- 1 What is Kanji?
- 2 Learning Kanji
- 3 Reading Kanji
- 4 Why Kanji?
What is Kanji?
In Japanese, nouns and stems of adjectives and verbs are almost all written in Chinese characters called Kanji. Adverbs are also fairly frequently written in Kanji as well. This means that you will need to learn Chinese characters to be able to read most of the words in the language. (Children’s books or any other material where the audience is not expected to know a lot of Kanji is an exception to this.) Not all words are always written in Kanji however. For example, while the verb “to do” technically has a Kanji associated with it, it is always written in Hiragana.
This guide begins using Kanji from the beginning to help you read “real” Japanese as quickly as possible. Therefore, we will go over some properties of Kanji and discuss some strategies of learning it quickly and efficiently. Mastering Kanji is not easy but it is by no means impossible. The biggest part of the battle is mastering the skills of learning Kanji and time. In short, memorizing Kanji past short-term memory must be done with a great deal of study and, most importantly, for a long time. And by this, I don’t mean studying five hours a day but rather reviewing how to write a Kanji once every several months until you are sure you have it down for good. This is another reason why this guide starts using Kanji right away. There is no reason to dump the huge job of learning Kanji at the advanced level. By studying Kanji along with new vocabulary from the beginning, the immense job of learning Kanji is divided into small manageable chunks and the extra time helps settle learned Kanji into permanent memory. In addition, this will help you learn new vocabulary, which will often have combinations of Kanji you already know. If you start learning Kanji later, this benefit will be wasted or reduced.
All the resources you need to begin learning Kanji are on the web for free. You can use dictionaries online such as Jim Breen’s WWWJDIC or jisho.org. They both have great Kanji dictionaries and stroke order diagrams for most Kanji. Especially for those who are just starting to learn, you will want to repeatedly write out each Kanji to memorize the stroke order. Another important skill is learning how to balance the character so that certain parts are not too big or small. So make sure to copy the characters as close to the original as possible. Eventually, you will naturally develop a sense of the stroke order for certain types of characters allowing you to bypass the drilling stage. All the Kanji used in this guide can be easily looked up by copying and pasting to an online dictionary.
Almost every character has two different readings called 音読み （おんよみ） and 訓読み（くんよみ）. 音読み is the original Chinese reading while 訓読み is the Japanese reading. Kanji that appear in a compound or 熟語 is usually read with 音読み while one Kanji by itself is usually read with 訓読み. For example, 「力」（ちから） is read with the 訓読み while the same character in a compound word such as 「能力」 is read with the 音読み （which is 「りょく」 in this case）.
Certain characters (especially the most common ones) can have more than one 音読み or 訓読み. For example, in the word 「怪力」, 「力」 is read here as 「りき」 and not 「りょく」. Certain compound words also have special readings that have nothing to do with the readings of the individual characters. These readings must be individually memorized. Thankfully, these readings are few and far in between.
訓読み is also used in adjectives and verbs in addition to the stand-alone characters. These words often have a string of kana (called okurigana) that come attached to the word. This is so that the reading of the Chinese character stays the same even when the word is conjugated to different forms. For example, the past form of the verb 「食べる」 is 「食べた」. Even though the verb has changed, the reading for 「食」 remain untouched. (Imagine how difficult things could get if readings for Kanji changed with conjugation or even worse, if the Kanji itself changed.) Okurigana also serves to distinguish between intransitive and transitive verbs (more on this later).
Another concept that is difficult to grasp at first is that the actual readings of Kanji can change slightly in a compound word to make the word easier to say. The more common transformations include the / h / sounds changing to either / b / or / p / sounds or 「つ」 becoming 「っ」. Examples include: 「一本」、「徹底」、and 「格好」.
Yet another fun aspect of Kanji you’ll run into are words that practically mean the same thing and use the same reading but have different Kanji to make just a slight difference in meaning. For example 「聞く」（きく） means to listen and so does 「聴く」（きく）. The only difference is that 「聴く」 means to pay more attention to what you’re listening to. For example, listening to music almost always prefers 「聴く」 over 「聞く」. 「聞く」 can also mean ‘to ask’, as well as, “to hear” but 「訊く」（きく） can only mean “to ask”. Yet another example is the common practice of writing 「見る」 as 「観る」 when it applies to watching a show such as a movie. Yet another interesting example is 「書く」（かく） which means “to write” while 描く （かく） means “to draw”. However, when you’re depicting an abstract image such as a scene in a book, the reading of the same word 「描く」 becomes 「えがく」. There’s also the case where the meaning and Kanji stays the same but can have multiple readings such as 「今日」 which can be either 「きょう」、「こんじつ」, or 「こんにち」. In this case, it doesn’t really matter which reading you choose except that some are preferred over others in certain situations.
