About Kanji | What to Know before Learning Them

In order to be able to navigate the world of written Japanese, learning kanji is an unavoidable challenge you will have to face sooner or later. When you see written Japanese today, you will often see a jumble of kanji, hiragana, katakana, and romaji (words written in Latin alphabet) used to express a sentence. For example:

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Japanese writing system

Most of the times, the most complex looking characters are Kanji.

Now as you progress in learning Japanese, you may wonder, what is kanji? Why is it so difficult? How many kanji do I need to learn? Where should I start learning kanji? Don’t worry, we’ll address all your questions about kanji in this article.

In this article, we’ll present to you:

1) What is Kanji

2) How to Learn Kanji Effectively

3) 50 Most Common Kanji.

You may want to check out our article on hiragana and katakana before diving into the world of kanji if you are a true beginner. However, if you’re ready to get a better understanding of kanji characters and what they will mean for your language studies, please read on!

What is “kanji” and how is it different from kana?

Kanji are Chinese characters that first started being used for written Japanese around the 5th century AD. T Chinese characters (“hànzì” in Mandarin) are logograms, or symbols that represent words. Today, Kanji is still widely used in Japanese. Most Japanese get by using about 2,000 kanji.

Instead of using alphabets or phonetic symbols to represent sounds that are combined to form a word, kanji stands for an idea or concept and can be used to represent a word based on that meaning

For example, the letters “e” “a” and “t” do not mean anything individually in English other than the sounds they represent. You can put them together to spell words, such as “eat,” which then forms a meaning. However, in Japanese, there is a kanji for the meaning “eat” or “food” – 食. There are different possible pronunciations associated with this kanji depending on how it is used (e.g. “ta” or “ku” in verbs and “shoku” in compound words) but the kanji is not made of individual parts that represent sounds – it represents a word or idea in and of itself.

So how are you supposed to know how to sound out written language if it isn’t made up of letters indicating sounds? This is where kana comes into play and makes written Japanese so distinctive from written Chinese. Instead of the Latin alphabet which represents individual vowels and consonants, hiragana and katakana represent individual syllables and are used to

  • represent the pronunciation of kanji characters or replace kanji characters when they are not known or necessary
  • add on to kanji characters to represent additional syllables needed to complete a word.

This may sound a bit abstract, so let’s take a look at each role kana plays with some examples.

  1. The pronunciation of the kanji 猫 (cat) is ねこ (“neko”). If you wanted to show the pronunciation of this kanji, you might see the hiragana written above it in a small font called furigana. Otherwise, if it’s not the right situation to use kanji (e.g. in a picture book for preschoolers) you could just write out the word for “cat” out in kana: ねこ. 
  2. In order to write the plain verb “eat” in Japanese, we must use hiragana to add a verb ending to the kanji 食, which becomes 食べる (たべる – “taberu”). To conjugate this to the plain past tense “ate,” we change the hiragana ending (and thus pronunciation) but not the root kanji – 食べた (たべた – “tabeta”).

By now, you might be thinking that you’ve come up with a solution to a major problem and saved yourself a great deal of study time. “Why not just write everything out in kana to represent sounds like in English?! That would be so much easier!” Unfortunately, then your Japanese will look like this:

ぼくはあさはちじにおきておちゃをのみます。

Instead of this:

僕は朝八時に起きてお茶を飲みます。

Boku wa asa hachiji ni okite ocha wo nomimasu.

“I get up at eight in the morning and drink green tea.”

Even if you don’t know the kanji in the second sentence, it’s easier to quickly parse out parts of speech at a glance compared to the fully hiragana version. With kanji, you can easily tell which words are verbs and which are particles. Without kanji, it’s not immediately clear whether the second は in the sentence is part of a noun or the topic marker particle は (consequently affecting your decision to pronounce it “ha” or “wa” and further slowing down your reading). Plus, with all the homophony in Japanese, kanji actually makes reading comprehension a lot easier in the long run.

Hopefully, you’re beginning to understand just how essential kanji is to the Japanese language learning process! However, this is by no means a fact you should feel discouraged by. I firmly believe that kanji is one of the most fun and interesting parts of learning Japanese, and with the right strategies, it’s not nearly as hard as you think! 

kanji

How to Learn Kanji Efficiently and Effectively

Now, let’s talk about how to learn kanji. In this part, we’ll introduce 5 most effective way to learn Kanji:

1. Learn Kanji Like Native Speakers

Many learners feel inclined to learn kanji the way native Japanese speakers do. Japanese schoolchildren are taught a set number of kanji each year between 1st and 6th grade known as the “kyо̄iku kanji” (education kanji). It’s not a bad idea to start out studying the 1st grade set, but you shouldn’t feel pressured to mimic the order that Japanese native speakers follow. The most important thing is that you’re learning kanji that are readily found in the learning material that matches your language level. While 鳴 (bird or animal cry) is technically a 2nd grade kanji, it’s not as likely to be found in the language content you’re interacting with compared to the 6th grade 卵 (egg) or 冊 (counter for number of books). As soon as you’ve learned 鳴, you’re bound to forget it as long as you aren’t seeing it again outside of your flashcard. Language acquisition requires repetition and consistency!

2. Learn Kanji in Sets

As with learning vocabulary for any given language, the most efficient way to begin learning kanji is to learn the most commonly used words and practice with thematic sets, such as foods, colors, numbers, common verbs, etc. As you work through new grammar and vocabulary sets (perhaps through your textbook or the LingoDeer app) you should do your best to practice related kanji concurrently.

