Final thoughts on remembering the kanji

In my post about Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji (RTK), I invited people to convince me that the book can teach you to “write kanji like a native” as claimed in the book’s introduction. As it turns out, it all depends on how you define, “write kanji like a native” and the introduction needed some reading between the lines. (Only being able to write the kanji without knowing the reading or any words that use the kanji doesn’t count as “writing like a native” to me.) But in the end, my challenge was a bit unfair because no single book can really teach you how to write kanji like a native without turning into a dictionary, and in this age of computers, it’s debatable whether even many natives can write kanji like natives.

Though it’s obvious that the book alone is not enough to truly master kanji, many of you gave excellent comments on how it helped you retain the kanji that you’ve learned and at least got you on the path to mastery. Reading through the comments I think I have a better idea of who the book is for and I’d like to share my thoughts in this last post about RTK.

I stress that my opinion is only one of many and if you are considering buying this book, I recommend reading through the comments to form your own impressions of whether this method will work for you. You can find them here and maybe even on this post later on. Thanks to everybody’s comments, I think those posts have become a great source of discussion and information for those considering the Heisig method. Also, there’s no harm in trying out the first half of the book which is available for free.

How I learned Kanji

Before I talk about the book, I think it’s worthwhile to discuss how I learned kanji in order to have an alternative method to compare against. I may have mentioned this before but I never studied kanji; I studied the words that are made from kanji. For instance, I learned 「力」 as 「ちから」 but never as 「リョク」 or 「リキ」. I only learned the other on-yomi when I learned words like 「努力」 and 「怪力」. The key to learning these words is, of course, reading. Therefore, it’s very important to find reading material that is interesting and appropriate for your level, something that is a lot harder than it should be.

The advantage of this method is that you end up creating many associations with real words without having to waste time on individual kanji. The first association is, of course, the context of the text from which the word came from. The second comes gradually as you build up a library of words that share the same kanji. Once you get the hang of kun vs on reading and how the voicing changes based on the sounds preceding it, the readings become really easy to memorize as they are shared across different words.

For example, when I see 「試」, I think of words like 「試験」、「試作品」、「試す」 and even other similar kanji like 「式」 and 「武」. As I learn new kanji, I also reflect back and review not only words that share the same kanji but also other kanji that look similar. In this manner, I noticed that 「剣」、「険」、「験」、and 「検」 all have the same reading. It took a while but I finally remembered that the one with “horse” means “testing” based on words like 「試験」 and 「経験」 while the one with “tree” means to “examine” based on words like 「検査」 or 「検索」. Learning radicals, which are simpler kanji such as 「馬」 and 「木」 is also very important because they form parts of many other kanji. By learning radicals you can start to see little mnemonic patterns such as realizing that 「忘」 consists of a dying heart (心 and 亡).

There are mainly two ways to strengthen your memory, either by strengthening the path to a memory with repetition or by creating many paths with different associations to the same memory. With the method above, you can create associations with words that share the same kanji or radicals that form the kanji. You can also reinforce the memory with repetition by reviewing them every time you run into a new word that share the same kanji. Also, the benefit of reading is that by seeing the same words used in different contexts, you get both repetition and new associations. Basically, reading does make you smarter just like they always said! (Or at least teach you more vocabulary.)

Why you might need RTK

Now let’s get into problems with my method and how RTK might help.

The first problem I’ve learned from reading your comments is that the method completely fails if your brain isn’t wired to see these connections as you go. For instance, if you learned 「試験」 and later ran into 「経験」 in your studies, the assumption is that you’ll be able to recall 「試験」 and make the connection that they both use 「験」. If this does not happen, you don’t get the association which means you’ll have a really difficult time learning the kanji or the words that use them.

Now, I’ve had times when I couldn’t remember exactly which word I learned used the same kanji, I just knew that it looked awfully familiar. One trick I would do is look up just the kanji in WWWJDIC and scroll through all the words that use the kanji until I recognize the old word I learned before. Even with this trick, if all or most of these associations don’t come naturally to you, RTK might be just the thing to help you.