Finally, there is one special character 々 that is really not a character. It simply indicates that the previous character is repeated. For example, 「時時」、「様様」、「色色」、「一一」 can and usually are written as 「時々」、「様々」、「色々」、「一々」.
In addition to these “features” of Kanji, you will see a whole slew of delightful perks and surprises Kanji has for you as you advance in Japanese. You can decide for yourself if that statement is sarcasm or not. However, don’t be scared into thinking that Japanese is incredibly hard. Most of the words in the language usually only have one Kanji associated with it and a majority of Kanji do not have more than two types of readings.
Some people may think that the system of using separate, discrete symbols instead of a sensible alphabet is overly complicated. In fact, it might not have been a good idea to adopt Chinese into Japanese since both languages are fundamentally different in many ways. But the purpose of this guide is not to debate how the language should work but to explain why you must learn Kanji in order to learn Japanese. And by this, I mean more than just saying, “That’s how it’s done so get over it!”.
You may wonder why Japanese didn’t switch from Chinese to romaji to do away with having to memorize so many characters. In fact, Korea adopted their own alphabet for Korean to greatly simplify their written language with great success. So why shouldn’t it work for Japanese? I think anyone who has learned Japanese for a while can easily see why it won’t work. At any one time, when you convert typed Hiragana into Kanji, you are presented with almost always at least two choices (two homophones) and sometimes even up to ten. (Try typing “kikan”). The limited number of set sounds in Japanese makes it hard to avoid homophones. Compare this to the Korean alphabet which has 14 consonants and 10 vowels. Any of the consonants can be matched to any of the vowels giving 140 sounds. In addition, a third and sometimes even fourth consonant can be attached to create a single letter. This gives over 1960 sounds that can be created theoretically. (The number of sounds that are actually used is actually much less but it’s still much larger than Japanese.)
Since you want to read at a much faster rate than you talk, you need some visual cues to instantly tell you what each word is. You can use the shape of words in English to blaze through text because most words have different shapes. Try this little exercise: Hi, enve thgouh all teh wrods aer seplled icorrenctly, can you sltil udsternand me?” Korean does this too because it has enough characters to make words with distinct and different shapes. However, because the visual cues are not distinct as Kanji, spaces needed to be added to remove ambiguities. (This presents another problem of when and where to set spaces.)
With Kanji, we don’t have to worry about spaces and much of the problem of homophones is mostly resolved. Without Kanji, even if spaces were to be added, the ambiguities and lack of visual cues would make Japanese text much more difficult to read.
How many kanji do you need to know to be fluent in Japanese? ›
There are approximately 2,000 kanji you have to learn no matter what, so you might as well put them in an order that makes a lot more sense.Is there a trick to learning kanji? ›
Mnemonics are another common way to learn kanji. This is also the method used by numerous kanji textbooks to help students memorize kanji. As a beginner, I was taught kanji with this very method and it helps with memorizing certain kanji. You can think of kanji as the pictures of the words they represent.
Try making kanji flashcards for any kanji you have a hard time remembering. I do it a few different ways: Make cards with kanji on the front to practise either for their meaning or pronunciation. Create cards with whole sentences on them and practice reading them, kanji and all.Is 1 hour a day enough to learn Japanese? ›
However, if you study only one hour per day and don't do anything else to learn Japanese, it can take you up to twenty years to learn the language! So if you don't want to be speaking Japanese only in 2039, keep reading to see how you can shorten this time frame.What is the hardest kanji to learn? ›
The Most Difficult Japanese Kanji on Record: たいと(Taito)
たいと(taito) is the most difficult Japanese Kanji on the record with a total of 84 strokes. It is formed by combining 3 雲 (くもkumo) with 3 龍 (りゅうRyuu). 雲means cloud and 龍 means dragon in English.
