You can’t “learn” Kanji!!

One of my pet peeves is when somebody says the phrase “learn Kanji” such as, “I learned 100 Kanji in one week!” Kanji has way too many parts to simply say that you “learned” it. Saying you learned Kanji is like saying “I learned computer!” or “I learned a car!” What does that even mean? Let’s break down the concrete things you can learn with Kanji.

  1. Learn the meaning(s)
  2. Learn all the readings
  3. Learn the stroke order
  4. Learn how to write it

Now, let’s see how useful all these possibilities are for learning Japanese.

Learn the meaning – Useful

Learning the meaning of a Kanji is great if it’s a word by itself. For example, 「力」 is also a word meaning “strength” so the meaning directly translates into a word you can actually use. However, you can also argue that since 「力」 is also a word, you are essentially saying that you learned the meaning of a word. So in the end, this is really the same as learning words and doesn’t really count as “learning Kanji”.

Having said that, knowing the meaning of a Kanji is certainly very useful for simpler words and concepts. Kanji such as 「続」 or 「連」 will definitely help you remember words such as 接続、連続、and 連中. In conclusion, there’s nothing wrong with learning the meaning of a Kanji and something I would recommend.

Learn all the readings – Waste of time

To put it bluntly, learning all the readings of a Kanji is a complete waste of time. Yes, as a general rule of thumb, Kanji compounds use the on-reading while single characters use the kun-reading. However, this rule is nowhere consistent enough to make it more than a good guess (this is particularly true for 大 which we can’t seem to decide to read as おお or だい).

In addition, many Kanji have multiple readings kun or on-readings such as 怪力(かいりき or かいりょく?), 外道(げどう or がいどう?), or 家路(いえじ、うちじ、やじ?). Even if you guessed the correct reading, it might be voiced or shortened such as 活発 and 発展. Also, Kanji such as 生 have so many readings, it’s completely pointless to memorize them because you won’t know which one will be used in a word such as 芝生、生ビール、生粋、and 生涯. Not to mention the various words that only use the Kanji for the meaning while completely ignoring the reading. These words such as 仲人、素人、and お土産 are literally impossible to guess the readings for. At the end of the day, if you see a new word, you always want to look up the reading to make sure you learn the correct combination. In addition, the readings will be easier to remember in context of real words that you can actually use. Essentially, memorizing the readings by themselves is a complete waste of time.

Learn the stroke order – Essential at first

I’m not going to go into all the reasons why memorizing the correct stroke order is important. Without going into detail, of course you want to make sure to remember the correct stroke order. However, you’ll find that once you’ve mastered all the compounds, stroke order for most Kanji are consistent and easy enough that you no longer need to look it up. Every once in a while, you’ll run into odd Kanji such as 飛 or 鬱 where you’ll want to check the stroke order. So yes, definitely look up the stroke order and make sure you’re not developing any bad habits until… you don’t need to look them up anymore. That happens sooner that you might think.

Learn how to write it – Depends

This is going to be a controversial stance but nowadays, technology has progressed to the point where we never really have to write anything by hand anymore. Yes, it’s embarrassing if you’re fluent in a language but can’t write it by hand. This is an issue even for Japanese people.

By “writing Kanji”, I don’t mean just 2,000+ characters based on keywords. Unless you know which combination of Kanji to use for any given word with the correct okurigana, that is a useless parlor trick.

Being able to write any word in Kanji is an extremely time-consuming goal that may not have much practical value. If your daily life requires writing a lot by hand such as teaching Japanese, I feel that necessity and practice would naturally lend to better writing ability. In other words, if you don’t need it, it’s extremely difficult to keep up your memory of how to write Kanji by hand.

Conclusion – Learn words with Kanji!

I hate the phrase “learn Kanji” because almost every time someone says that, they don’t realize that they haven’t really learned anything that’s directly applicable to Japanese. Compare “learning Kanji” to learning a word. In order to learn a word, you obviously need to learn the definition, reading, Kanji, and any Okurigana if applicable. There is no question of what you learned and whether it’s useful for Japanese. And yet the idea of learning 2,000 Kanji is so attractive that we can’t seem to get away from that broadly undefined notion.