By systematically going through each kanji and assigning a story (basically a mnemonic), RTK can provide you with the glue to jumpstart your associations. For example, let’s say you’ve gone through the whole book and memorized every story for each kanji. Now suppose you see the word 「省略」. Now you’ll recognize 「省」 as “focus” from story 124 (page 61) as, “…picking up a few things and holding them before one’s eye in order to focus on them better”. So when you learn another word such as 「省電力」, even if you couldn’t make the association with 「省略」, you have the story to serve as the glue to link the kanji together.

Now I would argue that it’s better to think of 「省」 as a combination of 「少ない」 and 「目」 instead. In addition, I think memorizing 「省く」, which means “omit” is a better use of your time than memorizing “focus”. However, all that assumes that you can make those connection on the fly as you are learning these words. RTK creates the associations systematically for you and provides the glue to help you link kanji together by having the single story to link them.

Of course, no one could claim that this “bootstraping” could magically teach you how to write all the vocabulary that contains kanji, which is why I was so critical of the book and it’s claim to teach you to “write kanji like a native”. Nevertheless, my personal dislike for the wording in the introduction has no bearing on the value of this resource. If you need it, RTK can help you start creating associations and get you started in seeing the patterns that are not obvious when you’re just starting out.

Finally, based on your comments, there seems to be a great deal of psychological benefit to tackling a text full of kanji that you at least recognize instead of a page full of crazy Chinese symbols. But that issue stems from a larger problem of the difficulty in finding adequate reading materials.

The root problem

The main problem with my method is that you can’t just start reading a novel to learn kanji without becoming frustrated at every other word containing a completely new kanji. A big part of my method is actually enjoy yourself while comprehending what you’re reading, something you can’t do if you need to look up every kanji for every word. Plus, there’s no way you’re going to be able to create associations when every kanji you see is completely new. It’s like telling a beginner skier to start on an expert slope. The slope will look really scary, you’ll fall every second, you won’t have any fun, and you might even hurt yourself in the process.

Fortunately, one of the first books that I got my hands on was one of those anime/manga based books geared for younger readers. But it was still insanely hard, painful, and frustrating to go through all the unfamiliar kanji. It took about a week to read a single page. Not an enjoyable experience.

The problem with today’s Japanese language education is that most classes never go beyond the textbook and textbook reading material is both boring and laughable in terms of depth and scope. What we need is a guided reading curriculum that can gently get us started in learning vocabulary and kanji without killing ourselves. Remember reading “Hardy Boys”, “Nancy Drew”, “The Chronicles of Narnia”, “Where the red fern grows”, etc. for English class or for fun as a kid? We need the Japanese equivalents to be part of our Japanese language education. You’d think some Association or Committee of Japanese teachers would draw up a recommended reading list of books of different levels adapted for adults. If there is such a list, please send it to me. But in the meantime, RTK might be just the book to help ease you into the exciting world of kanji.


I don’t think RTK is for everybody but I’ve learned that it can be really helpful for certain types of learners. I think it depends greatly on your learning style and personality. For those of us who are comfortable taking shortcuts by jumping straight into the Japanese and creating associations as we go, I would suggest continue what you’re doing. Why take the time to memorize key words and stories in English when you are learning the kanji with real Japanese words? Though I wouldn’t suggest it for beginners, some people on my forum even switched to a Japanese-only dictionary to immerse themselves even further.

However, if you are the type who prefers a more systematic method or if you find yourself having difficulty remembering the kanji and coming up with your own patterns and mnemonics, certainly give RTK a try. It could be the “glue” you need to piece together the kanji to make sense of all this craziness.

Or you could even try a mixture of both: jumping into Japanese and using the stories to help you remember how to write the more difficult kanji. Whatever method you choose, I hope this post and the various comments gave you a good idea on how you want to learn kanji and what approach to take.

43 thoughts on “Final thoughts on remembering the kanji

  1. Nothing different here really, but how I started on kanji was to find a website with a big list of kanji and different words for each (there are of course many such websites). I created a wordlist file which I’d type new vocab/definitions into, and also a separate kanji list with definitions only (and recently an example word in kana) so I’d be forced to recall the character from memory upon review.