Learning Japanese isn't easy and it will take time. It's probably fair to say that you can expect a commitment of at least three years in order to achieve something resembling fluency. The average learner gets to the advanced level in three or four years.How long does it take to be fluent in kanji? ›
This is because it does not have a lot of likeness in structure to English. Approximately it will take 88 weeks, or 2200 hours of studying, to become fluent. But this article shows tips and tools to expedite and make the process easier.Why is Japanese kanji so hard? ›
Kanji characters are based on Chinese characters and are often almost identical to their partner words in Chinese. This writing system is one of the most difficult parts of Japanese to learn, as there are over 2,000 different characters to learn and many kanji have several different readings.Is Duolingo good for kanji? ›
One of the more common complaints about the Japanese Duolingo course is that it introduces too many kanji, too early, and too often in lessons. Plus, Duolingo doesn't show you how to write them. After those introductory hiragana lessons, words that are in hiragana, are always in hiragana.How long does it take to Memorise 2000 kanji? ›
Realistic: Learning 2,000 kanji in one week is stretching it, but 3 months is a very doable timeframe if you are consistent.
How long does it take to learn 2136 kanji? ›
If you can manage to learn 25 kanji a day, in just under three months you will be able to have all 2,136 kanji memorised.Is Japanese Kanji easy? ›
Kanji looks complicated and indeed it requires a lot of time to learn – the average high-school graduate is expected to know 10,000 individual characters! However, what it does not require is talent. For those who are terrified at the idea of learning Kanji, here is one piece of good news, it's logical.Does it take 2 years to learn Japanese? ›
The average length of time to learn advanced Japanese is 2-3 years. At the intermediate level, you can understand most of what your teacher says, and you can follow along with TV programs. When it comes to using the language with other Japanese speakers, however, you still have some limitations.Does it take 6 years to learn Japanese? ›
According to the US Department of State, Japanese is one of the hardest languages for English natives to learn. It doesn't have many similarities in structure to English. They estimate it takes 88 weeks of learning, or 2200 hours, to reach fluency.What is harder Chinese or Japanese? ›
Japanese is slightly easier to learn. But, Chinese is much more widely spoken. Both languages have their pros and cons.Do Japanese struggle with kanji? ›
Even kanji, the boogeyman of the Japanese language, is actually pretty easy. Technology has not only made it a lot easier to learn kanji (through spaced repetition systems), but a lot easier to read and write kanji too. You no longer have to memorize the stroke order of each kanji; now, you can just type it in!What is longest kanji reading? ›
承る uketamawaru, 志 kokorozashi, and 詔 mikotonori have five syllables represented by a single kanji, the longest readings in the jōyō character set.How many total kanji are there? ›
The total number of kanji is well over 50,000, though few if any native speakers know anywhere near this number. In modern Japanese, the hiragana and katakana syllabaries each contain 46 basic characters, or 71 including diacritics.How long should I study Japanese everyday? ›
Study Japanese every day
Grab a few recommended textbooks and knuckle down for at least twenty minutes a day (ideally an hour or two, but twenty minutes is better than nothing). This will give you the basics and the “correct” forms of grammar, situationally appropriate language, clear examples and practice exercises.
You may have heard recently that it's now impossible to study in Japan if you are over 30 years old. Luckily for those who fall in that category, this isn't actually true and it's actually never too late to chase your Japanese language dreams.
Is it easier to learn Korean or Japanese? ›
Unlike other East-Asian languages, Korean isn't a tonal language. This means, that the meaning of the word doesn't change, regardless of what your accent is like. This makes learning Korean much easier than Japanese.Is there any point in learning kanji? ›
In Japanese, there are no spaces between words, so kanji helps break words apart, making it easy to read. As I'm sure you can imagine, long sentences would get even more difficult to read, and when you don't know where one word begins and another one ends, reading errors can occur.What age do Japanese kids learn kanji? ›
During their six years in elementary school, Japanese children learn over 1,000 kanji. In this time, they greatly increase their reading sophistication, moving from picture books to short novels and simple biographies.What is the best way to become fluent in Japanese? ›
- Don't rush the basics. For some learners, the three Japanese writing systems can be intimidating. ...
- Find media you love. ...
- Practise with native speakers. ...
- Record yourself speaking. ...
- Set goals. ...
- Use mnemonics. ...
- Stay positive.
Although Duolingo relies on immersion and extrapolation to help you learn a language, Japanese is the exact opposite of English in sentence construction and grammar. That means it can be difficult to master if you are unable to grasp the foundational concepts.How hard is Japanese for English speakers? ›
The Japanese language is considered one of the most difficult to learn by many English speakers. With three separate writing systems, an opposite sentence structure to English, and a complicated hierarchy of politeness, it's decidedly complex.Is it easier to learn Chinese or Japanese? ›
Chinese grammar is generally considered a lot easier to learn than Japanese. Chinese is an isolating language, even more so than English, with no verb conjugations, noun cases or grammatical gender.Can you master Japanese with Duolingo? ›
The world's most popular way to learn Japanese online
Learn Japanese in just 5 minutes a day with our game-like lessons. Whether you're a beginner starting with the basics or looking to practice your reading, writing, and speaking, Duolingo is scientifically proven to work.