I don’t consider a Kanji as being learned until I know the most common words using that Kanji with the correct readings and can write those words randomly months after I initially memorized it. Unfortunately, given that standard, I probably know about 100-200 Kanji but hey, we all need goals, right?

Whatever cool method to “memorize Kanji” someone tries to peddle you, at the end of the day, you still have to do lots of reading and memorizing tons of vocabulary. This involves daily struggles starting with remembering that 「き」 in 「好き」 is okurigana and continuing with which Kanji to use for 真剣 vs 試験 vs 検査 vs 険しい, or constantly forgetting which kanji is for net vs rope (網/綱). You may be thinking, “Wow, 2,000 is a lot!” But don’t worry, it pales in comparison to the tens of thousands of words that an adult has memorized in her lifetime. And believe it or not, having a fixed set of characters with mnemonics and compounds actually helps with the much bigger job of learning vocabulary. Once you’ve learned a new word in seconds based on characters you already know, you’ll know what I mean. Trust me.

A gentle introduction to Kanji

Posted on my Facebook group (which in facebook’s ultimate wisdom requires you to login to view, lame).

Ok, let’s learn some Kanji today! You’ll see that it’s not so scary!

口【くち】 – mouth
Just picture an open mouth except um… more square. This box shows up ALL THE TIME in Kanji so MAKE SURE you get the correct stroke order.

五【ご】 – five
I guess it kind of looks like 5 with a line on the bottom

日【ひ】- sun; day
Similar to mouth, it’s a circle made into a square with a line in the middle to represent sun rays or something.

木【き】 – tree
Pretty much exactly how I would draw a tree (my drawing skills are terrible)

本【ほん】 – root; book
The Kanji itself means root. As you can see it’s a tree with a line on the trunk bottom to emphasis a root. It’s also the word for book as in “books are the root of all knowledge”. Quaint, ain’t it?

日本【に・ほん】 – Japan
Root of the sun, you know, the “Land of the Rising Sun”? It would be pretty hot over there if it were really the case.

言う【い・う】 – to say
言 is like four lines of dialogue or sound waves on top of a mouth (notice the first top stroke is slanted). Easy!

語【ご】 – language
Combine the radicals for “say”, “five” and “mouth” and you get the single character for language. To say with five mouths, I guess it kinda makes sense. It’s not a word by itself but you can just tack it onto countries to describe that country’s language such as スペイン語 = Spanish. Cool!

日本語【に・ほん・ご】 – Japanese (language)
Just tack on the character for language to the word for Japan to get Japanese as mentioned above.

Ok, let’s make a sentence with KANJI!

What is this called in Japanese?
lit: As for this, what do you say in Japanese?

Replace これ with whatever you want to know the Japanese word for.

Hopefully this will give you an idea of how to make up mnemonics for memorizing Kanji.

MAKE SURE to practice after checking the stroke order which you can see here:口五日木本言語

Breathe… relax… you don’t have to know it all

A short post today since real life is starting to be more demanding and clamoring for attention.

Today, I learned a new word: 【準える】

I’m always surprised to see a completely new word based on a Kanji that I’ve probably known for well over 6 years. 「準備」 was probably one of the first few words I learned with Kanji (it helped that the same word in Korean sounds identical). I later picked up other words such as 「基準」、「水準」、「標準」、and 「準決勝」. Later on, I even picked up more advanced vocabulary such as 「準じる」 and the older style: 「準ずる」. And now, after over 8 years since I started studying Japanese, I just learned a completely different word based on the same Kanji.

Another similar example happened to me several years ago with 「集う」, which as far as I can tell is virtually identical to 「集まる」 except used like almost never. At that time, I came upon the word at a local community event at 「川口市」 called 「新年の集い」.

The moral of the story is: don’t worry about learning everything about a given Kanji at once. Relax, give it time, and learn things in context as you go. And whatever you do, DO NOT try to remember all the readings at once. You’ll eventually get to all the various readings and associated vocabulary in time. It might take over 8 years but hey, I’ve been using Japanese happily all these years without knowing 「準える」 precisely because it’s so rare to see it used anywhere.

As an interesting aside, 「なずらえる」 seems to have 3 possible kanji: 「準える・准える・擬える」 but the 「なぞらえる」 reading seems to only accept 「準える」. Probably a modern upgrade, as indicated by older usage of 「ず」 (similar to 「生ずる」、「準ずる」、etc).