    As my kanji/vocab repertoire grew, I became more confident in reading, and that has become a major source of learning/association for me, as you wrote. Unfortunately I still do the list building thing, but it helps provide a measure of structure to my study routine.
    So yeah, I agree with you completely that reading and repetition are 一番 for memory. 🙂

    …It’s just too bad that when I get the rare opportunity to converse in Japanese, my proficiency is probably quartered or worse, compared to my writing skills.

  2. What you’ve described is a concept call “Extensive Reading” – an approach to language learning where you read as much and as widely as possible – but at *your* level. The rule of thumb is if you need to use a dictionary to get the gist of a text then its too hard for you.

    This concept has been around long enough that there are specifically targetted reading materials for English language learners – ie varying levels of difficulty that will be of interest to adult learners. For Japanese learning the concept is still quite new. however there is the the “graded reader” series based on extensive reading principles that I’ve been finding quite useful :
    see :

    Or if you’re in Japan you should be able to find them in the Japanese study section of Kinokuniya or BookFirst.

    I’m using the level 3 one and finding it pretty good. It makes a pleasant change from the newspaper article that took me days to get through in my Japanese class to go to something where you can get some flow going and only have a few words page that aren’t known or that you can’t guess from context.

    Of course the selection is still quite limited – so once I’m done I’ll probably be back to manga and childrens books.

  3. As a former RTK fanatic who later started questioning whether it was worth it, I find this post very insightful. And it’s great to see the past discussion in the comments bear fruit. From now on, I shall refer all beginners I meet to this page! 🙂

  4. Well, at least now I won’t feel that bad for not finding much material I could read… On the other hand, it does decrase my hopes on finding anything useful 🙁

  5. Well said.

    I very much agree that one of the largest challenges is finding suitable reading material and would definitely welcome a compiled list of material based on proficiency.

    In the absence of such a resource, I think it’s still worthwhile to just plunge in a read newspapers and books, even if they are above your level. You won’t understand all or even most of it, but if it’s on a topic that interests you, the attempt will still be rewarding.

  6. Ian, thanks for the great links! But why is there furigana for every kanji on the cover of the graded readers? Doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose of having a graded reader?

    It’s nice to see that I’m not alone in realizing what needs to be done. The biggest problem I see is that all this expertise in teaching foreign languages rarely seems to filter down to the people that teach. (Japanese teachers in the US and English teachers in Japan)

    I blame it on the lack of demand for top teaching talent in the language educational job market. People mistakenly think you can take any native speaker and throw them in a class to teach their language. (Language schools are a perfect example of this)

    Even colleges want professors who can teach more than just Japanese. They hire either people with Masters for cheap or people who majored in Japanese art, history, film, etc. so they can get a bargain on more classes with just one salary. They don’t hire Physics professors and expect them to teach Biology as a bonus! Sad…

    Nobody takes the fine art of teaching a foreign language seriously or reward those with the skills.

    I think that’s the major problem.

  7. My compliments on a very impartial and up-front final review of the book. I decided not to comment on your earlier posts because it seemed to me like you were looking to bash the book more than give it an honest chance, but this post totally changed my mind.

    I have completed Heisig, I as such I can testify to its effectiveness as a tool for coming to terms with kanji. However, after studying Japanese for 2.5 years, I still can’t write like a native yet, which is part of my ultimate goal with the language, and I’ve embraced remembering characters by association the way you describe. At this point I don’t regret spending the time I did on the method, as having done so is the way I came to be able to enjoy books, subtitled movies, and video games in Japanese. That said, seeing your success with a different way of learning kanji, along with my realization that I still have a long way to go to reach competency, I would add a caveat quite similar to your own before recommending the book to other learners.

    The problem with the way I approached it was to try to balance my Heisig study with “standard” textbook/reading time. As a result, it took me a year to complete the 2000 characters. At this point, although my grasp of the Heisig keywords is quite solid, thanks to hefty review with spaced repetition, and my reading is decent, I still find it much easier to recall and write characters using association of the kind you describe having done yourself.

    So in hingsight, I think Heisig, if done at all, should be focused on to the exclusion of other Japanese study, and slammed out in a matter of weeks or months. It can function very well as a guide, in tandem with the association you talk about, but approaching it with the attidude I originally had, as if completing it will make the standard 2,000 characters flow effortlessly out of my pen in the context of real Japanese, is probably a mistake.

