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The Kanji Barrier

I can really relate to many of the posts that I see with people who have struggled with Japanese for years. Japanese is a challenging language. One of the reasons that it is difficult for westerners to progress is because of the reading barrier. I'm trying a new and somewhat unconventional approach that has breathed new life into my pursuit of the language. I'm taking the kanji beast head on and it's paying off. My short-term goal is only one meaning per kanji in English! I pick up more meanings and different Japanese pronunciations as I go, but I don't let them slow me down. I focused on the basic components (亻, ⺨, 又, etc.) first. There are over 600, but this is not as hard as it sounds--curiosity may just get you! Once you've learned the components, you don't need to remember all 22 strokes of a complex kanji, just put together two or more simple components. You will use these over and over and it will reinforce what you have already learned. Learning by the mnemonics the Chinese masters left for us seems obvious, but not many of us really dive in. This may not seem surprising, until you consider that surprise (驚) is simply respect (敬) and a horse (馬). Maybe the Chinese respected their horses so they could surprise their enemies! A horse can run like a bird (隹) on fire (灬). Respect breaks down as well. If we meet in the grass (艹), I can strike (攵), or use a phrase (句) to gain your respect. I like the latter! The best part is that it's fun and interesting. Now I'm reading more and easier. I'm gaining a deeper insight into the language. I still have a long way to go, but I can, for the first time envision a clear path to fluency. I’m not there yet, but it's comforting to know that it is something attainable. If you have the desire to get past the basics, look beyond random words and stroke count—take your lessons from the Chinese masters who left us insight into their world! It will come together as you discover that kanji is not a barrier—it’s a map.

April 21, 2019



Great suggestion! Mnemonics can be very helpful, especially for remembering some of the more abstract concepts where the kanji don't look like what they represent. My first thought with your "surprise" example above was that you need to respect your horse or you might get a nasty "surprise" (a kick from the horse!)


What is a great example! I wonder which one they were thinking 2000 or so years ago. Vielen Dank!


For people passing by and liking this approach, or even for you, I highly recommend WaniKani. I didn't like the website design at first, but after a few minutes into it I started to really appreciate the concept in its whole, and the site teaches you kanjis meanings and readings at a surprisingly efficient path!


There is a book that focuses precisely on this approach. It's Remembering the Kanji by James Heisig.


Good observation. I have the book and use the Heisig approach! I have also found a site that also uses the same approach but in much fewer words. I'm a big fan of Kanshudo. The annual $30 fee scares people away, but the value is off the charts.


I was about to say that; and to add something: NihongoShark has uploaded a nice kanji deck for Anki (a free long-term memorisation application using flashcards), with a post explaining how to use it in great detail:
1) NihongoShark.com Kanji Deck
2) Hacking the Kanji: 2,200 Kanji in 97 Days

I am currently using this method since 13/03/2019, and very happy with my progress. :) Before, I had already learnt quite some kanji, but with more visual mnemonics and with their pronunciations at the same time (using some Nintendo DS software called My Japanese Coach); the main benefit I see in James Heisig’s method is the compositional order in which the kanji are presented to you. That is, they are quite gathered by common component(s), which is very useful to define your own “primitives” and put them into practice right away. It is also a great help to systematise your mnemonics coherently. I know for one that I had some trouble before, not knowing what was coming for me, and then confusing some elements with some others.

As a side note: although the post advises not to do so (for people that only target reading), I should say that I have decided to use the deck both in the kanji → meaning way and the meaning → kanji (= recall) way; indeed, not only would I like to be able to write Japanese, but experience and studies have shown that active recall is stronger than passive recall, and also enhances reading abilities. So, I’m taking the harder route, but I am confident this is worth it! :)


You give me a guidance that I can finally learn Japanese for now. I find Janpanese difficult until I see this discussion, now I have inspiration to learn Japanese, especially Kanji. Thank you! (ありがとうございました! )


That is what I did a few years ago via the kanji learning computer game Slime Forest Adventure. The main focus of the game is to get you to be able to recognise and distinguish all of the kanji -- it teaches one English meaning keyword for each one of the 1,945 kanji in the jōyō kanji list (the game was made before the jōyō list increased to its current 2,136 kanji). This is taught via the game's own mnemonics and uses a spaced-repetition-esque memorisation system. What is great is that the game requires you to recall the meanings as fast as possible to get through the dungeons without dying, and that you have to type everything from memory rather than having any easy multiple choice answers to rely on.

An example of Slime Forest's mnemonics: "You are very surprised [驚] to see people honoring [敬] a horse [馬]"

You can fly through the game pretty fast. You can probably complete the English meaning keywords part of the game in a couple of months. Once you've done the game, when you see these kanji in real life you'll hopefully still recognise them just as easily as in the game and therefore be able to instantly recall the English keyword of nearly every kanji you come across. ^^

The game also has sidegame modes teaching kun'yomi, on'yomi, and kanji compounds.

After completing Slime Forest Adventure, for me the most intimidating aspect of learning Japanese is never kanji... :P

Sadly, currently the website for Slime Forest Adventure is more-or-less offline (https://lrnj.com). The game has been around for something like fifteen years. I think only the demo version is still available right now from the site.


Aw man, I used it a few years ago but for remembering hiragana and katakana and I didn't get into the kanji. I'll check out the demo.


Very interesting. I'll have to give it a try.


lol, maybe I'll never understand what's the problem with kanji. Like man, seriously, for me, japanese is much easier thanks to kanji. The only thing is that you have to know a lot. But that's not even a slight problem if you learn every day little by little and constantly practice. Kanji is fun! (Maybe it's because I prefer reading to listening and speaking, but still... And isn't it obvious to use "mnemonics" to actually learn a lot of similar things such as kanji? I didn't even know this word before.) (Anyway please accept my lingots for your effort!)


We have a lot in common. I really enjoy making those visual connections. Thanks for chiming in!


Apparently Slime Forest Adventure is back available now for $15 for the full game?

Project Learn Japanese LRNJ



find meaning where you can but don't expect it everywhere.

for instance, the word for box 箱 has bamboo over a tree and an eye. i don't have an explanation for that one.


I didn't have an explanation either, but kanshudo.com does.
The eye (目) in the tree (木) is a minister (this gives you あい- mutual). Now the minister (相) of bamboo (⺮) is a box. If you learned あい first, you would only need to add one more thing.


This sounds really great, and it is also my approach. I break down the kanji so that I can understand the different parts, and then put them back together. It has taken me some time to do this each time, but it is paying off and makes it more interesting. like a puzzle. I also write the sentences in my notebook to practice writing, but also for the grammar. I write the furigana to. This can be tedious, but I can see how it helps me tremendously. Repetition, repetition! I have an app called Midori (on my iPhone). I don't know what I would do without it. It gives me the stroke order and brakes the kanji into radicals. I can look up the kanji on my iPhone while I do the lesson on the computer. The app also gives the different pronunciations and meanings. I make limit myself to only study the meaning that pertains to the lesson I am on at the time. It's too easy to get sidetracked with the different meanings. I do get sidetracked sometimes. I am currently on level 4, unit 3, which is about potential. It's a whole new way of expressing one self, but one I think the Japanese use a lot. So glad to be moving on to something beyond the "masu" form.

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