The NEW 常用漢字 and why we shouldn’t give a damn

According to Wikipedia, revision of the 常用漢字 (Jōyō kanji) was first proposed in February 2005 and work began in September of the same year.


Three years later, there was news as recently as last month of a tentative list to be released in February of 2009. The new list is currently said to have removed 5 kanji and added 188 new ones, bringing the new total from 1945 to 2128 characters.



The new additions apparently also include the “controversial” character 「俺」. Personally, it seems crazy to not include it based on how often it’s used. And what is so controversial about 「俺」 anyway especially considering the fact that they’re adding kanji like 「勃」 and 「淫」? That’s just my opinion in any case and I think the difficulty they are having in determining the criteria for what goes in the list is indicative of fundamental problems with the whole idea behind the list in the first place.

Never let the 常用漢字表 tell you which kanji to learn or not learn

What is the purpose of the 常用漢字表 anyway? To tell you which kanji to learn? So I’m supposed to learn 「斤」, some obscure unit of measurement but not the kanji for the word “who” (誰)? That makes perfect sense, right?!

Also, why did they even have the removed characters (銑・錘・勺・匁・脹) in the first place? Was “pig iron” commonly used at some point in time? I mean, the list came out the year I was born and I don’t think I’m THAT old. And why haven’t they removed stuff like 畝 or 逓 yet? I don’t think they come even close to falling in the category of “common usage” no matter how you define it.

And now, almost 30 years later they’re finally going to add kanji for words like “smell” (匂い), “loose” (緩い), “nail” (爪), and “butt” (お尻) in 2010? What kind of crap list were we using all these years?

The list burned me personally when I bought my first kanji dictionary. It only had the 常用漢字 because after all, that’s all we need to know, right? Well, one of the FIRST words I encountered in my self-study was 「瞳」 and guess what, it’s not in the list! If I had known better, I would have never wasted money on anything that only covered the 常用漢字.

Thankfully, I later found an online dictionary that didn’t use the 常用漢字表 as an excuse to be lazy and saved me from quitting Japanese in frustration. For comparison, the 漢字源 in my Canon G90 has 13,112 characters, almost 16x what my first crap dictionary had.

Don’t fall into the trap of learning from a list

In my opinion, the worst problem with the list is that it fools innocent learners such as you and I into thinking we should use it somehow in our studies. The thinking goes, “Hey here’s a list of (supposedly) common kanji. I should make up some index cards and memorize them one by one.”

However, what many beginners don’t realize is that you have to be some kind of super-genius to memorize 1945 characters with absolutely no context. Even if you DID somehow manage to memorize them all, you’re not learning any real words, you have no idea which readings are used and when, and you have no sense of when and how it’s used. Where’s the reading material, vocabulary, and conversation practice? It’s like putting the cart before the horse AND sitting in the seat backwards.

The first character on the list is 「亜」 for crying out loud! For all you know, that’s the most useful character in the world when in fact I have never used it in all my years of study. Do YOU write 「アジア」 and 「アメリカ」 as 「亜細亜」 and 「亜米利加」? I sure hope not! I thought for a second that maybe it’s used in the word 「唖然」 but no, not even! If anything, 「唖」 belongs in the list much more than 「亜」 if you ask me. Obviously, they never consulted me (I was -2 months old at the time) and no, it’s not in the list.


I don’t know, maybe the list has some good uses for educators, policy makers, publishers, and whatnot. It’s certainly better to have an improved version over the crappy one we have now. But I can’t help but think it was overused throughout the years and caused more harm than good for people learning Japanese. Personally, I think we would have been better off without the damn list in the first place.

The bottom line is whatever new list they come up with and no matter how “good” it is (whatever that means), we should always think of it as a guide and never forget to use good ol’ common sense.

What’s the stroke order of 【龜】? Who cares?

This is yet another post that’s been picking up cruft in my draft folder for over three years.

Stroke order is one of those things that might seem difficult at first but actually comes quite naturally with a bit of practice. You just have to make sure you learn the the correct order of the most important radicals such as 口 and 田. You should also pay careful attention to radicals like 厂 that have more stroke orders than you would think. (Hint: it’s more than 1.)

Once you learn the stroke order for the most common radicals, you can figure out the rest for most kanji by yourself with general principles like the following.