    In light of what you’ve said and my personal experience, it seems to me that a fundamental issue here is simply the conception that Japanese characters are impossibly hard to learn without a super-ultra-slayer method. The reason I started Heisig in the first place was because I had seen all kinds of “advanced” students around who could’t make their way through a childrens book in Japanese, and heard so many horror stories about people forgetting their kanji, etc. etc.

    Perhaps all it takes is approaching Japanese from the perspective of it being totally doable, and worrying less about the method than the task and joy of simply learning it. Whether you learn with or without Heisig, through wide reading or repetitive practice, embracing the kanji as broadly as possible seems to be the way to go to me.

  8. Thanks for the article. I find them very interesting, especially this series talking about RTK and kanji-learning.

    I’m in a language school in Japan at the moment (nearly 1 year through a 2-year course), and we’re working our way through kanji a few each day and with twice-weekly tests. It’s hard-going being the only westerner in a class of Chinese and Koreans but so far I’m keeping up, thanks to a lot of extra work.

    Anyway a few weeks back I found myself really lacking English meanings and explanations for the individual kanji we’re learning. The book we’re using just gives a few examples of each kanji in combinations with meanings, but no meanings for the individual kanji.

    So I bought myself “A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters” by Kenneth Henshall. While the mnemonics he gives are laughable and mostly unusable, the explanations of their meanings and origins has definitely filled a gap in my kanji study.

    Has anybody else looked at this book for that purpose? I don’t recommend it at all as a sole book to learn from, as it’s not meant to be that. But as a supplemental reference I’m finding it very useful.

  9. On the topic of readers, I’ve seen some intended for JLPT study, and graded for each level (1-4). I’ve only read part of the level 3 book, but it was pretty enjoyable to not need to look up every single word or feel lost with grammar. I don’t remember the exact names, but they are thin, B5-sized, colored books.

  10. Tae Kim,
    I agree that the some of the claims made in the beginning of RTK1 are just plain silly.

    Also, IMO, if you learned 「力」 as 「ちから」, then you “wasted time on individual kanji”, to use your words. In addition, everything you said you did to learn to read, I have also had to do. I think that is the norm for Heisig grads. Very few of us go on to use RTK2, from what I’ve seen. What I believe is the 200 or so hours spent to finish RTK1 is more than made up for in time savings down the road. All the stuff you mentioned is much easier after Heisig. For many of us, not doing Heisig up front would create a very stressful, difficult road.

    I agree with you that the book is not for everyone, but I also believe the average learner is better off using it than not. Of course, I can’t prove it, so maybe I’m wrong.

  11. Not really, the point was that I learned whole words so while 力 also happened to be a word, I never learned the majority of kanji that don’t make up a word by itself individually.

  12. I don’t understand. At the very least, from your description, you did a lot of thinking about individual characters. In my opinion, that’s doing individual character study. What is it that you didn’t do with individual characters that makes you say you didn’t learn individual characters?

  13. What I was trying to say is that I didn’t learn a character by itself but always in a context of a word.

    For example, I never learned 密 as a character by itself (with kanji flashcards, RTK, etc). I only learned words that used the kanji such as 秘密 and 密着. And I learned those words in even larger contexts of sentences and texts. In other words, it’s a top-down approach rather than a bottom-up approach. The reason why it’s effective is because it provides context, which aids in memorization.

    In short, because you only really learn 密 when you’ve learned the words that use the kanji and how those words are used in a larger context, you can save time by learning those words directly (in context) instead of memorizing a flash card that says 密(みつ) with some artificial English definition.

  14. I see what your mean. You didn’t use flashcards with single characters. But it appears you did learn single characters. For example, when you see 密 you probably know one pronunciation is みつ, and you probably know one meaning is something like secrecy.

    I believe almost everyone takes things out of context when learning. Some more than others; it’s just a matter of where one draws the line. For example, you took words out of context.

    I did everything you did – but in addition, I did RTK1. I’m glad that you were able to do your studies without using single character flashcards. I honestly find it very impressive, because I tried it and failed. I understand that you think it was more efficient than my way, because you avoided a step. I, however, think it was more efficient to take that extra step, and make all the stuff that you did much easier.


    here’s the レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー homepage.

