How to Learn Kanji Organically (as part of Japanese self-immersion)

Learn Kanji OrganicallyThere are a lot of kanji-learning systems around these days.

But what if the best system is no system?

Our method of learning Japanese is based on a minimum of abstract study and a maximum of immersing yourself in the language and really using and enjoying it.

But what about kanji?

Why they say you can’t learn kanji organically

On the face of it, there is a strong case against the possibility of learning kanji organically.

Children don’t learn to speak their own language out of textbooks. Their grasp of grammar and vocabulary comes from hearing it and using it. Before they learn to read, they already have a grasp of vocabulary and grammar that takes a foreign student years to acquire.

See a more up-to-date version of this article in this video:

But writing is different. No one acquires the alphabet naturally. They actually have to sit down and learn it. Kanji is the same, only several hundred times bigger. Japanese children study kanji in school for years before they become fully literate. So what is this talk about learning kanji organically? Surely they have to be learned by an abstract system. Even Japanese people learn them that way.

The  answer to this is “yes, and no”. Japanese children do learn kanji as kanji. But they already know the words that they signify. They are not learning them in the abstract. The minute they learn a kanji, it attaches to a body of knowledge they already possess and becomes a living part of their language understanding.

This is why we say, “learn words, not kanji”. Which is to say, learn words with their kanji. And learn vocabulary not from vocabulary lists, but from organic encounters. We have already discussed how to build vocabulary organically. This article is tackling the question of how to learn kanji as a part of this process.

It is largely because of kanji that we recommend using Anki. You can learn vocabulary purely organically, but you do need to drill kanji, and, if you don’t need to write kanji, then Anki is in our opinion the best way to learn vocabulary and kanji at once. This gives you the basic minimum of drilling that you absolutely need, and makes it do double duty for kanji and vocabulary.

However, we aren’t going to talk about Anki here, but about the actual strategy for breaking down and remembering the kanji.

Remembering the Kanji (without the system)

James Heisig’s book Remembering the Kanji has been hugely influential in showing people how to see kanji as picture stories rather than abstract patterns of strokes. Some people seem to think Heisig-sensei invented this technique, but as he makes clear in his introduction, he didn’t. What he did was to systematize and popularize it.

Since then other people have made systems with the same general principles. What we do is to de-systematize it.


Well, it depends on how you learn and what you want to do. Some people want to spend a long time systematically learning kanji. We wanted to spend that time acquiring Japanese by immersing ourselves in it, with kanji as one of the things we pick up as we go along.

How to Learn Kanji Naturally and Organically

So without more ado. This is how to actually tackle kanji.

From early on you will be aware of the pictographic nature of some of the simpler radicals and kanji, and how they combine to form concepts. For example:

早 quick/early (a kanji in itself)
⺾ plant (not a kanji but a common kanji element)
草 grass (⺾ plus 早), which is the earliest, most basic, (and quickest growing) of plants

When you look at the most common kanji elements in Wikipedia, you learn that 30 of them make up 70% of the common use kanji (this figure seems a little exaggerated to me, but the principle is true).

So what you are going to do with kanji is work out what they are made up of, and see how the elements fit together. Sometimes you will see a very logical and obvious meaning. Sometimes you will be making up a far-fetched  mnemonic story to tie the elements to their meaning.

So how do you know what elements a kanji is made up of?

There are various methods you can use. You may indeed want to browse books such as Heisig-sensei’s or other kanji memory books. There are lots of resources online such as Kanjialive’s list of the 217 traditional radicals (traditional names and meanings) and Toufugu’s kanji radicals cheat sheet (somewhat fanciful). The quickest, simplest, on-the-fly tool is the search box on Rikaisama‘s toolbar (you can embed the search box on your browser without having the whole toolbar). This gives results like this (click to enlarge):

learn kanji naturally[UPDATE: Rikaisama no longer exists, but you can get the same box by pressing return when a Rikaichamp definition box is open]

As you see, this gives a breakdown of the elements in each kanji (ringed) when you look up a word. Another interesting feature is that the Heisig reference (ringed) is a link that will take you to the Reviewing the Kanji site, a user resource where people share their Heisig-based mnemonic stories for the kanji.

This latter can be useful, but I recommend using it with caution. Let me explain why, because it will make clearer how organic kanji learning works.

The Heisig system gives a unique English keyword to every kanji and kanji element. It has to do that because in this system you need to know from the keyword exactly how to write each kanji. This is done without knowing the meaning or pronunciation of any Japanese word. As a result there are some pretty strange and sometimes dubiously relevant English keywords.

Now we aren’t doing this. We aren’t associating kanji with English keywords, but with actual Japanese words.