  1. Stroke orders generally go from top to bottom and left to right (from the top-left corner to bottom-right corner).
  2. Vertical lines that go straight through are written last as opposed to those that connect (十 vs 土).
  3. Stuff that encloses something else gets drawn first but closed last (回 and 団).

When in doubt or for weird kanji like 必, you can always check the stroke order on the WWWJDIC by looking up the kanji and clicking on the SOD link. You’ll get a nice animated gif like this one.

However, the problem with these animations is that it only gives you the order and not the direction of each stroke. If you’re confused about stroke direction, another site you might want to try is gahoh, which has animated .mov files with the direction and order. Here’s one for .

Their collection isn’t as complete as the WWWJDIC but it is useful for odd or crazy and complicated kanji like . The request page in particular has some of the odder and trickier kanji like 凸、凹、飛、 and 卵 so you might want to check it out and double-check your stroke order.

So how useful is it to learn the proper stroke order of 龜? Not very but hey it’s fun times for everybody, right? Right? Hello? ………anybody?

In Soviet Russia, expressions use YOU

This post has been sitting in my drafts folder for almost 3 years so I decided it’s high time to get it out the door finally.

「逆に」(ぎゃくに) is one of those expressions that is used all the time. Even if you decide to stop reading the rest of this post because you hate me for being so cool, you’re probably going to pick it up somewhere along your studies.

「逆」 by itself means, the “reverse” or “opposite”, and is a pretty useful word by itself as you can imagine. It is used as a noun as shown in the following (admittedly cheesy) dialogue.

田中) 明日、レポートをちゃんと提出するんだな?
みき) あっ、はい!
田中) あんまり仕事をサボるんじゃないよ。
みき) はい!わかりました!
Aさん) 田中さんは、なんでいつもみきちゃんに厳しいのかな?みきちゃんのことが気に入らないとか?
Bさん) その逆だと思います。

Loose translation:
Tanaka) Going to submit your report tomorrow, right?
Miki) Um, yes!
Tanaka) Don’t slack off too much.
Miki) Yes! Understood!
A-san) I wonder why Tanaka-san is always hard on Miki-chan? Maybe he doesn’t like her or something?
B-san) I think it’s that exact opposite.

It’s slang, it’s not supposed to make sense!

While that’s all fine and dandy, you wouldn’t think adding 「に」 and making it an adverb would be a very useful construction. I mean, how often do you say “oppositely” in English? But in Japanese slang, it doesn’t have to mean what it actually means!

みき) このレポートのせいで、今晩のデートはだめになっちゃったよ。
Aさん) 逆にいいんじゃない?彼氏と別れたいって言ってたでしょ?
みき) それはそうなんだけど、残業よりましよ。

Loose translation:
Miki) Thanks to this report, my date tonight is ruined.
A-san) Isn’t it oppositely good? You were saying you wanted to break up with your boyfriend, right?
Miki) That is true but it’s better than doing overtime.

As you can see from my crappy translation, 「逆に」 doesn’t have to be the direct opposite of anything in particular, really. It can be used to describe a result that might run counter to what you would normally expect. It can also be used to turn the tables around on someone (much like the title of this post).


I heard he got dumped by his girlfriend and when I tried to cheer him up, he oppositely got mad at me.

In fact, one very popular slang is 逆ギレ, which is when someone who is in the wrong turns around and gets angry at the person who confronted him or her.

Aさん) 遅いよ。もう30分も待ってたよ。
Bさん) 電車が止まってたから、しょうがないだろう!!
Aさん) ・・・(逆ギレかよ)

The 「日本語俗語辞書」, which I talked about in my last post has additional similar slang such as 逆ナン and 逆セクハラ but I’ll let you figure those out for yourselves. I’ve done enough damage already, I think.

On the (possible) origin of 「出来る」

I was just working on an article (one of my 80 drafts) about the difference between the potential form and 「ことができる」 when an amazing insight hit me! I didn’t want to clutter up that article so I decided to write about it separately in this post.

I was discussing the potential form and how only 「する」 had this curious exception of using a completely different verb: 「できる」. While I never thought much about it these many years, with some Chinese under my belt now, I suddenty realized that “出来” was also used in Chinese to indicate potential!

