirror the Kanji, you can easily pick up the meaning of each ideogram without trying to remember the specific stroke structure. The book is arranged according to different themes like the sun and travel, so you can find what you want easily enough, and group common words together as you learn them.
- That Japanese Man Yuta
This popular YouTube channel is both informative and entertaining, and can give plenty of insight into Kanji and the grammar of the Japanese language, as well as what life is like in Japan.
This channel attracts lots of Japanese language-learners with its easy-to-follow style and detailed explanations accompanied by pleasant visuals on-screen.
Online Resources & Apps
This website should be your one-stop shop for just about everything related to Kanji. Through its extensive database you can find any Kanji word, along with an audio clip of it, its definitions, and various forms. Think of it as the dictionary you don’t have to flick through when you’re in a rush.
Anki is a fantastic app for whatever language you’re learning. It’s especially useful for Kanji though as you can use the spaced repetition technique for more effective memorisation.
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