    I hope and pray to the linguistic gods that this library keeps growing. As a beginner it’s helping me immensely.

    I firmly believe in extensive reading as the best (only?) way to learn a language effectively. I also believe the same applies to speech as well (extensive mimicry?), as in you should be mimicking every snippet of native speech out loud all the time, and even better if you have sentences that you can understand fully. These books offer both those things.

    Granted, you don’t want to be going around talking like you’re narrating a story :p but it helps me so much with pronouncing all the basic common grammatical constructions. That’s been extremely important and helpful for me.

  16. A very good follow up article. It does not touch upon stroke order or character recognition which I think those that go RTK route will excel at eventually. I mention this as you correctly point out that even natives don’t really write like natives even more (the blessing and curse of cell phones and ime’s).

    As for who can benefit from RTK, I’m tempted to say those that either know Japanese and know want more literacy (I’ve read about three or four articles that talk about being fluent but only having 700 kanji before using RTK). For beginners I honestly think that a reduced version of RTK would be better. Reason being, the method is seperate from the amount. The method works whether you go for 500, 1000 or 3000 kanji. Unfortunately, such a reduced list using the method doesn’t actually exist although it may in the future thanks to Reviewing the Kanji.

    As for the lack of Graded Readers that adults can enjoy, I heartedly agree. As more sites come up, more people will link to the good ones. I too agree that extensive reading (well, and listening) will create a more fluent person.

  17. I learn better through a class. I just can’t seem to sit around and read. Great to hear you had a bit of success. Sayonaara!

    • “sayonaara” means “Oh Na I is” 😛
      You probably meant “さようなら”.

  18. Here is a link to レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー:

    While this isn’t the perfect set of books (in the earlier books they put kana beside the katakana), I have the Level 4 set and it is useful for my studies. Basically the premise is similar to the Graded Readers that Oxford puts out.

  19. You are reason. The best learning method depends on the persons who is studying. And is different for every one.

    And I think that there isn’t one only book which must be used to learn kanji. You must use different books in the different levels which you are during your personal evolution while learning kanji. (sorry my bad english, I hope that this means what I want to mean)

    I think you can combine RTK with other books like this one:

    And with japanese dictionarys and others.

  20. I’m almost 500 frames into RTK1. I’m also using the “Reviewing the Kanji” SRS website that goes along with the book. It has become a force of habit. 20 characters a day, every day. I’d say the RTK isn’t an ends to learning Japanese, but a means to being able to work through something like Kanji Odyssey or an actual text much faster.

    One of the advantages of RTK1 is that it teaches writing in a structured format. You start simple and then combine them into bigger kanji. The reviewing goes from the keyword to the kanji, so you get a lot of practice producing kanji, and as a result you won’t have to practice to be able to recognize the characters when they come, even for some of the stylized forms or slightly messy handwriting.

    It also gives the ability to look up words you don’t know. I recognize the characters in 世界 and can use the keywords to get the characters to put into WWWJDIC.

    Using the traditional way, for a new word you have to learn
    1. Pronounciation
    2. Meaning
    3. Crazy jumble of strokes

    Learning all three at once is usually prone to trouble, and context still doesn’t give active recall practice.

    After doing RTK, you only have to learn 2 things at once, and you also have a device to remember which characters are used to write stuff. せかい = generation + world = 世界 (Elaborate stories using the keywords can be used to remember compounds)

    But yeah, RTK is usually pretty polarizing. People either swear by it or at it.

  21. About RTK…

    I think you’ll find as many different views on RTK as there are people. It doesn’t help everyone, and different people are helped to different extent. I gained around 1000 kanji using it, but many learn all 2000, while others give up very quickly.

    One point I would like to add is that learning Japanese is a vast area because of the ridiculous complexity of the written language. RTK helps by solving part of the problem. It’s not a way to learn everything about every kanji, but it doesn’t claim to be that. It’s a way to get yourself immersed in that aspect of the language and gives you a huge advantage over learning them how they expected us to do it at school, by rote as we encounter them, which is basically impossible unless you have a photographic memory.

