"But I can totally read Japanese fine with hiragana and katakana..."
"... as long as the kanji have furigana!"
Does this sound like you? Do you find yourself justifying not putting in the hours for kanji study?
We're going to share a secret with you – why you need to study kanji.
Test your current kanji level
Take the kanji quiz – it's only 5 questions – and see what your current kanji level looks like!
You must learn kanji to be a functional adult in Japan
And we have it so easy now... There's no excuse.
A long time ago (like, in the mid-00's) you 100% needed to be able to write kanji from memory. Fact.
There were no fancy apps in the phone in your pocket to be able to double check the kanji you were trying to write. It sucked, because you knew for sure it was either 祭 or 際 as you were trying to fill out the form at the doctor's office, but damned if you could just double check it somehow. You needed to know that stuff like the back of your hand.
Nowadays, you can whip out the Japanese dictionary app at the real estate office, fill out your paperwork, and be on your way.
But what happens when you can't quickly skim the contents of the contract you're about to sign? How about when you're looking at a physical map and you don't know the difference between 弘前 and 神宮前?
You lose some of your freedom to operate as an adult in Japan, and it holds you back from opportunities.
Learning kanji doesn't have to suck
When you first start out learning kanji, the process can look overwhelming. There are numerous readings, vague translations, and... well, there's just a lot of them.
But really, there's no need to stress about it. It's all about process and goals. How many kanji do you want to learn in a day/week/month, and how do you intend to get there?
Mind you, we're fond of our own product, the JLPT Kanji Poster Set, which breaks down 2200 kanji by JLPT level (difficulty), and assigns each one an English translation, plus the major pronunciations in Japanese. We started selling it in 2014, and it's become a worldwide hit, with thousands sold each year. That being said, it's not the only way to learn kanji!
What is a reasonable goal for learning kanji?
In our experience, people starting out tend to go a bit crazy with their goals...
"I'm going to learn 100 kanji this week!" or, "I'll do 50 kanji a day until I've got them all!"
In reality, you tend to learn kanji, but then forget them almost as fast as you're learning them. This is why we're a proponent of constant exposure, and why we offer free kanji practice genkoyoshi for people who want to practice writing.
A reasonable goal is one you can commit to for a long time. If that's 5 kanji a day, or even 1 kanji a day – that's your best goal.
Now, if you have a test (say, the JLPT) creeping up and you need to hit a certain threshold by then, then that's your answer.
However, let's put all the questions to bed and say that most people are capable of learning 30 kanji per week. This includes revision and going back to see what you've forgotten.
If you learned just 30 kanji per week, you would hit 2200 kanji in about 15 months. That's it. You would be a kanji master, and never need to learn kanji again.
So what's the best way to learn kanji then?
Again, it totally depends on the person, and some may love one method that everyone else hates.
Really, though, there is no substitute for repetition. Whether you do it manually, or use an SRS app like Anki, you have to see each kanji a lot before they start to cement themselves in your mind.
Most successful Japanese learners have a stack of notebooks and homemade flashcards with thousands of kanji scribbled on them. It tends to be that pen-on-paper is the best method to make sure the characters really stick in your consciousness. That one kanji that gave you so much trouble to try and write the first 10 times – that's the one you're gong to recall without trouble even 5 years in the future.
You can learn kanji totally online, but it's not recommended
It feels good to find a web page or a site with all the info you need. You can comfortably sit on the train and sift through all the kanji without the need to open a book or sharpen a pencil.
However, this does lead to a situation where you can't easily write the kanji in a moment of need. You would be amazed how much paperwork there is in Japan. Even more than that, it's often totally manual, with no online option.
So it's hugely important to build muscle memory for writing kanji and to be able to reproduce (at least) a handful of the most common ones totally from memory.
Anki won't help you with that!
Ready to get the best kanji education?
We started years ago as a publisher with our JLPT Kanji Poster Set, and now we help connect committed Japanese learners with the top Japanese schools throughout Japan.
If you want to experience living in Japan while you study at one of the best schools in the country, check out our Japanese language schools program page and see if there's the right program for you.
We believe in taking your studies as far as you can for cheap (or free) at home, but when you're ready to take the next step to absolutely blow past barriers and plateaus in your kanji and Japanese studies, see if studying in Japan is right for you.
Learning kanji is a challenge, but it's a challenge worth taking on. Let us know if you have specific kanji study questions!