Skeptic calling out to all Heisig fans

Just a quick post since I’ve been very lazy lately. I just wanted to ask: Is there anybody in the world that learned how to write Japanese with James W. Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji? And notice I didn’t say Kanji because I’m sick and tired of hearing people say, “Yeah, I learned like 2,000 kanji in like three weeks!” Wow, that’s awesome. Now you can start actually learning Japanese!

You see, thinking “logic” and being able to write 理 doesn’t mean anything. First of all, 理 isn’t even a word. 論理、理論、理解、料理、管理、修理、義理、心理学 are words and until you can write real words in real Japanese, I’m not impressed. So I’d like to know: Is there anybody that learned to write a reasonable amount of vocabulary using this approach? And by a reasonable amount, let’s say about 10,000 words which is the amount JLPT Level 1 claims to cover. (You see, once you change Kanji into actual words, you’re in a whole different ball game.)

*Not that I’m promoting it but you can download a portion of the first book to try out here.

76 thoughts on “Skeptic calling out to all Heisig fans

  1. Hm…… I’ve just recently taken up this book as a last resort, having already studied Japanese for almost four and a half years and having been in Japan for around ten months. While in Japan I made myself learn about 1,000 kanji by rote and could read fairly well. However, I found that I was putting a great deal into writing them OVER and OVER again and such, and I also found that no matter how much I practiced, I would forget them in a snap. It frustrates me so much. Even to this day, sometimes I am forgetting the simplest kanji like 読む. Of COURSE if I saw it I would know it is said よむ, but when I went to write it… sometimes I would forget. Even the simplest of kanji didn’t want to stick for me. And I tried to learn the readings through context, but what would happen to me is I would see words like 文章 and know that it is ぶんしょう,but lord forbid, if I saw 章 somewhere else all by itself, my brain just would NOT make the connection that it was PROBABLY pronounced しょう, even though I knew a word where it was pronounced that way. My brain just wasn’t making the connection, simple as that. So for me and perhaps many other people, there can be a certain value in just learning one 音読み for a kanji, not burdening yourself with TONS of them, but just the most common one, so it will help you take a stab at how to read things if your brain just doesn’t connect it, like mine doesn’t. I mean, how hard is it to learn ONE reading for each kanji out of context if it helps you? I mean, in Chinese, pretty much all hanzi only have one reading. I think we can all pretty much agree the Japanese effed up kanji pretty bad. XD I think it just depends on how your mind works. I am taking up Heisig’s method now because I just can’t write kanji. I can read decently, though I think I should improve on that too. I am just improving on my reading as of now by just reading whatever I can and using rikai-chan to look up the words I don’t know and then moving on, as reading practice should be done. But writing isn’t working like that for me. And I WANT to be able to write, to not have to use more hiragana than necessary. And I can’t just remember how to write kanji without some sort of device to help remember them. I think having an idea of what a kanji means can help you write immensely. Even if the word has no relation to the kanji’s meanings, it might be so ridiculous that you can remember the word because of this, almost like a mnemonic device in itself! I think that it will be very beneficial to me as someone who already has a large vocabulary but just cannot write for the life of them and needs to put kanji to the words I already know. In addition, the fact that I seriously want to study Chinese and Korean gives validity to studying kanji out of context with Japanese, to just become more familiar with them in general.
    Oh, and by the way, some of you have mentioned Volume 2, but isn’t that out-of-date as well? All I have found for Volume 2 is a release happening in January 2008 by the University of Hawaii Press (which is by who I bought the first book). The Volume 2 on Amazon looks really old and out-of-date and thus highly overpriced. Here is the upcoming book’s link:

  2. i use it and its a good book, you just need to REALY realize its goal.

    reconizing the standard 2000ich kanji with one meaning, nothing more nothing less.

    this is perhaps 3% of japanese fluentcy.
    but rather know 2000 kanji a bit and build on that foundation then 100 a lot…… trough gruwseome repetition

  3. I did the Heisig course from start to finish in about three months, and thanks to it, I passed JLPT level 1, Kanji Kentei level 3, and am now working towards Kanken level 2. I can read full adult-level books without any reference materials, and I am certain that all of these things would have been much, MUCH more difficult without completing the Heisig method.

    Trying to learn kanji without the Heisig method, or something a lot like it, is like learning the periodic table without learning the elements’ names, numbers, or masses, identifying them by their valence electrons, and relying on “context” to resolve the inherent ambiguity.