In Chinese, “出来” means to “come out” and you can see various examples of this here.

叫全家人都出来, 我好给他们拍照。
Ask the whole family to come out so that I can take their photograph.

You may be wondering what this has to do with 「出来る」 but what the dictionary doesn’t tell you is that this “出来” is often combined with a verb to indicate that the verb is able to be performed. For example, “听得出来” means “able to hear”, basically the same definition as 「聞こえる」 in Japanese. The listening is coming out, therefore you can hear it. I guess it does kind of make sense, in a weird Chinese sort of way.

I harvested the following example from Google since my Chinese is not too good. So I hope I’m not making any mistakes here in the translation.

Can you hear what song it is?

Some of you may be wondering why there a “能” in there as well which seems redundant. Yeah well, sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s not. (See, I told you I wasn’t very good at this.)

Chinese grammar (if indeed, there is such a thing) doesn’t seem very consistent but my guess is when you have a subject (in this case 你), you need 能 to act as the verb. The 得 (which is kind of like の but only for verbs) kind of rendered 听 a description rather than a traditional verb, hence the need for 能.

So things are a bit different for the negative case because you use 不 and don’t need 得. Here’s another similar example I pulled from Google.

Can’t you hear who I am?

Please feel free to correct me on any of this as I’m pulling these explanations out of my ass as I’m writing it.

Chinesepod has a great podcast discussing “不出来” and “得出来” so I encourage you to check it out. You can also find many additional podcasts with dialogues using “出来” by using the search box. Sorry, I can’t give you a direct link to the search results since it seems to POST and not GET. (John, this is a tiny suggestion for you.)


Anyway, I hope you can see how “出来” means more than just “come out” and is used to express potential as well. So the fact that Japanese uses a verb with the exact same kanji for a similar purpose seems a bit too much for mere coincidence. Could 「出来る」 be some kind of weird Japanized version of “出来”, originally derived from Chinese? Sounds like a good topic for a research paper. All I can say is it’s mighty suspicious that only 「する」 has this weird exception of becoming 「出来る」 unlike every other verb in the whole Japanese language.


Kim pointed out something that I completely forgot about. Another odd potential exception is 「あり得る」 from 「ある」. Is the use of the kanji 「得」 here just another coincidence? The suspicion is growing…

The various uses of 「中」

「中」 is one of those essential kanji that anybody who knows any kanji will more than likely already know. Beginners will probably learn it first as 「なか」 and in compounds such as 「中国」. However, in this intermediate post, I’d like to discuss two other usages that I’ve had to figure out on my own. Now you don’t have to.

Using 「ちゅう」 instead of 「~している」

「中」 can be attached to a noun, in order to indicate that the noun is currently taking place. This essentially takes the place of 「している」 and means pretty much the same thing. In this usage, 「中」 is always read as 「ちゅう」. This may be obvious but the noun must be an actionable item such as “search” or “investigate”. Basically, it’s any noun that can be followed by 「する」 such as 「仕事」 or 「勉強」. You can’t say for example 「体中」(からだちゅう) because 「体する」 or “doing body” makes no sense.

検索中 – searching
勉強中 – studying
考え中 – thinking

「考え中」 is an interesting example because it is a noun that came originally from a verb. But this is not commonly done universally. For example, nobody really says 「思い中」 or 「売り中」. I would consider 「考え中」 as an expression of it’s own.

1) 今考え中だから、ちょっと静かにしてくんない? – I’m thinking now so can you be a little quiet?

This usage of 「中」 is simply a more concise way to say [noun]をしている. You will often see it used as simple status updates such as computer wait screens (or my current Twitter status).

Using 「じゅう」 as throughout or all over

Another usage is to attach 「中」 to a noun to talk about the noun throughout or all over. In this usage, the reading is 「じゅう」 and you can tell the difference from the previous usage because the noun is not actionable. Instead, the noun must have some kind of length whether physical or in time. Unlike the previous example, 「体中」(からだじゅう) is a perfectly correct example. In this case, it means “all over the body” and not “doing body”.

1) 事故のせいで、体中が傷だらけだ。 – Due to fault of the accident, body is full of injuries all over.

Another common usage is with periods of time such as 「今日」 or 「一日中」 to indicate throughout the entire time period. One interesting thing to note is that 「今日中」 means “within today” while 「一日中」 means “the whole day”.

