How to learn the Japanese characters in a truly efficient and effective way is one of the most known problems that any serious Japanese language student like you must eventually face, whether you are part of a Japanese class at your local College or University, or you decided to learn on your own using books, online courses or similar material. Whatever the learning scenario you are in, an unfortunate repetitive aspect of traditional Japanese teaching is the perpetuation of the most common methodology of teaching kanji, which I will refer to as “grinding”.

The “grinding” method (you may be familiar to it already) consists basically in being presented with a given kanji’s stroke order and readings, and memorizing them through “brute force” repetition, commonly in the form of doing kanji drills (writing each kanji lots of times) and/or reviewing the characters using physical kanji flashcards or plain flashcard software.

Although sometimes presented with some tweaks and worked with some complements (like pictograms, radical lists, etc), the process of grinding over kanji is considered an axiom of learning the Japanese language; it is assumed as a “necessary evil” that any learner has to get through in order to ever have the chance of being able to read in the language, and believe it or not, it is used in native schools in Japan as the main method of teaching kanji to Japanese teenagers and children.

As you might know by now (if you are currently learning Japanese), grinding is not really a fun nor rewarding experience. No matter how hard you drill a particular kanji, it doesn’t stay in your mind unless it’s a really simple character, or you “cheat” and remember it by relating it to something else, like a pictograph or even a story. After literally years of grinding, many Japanese learners quit out of frustration and boredom, without getting even slightly close to actually knowing a small ammount of the Joyo kanji (2136 general use kanji).

Some really dedicated students do manage to get through these years of mind numbing grinding after a good bunch of pain and perspiration. And a small number of them, also serious about learning the language, ask to themselves: “Isn’t there a better way to really acquire the kanji?”

Actually, better methods EXIST for learning kanji, that are not only WAY more effective for long term memorization than plain grinding, but also enables you to learn a whole lot more kanji in a fraction of the time required by such a methodology. One of these methods, developed by professor James Heisig, works based on the following premises:

1. That the writing and the reading of kanji should be worked separately; not at the same time as it is traditionally taught.
2. That our imaginative memory is far more powerful than our visual memory, and should be used to our advantage.

The goal of Heisig’s method is to make you able to recognize and write any kanji, while also recalling the “meaning” of any of them. All of this, before knowing the actual Japanese reading of each kanji and kanji compound. The method works as follows:

First, each individual kanji is built using building blocks called primitive elements or “primitives”. Each one of these primitives may be either one radical, a conjunction of radicals, or even a full kanji. Each primitive is given a name, based on its relationship to other primitives, its pictographic representation, or even arbitrarily. Also, each kanji is given a unique keyword or “meaning” in your native language, like ‘practice’, ‘farm’ or ‘horse’. Once you already know the primitives that make up a given kanji, you create a mnemonic story that relates each one of the primitives to the keyword of the kanji.

For example, let’s say we have a character with the keyword ‘elbow’ (the kanji itself can’t be shown here, unfortunately), and its primitive elements are ‘flesh’ and ‘glue’. Thus, if I want to remember the kanji as ‘elbow’, I can come up with a story like this:

“There is no ‘flesh’ being ‘glued’ to your elbow; if you touch it, it is just your skin and your joint”.

As you can see, unlike relying on rote visual memory, this method makes primarly use of imaginative memory to actually remember each character. Forging a story involving the few primitive elements that build any given kanji (which are commonly from 2 to 5) is far easier, fun and a lot more effective than trying to memorize 20+ almost unrelated strokes.

SO, by following this method for learning kanji, you’ll be able to recognize and write virtually any kind of Japanese character from memory. And once done with the process, you have to learn the actual reading of the kanji, but given that you already KNOW each kanji, getting to know their Japanese readings will be fairly easy. Think about a Chinese person trying to learn Japanese; that is the same “power” you will get once you use Heisig’s method.

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Allright… now, if you are really serious about learning the Japanese language, do yourself a big favor and stop grinding! Embrace the chance of learning the meaning and writing of 3000+ Japanese characters in less than one semester (and not several years!).

So, if you want to know in depth how you can fully implement this method for your own learning process, and want to get started right now, then be sure to read this page on how to learn kanji using Heisig’s method! It’s now the time to stop the horrible drilling, and start to learn kanji the real way!

– Article written by Santiago Madrigal.

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