Knowing Enough Kanji

Recently my wife shared some interesting advice. My daughter’s Japanese teacher explained that if you learn enough Japanese kanji (Chinese characters) to reach a third-grade level, you can read 70% of the words in a regular book or magazine. You can’t read academic or difficult texts but things like manga, magazines and such are readable at that level.

But what does this mean?

There are about 2,200 standard, or Jōyō (常用), kanji that Japanese learn as they grow up. My daughter learns them too even though she lives in the US. Kanji are usually divided by school grade level (1st grade, 2nd grade, etc). Here are the kanji up through the 3rd grade:

If you look at the kanji above, there’s only 440 total. That’s a lot less than 2,200. This also confirms what I’ve often noticed: most kanji are only occasionally used. They’re important, and someday you have to learn them anyway, but it’s not urgent. If you can focus on the a smaller subset of very commonly-used kanji, you can rapidly improve your reading skills in Japanese.

Currently, my daughter and I both learn Kanji. She learns the typical Japanese way: she learns only the kanji appropriate for her grade, and she has learned them well. Because Daddy is studying kanji too, she seems to be interested in learning them too. It’s a good reminder that parents are an important influence on their kids. πŸ™‚

On other hand, I use the Heisig method, which teaches the kanji in a completely different order. Plus, I learned many kanji in the past through “covergence“. In the Heisig method, I learned ζ—­, a pretty uncommon kanji, before I learned really common ones like 火 and ζ°΄. But as an adult, the Heisig method works a lot better for me because I can see the connections more easily. Why did I learn ζ—­ so early in the book? Because I learned 九 and ζ—₯, and ζ—­ is just a combination of the two.

The only problem with the Heisig method I see so far is that many of the really common kanji happen to be at the very end of the book because they have unique shapes and you cannot build them from other kanji you learned.

So, if you’re an adult learning kanji, here’s my advice:

  1. Learn the most fundamental kanji first. Learning even the first 300 or so is super-useful.
  2. Also, spend a lot of time learning to read basic Japanese books, like children’s books, or young manga, or something else that’s simple. Get used to reading Hiragana and Katakana and basic Kanji (with the pronunciation guides) so that it becomes second-nature. I found that Doraemon comics are very good for this, and genuinely fun to read. My daughter has lots of them around the house. πŸ™‚
  3. Once you’ve mastered #1 and #2, jump into the Heisig method to learn the rest. It’s a long investment of time, but it will really help bridge the gap between learning the basic kanji and learning the entire Joyo series.

If you start from the Heisig method, it will take a quite a while before efforts pay off, so it’s better to master some fundamental kanji first, then use Heisig to finish it off. At least that’s my opinion. Also, reading in wild is hugely helpful for helping you remember them too. If you don’t do this, don’t expect to remember the kanji a year later, or even 6 months later.

Good luck!

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

3 thoughts on “Knowing Enough Kanji”

  1. Wow, great advice! Because it’s pretty close to what I’m doing right now. πŸ˜›

    I’m reading a children’s educational manga, working my way through the first Bonjinsha Basic Kanji Book (which is 250 kanji), and starting the Heisig method. I wish methods like Anki and flashcards worked better for me, but I’m just not a huge fan – especially not when you grade yourself. I may start doing the kanji calendars again, starting over every couple years after I finish them both. I’ll definitely have to check out Doraemon comics, but I have a TON of manga I haven’t even cracked open yet.

    I finished the Basic Kanji Book before (over 4 years ago) and am about half way through another go around. This time I’m not spending as much time writing each kanji for repetitions, mostly going for being able to recognize the shape, being able to recall the readings, and using multiple encounters of the kanji in context (through workbook drills) for better memorization. Plan on hitting the second Basic Kanji Book once I’m finished with the first one and am considering tackling the Intermediate Kanji Book series as well, before finishing up with the Kanji In Context workbooks. Filling out kanji squares just doesn’t have a whole lot of pay off if even hundreds of repetitions means I’m still going to forget how to write the kanji in a few months anyway. I do believe SRS works, but I’m going to have to get it from exposure via reading instead of flash cards or the old fashioned square method.

    So far, the Heisig method has pleasantly surprised me. In the intro, he discusses why memorizing etymology of a kanji (a selling point of Henshall’s Remembering Japanese Characters) doesn’t often work – because it’s one more unrelated detail to remember, and his observation actually proved correct for me while stumbling over kanji I’d already learned. I think his method of primitives works better than purely studying radicals, but I understand this opinion may be somewhat un-academic. Looks like the companion website, http://kanji.koohii.com/ is just a flashcard site?

    I’m trying to put together my own “Meanings, Readings, and Vocab” as Koichi talks about in this blog post:
    http://www.tofugu.com/2014/02/14/the-different-ways-to-learn-kanji-as-i-see-it/
    Heisig gives me mnemonics, meanings, and radical/primitive building blocks so I don’t need to rely so heavily on filling out kanji boxes. The Kanji workbooks give me pronunciations/readings, vocab, and the repetition of accessing the kanji from memory. Reading materials give me a lot more repetition and really expand on the vocab, often giving me more readings. I guess I could do flashcards – I have the 2 boxes of cards from white rabbit, but I don’t really know how to incorporate them into a routine.

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  2. I didn’t know that statistic about 70% of the Kanji covered by up to the third grade level, that’s pretty amazing.

    One cool way to learn Kanji, or at least words that use any Kanji you aren’t familiar with, is using a Kindle. You can configure it to read Japanese novels and you simply touch on the Kanji to do a dictionary lookup.

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  3. Hi guys,

    Pork Chop: For some reason your post was flagged and I had to manually approve it. Weird. Might have been all the URLs. Anyhow, yeah Heisig’s method isn’t perfect, and he fully admits that, but it sure gets you a lot further, faster, and since I can now comfortably write 900+ kanji I can tell you it works. πŸ™‚

    I still read children’s books from time to time, but I keep going back and re-reading certain manga I like instead. Children’s books just don’t really keep my interest, but certain topics do.

    I used the White Rabbit cards, and basic set was really useful because those kanji are used so much, but by the time I got to the second set I was stuck in the same rut as you. I eventually gave them to someone else at work. They’re great cards, but you really can’t learn kanji that way.

    locksleyu: Yeah, you can do that on iPhones too. You can select a kanji and ask to define it, which is handy, though you have to be able to read a Japanese dictionary which I still struggle a bit. πŸ™‚

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