  22. Unfortunately I sold a lot of my lower level learning materials when I moved to Japan, but I had some fairly good low level stuff. One of them was Japanese folk tales, but it was kind of nice in that the stories were written again in the second half of the book using more kanji. As it was still fairly basic you could come back fairly quickly and read the ‘advanced’ version after a short time. I don’t think it would work well after beginning levels.

    It would be nice to see another thread or area about this topic though. Maybe you already have one. I’ve only just gotten time to go through your site again and it looks like a lot of good information.

  23. I’ve just started using the “Heisig” method (well, I downloaded an SRS deck with all the keywords and kanji) and I’d have to say the reason I find it useful is that it simplifies the initial learning of kanji by narrowing it to a single simple context one word and one kanji.

    The method I used to use was going from a flashcard with all the On/Kun-yomi and possible meanings to the kanji and there was tons of overlap causing me to forget most of those overlapping meanings and focusing on a single meaning and/or reading and I used to frustrated with the lack of a useful order in learning the kanji. I’d learn the component kanji or radicals much later, if at all.

    So, the Heisig deck has done two specific things that I appreciate. First, it gave me one UNIQUE (even if I disagree with the choice sometimes) meaning for each kanji and I can use that to remember which parts make up that kanji or if it doesn’t break down anymore then to remember that kanji. Also, it reorders the kanji so that I can reinforce my memory and “build” kanji.

    To me this seems like a natural process and it would be nice to learn along with a single basic reading (like you did with the kun-yomi), but many don’t have a kun-yomi. So, I see it as being like learning compounds, if you know the meaning of each piece (more often than not) you’ll be able to understand the meaning of the kanji (or make up a story for it).

    So, while I don’t think you really learn much about the kanji you’re able to build a base from which you’ll remember it and to which you can start adding.

    Like when you learn a new word in English you need to have something to connect it to that’s familiar and you usually give it a single meaning, but as you use the word more and more you’re able to have a more subtle or general understanding of the word.

  24. Well, while certainly RTK is not the “holy grail” of kanji learning, from experience, I can say that it really helped me to become more used to the Japanese characters, and recall them in an easier way. I took japanese classes at my University for 2 1/2 years, and we only “learned” 150 kanji. How? By memorizing their stroke order and by writing them over and over again… not a standable process in any way.

    In comparison, by using Heisig’s method one becomes able to recognize a lot more kanji. And yes, while the method itself doesn’t teach you how to read kanji per-se, it gives you a solid basis you can use to start immersing yourself in reading material, and as Kim said, start making associations from one kanji to the other.

    So yeah… RTK is NOT a waste of time, in my opinion.

  25. I used both RTK and Henshall’s book. Here’s my view and also a question to everybody.

    I started with various books and at some point ended up getting RTK1. it immediately helped me and gave me confidence. I was writing my stories on the margins of the book and heavily used the book.

    Later at some point I felt like I was losing the juggles. Mnemonic story components started getting mixed. Some primitives were just image based but not related to their true meaning. That caused me to devise nonsense stories which poorly connected with the kanji. And every time that primitive happened in different kanjis, it screwed up the story.

    When I got the true etymological meaning of those primitives, then there were no need to devise forced stories even, and many kanji characters that gave me problem turned out the simplest. And I felt better for having gone further myself. Heisig’s most primitives are etymologically right. Only very few had this problem. And I’m thankful I studied Heisig’s book. Yet the problem stated in the above 2 sentences pushed me to grab Henshall’s book, from which I got etymologies.

    Once I knew Heisig’s method, I knew how to dismantle any kanji but did not use Heisig’s stories.

    But on most those characters there are something to consider from Henshall’s book, right or wrong . From this time on, Henshall’s book was used much more by me.

    My question to everybody is:

    If there were a new book for kanji learning with the following supposed structure how would you like it or dislike it? :

    1. first chapter: explain 214 radicals in first few pages. I know some radicals are barely used while some “components” are used much more. But anyway. And also explain those “components” which are not officially radicals. It maybe is like learning all alphabet from A to Z without writing words.

