If you’ve ever tried to read the Japanese newspaper, read a letter written in Japanese, or wanted to read your favourite manga in its original language, you may have met with an obstacle despite having learnt some basic Japanese. These written texts all commonly feature kanji, a writing system of Japanese.
While it is possible to speak and understand Japanese without knowledge of kanji, not knowing kanji can be an impediment to reading more complex texts in Japanese.
What is Kanji?
The Japanese language has three writing systems, namely, Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. While the former two are native Japanese systems, kanji is directly derived from Chinese characters. Kanji is notoriously more difficult to learn because there are so many of them (about 50,000!) and they can be used in varying ways depending on the context, unlike Hiragana and Katakana which are syllabic.
That said, having a decent grasp of kanji is immensely beneficial if you wish to read Japanese texts unhindered. These tips may be able to help you learn kanji more effectively:
1. Start with radicals
Rather than trying to learn all 50,000 Kanji one by one, it is useful to find some ways to categorise these words. Radicals are a good way to learn how to classify and identify kanji. Radicals are parts of the kanji character that appear in more than one character.
To give an example, there is a 3-stroke element that symbolises ‘water’. This 3-stroke element is present in the characters for ‘juice’, ‘river’, ‘bubble’, ‘sea’, and other water-related things. Thus, by recognising the 3-stroke element for ‘water’, you can guess the meaning of the kanji even if you are seeing it for the first time.
2. Practise stroke order
Like in Chinese, there is a stroke order for writing kanji as well. If you find it hard to remember the appearance of Kanji characters, it will be a good idea to practise writing the words, adhering to the stroke order. The stroke order helps you remember how to write and recognise the words, as well as help you write quicker.
Unfortunately, there is no ‘easy’ way to do this. You just have to grab an exercise book, and commit to practising a few new words a day. If you need help learning kanji in a systematic way, maybe signing up for some Japanese classes in Singapore will help you master kanji more quickly.
3. Learn Jouyou Kanji
We mentioned that there are 50,000 Kanji characters – this is true, but don’t scare yourself into thinking you must know all of them to be able to read Japanese. In fact, there is an official list of 2000 kanji characters called ‘Jouyou Kanji’ that are considered the most fundamental and widely used kanji characters in Japanese writing. In primary school, Japanese kids pick up about 1000 of these words, and in secondary school, the remaining 1000 of them.
So, you should make Jouyou Kanji your starting point for learning kanji. Don’t feel discouraged if it’s taking longer than you expect, because even Japanese children take years to master them! The good thing is, by picking up Jouyou Kanji, you should be able to read most texts in Japanese without much trouble.
4. Read Japanese text to practise
While some level of rote learning and memorisation is useful for learning kanji, it only truly sticks when you practise reading it regularly. This way, your brain will become more used to seeing the symbols and remembering their meanings. A good place to start is children’s storybooks or comics. However, if there’s something you love to read in Japanese, do pick that up, as it will be an added motivation for you.
If you prefer watching films and shows, try watching them with Japanese subtitles – this will really test your speed! You can also find a fellow Japanese learner or a friend who knows Japanese, and initiate a pen-pal or chat-buddy system to practice writing to each other in Japanese.
We won’t lie, learning kanji takes some time and effort, but it is all worth it when you can finally read Japanese texts smoothly. Hopefully these tips are helpful for kickstarting your Kanji learning!