We see this question a lot and the answer is: yes. Duolingo is a free language-learning platform, and every language and lesson is totally free!How far does Duolingo Japanese take you? ›
As of October 2022, Duolingo's Japanese course has a total of 6 units, broken down into a total of 131 skills. That means there are 655 crown levels in Duolingo's Japanese course — or 786 if you include the legendary levels.
How many kanji for daily life? ›
There are more than 10,000 characters listed as kanji, which can be discouraging when thinking about learning Japanese. Yet in reality only around 2,000 kanji are used in everyday life.How many hours does the average Japanese student study? ›
School finishes around 3:15 pm, so they have to be in school for about six and a half hours every day from Monday to Friday. However, most kids also attend after-school clubs, and many also go to juku (cram school) in the evening to do extra studying. Learn more about school life in Japan in our Meet the Kids section.Do Japanese use kanji often? ›
Common use kanji (じょうようかんじ jōyō kanji) are those officially recognized by government as being necessary for daily communication. Today, the number of official common use kanji in Japan is 2136! Phew!... On top of that, each kanji has several readings..Is there a pattern to kanji? ›
Kanji, like many other aspects of the Japanese language, are highly pattern based, and once you get used to seeing the commonly used components of kanji and get familiar with their stroke order, all of this will not seem like as much of a deluge of information.Should I learn hiragana or kanji? ›
You should learn hiragana first, followed by katakana and kanji. Hiragana looks more cursive than katakana or kanji. It is used to write native Japanese words, conjugation endings, and grammar particles. Hiragana consists of 46 characters with each character representing a syllable.How long does it take to learn 2000 kanji? ›
Realistic: Learning 2,000 kanji in one week is stretching it, but 3 months is a very doable timeframe if you are consistent.How much vocabulary do you need to be fluent in Japanese? ›
For starters, Japanese has three writing systems: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Kanji includes over 50,000 different characters, however, you only need to know about 2,000 of them to be considered fluent. You also only need to know about 5,000 Japanese vocabulary words to be considered fluent as well.What level is considered fluent in Japanese? ›
The easiest level is N5 and the most difficult level is N1. N4 and N5 measure the level of understanding of basic Japanese mainly learned in class. N1and N2 measure the level of understanding of Japanese used in a broad range of scenes in actual everyday life. N3 is a bridging level between N1/N2 and N4/N5.Why is it so hard to learn kanji? ›
Kanji characters are based on Chinese characters and are often almost identical to their partner words in Chinese. This writing system is one of the most difficult parts of Japanese to learn, as there are over 2,000 different characters to learn and many kanji have several different readings.Can I learn Japanese in 2 years? ›
The average length of time to learn advanced Japanese is 2-3 years. At the intermediate level, you can understand most of what your teacher says, and you can follow along with TV programs. When it comes to using the language with other Japanese speakers, however, you still have some limitations.
Can you fully learn Japanese on Duolingo? ›
As we have already mentioned, Duolingo takes you through basic study to an advanced beginner level. Yes, you read that correctly. You are not going to become fluent using Duolingo exclusively. For those who already know some Japanese, the beginning might seem extremely rudimentary.What level of fluency is Duolingo Japanese? ›
You can start as a complete beginner, or take a placement test. The full Duolingo Japanese course goes up to around JLPT level 5.Is speaking Japanese worth it? ›
There are lots of social benefits of learning Japanese. Being able to communicate with more people means you are able to meet and get to know more people. If you know how to speak Japanese, you'll find it much easier to make Japanese friends than someone who doesn't speak Japanese.How many hours should I study Japanese a day? ›
The number of hours you are able to commit per day is ultimately what will have the largest impact on how many years it will take to reach your Japanese fluency goals. So, you will want to spend a good chunk of time learning every day. In general, it is recommended that learners spend 2 hours per day studying Japanese.How many kanji for N1? ›
The N1 is the most difficult level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). To pass JLPT N1, you will need to know about 2,000 kanji and about 10,000 vocabulary words total.How many kanji for N3? ›
The N3 tests literary knowledge of approximately 650 kanji. The N3 provides less furigana than the N4, so test takers should familiarize themselves with the phonetic reading and meaning of as many kanji as they can.