    2. second chapter (main body): start kanji characters in the order as they are in typical radical based dictionary like:
    first: 一 丁 兀 与 万 三 下 丑 …. most kanji with “一” radical (i.e. radical 1).
    then: 卍 弔 中 内 央 冊 由 凸… most kanji with “个” radical (i.e. radical 2).
    keep going: radical 184: 食 飢 飯 飲 飴 飾 飽 飼 蝕 餅 餌…….
    And so on until the last radical 龠 (i.e. radical 214) and characters that are based on that radical.
    And every character has mostly etymology based short true explanation, stroke number, grade number, and possibly on and kun reading. That’s it.

    NOW, If there were a book like this how would you consider it? Like it ?

    OR prefer not to study all 214 radicals in the beginning, but rather study one radical at a time and kanji characters made up from it / them and and only then add next radical? I mean like Heisig’s order (one primitive at a time).

    B. Will the on and kun reading clutter the book? or will you demand it?

    I’d really happy to hear from you guys. Any feedback, bad or good is welcome. No hard deal.

  26. late comment: if you are Vietnamese, dont hesitate but start RtK right now. As it happens, Vietnamese and Japanese borrowed their vocab from the same source – Chinese, they are atonishingly similar, esp how their compound words formed (many Vietnamese compound words can be pronounced in 2 ways, similar to how Japanese kanjis have onyomi and kunyomi) Take世界 for example: 世 = thế, 界 = giới, 世界 = thế giới – no translation effort required at all! Ofc you cant pronounce those kanji (yet), and it requires a good command of Sino-Vietnamse vocab, but I believe the effort is well worth it.

    • Tell me you’re kidding. Tell me you’ve at least read it all. It clearly explains both advantages and disadvantages, as well as how you can use it in conjunction with a different method of learning the kanji.

  27. Tae Kim, thanks very much for your website and information. I find it much more useful than many text book.
    Just want to share, I find “imiwa” is an excellent tool as well.
    Good job and thanks again.

  28. I tried RTK. Twice in different instances and times, in fact. It just didn’t work for me; the stories are confusing or disassociating often enough that I just can’t remember a lot of the stories.

    The method you described works much better for me, though you do really need to make sure you learn as many radicals as you can to have an easier time recognizing kanji through their elements (just like what RTK does, but in a different, non story way).

  29. Thank you so much for this post!
    I used to learn kanji by writing them down a lot (as taught in class) but I found it very ineffective and passive. The more kanji I learned, the more I forgot. Copying kanji is a passive action so my brain could not register the word at all.
    So now I am thinking about ditching the writing all together and focus on reading only. With each kanji, I learn the reading, meaning and common compound words then put them in sentences. I try to read as much as possible so that I can be constantly exposed to a lot of kanji, not because I want to learn them all, but for the sake of revising the words that I’ve learned.
    English is not my native English either, but during my process of learning English, I find myself improve the most when I start to read extensively on different subjects. In my book, words are meant to be put in contexts so I am applying this method to study Japanese. I’ve had doubt about this but after reading your post, I feel like this is the right thing to do.

      • Thank you for your reply.
        But would you suggest giving up the writing totally? Like, no writing at all?

        • Writing is good but drilling is ineffective (repeat same character over and over). You want as many different types of connections in your brain to reinforce memory and muscle memory is one of them.

  30. Hello!
    May I ask for your advice on another Japanese-learning related issue?
    I am thinking of enrolling into a language school in Japan. Do you have any names in mind? It doesn’t necessarily have to be in Tokyo, though I would prefer bigger cities than rural areas.
    There are 1-year-3-month and 2-year courses. Would 1 year 3 months be long enough for one to reach N2 level? (I’m around N4 now).
    Thank you in advance.

    • It really depends on you. I believe than you can spend one year in Japan and reach N2 if you study hard and work a lot outside of the class but you can also spend 2 years there and not learn much more than if you stayed in your own country majoring in Japanese and getting Bs. I think that even if you work hard, one year won’t be enough to reach fluency (or if you do reach it you’re very good).

      Language school makes it easier to learn Japanese because you already spend a lot of time learning a language and get quite a bit of free time. When you work in Japan it’s harder to find the free time. I don’t work as hard as Tae Kim did but I feel quite tired after work.