  4. It seems to me that replying here is a moot point, as those against Heisig don’t seem to be trying to listen to any positive comments, but I’ll add my post to the pile anyway.
    If you can memorize by rote memorization and it works for you, then that is great and all the power to you. However, there are people in the world, such as myself, that simply cannot work that way. I need to use my imagination in order for information to stick. If you’re worried about my “credentials” – I did a 1 year high school exchange in Japan and am majoring in Japanese at UBC, which I’m told has the second-best Japanese program in North America (we lose out to the University of Hawaii.) But that isn’t what is important.
    While I haven’t finished Heisig yet, that is only because I haven’t had enough time to dedicate to it due to work and school. I’ve been working through it at a fairly steady rate and it has been an absolute lifesaver for my courses.
    It seems to me that all of the naysayers don’t like Heisig because they feel that the results are not immediate, or that you will have “2042 useless stories at the end of it”. If you actually have 2042 useless stories at the end of it, then you’ve been doing it wrong. The stories are an intermediate point – something to help you learn the kanji initially. Once it’s learned you can skip the story (and often the keyword as well, though that knowledge is there in the back of your mind) and simply write whatever word you need.
    I’m not saying Heisig is for everybody, and if you are like Tae Kim and outright against it, that’s fine. But please don’t tell those of us who rely on this book that what we are studying is useless, or not “real” Japanese.
    If you are at all curious to read the opinions and experiences of those who have completed the book please check out the forums at

  5. I have also completed Remembering the Kanji book 1 and I consider myself an advanced student of Japanese. Heisig’s method has helped me immensely and I would encourage other people to try it. Personally, I am working on creating a list of Japanese keywords, which replace the English ones used in the book. This allows me to associate each kanji with a Japanese word rather than an English one. However, breaking the characters down into primitive elements and creating stories/imagery is at the heart of the book’s effectiveness. I associate these stories and imagery with the new Japanese keyword.

  6. I have finished Remembering the Kanji and I liked it. I think everything has been said so I think a nice addition/conclusion to the post/comments would be a poll which would go something like this:
    1.) I used RtK and it helped a lot (would recommend it to others) ,
    2.) I used RtK and I didn’t like it (would not recommend it).
    3.) I looked at RtK and put it away after a few glances because I didn’t like it.
    4.) I first heard about RtK on this post.
    Do you think this a doable Tae Kim?
    Best regards,

  7. I never did like polls much but I will write up a final post summing up all the comments and opinions everybody has kindly provided.

  8. Greetings everyone:
    I have been studying japanese for some years now, and I’m currently using Heisig’s Book. I don’t like it very much, but I have to agree that it is the best tool I’ve found, as for now.

    I think the problems don’t rely on the method, which seems good, but on some deficiencies on its implementation that either difficult the learning, or annoy the reader. I’ll try to describe both in the most objective way I can.

    The underlying idea of the method consists in assigning “nicknames” (keywords) to groups of strokes, so that for each kanji, you have to remember less elements (two or three keywords, instead of strokes).

    The keywords can belong to radicals, kanji, or groups of two or more existing keywords. For radicals and kanji, Heisig tries to preserve meaning and etymology, but sometimes he assigns totally random nicknames for one reason or other.

    Stories aren’t necessary, but they chain together the keywords to the meaning, so that if you ever forget a character, you still have a way to reconstruct it if you recall the story (sort of like the secret question to recover a password). For most kanji, you should be able to go directly from keyword to writing without passing through the story. This is simmilar to the way japanese recall kanji, as far as I know, and allows for very FAST tracing of kanji (this is what I think Heisig meant with writing kanji as natives do).

    – You learn kanji VERY, VERY quickly. It’s pretty impresive.
    – You become familiar and confident with kanji you learn, and can easily write and differenciate very simmilar kanji.
    – Most of the keywords chosen (with awful exceptions) are useful translations of a kanji, which allows you to read words that you don’t know.
    For example, you might not know the word 公園, but if you know that the first kanji means “public” and the other “park”, you can understand it. (Note that you can treat this as silent reading, even though you can’t pronounce this word aloud, and the trick doesn’t work always).
    – You end knowing more kanji than the average japanese.
    – Additionally, I think fammiliarity with kanjis help while learning its pronounciation using the method suggested by Tae Kim.

    BAD NEWS: (relative to the implementation, not the method)
    – Heisig seems to want us to write the book for him. Unlike other methods, he stops providing stories after 500 or so kanji. It wouldn’t have hurt to include at least one story for kanji, and let us decide if we want to make our own, or not.
    Fortunately, people with internet connection can fix this problem using the stories on the “Reviewing the Kanji” site, otherwise I wouldn’t recommend this book to anybody.
    – Heisig has many poor choices of keywords. Some are ambiguous and no clue is given that could help to solve this (you must recurr to a kanji dictionary for this). Some useful keywords are wasted on kanjis that are only used for names, instead of being used where it makes more sense. For example, 吾has the keyword “I”, which would have been better spent on 私.
    – Very weird order of kanji. Many basic kanjis are relegated to entries above 1500 with no good reason. As such, you either have to read the whole book, or learn the missing characters beforehand (something I recommend).
    – It’s a big commitment. While working with Heisig, I find I have less time to study grammar and vocabulary.
    – The first book doesn’t include the lectures, and the second book doesn’t seem to be worth the purchase (it has the appearance of a poor kanji dictionary). This is not so bad if your learning material includes furigana (as mine), as I think is better to learn ONYOMI and KUNYOMI in context.