3. The Old-School Way

The most old-school way of learning kanji is to write each character over and over again until you memorize it. You can do this on scrap paper or print out free kanji writing templates to fill out. This method has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, it’s a great way to ritualize your study (“Alright, time for my daily fifteen minutes of kanji writing practice!”) and produce something tangible that evidences your hard work. Furthermore, this is a good way to internalize stroke order, making it easier for you to be able to count the number of strokes in more complex unfamiliar kanji and look them up using online dictionaries in the future.

However, this can also be extremely time-consuming and is ultimately not all that productive for memorizing reading comprehension and visual recall of kanji. Let’s be honest – how often do we actually fill out paper forms or pen handwritten letters in the 21st century? Reading and typing are far more practical skills. I would suggest that you practice writing your first few hundred kanji by hand to get the feel for stroke order and basic radicals in addition to visual recognition drills through apps and games such as LingoDeer and Kanji Study.

4. Pay Attention to Radicals

Radicals are the common components of kanji that appear in multiple characters. They can give you clues about the meaning or the pronunciation of certain kanji. For example, the kanji 水 means “water” and is also a radical. You’ll notice its appearance in 氷 (ice), 泉 (fountain) and 泳 (swim). Although I mentioned before that kanji are not made of individual parts that constitute sounds like letters, there are some radicals that tend to match up with certain pronunciations. For example, the radical 門 is seen in the kanji for “gate” (門) and “question” or “problem” (問), both of which are frequently pronounced “mon” in various compound words. 

5. Learn Kanji in Context

Finally, it bears repeating that your kanji acquisition should relate to your other Japanese studies. Learning characters in context will help you remember their meanings and their pronunciations. Kanji often have several different possible pronunciations, largely divided into two categories: kun-yomi and on-yomi. Kun-yomi are “native” Japanese pronunciations, often found in words like verbs that include hiragana (e.g. the “ta” pronunciation in 食べる that we saw before). However, on-yomi are Sino-Japanese readings, meaning the pronunciation of the kanji is based on the original Chinese pronunciation. This is commonly seen in compound kanji, e.g. the “shoku” in 食事 (shokuji) meaning “meal.” I recommend that you try to learn each kanji in context as vocabulary, including at least one with a kun-yomi reading and one with an on-yomi reading if possible. For example, learning that 小  is the kanji for “small” is a great start, but learning it in context as the i-adjective 小さい (small) pronounced “chiisai” and as the noun 小学生 (elementary school student) pronounced “shо̄gakusei” will give you further opportunities to apply it and practice common pronunciations.

50 Most Common Kanji

Now that you’re feeling pumped about learning kanji, let me get you started with your first fifty! With these under your belt, you can feel confident in having already taken the first several steps into the world of kanji. Practice these kanji with flashcards or on the LingoDeer app and don’t forget to review them regularly!

Numbers

Kanji Common Pronunciations* Meaning
いち 

ichi

one
に 

ni

two
さん 

san

three
よん / し 

yon / shi

four
ご go five
ろく  

roku

six
なな / しち 

nana / shichi

seven
はち hachi eight
きゅう kyū nine
じゅう jū ten
ひゃく hyaku hundred
せん sen thousand

Elements / Time

Kanji Common Pronunciations Meaning
つき / げつ 

tsuki / getsu

moon
ひ / か 

hi / ka

fire 
みず / すい 

mizu / sui

water
き / もく 

ki / moku

tree
かね / きん

kane / kin

gold
つち / ど 

tsuchi / do

earth
ひ / にち 

hi / nichi

day
とし / ねん 

toshi / nen

year
とき / じ

toki / ji

time

People

Kanji Common Pronunciations Meaning
おとこ / だん 

otoko / dan

man
おんな / じょ 

onna / jo

woman
こ / し
ko / shi
child
ひと / にん / じん
hito / nin / jin
person

 

Body Parts

Kanji Common Pronunciations Meaning
て / しゅ

te / shu

hand
みみ / じ

mimi / ji

ear
くち / こう

kuchi / ko

mouth
め /  もく

me / moku

eye
あし / そく
ashi / soku
foot/leg
こころ / しん
kokoro / shin
heart

Animals / Nature

Kanji Common Pronunciations Meaning
そら / くう

sora / kū

sky/air
てん
ten
heaven
やま / さん
yama / san
mountain
あめ
ame
rain
いぬ / けん
inu / ken
dog
むし / ちゅう
mushi / chū
bug

Misc.

Kanji Common Pronunciations Meaning
わたし / し
watashi / shi
me
い(く) / こう / ぎょう

i(ku) / kо̄ / gyо̄

go
く(る) / き(ます) / らい

ku(ru) / ki(masu) / rai

come
ほん / もと

hon / moto

rain

ki
feeling/mood
くに / こく
kuni / koku
country
ちい(さい) / しょう / こ
chii(sai) / shо̄ / ko
small
なか / ちゅう
naka / chū
middle/medium
おお(きい) / たい / だい
oo(kii) / tai / dai
big
なに / なん
nani / nan
what
ちから / りょく
chikara / ryoku
power
み(る) / けん
mi(ru) / ken
see
おも(う) / し
omo(u) / shi
think

*  pronunciations in parentheses indicate hiragana endings for i-adjectives or verbs

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