In my time living in Japan I have heard many people say that you need to memorize around 2000 Kanji characters to be able to fluently learn Japanese. Based on my experience, I know that it took me personally 3 or 4 years of rigorous study, most of that studying taking place in Japan, to get that level.
While I will delve extensively into my own personal experience studying Japanese in Japan at both a Japanese language school and Japanese university, as well as my estimate to how many hours I have spent studying Japanese, first I would like to offer you some advice on things I have learned over the years through trial and error that have made my habits studying and memorizing kanji much more efficient, and much easier.
Tip for studying kanji #1: Respect the stroke order
Every kanji in Japanese has a set stroke order that native speakers have drilled into their brains from the time they begin primary school. It is important to memorize this stroke order if you hope to gain a certain level of authenticity in your penmanship comparable to a native Japanese speaker.
What is stroke order? How does it help you write kanji?
The kanji’s ‘stroke order’ is the exact order in which each individual stroke that makes up each overall kanji character is written. You can think of a kanji stroke order like a map that lays out the exact directions in order that it takes to construct each character with a proper visual aesthetic and balance.
Here’s a real-life example
Have you ever assembled Ikea furniture? You know those instruction booklets that shows you visually the exact order for assembly with each individual piece included in the box? This is comparable example to the way stroke order works in kanji. If you suddenly jump from step number 2 to step number 4, you might still be able to assemble the furniture, but things might be a few millimeters off, and you may have to start shoving pieces in where they may not fit properly.
An example of proper kanji stroke order
I better explain the above example visually I have created a visualization of the stroke order for the Japanese character 見, which means to see or visualize.
How appropriate! I’m a genius.
You can drag through the pictures below to see the whole progression of the stroke order for this particular kanji.
Why is it important to memorize a kanji’s stroke order?
Stroke order actually does affect the design of kanji in a subtle way. Its important to remember that the base shapes from which kanji characters are built were originally drawn with a brush. This is a subtle principle of calligraphy. If you look very closely the ‘flow’ of kanji characters also add a distinct flavor in their design. When you’re using a brush to draw these characters, the drag of the bristles is very apparent in the subtleties that make much up each character’s aesthetic. It’s pretty easy to tell when somebody has written a character in the wrong stroke order, because certain lines will be too thick, or it will be obviously that what is supposed to be one stroke was written as two individual strokes, etc. For example, let’s look at the character below.
The above kanji indicates direction, and i’ll be talking about the direction of individual strokes in kanji design.
Wow, look at me being a genius again!
If you look at the center square, you can see that there are corners jutting out, right? This is because the left-most stroke of the inner circle is one downward stroke. Leaving this little bump hanging out at the bottom demonstrates the flow of the brush.
You can then see the stroke on the top of that inner circle as well as the right side of the circle. This right angle is one motion, which is why there is a larger bump above the top-right side of the inner circle. This bump is left-over from the brush turning this right corner. You can confirm this with the image below.
The ‘brush flick’ is important
You may have noticed this little ‘flick’ on the bottom right of this character. You can also see this on the end of the 見 kanji I used to demonstrate kanji stroke order above, although it’s a bit more subtle than what you say here. This ‘flick’ is meant to mimic the look of a brush lifting off the page, and is one more example of how the design of kanji emphasis the flow of how they are written. When you get fast enough at writing each character, you will start to internalize this ‘flow’ or rhythm’. On some fonts this ending ‘flick’ is omitted, but most written Japanese will include these flourishes to an extent. While this is by no means a priority when learning kanji, if this ending flick is in the wrong spot, you can know that your stroke order is probably wrong. The character will also just look a bit…off
Tip for studying kanji #2: Write as much as you can, and invest in a fine-tip pen or pencil with well-distributed weight
The biggest, absolute biggest piece of advice I can give somebody when learning kanji, and I cannot stress this point enough, is that in order to memorize kanji, you will need to write kanji! Write until your hand is cramped. Go to the store, buy a notebook, and fill it out. Just find characters you want to memorize and write them over, and over, and over…this really is the best way to do it.
To make this process a little bit more personal and fun, I highly investing a bit of money into a pen or mechanical pencil with a nice, balanced weight, and a design that you like. As a language learner, a nice pen or pencil is something you will use more than a dictionary, and more than a textbook. If you’re doing things right, that is.
Doing things…write…ha…haha..ha (I’m sorry, I’ll stop)
My personal recommendation for a pen and pencil to use to study kanji
I have both a pen, and a mechanical pencil that I bought 4 years ago which I am still using today! I purchased these both when I was going through university in Japan. At the time, between taking notes during class and practicing writing Japanese, I would fill actually fill up a 100 page notebook every 3 or 4 weeks. As I became more and more of a perfectionist in terms of improving my penmanship in Japanese (and English) I decided to invest in a nicer pen and pencil. I have linked them below!
