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Learning Kanji (Part 1)

If you’ve decided to learn kanji – the characters at the base of the Japanese writing system – you may be overwhelmed by the amount and variety of available self-study material: books, magazines, CDs, websites, software, electronic dictionaries…

What you choose will have to do with why you want to learn kanji and how deeply. Are you planning a vacation? Studying for a language proficiency test? Is your company promoting you to the Tokyo branch? Whatever the circumstances, there is something just right for you.

Two main approaches to studying kanji. One focuses on a core of frequently used characters; the other on a systematic approach to learning all the joyo kanji – the 1,945 kanji published by the Ministry of Education as the minimum requirement for adult literacy.

Here are a few selected books.

  • Japanese Characters, ISBN 4-533-01359-7.
    Great little book with hundreds of charmingly illustrated kanji and a wide range of useful information on topics such as hiragana and katakana – the syllabaries used in conjunction with kanji to transcribe the Japanese language – and tips on how to decipher a menu or the signs around town. Historical and cultural notes scattered throughout the book will help you put it all in perspective. Useful, affordable, and it fits in your pocket.
  • The Kodansha Kanji Learner's Dictionary, ISBN 4770028555.
    Perfect for beginners and advanced students alike, this dictionary presents 2,230 kanji. For each it includes meaning(s); stroke sequence; on1 and kun2 readings; radical3 pattern, examples of compound words, and more. The entries are clear and the characters organized according to several criteria – ranked by frequency, listed alphabetically by on-kun reading, indexed by stroke number, and grouped by pattern. If you have more than a passing interest in the Japanese language, this is a must.
  • Read Japanese Today, ISBN 0-8048-0496-6.
    In spite of the misleading subtitle (you will not master written Japanese simply by reading this book), this is a useful introduction to 300 kanji. Best read sequentially, for its narrative quality and because each group of characters builds on the preceding one.
  • Kanji Pict-O-Graphix, ISBN 0962813702.
    Very much a picture book, this shows more than 1,000 kanji, each illustrated by a stylized drawing – not necessarily a faithful representation of the original pictograph, but useful in establishing a recall pattern. Entries are grouped by topic and you can tackle them in any order.
  • Remembering the Kanji - Vol. 1, ISBN 4889960759.
    This is the most comprehensive flash card system with 2,042 kanji, grouped by radical, each with its primary meaning and mnemonic notes. While this is a great system for memorizing several related characters in a short time, it comes at a price: you will only learn the meaning of a kanji, not its readings; and by ordering kanji by their radicals, the book introduces early on words that you’ll hardly ever encounter. Do you really need to learn the kanji for "gall bladder" in lesson two? And if you are still eager to try it out, be prepared to part with $42 for the book and $130 for the companion flash cards.

  1. On reading = a kanji’s reading derived from the original Chinese pronunciation. Typically used in compound words.

  2. Kun reading = the Japanese native reading of a kanji.

  3. Radical = one of 214 basic kanji that stand by themselves and are also used as components in more complex kanji. For instance, the kanji for volcano is made up by the characters for fire and mountain. In this case, fire acts as the radical, or root, of the compound kanji.

  4. More on this subject at Learning Kanji (Part 2)


Hi, you've listed some excellent resources in this post. I just wanted to add that I think Nelson's kanji dictionary is also an invaluable tool. I prefer the original Nelson (red cover) to the revised edition (blue cover).

Yes, I have the red cover version, too. It's an excellent dictionary. I didn't include it in the review because I find the Kodansha Learner's dictionary more friendly to use for both portability and legibility. I also tend to focus on materials for beginners. In spite of having a decent size library, I haven't made much progress with the spoken language. I took a few private lessons for a while, but one hour a week wasn't really enough contact time for me, lacking other opportunities for exposure.