    Due to those problems, I don’t suggest to use this book as printed, but if you have the resources to check and fix its problems, it’s simply priceless, which is the reason I use it.

    I hope I didn’t forget anything in this (long review), thanks everyone for their time!

  9. I knew I forgot something. I didn’t answer the question at the opening post.

    I think Heisig’s method can be used to learn vocabulary the same way that the one used for single kanji. You only have to chain the keywords of the kanji into the meaning of the word. That’s the way I learned how to write 大丈夫 or 財布, for example.
    Of course, Heisig’s alone isn’t enough for nanori.

    On a side note, I’ve been reading your grammar these days, and I’m enjoying it immensely. Thank you for your effort!

  10. Please Tae don’t knock the Heisig method, it might not work for you but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for others.

    It’s in my opinion the most effective way to not forget the writing of kanji.

  11. Heisig teaches you how to read and write kanji LETTERS, not words. Just as can’t read English words without knowing your ABC, you can’t read kanji words without first knowing how to read the individual kanji letters.

  12. Anyone familiar with memorization techniques will understand quickly the purpose of the Heisig system.

    You say “You see, once you change Kanji into actual words, you’re in a whole different ball game”, but to me all that says is that you don’t understand what the Heisig method is for.

    No, it is not meant to build your vocabulary. It isn’t meant to teach you japanese. It has a simple purpose: teach you to recognize, write, and know the core meaning of kanji.

    Just like you don’t learn to read words before learning the alphabet, you don’t learn to read japanese before learning the writing system.

    You may not agree with it, but others have used it as a component in a comprehensive study system and learned japanese from scratch with it.

  13. I’ve got hold of Rtk 1 after I’ve studied Jouyou Kanji and passed JLPT 3.

    Not quite sure if it would be any more benefical for a beginner ; making up completely nonsense stories and trying to memorize them ; even before knwoing the reading – true meaning – not even a single word including it.

    Regardless of I rie to get into it and make progress ; found out that remembering teh stories are way too hard and made no sense. And since they are made up ; I decided instead of trying to memorize them ; writing and reading words & sentences including the kanji(s) are much more benefical.

    While it’s not a good way of studying writing and studying a word by itself since it is quite easy to forget ; let alone a single kanji ; this method does not even teach you the on readings. Studying vocabulary in sentences is a better way I believe. Take a look at this site if you haven’t

    Finally ; Heisig method is useless and waste of time.

  14. RtK takes time. After “learning” the kanji I learned to organize them by their ON yomi reading, and since then I’ve been learning the KUN yomi readings. I passed JLPT 2q without ever going to school or being involved in some homestay-Japan program, and I think a great deal of that is because of my familiarity with the kanji thanks to RtK.
    It’s merely a means to an end, I don’t see why people get so angry about a method that helps you learn stuff. It’s also helping my out a lot when it comes to Chinese, also.

  15. I’ve been learning Japanese (earnestly) for about a year and a half. I tried using flashcards, the methodical way, however it wasn’t for me. Instead I focused on grammar because whats the point of knowing words if you can’t express a single thing right? I went to Japan and wandered around and just spoke to the natives in Japanese any chance I could get. In the end I made a lot of friends, and even though I’m back in California I continue to make more Japanese friends via conversation usually entirely in Japanese.

    After learning how to speak, writing became natural. I don’t memorize kanji on purpose, it simply has a concrete meaning now to me. Now I have a small blog, and constantly write in Japanese.

    Isn’t the point of learning another language to be able to express yourself, and understand others?

    I have a friend working on Heisig right now, while he works tirelessly studying from time to time I have to handle phone conversations, or make plans for the weekend, or explain about how I feel about this or that. The biggest motivation for me is being able to speak conversationally where Japanese people would usually prefer to use Japanese with me instead of English because of ease of understanding each other.

  16. “until you can write real words in real Japanese, I’m not impressed”

    You have very high standards. I doubt Heisig or anyone else ever claimed that his book alone would teach one everything one needed to know about Japanese. I guess learning how to read, listen, and speak Japanese counts for nothing in your book.

    That’s OK with me, since I’m not doing this to impress you.

    BTW, do you have a list of success stories of people who learned to write Japanese only using Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide?

    • Being able to write real words in Japanese is “high standards”?

      The introduction in the book USED to make the claim “the goal of the book is still to attain native proficiency in writing the Japanese characters”. It has now been changed to more accurately reflect what it actually does. I would not have written this post if I had read the current edition of the book.