The mechanical pencil I use to study kanji
The really like this mechanical pencil because of it’s perfect weight distribution and simple design. I’m kind of a minimalist, and don’t really like ostentatious colors, etc. Even more important than the design, this mechanical pencil uses 0.5 mm thin lead, which is a little bit rare in nicer mechanical pencils. I wanted the smallest lead possible for reasons I will explain below.
The pen I use to study kanji
I choose this pen for two reasons; Similarly to the mechanical pencil I listed above, I just liked the weight. It’s well distributed, a bit heavily, and helps you write with the natural flow that will help you mimic a brush. Second, I choose a fountain pen because I wanted the thinnest pen tip possible. It’s also a pretty good entry-level fountain pen at $80. You get quality, but I personally could care less about expensive materials or craftsmanship. You get a good weight, great writing experience, and nice minimal design.
Why a thin pen tip is important, and how I choose the above pen and mechanical pencil
Using a pen tip that is too thick will make it very difficult to confirm the accuracy of your own penmanship in Japanese when you start learning more complicated kanji. For example, imagine writing this kanji; 無意識. When you first start practicing, you will want to use the most thin pen tip possible to practice maintaining the perfect balance between strokes.
I choose the above mechanical pencil and pen by going to the nearest high-end pen store in downtown Osaka (in this case, Kaweco, which is a German maker, not Japanese. How could I, right?) , and trying several different models until I found these two. I liked their weight, simple design, and as I stated above, I was looking for a thin pen tip, and a mechanical pencil that used thin lead. There is definitely personal preference in these choices, but they have served me well for around 4 years so-far, and are still going strong. My only complaint is that I have noticed the coating coming off slightly on the mechanical pencil. I suppose it’s natural ware-and-tear. You can see what I mean in the pictures below.
Tip for studying kanji #3: Learn techniques to teach yourself Japanese so you can learn in any environment
How to study kanji without a textbook
I have used many many textbooks over the years, but I spent the vast majority of my time studying kanji by learning from my surroundings in Japan. That being said, you don’t need to live in Japan to memorize kanji. The key is to place yourself in an immersive environment!
For example, I developed somewhat of a routine to memorize Japanese vocabulary, grammar, and even unique culture points through a study method I designed for learning kanji. This is my method below, which I also touched on a bit in my article below.
Basically, my method for memorizing Japanese and kanji characters works like this; First, whenever you encounter a new kanji character, the first thing I would do is to decipher what the specific way of reading the kanji in that particular context is. For example: in the above image I included the word enryo （遠慮) which is a bit difficult to translate into English, but means something close to the English word “restraint”. However, the first kanji in enryo, 遠, can be pronounced (depending on the context) as too, on, en , o , oni ,do, and doo. Yeah… and honestly, this is one of the easy ones.
Memorizing every single reading for a kanji individually won’t do you much good. At least, that is definitely not the way I approached learning. I have always taken an approach of learning what I actually came across in Japanese, and then reinforcing what I deem to be more practical into my brain with such intensity as to never forget it.
So, back to the method. Once you decipher the specific way to read the kanji for each word, write it in parenthesis next to the word in hiragana.
Why you should check the reading in hiragana (and not in English)
Often, the way Japanese words are written in Japanese hiragana, and the way they are written in English…just doesn’t quite translate. The correct reading literally gets lost in Translations. A great example of this is actually in Tokyo! But not…Tokyo…in Japanese Tokyo is written (and pronounced) as Toukyou. In English, we rarely incorporate any words that contain this ‘ou’ sound that often exists in Japanese. For this reason, many characters that are difficult to pronounce in English are often omitted.
Still, after nearly 8 years of studying Japanese, the most difficult word for me to pronounce is still ryokyou (旅行), which means travel. Ryoko is a common name in Japan, so there have been a few times where I have said 旅行が好きです, which means “I love to travel”, but the person I was talking to thought I said “I love Ryoko”, and wondered why I was confessing my love for this Ryoko that they had never met. In particular, I have a hard to with the ‘ryo’ sound.
So, now what you’ve recorded the reading in hiragana, I then would write the kanji at least 4 or 5 times. The best way to memorize a language, or a complicated writing system like Japanese kanji, is to write, write, and write some more. I repeat this like a broken record because I don’t believe in short cuts. You have to train your mind to enjoy this process, or you might as well give up on learning Japanese. That’s my honest opinion.
The final step in using this method to memorize kanji
Finally, what I would typically do is to try to punch a sentence using the new word into google. Just try and write anything. You’ll probably get some suggested searches, and by following through with these searches and seeing the exact manner in which Japanese people have used the word, you can get a better idea for the exact nuance of each vocabulary word. The key here is to confirm not just the meaning of the kanji, but to confirm the exact nuance of the kanji, and then confirm the nuance of words that kanji appears in so you can use it in your own sentences. This is a technique designed to make you a self-sufficient Japanese learner.
Why confirming the nuance of words will save you time
Once you get to a certain point in your Japanese-studies, you will eventually reach a point where you will no longer be able to reliably use Japanese-to-English dictionaries. This is because English has a limit to how much it can capture the specific differences between Japanese words. Eventually, you will reach a situation where 3, 4 , or even 5 Japanese words you are studying will all have similar English definitions.
