Read, write, and remember the kanji

There is a lot of differing opinion about whether foreign learners of the Japanese language should learn kanji, and whether they should be introduced at an early stage in the learning of Japanese. The philosophy at NihongoUp is simple—you’re not learning Japanese unless you are learning kanji. You wouldn’t teach somebody to swim by teaching them how to move their arms, how to breathe properly but fail to teach them how to kick their feet.

Shodō (Japanese brush calligraphy)

Learning Japanese is only truly possible when kanji are treated as an integral part of the language—not an ‘optional extra’ for those keen enough to want to read a newspaper. You can only truly understand the meaning of a Japanese word when you look at the kanji. With such a limited number of sounds used in Japanese, without kanji sentences would be ambiguous and difficult to read. Kanji are therefore indispensable when trying to understand the form of written Japanese.

The original NihongoUp game was all about reviewing kanji, but the new Japanese learning community had no dedicated kanji section at launch, which surprised our early-adopters. Of course, kanji were introduced from the very first lessons, but they were barely discussed in detail, and there was only a handful of tools and resources dedicated to learning them.

Today, we’re pleased to announce the launch of a wide array of kanji-related content on NihongoUp, which will help you discover, review, and most importantly learn to love, what many believe is the most difficult aspect of the Japanese language.

Read the kanji

We now have dedicated kanji lessons in the Learn section of the site. The kanji are grouped in thematic clusters, ten characters per lesson. This is because kanji are more likely than not going to be grouped with kanji of similar or complementary meaning when compounds are formed, and the best way to remember anything is by association. Using the NihongoUp method – kanji are not arbitrarily picked form nowhere and then rote learned. Following is a part of the introduction from the first kanji lesson which better explains our position and teaching methods:

In recent years, with the arrival of computers, the importance of knowing how to write kanji (漢字) has diminished. However, despite what many foreign learners of Japanese may say, their importance has by no means diminished. As Japanese people don’t need to write texts by hand as often as before, and the entry of kanji characters with a mobile phone or a PC only requires the knowledge of the reading of compounds in which the kanji is used, the Japanese habitually use more characters than before the technological revolution. Even if you don’t learn how to write all of the commonly used kanji, you must at least master their recognition to survive in a Japanese work or educational environment.

Some textbooks aim to teach kanji according to how many strokes they have, how closely they resemble the pictures from which they have derived or what school year Japanese children first encounter them. The main two reasons why foreign learners should learn kanji are:

  • To aid their reading ability.
  • To write real Japanese sentences.

It is for this reason that in this course, you will learn kanji based on how useful they are to you. For example, there is no point in learning how to write the kanji character「屯」at an early stage, as although it’s quite easy to write and remember, you’re unlikely to come across it in anything but the most advanced of texts. Equally, it would be a waste of your time to learn the kanji character「糸」, which Japanese pupils learn in the very first grade, as there is little chance that you will have to write about threading at this stage in your Japanese ability.

The hope is that as you progress through the regular lessons, and are obliged to hover your mouse over the kanji to get the 読み方, you will begin to be able to read and recognise various kanji. However, this is not always enough. It helps to be able to understand what individual kanji mean, as many words in the Japanese language are what are known as ‘kanji compounds,’ that is two kanji that have been put together to create a new word. For example, 楽曲 is made up of 楽, (which you might recognise from the word 音楽), meaning ‘music’ and ‘曲’ meaning ‘bending’. Therefore, it’s not too difficult to work out that 楽曲 means ‘composition’, that is, ‘bending music’.

Each new kanji you learn is not just one piece of vocabulary, but the key to learning, and remembering tens, and maybe even hundreds of Japanese words. The quickest way to learning new vocabulary is learning the associated kanji compounds. The human brain is best at recollecting information that is stored in more than one way (for example, it is much easier to remember someone you saw, heard and even touched than the voice or image alone) and you will be amazed at how your associative memory will make kanji and vocabulary learning a breeze if you’re taught in the right way.

Rather than slaving away learning the many 音読み and 訓読み of each kanji without any context, it is much better to learn the reading of compound words as and when you come across them in the regular NihongoUp lessons. Treat every word you see in a NihongoUp lesson as a piece of vocabulary. This includes its reading, its meaning and the kanji.

Each character covered in the lessons is presented in a clear and accessible format. In the header, you’ll see the kanji written with a computer font (for the best possible experience, we suggest you to install either Kozuka Mincho Pro or the Meiryo typeface on your computer) on the left, and all of its common meanings on the right.

Kanji lesson example

Below, you’ll find a stroke order diagram. For these, we use a font that is as close as possible to how the characters are handwritten with a pen—in fact, this is the font used in workbooks for Japanese pupils.

What follows is a short description of the kanji, and tips on how to remember it. Sometimes we also include linguistic trivia, and if there are other characters similar to the one you’re looking at, or slight variations in how it can be written, we note these in order to prevent any confusion.

Android kanji lessons

iPhone kanji lessons

NihongoUp kanji lessons, as well as the quiz, work equally well on mobile devices.