      I never claimed that my book was all you needed. In fact, the intro has suggestions on how to find additional study material.

      I have personally tutored several people to fluency using the guide.

  17. I see the book as basically doing one thing, and one thing very, very well – giving the reader a similar head start as a literate Chinese speaker would have when learning Japanese. Nothing more, nothing less. It doesn’t teach you Japanese, it simply preps you before you actually start learning Japanese, and saves time later.

    • I totally agree but that’s not what the introduction in the book said (the intro was modified in later editions). Wouldn’t it be nice if the book clearly explained what it’s going to accomplish?

  18. I have a love hate relationship to RTK. I got to about 500 kanjis and then I stopped. Some of the key words were so obscure and had no relation to daily use that i stopped. What is the point of learning wrong thing? It also took a lot of my study time and I grew frustrated. I have now decided to focus on learning to speak first (just as I did with English as a child) and I find that more fun. Sometimes I play with kanji but I soon realise I have NO way of remembering how to write them (even if I learn them in the context of a word) and so this is where the love part comes in for RTK. I can still remember a lot of the 500 kanji’s keywords and how to write them even after a long break from it. So once I get much better at speaking and understanding Japanese I will return to RTK because it will be more fun for me as I will be able to recognise a lot more and it will also teach me the stroke order too.

    • Well, if you read his intro which as modified from the time I wrote this post, it states clearly that the purpose of the book is for writing individual characters. The book should really be titled “Remembering how to write Kanji”.

  19. Me too this method is a mystery for me. I am like everyone, I study japanese and I would love to find a shortcut to learn kanjis, however each time I read a post about the Heisig method I become more and more suspicious.

    I read a lot of post about people learning 2000 kanjis really fast with this method. But I have studied Japanese in many places for more than 4 years including Japan, France, UK. In associations, universities, schools and I have some questions :

    – If the book is so great why teachers do not use it or recommend it ? I hear about this book only on internet.

    – Actual learner, people I met, may talk about the method but they certainly didn’t manage to learn 2000 kanjis in 6 months (reading, writing, or meaning what so ever). So were are the people who used that book successfully ? Working in Japan ? They learned the 2000 kanjis and gave up on their studies ? Really ? Wherever they are I never met them in my japanese studies.

    – Last question, japanese people themselves struggle with kanjis and they read it everyday, they studied the kanjis for more than 7 years at school but still. An actual student knows that kanjis are painfull to learn, especially for westerners and one of the obvious thing is because our brain is not used to make difference between characters with such small differences like 冖 and 宀 or 夂 and 攵. So those brilliant learners would be able to get that without repetition, and getting their brain used to these differences because of some stories ? They are able to remember 2000 stories in 6 months when people struggle to learn to remember 300 kanjis per 3 months ? They are able to associate imaginary pictures to rememeber kanjis so well that they outmatch the people who have memories, visual association in daily life and read those chacracters since they are born ? Because let’s be clear japanese people read without any problem, but when they write they also have doubts.

    So, final point, it’s easy to write that one learned 2000 kanjis on internet and got the JLPT 2 or 1. Where are the pictures on of those people on internet ? Where are their blogs about their trip/life in Japan ? Where are the successful stories of finding job in Japan because of their JLPT 1 or 2 in Japan obtained by studying the kanjis with Heisig method.

    To sum-up my question is : “Are the people who used the Heisig method succesfully really existing or is it some people/person hidden behind a computer?”

    • This was posted 7 years ago and I haven’t heard from a single such person. My guess is that the “success” stories are people who are don’t quite understand what fully learning Kanji means or just in the context of being able to write individual characters (without knowing WHICH characters to use for words or any okurigana).

      • Heisig’s good at putting together mnemonics, but I like how Henshall’s book Remembering the Kanji actually gives you the etymology of a character.

        Take 朝。Heisig takes the element on the left, uses his primitives to call it mist, & calls the element on the right moon. So he creates a mnemonic of “moon rising through the mist.” Henshall’s careful etymology work, though, shows that moon’s a derivative of river, & Heisig’s “mist” actually comes from elements that mean something like “the sun rising through plants.” [The character means morning btw for those who don’t know]

        So Heisig’s mnemonic: “moon tilting over to spill mist on your garden”
        Henshall’s: “morning sun rises on plants, displacing moon”

        They’re both fine mnemonics that can help someone remember the meaning. But is it right for Heisig to teach students something that’s actually wrong in order to help them remember a character?

        After reviewing more and more of the Heisig sample I found online, it just seems like a lot of legwork to create a complicated mnemonic system that often doesn’t have relation to the real meanings of the characters…maybe that’s why his method bothers me so much…

        What a long comment. Looks like I’ll have to post about this on my blog now.

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