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Final thoughts on remembering the kanji

In my first 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 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.


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