Let’s take a complex example. When I see 蕩 I think torokeru (which is the main word in which it is used. I know it means “melt” both in the sense of a solid melting into a liquid and a heart melting (becoming charmed or enchanted). A Heisig student is simply trying to associate this kanji with the Heisig keyword “Prodigal”(!).

Now if we look at the elements of this kanji we get a clearer idea of how our organic approach works. The elements are⺡the water side-element ⺾ grass/flower 日 sun and 勿 piglets.

Now in our eclectic way I do owe something to Heisig-sensei here 勿 is in fact a diminutive of 豕 the pig element and since small pigs can be piglets, well that’s kind of cute so we borrowed it.

But here is where we diverge. When you put 日 on top of 勿 you get 易 to which Heisig-sensei gives the keyword “Piggy Bank”. (Piglets you put money in every day – 日 sun can also be day).

All right you can make stories out of this and Heisig-sensei is forced to do this sort of thing because his system demands exclusive keywords.

But 易 is actually a fundamental element which refers to the light and warmth of the sun. If you need a mnemonic just think of the bright sun warming the dear little piglets basking below.

Let’s see how 易 the sunshine-component works in some more complex kanji:

A very frequently used word for the sun is 太陽 taiyou (kanji elements: 太=great, 易=warmth/light, coming over the ⻖=hill).

陽 alone is the word for yang (which refers etymologically to sunshine as opposed to yin, shade).

湯 is hot water (⺡=water plus our 易 sun-warmth).

場 is a place – originally and still usually an outdoor place: thus a piece of earth 土 out in the sunshine 易.

We really don’t need to bring Piggy Banks into any of this. It may be necessary for producing a unique English keyword, but it disrupts the natural conceptual symbolism of the kanji element.

To return to 蕩, we can now see how hot water  (湯) may melt many solids, but it leaves everything with the loving, enchanted scent of flowers (⺾). We don’t need keywords, but we do need the right concepts.

So if we don’t verbally associate kanji and their elements with keywords, what do we associate them with? Usually with the first word we learned them in, or the word we most commonly associate them with. I think of 正 as “the kanji of tadashii” (right, proper, correct) although it is used in many other places with related meanings but other pronunciations (for help with those pronunciations, meet the Sound Sisters and discover that 正 is a sei/shou sister).

We also tend to remember elements by the word we first or most often encounter them in. So, for example the left side of 優 (the kanji of yasashii, gentle) is actually 愛 (the kanji of ai, love) with the ⺤ replaced by ⾴ (head, page. Bottom element merged). So we have a person with head as well as a loving heart. This kanji as well as meaning gentle, can also mean actor/actress or superior/best. You see how a single keyword is not entirely adequate!

As we develop our knowledge of the kanji by meeting it in other words, we develop also our mnemonic associations. The person with loving heart as well as a good head on her shoulders is not only gentle, she is the best. And having both intelligence and warmth makes her a great actress.

Sometimes actual mnemonic stories are helpful. For example, do you know why human bodies float? When the first child fell in the water she sank like a stone, but was pulled up by Tsume-chan, the kind crane-game-type claw. Ever since then, the invisible claw has always made human bodies float. 浮くuku, to float, is made up of water, claw and child.

You will be making your own meanings out of the kanji elements. Incidentally, after hand-holding through the first few hundred kanji, Heisig-sensei also leaves students to make their own stories out of his keywords, and rightly so, as the mnemonics we make for ourselves stick best.

The difference is, that instead of using artificial, and often eccentric, keywords, you will be learning kanji not as abstractions but as part of the living language as you make friends with words and their symbols and build your vocabulary organically.

9 thoughts on “How to Learn Kanji Organically (as part of Japanese self-immersion)

  1. Thank you so much for this article, Cure Dolly. I think that this is so important. I agree with your concerns about the Heisig system, and I have a few more of my own. It seems to me that the Heisig system is another “run before you can walk” method.

    Now, I am learning kanji separately from words, and I am slowly learning to write them. For me, being able to write by hand feels important…but that is just me, I guess. Yet, I am also learning kanji organically through words as well.

    I tend to be rather systematic about things, so my approach to kanji is rather systematic as well. I am using Essential Kanji, by P.G. O’Neill. I write two kanji a day in my little notebook, and entering them into my Anki. Now, by going this slowly, I have already encountered about 90 percent of the kanji in my immersion work, and I already have words in my Anki with these kanji. The book also gives you about two words with each kanji, which I enter into my Anki (although, often the words are already there). I have now added a step to this system, in that I put the kanji in my Anki browser, and I see if any words with that kanji have been suspended as “leeches.” If so, I then revive these words. Often, learning the kanji helps me to learn the word the next time around.

