How I learned to read in Japanese, and retain Kanji

By | September 28, 2015

Recently a fellow blogger asked me about what study methods I used to study Kanji of retention, so I thought I would write a post about what methods I used to learn to read, including how I learned Kanji.

When talking about study methods, it is difficult to state conclusively that a certain way is best or most efficient because of individual differences in students. So the methods that worked for me may not work for others. However, I hope that as a success story of someone who was able to learn to read Japanese my opinions and experiences can be useful to others.

When studying Japanese, I generally take the stance that I am trying to solve some great puzzle, an intellectual challenge that requires much thought and effort to overtake. So while some people may be frustrated by the number of Kanji required to read adult-level texts, I generally took it in stride with the attitude “ドンと来い!” (don to koi!) which means something like “come attack me!” or “try me!”. While the ability to comprehend Japanese writings is an achievement in itself, I generally enjoy the act of learning, so for me half of the fun is getting there.

In my first few years of studying Japanese, I read nearly all the Japanese textbooks I could get my hands on, including Youkoso which gave me good fundmanentals. I also gave an extra focus to learning as much about grammar possible, including grammar-specific dictionaries like this book. Nowadays you can look up expressions that you don’t understand on google, but back over 10 years ago when I was learning it was easier to just read through these types of books and memorize as many of the grammar patterns as I could. Since one of my original personal goals was learning to read Japanese novels (like Murakami Haruki books), I have balanced my studies between both listening and reading practice.

For Kanji specifically, I dedicated myself to learning the first few levels of Kanji characters (a few hundred), and did so by creating my own flashcards which were hand written. Though it took a good bit of time, during this process I forced myself to look up the proper stroke over of each character, and practice writing it a few times if needed. Though my writing is pretty rusty, I feel that I still remember many of the basic stroke orders. I also put an emphasis on learning the meaning of as many radicals as possible, things like the water radical in the left of the character 泳(”sui”, used in the word for “oyogu” – to swim). This really helped me memorize and understand the characters much faster.  I used the Kodansha Learners Dictionary heavily for learning stroke order, related words using each Kanji, as well as for it’s convenient lookup system in the back of the book. There are some websites that have other convenient lookup systems like this one. Without a way to quickly look up Kanji it’s easy to get frustrated and loose interest.

As for retention, I think two major factors here are one’s interest in the subject matter, plus your age and inborn memory abilities.   If you are really into learning Kanji, you’re more likely to remember it in a few months, just like if you happen to be young with a superb memory naturally. However these things are not something you can change.

In addition to my attitude towards learning Japanese, I think what helped me progress was that I tried to practice recognizing the Kanji in context. At first, this was just exercises in textbooks, but I forced myself to move onto books that had more advanced content with assistance like this, and then I gradually moved onto real novels. One of the first real novels I read was Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen (キッチン), which was not only short but had relatively simple Japanese and Kanji.

I nearly always force myself to go the extra step and learn how to pronounce words that contain Kanji, which helps you use those words in your own speech, writing, and be able to recognize them when listening to someone else’s speech. I know Japanese people can read through a sentence with a word for which they don’t know they exact spelling, but have a good intuitive feel of what it means because they are familiar with the Kanji comprising it. This is a good skill to build up yourself, but I still suggest always knowing the pronuncation of all words you come across when reading.

As I ramped up to more difficult books sometimes I would spend several minutes per page looking up Kanji and thinking about how the grammar fit together. But I usually pushed through to the end of the book, with only a few cases where I gave up and moved onto a different book.

Eventually, I got to the point where I mostly stopped reading novels in English (one of my major hobbies) and moved exclusively to Japanese novels. My reading speed is still frustrating slow at times but it’s gradually improved over the years.

Although I did use flash cards intensively for a short period, I only used them as a crutch to get me to the point where I could find things to read where I understood a good portion of the characters, and didn’t have to look up every single one, a process too tedious even for me. I have seen people who have gotten frustrated from low retention rates when over-focusing on tools like Anki, so I think the gradual switchover to actual reading is critical to improve retention and reduce burnout.

While Anki or similar flashcard-style practice methods are easy, quick, and may help short-term retention, inherently it’s a process with little context that is boring, and without interest and contextual information the mind looses interest quickly. Contrast that to discovering new Kanji you an interesting novel or manga you are really into. There are certain Kanji that I still remember where I originally saw them. Characters, like words, are not just made from simple definitions, they are part of a complex network of connections to other characters, words, feelings, and emotions.

If you are jut trying to “pass the class” or “get the credit”, then methods like Anki may work for the short term, though you may have to struggle through lack of retention between successive classes if they are months apart. But if you are into Japanese for the long run and really want to learn to read, make it a habit to read a little bit of ‘real’ Japanese every night, even only for a few minutes. Much of this discussion applies equally to writing and speaking, but those are much harder to practice, especially when studying on your own. Take advantage of the fact there are thousands of interesting Japanese novels and manga out there, and if you can’t afford buying books you can find millions of pages on the internet for reading practice.









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7 thoughts on “How I learned to read in Japanese, and retain Kanji

  1. Ben

    Totally agree. I find the words and kanji I retain the most are the ones I use in life the most, i.e., contextual. I remember the situation and subconsciously see the inherent need whether it be catching a train, reading a book, or having a casual conversation.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the comment, glad to know some people seem the same way (:

  2. Earth2543

    I start learning Japanese and im agree with you, because that is the method i used tolearn English in the first place, and it’s work 😛

  3. KanjiGuy

    I also think that the best way to remember kanji is to actually use them by reading Japanese novel or manga. May I ask a question? At what level of JLPT do you start reading Japanese novel comfortably?

    1. locksleyu Post author

      I have never taken JLPT, and it depends on what you mean by ‘Japanese novels’.

      Even for adult novels, it depends on the genre.

      Whatever your level is, I would start with children’s books and move your way up until you find books which are difficult, then read a few of those until you are comfortable.

      Also, with just Kanji knowledge you may not understand everything, you need a good grasp of grammar.

      1. KanjiGuy

        Yeah I do find myself struggling with the grammars a lot ;___; While I was studying Japanese, I showed the grammar list to my friend and he was shocked that there are tons of grammars in japanese, english probably have 10-20 grammars but japanese has hundreds of them XD

        Thanks for the advise! I have been trying to read Japanese manga from time to time, but I give up way too easily lol. I will definitely try again 🙂


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