This is why it is very important to learn Japanese…through Japanese. The only way to discover where the holes in your knowledge exist is to use the language, and learn the context of this distance through your proficiency with other vocabulary. Essentially, you are learning the specific nuances of words, which will give you key insight into how words differ from each other and the amount of distance that exists between similar concepts.
Put simply, you are learning how to identify context through studying the exact way native speakers use each vocabulary word, and by extension, each kanji. This process will give you insight into not only how Japanese people think in Japanese, but to how you can think in Japanese, so that you may teach yourself in Japanese. It sounds esoteric, but it will make sense once you reach a certain point. Trust me.
What is it like to read in Japanese?
Reading Japanese is a game of simultaneously using 3 alphabets (hiragana, katakana, and kanji). There are many reasons both in terms of historical background and practicality for why Japanese uses 3 alphabets, but (put very simply) you can think of the way Japanese is read through these 3 alphabets in terms of the principles below;
Hiragana is the core of Japanese. It is the glue that holds the entirety of a sentence together and qualifies the words around it.
Katakana is primarily used to place emphasis on words, or to create distance between the reader and the novelty of a concept. Perhaps appropriately, foreign concepts and loan words are primarily written in katakana.
Kanji is an imported writing system from China that has diverged massively from their original readings. Every kanji character can be read in many different ways as they are logographic, while hiragana and katakana characters are always pronounced the same way.
If you are interested in learning more about the different nuances of these 3 alphabet’s, I went deep into this subject in the article linked below where I studied various Japanese marketing campaigns and the specific ways they used different alphabets to achieve a specific nuance. You can click the link below to read more about that.
How I studied Japanese and learned the essential 2000 kanji characters, and how long it took me to learn kanji; My story
I started studying Japanese in 2013 at university in the US. Classes were only a few hours a week, but I took the initiative to self-study quite a lot. I would say I was probably putting in 2 to 3 hours a day of Japanese study (in general, not just studying Kanji). In early 2015 I moved to Osaka, Japan enter a language school. This is where the total number of hours I devoted to studying can get a bit more ambiguous.
This is because I wasn’t just studying Japanese anymore; I was living my life in Japanese.
I would study in a more academic way through my language school courses, and would then supplement (and test) everything I had just learned by venturing out into into the world around me. Studying doesn’t get any easier when you move abroad, which is an idea contrary to what most people assume. Living in another country does give you more opportunities to expose yourself to another language, but setting itself won’t do the work for you. What this setting does grant is newfound and heightened sense of urgency; The sense for how your biggest wins, and your biggest losses, can genuinely influence your life and the world around you.
Put simply, seizing the opportunities of life abroad in Japan (or any other country) will allow you begin to feel a genuine connection between your actions and any direct consequences.
Once you begin to feel your results, they are no longer just theoretical. You can now see with your own eyes, hear with you own ears, and feel with your own emotions need avenues for connection and conversation with those around you. This is when things start to get fun.
One of my favorite things to do after my language school classes was to test out any new crazy saying or phrases I had learned out on some locals. I would go talk to people at a bar or café and try to naturally slip some new thing I had learned into the conversation, and then look at their reaction. Often times, I would find out that nobody actually uses that word, only grandma’s say it like that, or that I had just totally butchered the grammar or pronunciation. Getting this kind of immediate feedback is something I would really recommend. It gets you thinking in smaller steps, which will help you stop worrying about your overall progress in terms of hours or JLPT rankings. If you choose to take the leap and are serious about moving to Japan, or even just learning Japanese, this process of language learning needs to become a part of your overall lifestyle. It needs to become a part of your day so engrained in your subconscious that you approach it in the same way you would brushing your teeth or drinking water. How many hours have I spent learning Japanese? I… really don’t have any idea. I enrolled in university in Japan after I graduated from my Japanese language school, and then went on to move to Tokyo for work in 2020, so I am still continuing to live my life everyday in Japanese. I spend more time just living my day to day life, and less time with a textbook as the years go on. That being said, if I were to pick a number, I would guess it’s somewhere in the range of of 7,000 and 10,000 hours at this point, assuming I have spent 3-4 hours actively learning things a day over a span of 7 hours?
Yeah, honestly it doesn’t work like that. The line between studying and practicing, improving vs. using your language skills just becomes too vague over the years. This perception is something that is difficult to control, and it can be all too tempting to allow it to consume your time and energy. In my experience, the focus should be on consistent and steady progression.
If you are focusing on learning kanji characters, you are much better off memorizing one or two new kanji a day than cramming flash cards into your head once a week.
By focusing on creating a new lifestyle around studying Japanese that fits your specific goals and situations, you will be able to continue progressing at a pace that is sustainable, which is more important than anything else.
I hope you found this guide and recounting of my experiences to be helpful.
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If you are interested in learning Japanese or studying abroad in Japan
…and would like to know more about my experience enrolling in Japanese language school and university, please check out the articles below!