  31. I think using the RTK is the only sane humanly possible way to put into memory all 2000+ jōyō kanji. Japanese themselves uses some sort of mnemonic to recall kanji, so it is the tried and natural way. The RTK mnemonic themselves are based on kanji entymology, so in many cases (not all) the meaning of the radicals work on across different kanji (as they should). For this reason, you must have another book of kanji entymology, for creating more accurate mnemonics based on actual historical kanji construction. I use Kenneth Henshals A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters. Understanding kanji like this works best, as most of the core meanings and other minor meanings of kanji are based on how they are constructed etymologically. Some radical usage in kanji construction uses chinese phonetics/readings to create kanji meaning (as kanji are essentially chinese characters), and since we have no chinese reading knowledge, these phonetic side of kanji entymology must be worked around somehow by creating your own meaning for these radicals (you will understand it if you read K. Henshal’s book). Also there are some minor mistakes in RTK, so always do cross reference with other dictionaries. Particularly on what core meaning RTK gives per kanji. Sometimes it gives a minor meaning, sometimes its a totally different meaning at all. Its best to assign the core meaning per kanji, and for that I recommend the Kodansha Kanji Learners dictionary. This dictionary gives the core meaning of every kanji, its minor meanings and usage of every meaning given. Those are the 3 books I use to study kanji, and I cross reference them a lot. I also use Wakan which has a char dictionary with search indexes of all those 3 books. RTK works, the author himself has memorized all 2000+ kanji in a month, but just the meaning of each kanji. But thats more then 50% of the way, and with really strong memory retention too. I bet you couldnt do that in any other way even if you spend countless years studying kanji. RTK is unorthodox. No self respecting classroom teacher will recomend it to you. But its clearly a groundbreaking and revolutionary way to learn kanji.

    I totally agree with Tae King on understanding/learning kanji and words through context. Its the best way to make visual, and experiential associations with words, kanji with what your reading. Ill do more reading from now on!

    • One more important key learning factor difference in western and Japanese/Chinese learners is this: When we see a group of characters, when first try to pronounce it, then get the meaning from pronunciation. Thats how we read in English. Most Non-native learners of Japanese use this same approach in memorizing Japanese words and kanji. This is a wrong approach, and just make things difficult for yourself even if it shouldnt. Japanese kanji characters work differently. Kanji have there innate meaning in themselves even without knowing how to pronounce it. Reading japanese words, pronounciation first before character meaning is like looking at a picture of a cat, and not knowing its a cat until someone says out loud its a cat. Thats what chinese learners of Japanese have the great advantage vs. Western learners. They know what every kanji means, they just have to learn its Japanese pronunciation. Thats what your going to get when you learn RTK, you can call it the ‘Chinese-advantage’ of knowing what kanji means. the second book of RTK also deals with pronunciation, and groups all kanji that have some similar radical, causing it to have a same pronunciation. That also makes reading easier to learn. Why does RTK separate the meaning and pronunciation of kanji memorization? because Kanji meaning has sense when you look at the radicals and how its formed. Its understandable, so its memorizable. while pronunciation has little sense, and you need some brute rote memorization to learn it. and RTK author says, that as much as possible, the key is to delay the use of rote memorization in whatever way possible, so as to speed memorization areas that has sense and understandable. Heisig’s system is to group all the easier parts apart from the difficult parts, making them more easier, then when thats done, do the hard part, which will also become a lot easier since you’ve already got 50% of the easy part knowledge in your head. So the hard part would just become not-so diifficult. In the long run its just more time economy.

      An analogy memorizing meaning and reading of kanji at the same time is like bulding a house, and putting cement just as you’ve put up the first metal foundation.. and then painting that cement.. it seems logical, but structural wise its best to finish the foundation first without any cement, when thats done, do the cement, then roof, etc.. its like learning in layers. It seems illogical at first but if there was an architectural diagram for learning kanji, RTK would be the sturdy foundation, that makes everything else buildable, as much as learning/memorization is concerned. The only downside is RTK is completely unorthodox. It doesnt even follow the order which joyo kanji is learned. Thats why it cant be used in schools. You cannot take any JLPT exams if your using RTK unless you finish the 2 books (thats the whole 2000+ kanji). but if you do, i think your ready even for an N1 JLPT exam. Thats RTK, its like N1 or nothing learning regimen.

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