1) 今日中にやらなければならない。- I have to do it by today.
2) 一日中やっても終わらない。 – Won’t end even if you do it all day.
3) 一晩中カラオケで遊んでいた。 – Was playing all night at Karaoke.

Overall, this usage tend to be more established expressions so I wouldn’t arbitrarily attach it to time spans without seeing some usage samples. But at least now you’ll know how to read it properly and know what it means should you encounter it.

Also, with time spans, 「ちゅう」 tends to be used to mean “within” while 「じゅう」 is used to mean “throughout”. Both are not necessarily always usable for a given time span. It’s pretty arbitrary.

More details and examples can be found here:

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.

Ruby tags considered harmful

For those of you unfamiliar with the ruby tag, it is an html tag that adds tiny readings over kanji. 「ルビ」 traditionally is used in print for archaic kanji or when the author wants to indicate a non-standard reading for the kanji. However, on the net, ruby tags are being abused everywhere I see them. Here’s a simple benchmark (with a neat acronym to make it “official”) for determining whether you’re abusing the ruby tag.

Ruby Abuse Benchmark (RAB)

1. Do you use ruby tags for every kanji?

2. Do you use ruby tags for any kanji that most Japanese people can read?

3. Do you use ruby tags?

If you answered “Yes” to any of the questions above, you are abusing the ruby tag.

This abuse happens most often on sites that are intended for people learning Japanese. For example, this site about the JLPT or Japanese language blogs like the one you’re reading now. I don’t use ruby tags though. Even sites for kids stay away from ruby and just use Hiragana instead. Here’s why you should stay away from them too.

The Technical Reason

Ruby is only included in the XHTML 1.1 specification, which has been around forever and still hasn’t gained much traction. The HTML 4.01 and XHTML 1.0 Transitional DTDs are still being used in the majority of website that care about standards. This means that if you want to use a schema that the majority of the web is using, <ruby> won’t validate.

Plus, the markup is terribly hard to read and write. Take a look at these markup examples. Imagine doing that for every kanji. Your Japanese text will be indecipherable and an incredible pain to edit.

The Practical Reason

Because XHTML 1.1 hasn’t gained much traction, a majority of browsers don’t support ruby. The only one I’m aware of that does is IE and in today’s world where up to 30% of your visitors might not be using IE, IE-only is not practical.

People without Ruby support will see this.

田中(たなか): はい、元気(げんき)です。早坂(はやさか)さんは?

Terrible, just terrible. It’s totally unreadable. Plus, even if you DID have Ruby support, the text is far too small. It’s a lose-lose situation. The correct use of ruby is to show the readings of a few archaic words that the author assumes will not readable by his audience or when he wants to expand on the word. It is NOT intended to be used for every kanji. The print is too small for people who need them and distracting for the people who don’t need them. Also, it can become a crutch allowing people to never actually read and learn the kanji.

So, even if you can install something such as an extension to make ruby tags work, it’s just not a good idea.


1. CSS mouse-over popups: It’s one simple span tag and it works in all major browsers. It’s also more versatile because you can add more information such as English definitions, etc.

Html: <span title=”たべる – to eat” class=”popup”>食べる</span>
Appears as: 食べる

I suggest adding a visual highlight so that the reader can easily see which part of the text applies for the popup or whether there is a popup at all (not supported by some older browsers). You can easily do this by adding some CSS like the following to your stylesheet.

span.popup:hover {
color: rgb(159,20,26);

Plus, you can easily see the readings for only the words you need, removing the distracting ruby text and preventing the furigana from becoming a crutch.

Here’s a recent convert and look at all the positive comments he’s gotten.

2. Make a list of the vocabulary at the beginning or end of the page so that the reader has something to refer to.

3. Suggest additional tools such as WWWJDIC, 理解.com, moji, and rikaichan so that people can learn to teach themselves. (You know, the whole teach a man to fish thing.)


I think the first method is good for static resources like my guide to Japanese grammar but when you don’t have the time to add readings and definitions manually all the time (like this blog), you can’t beat the third method. Plus, it helps your readers read any online Japanese text instead of just your own. In the end, whatever method you use, it certainly beats the hell out of writing this for every word that uses kanji.


Ah!!! My eyes!!