Last, but not least, there’s a table with common vocabulary using the kanji, and an example sentence presenting one of the words in context. All characters in the kanji lessons are interlinked, so if you meet a kanji you don’t know in one of the example sentences or vocabulary boxes, simply click it to get to its entry in the respective kanji lesson.

We have many improvements planned for the near future, especially in the reading department (e.g., short extracts from Japanese literature and newspapers, and even our own graded readers for you to practice the kanji you just learned). Also, native audio recording will soon be introduced to every example word and sentence, and several print products, including a kanji poster and cheat cards (listing kanji as introduced in the kanji lessons) will be appearing on NihongoUp next year.

We truly believe that you won’t find a method quite like ours anywhere else. You’ll be amazed how ignoring old-fashioned teaching methods like learning radicals or just learning the various possible pronunciations of a kanji and using our slick and targeted approach leads to deeper understanding of kanji, quicker learning and longer retention.

Write the kanji

While we respect those who chose not to learn how to write kanji, we believe that stroke order is a very efficient memory aid, and encourage you to practice it.

We have an entire lesson dedicated purely to stroke order, both the lookup dictionary and the kanji lessons contain stroke order diagrams and animations, and we have several cheat sheets which you can use to practice kanji writing. In the coming months every kanji lesson will have a dedicated kanji practice sheet, with traceable kanji and step-by-step guidance on how to write the characters. We also have a great genkō yōshi (原稿用紙) to download and hone your kanji-writing skills.

We are also working on some new applications and resources for those lucky enough to have a Tablet PC or a graphics tablet, and soon, we will be publishing several guides on how a Japanese learner can utilize these devices to their full potential.

Remember the kanji

We tend to forget things easily, and you are probably no different. This is why we put a lot of thought in how we can help you review the kanji you learn regularly, wherever you are, and make the process as efficient and as enjoyable as possible. Our lessons are only any use if you retain what you have learned!

When you have access to the internet, your best bet is to use the all-new kanji quiz which you can find in the Review section of the website. In it, you will be progressively presented with more and more characters displayed in context of natural Japanese compounds & sentences. These are linked to the kanji lessons so you can always be sure that you are presented with kanji that you can fully learn and understand before review.

Kanji quiz

Kanji quiz intelligently chooses what characters to present, based on your past results.

The quiz is loosely based on the famous Leitner system—a widely used spaced repetition method to efficiently use flashcards. Your success rate for each and every kanji is saved to you account, and the frequency with which you will be presented with these characters again depends directly on how well you know them.

We are constantly improving the algorithm and will do our best to make it both efficient and pleasant to use. And by the way, did we mention that the new kanji quiz is entirely free of charge?

Kanji index

Characters in the kanji index change colour depending on how well you managed in the quiz.

After you review some of the kanji, you should head straight to the kanji index & statistics page where you’ll be presented with a kanji grid, with the individual characters coloured depending on how well you know them. Clicking a character will bring you directly to it’s entry in the respective kanji lesson. This will prove to be not only a great method to instantly see your weaknesses, but also as a motivational tool. Just think, one day that whole grid will turn green with a bit of hard work!

We are working on many improvements to both the quiz and the kanji index. For instance, we will soon add an option for advanced learners to mark lessons as completed without reviewing characters contained in them, and we have also plans to introduce even more statistics which would motivate you and give you a better idea of your progress. This is very much early stages and we predict this new quiz to be one of the most popular tools that NihongoUp has to offer learners of Japanese.

Learn Japanese Android

NihongoUp Android let’s you review kana, kanji, vocabulary, and grammar wherever you are.

If you happen to be on the go, you can also use one of our many mobile apps. We have applications available for the iPhone, Android, and the recently released Windows Phone 7, and if there is sufficient demand, we may consider porting these to further platforms. Get in touch if there is an unsupported platform that you think needs our attention!

Our mobile apps are a great way to utilise a spare 10 minutes to cement the kanji, vocabulary and grammar that you have spent so long learning. They are very competitively priced and a joy to use.

Japanese educational game

If you are like me, and always carry a Tablet PC or a netbook wherever you go, the award-winning NihongoUp Desktop is the program for you. Compatible with Windows, Mac OSX, and Linux, this serious game lets you review hiragana, katakana, kanji, vocabulary, particles, counters, and even transitive verb pairs; all that with a beautiful interface, optimized both for mouse and touchscreen users.

Kanji popup flashcards

Finally, if you are too busy to dedicate enough time to the other options you may want to check out NihongoUp Toaster, a little program which sits quietly in the background, and every several minutes pops-up a notification window with a question from one of the many available decks, again taking the sentences from our custom-created sentence bank which is sourced from genuine native material.

So, we hope that those who appreciate just how important kanji is to those learning Japanese have an option that suits them at NihongoUp. From comprehensive lessons to ‘dip in’ applications—NihongoUp has kanji covered. So what are you waiting for? It’s time to learn kanji!

Do you agree with what we wrote at the beginning of this post? “You’re not learning Japanese unless you are learning kanji.” Let us know in the comments! Also, I have more great announcements to come in the following months, so watch this space, subscribe to the RSS, follow NihongoUp on Twitter, and become a fan on Facebook.