If you’ve picked up this post you’re probably struggling with remembering the kanji.
You might have tried different approaches so far. Some of them work well. And yet, the number of kanji you need to know to be able to read native materials scares you.
In this post I will address this issue based on my personal experience.
My solution might sound obvious to you, but be aware that this is only what worked for me.
But before telling you what ‘my secret’ is, let me give you an insight into the struggles I had to go through until I realized how to reach an almost native-like ability in reading Japanese.
As some of you probably did, I started learning Japanese in a language class.
Kanji were introduced a few at a time in our textbook, and we had a test every week. We would be asked to recognize them in full sentences, choose the correct pronunciation, and write them in the correct stroke order.
However, the teacher never taught us how to go about studying them.
Sounds familiar, huh?
Feeling completely at a loss, I spent all my years at college experimenting with strategies such as…
How did I get on?
Well… I wouldn’t be writing this post if I told you those strategies were effective! I mean… yes, I did well on my kanji tests. But that was not my main concern.
What I really wanted was to have a method that would allow me to commit as many kanji as I could to long-term memory, and to finally be able to read real stuff!
Right… but at what cost?
Implementing those ineffective strategies was tedious and maintaining momentum was very hard. Not to mention the fact that I kept forgetting characters and that it was depressing.
Until the day I finally landed in Japan and my entire perspective changed.
One of my biggest realizations
I first got to Japan (Sapporo) on a one-year scholarship back in 1998 – a real dream come true!
As I was walking downtown for the first time, I felt bombarded by the huge number of kanji on shop signs, flashing big-screen ads… It was so overwhelming that I used to get headaches during my entire first month there.
Too many kanji to remember, and yet there they were! I’d see them everywhere I looked.
All of a sudden, a tiny little voice whispered in my head:
"Stop studying them! Get used to them!”
That’s it! – I said to myself. From then on, I started to pay more attention to the kanji I’d see around me every day. I decided to relax and try to guess their meanings from context. Station names, shop signs, subtitles on TV… and the method seemed to work pretty well!
However, what helped me the most was… reading.
I love bookstores! I can spend hours browsing through the shelves. Whenever I want to know more about a specific topic, I just buy a book. I used to do that back home.
And that’s exactly what I did in Japan! The only difference?
When the magic happened
With my intermediate level in the language, if felt weird to start reading materials which were intended for native speakers. But luckily, the Internet was not so widespread back then.
In the beginning, I’d look up most unknown words in a dictionary or ask a Japanese friend, until I got so tired of doing so that I decided to just keep reading and ignore most of them.
The outcome of that decision was amazing!
After reading a few books, it seemed like the same kanji words were occurring over and over again. I was astonished by my ability to recognize them and felt motivated to read more.
Relying on just Japanese for any information that I needed had become a habit!
I can’t explain how it worked, but I can definitely say that ‘massive exposure’ was the magic formula which helped me to effortlessly acquire a huge number of kanji in just a few months.
Since then, I’ve never ‘studied’ kanji any more. In fact, I’ve never even tried to!
How to get massive exposure to kanji outside Japan
I know what you may be thinking now:
O.K… you were in Japan, totally immersed in the culture. It’s easier to learn that way! But how can I get that massive exposure if I’m not living there?
Well… nowadays you can. Living there doesn’t really matter. What really matters is getting enough exposure. So how can you do that ?
I’ll share with you a few tips that come to mind on how you can do it too.
1) Start reading online first
Choose a topic you are interested in and find short texts online (news, blog posts, novels).
There are plenty of resources available for free!
Based on your current level, you might try the following links:
Traditional Japanese Children’s Stories, where you can find several traditional Japanese fairy tales written in very simple Japanese with English translation line-by-line underneath.
日本語教育の教材 (Nihongo kyōiku no kyōzai, “Materials for Japanese Language Education”), a collection of story tales and other readings on Japanese culture.
Matcha, a web magazine with lots of articles on food, current events, travel tips and other aspects of the culture translated into several languages. They also offer an “easy” version of some of the articles for less advanced students (the one in the link).
福娘童話集 (Fukumusume dōwa-shū, “Good Fortune Girl Fairy Tale Collection”), where you can listen to traditional folk tales and legends from Japan and other countries with text and audio in Japanese.
News Web Easy, simplified news with audio and furigana on top of the kanji offered by NHK.
Watanoc, a free web magazine in simple Japanese.
NippoTalk, Japanese texts with furigana and English translations.
Wasabi (Manga), where you can read a manga called ‘Give My Regards to Black Jack’ with English translation and language notes.
青空文庫 (Aozora Bunkō, “Blue Sky Library”), a free online digital library with thousands of out-of-copyright works by Japanese and Western authors.
小説を読もう (Shōsetsu o yomō, ”Let’s read novels”), a website where you can find hundreds of short stories that you can read for free.
TED Talks, where you can find subtitles and transcripts of many interesting speeches on various topics translated into several languages including Japanese. Unfortunately, the videos are only in English.
You could also read some articles from Wikipedia, the news, or any text that interests you. Two amazing automatic translators that can help you get a good understanding of what you read are DeepL and Mirai Translation.
During this first stage I suggest you get furigana on top of the kanji. Use the NihongoDera website for that or just copy & paste your text into the Reading Tutor which also offers a beautiful list with the meanings of all the kanji words in your text.
The same thing is possible on the Rikai website, which allows you to run your mouse over an unknown word and get a pop-up window with readings and meanings.
2) Type in Japanese as much as you can
Typing is a great way to develop your ability to recognize and pick the correct kanji among the many homophones.
You can do different activities such as copying out dialogues from your textbook, transcribing audio recordings, typing out short excerpts of what you read online.
Another thing you can do is be creative and post your own texts on Lang-8, where native speakers will correct them for free. This last strategy will also help you improve your writing skills.
3) Use the Google Map Street View to virtually visit Japan
Have some fun! Grab the little yellow man in Google Map and drop him somewhere in a Japanese city! Navigate through its streets and try to decipher the signs you see around you.
For those that you can’t read, take a screen shot and post the picture on your favourite social network, or simply ask a Japanese friend.
This activity will help you get used to what you’ll experience when you visit Japan.
4) Attack real books or other printed materials
Once you’ve had enough exposure to texts online and you feel confident enough, start reading real books or other materials you can print by yourself.
Again, take things one step at a time.
If you like simple stories, have a look at the Tadoku (多読) website where you can find lots of easy readers graded by level.
Alternatively, you can always pick up a bilingual book (対訳 taiyaku) or the Japanese translation of something you’ve read in your mother tongue and try to go through it.
There’s no limit to what you can choose but be sure it’s something that interests you!
Unfortunately, there’s no ‘secret’ or shortcut to increasing the number of kanji you know other than simply getting used to them!
Sometimes it’s just a matter of changing your mindset and choosing the right strategy.
It might take you some time, but massive exposure will definitely help you reach the stage of being able to understand 90% or more of what you read, no matter how you do it.
The key is to choose content you are passionate about, relax and keep reading!
There you are!
This is what worked for me. I’m sure you may have a different view on this issue.
I hope it’s given you a few ideas for your own learning anyway!
What works for you? Any tips to share? Leave me a comment below!