    I am learning to write kanji using native children’s workbooks. I am now using a second grade workbook. I am using Kanji Recognizer (as recommended on this site) for reviewing the first grade kanji. I just my overall Japanese to be at about a 2nd grade level (on average), so it feels right to be working my kanji at about the same level.

    This method is much slower than the Heisig method, I think. I have seen articles recommending learning hundreds of kanji at a time through the RTK method. Yet, I think that the more organic approach seems much better in so many ways. It does not seem to make much sense to have a lot of kanji above my overall Japanese level, using English keywords.

    Heee…oh, and by the way…I really like your stories, Cure Dolly! They are very…kawaii!

  2. While かんじ is difficult to learn, I find the pictographic writing system to be fascinating. It’s like telling a story as you draw, rather than just words on paper. That’s deep, and that inspires imagination, I believe.

  3. さんせいです。I agree with you. Kanji are profound and beautiful and add (or rather help to retain) an immense depth to the language. Actually one reason I am not too keen on some modern kanji-learning systems is that they trivialize the kanji and treat them as “random”, thus helping to divorce us from our natural perception of their profundity.

    You might want to look at Cure Tadashiku’s article Kanji: What the (Western) “Experts” Can’t Tell You, which goes into more detail on this subject.

      1. Probably the most difficult thing is that there are such a lot of them! However if one takes them slowly and naturally that isn’t a big problem.

        I don’t think anyone has trouble with the first simple kanji like 人 (person) or 口(mouth). The complicated-looking ones are really built up of simpler ones, so if one takes it step by step and doesn’t get scared it really is all right.

        Another thing that looks difficult is that one kanji can have several pronunciations and meanings in different contexts. That is to say, it is used in different words. I think this is only confusing if you try to learn kanji as kanji in the abstract. If you “learn words not kanji” as we say, it is not confusing, you just take it step by step.

        That really is the answer to the difficulties of kanji. No one part is really all that difficult, but there is a lot of it. One can look at that as an overwhelming task, or…

        One can regard it as a big, wonderful world to explore. The second approach may be hard to attain if one is simply “learning kanji” in the abstract. But if one is doing it as part of one’s adventure into Japanese, it is easy.

        The thing is: take it slowly. Don’t be in a rush to end the journey, but enjoy every part of it. Very little of it is really all that difficult if you take it step by step.

  4. > It is largely because of kanji that we recommend using Anki. You can learn vocabulary purely organically, but you do need to drill kanji, and, if you don’t need to write kanji, then Anki is in our opinion the best way to learn vocabulary and kanji at once. This gives you the basic minimum of drilling that you absolutely need, and makes it do double duty for kanji and vocabulary.

    It seems like you are saying that you cant learn kanji organically. Certainly, drilling them with Anki is not what I would call organic.

    But I have been wondering whether kanji dont actually make it harder to understand spoken Japanese. I guess that Krashen’s “massive amounts of comprehensible input” method isnt based on experience with logographically written languages.

    Listening comprehension involves understanding Japanese from just the phonemes. It seems like reading books with only kana would be better practice for this.

    1. Yes, I am saying that I don’t think kanji can be learned organically in the same way that spoken language can. Neither can the alphabet, but that is a much smaller undertaking.

      However kanji-learning can be part of an organic approach to Japanese, by which I mean that we learn kanji as part of an understood language, and as relating to words that we know and use, which is what Japanese children do. This is very different from the Heisig approach, and (to a lesser degree) from kanji-learning books in general.

      From my experience I would say that kanji do not make spoken Japanese harder to understand, in fact quite the reverse. Japanese has a much more limited range of sounds and possible syllables than most languages, and one quickly finds oneself to some degree “thinking in kanji” when listening to Japanese. “Oh, it’s that sou” etc. This is also how Japanese people think of spoken language (they sometimes draw a kanji in the air to clarify an ambiguous word).

      Small Japanese children, of course, acquire a limited (but comparatively large) vocabulary purely by sound, but I think beyond a very simple level, spoken language and kanji are so closely bound up in the way the language is structured that one really needs to have a good sense of both.

      I do not believe that reading books in all-kana would help with listening. Reading indirectly helps listening by broadening one’s vocabulary and giving one a sense of the way things are said and which words habitually belong together (because effective listening works in chunks, not word-by-word).

      I would say that this works better with text written the way it is normally written (because kanji are a structural part of the language and help one’s sense of how it all fits together). But the main thing that helps with listening is listening.

  5. Yeah, I was just a bit disappointed since the title suggested otherwise.

    I think that learning kanji might make more sense when my vocabulary is larger.

    1. But I would have to say that I never sat down to “learn kanji” so the idea of “learning kanji at a later stage” really wasn’t possible because it was in fact more organic than that. I have never learned a kanji just as a kanji, but always as part of learning words.

      At the very beginning of using the anime method, I did have an idea that I might try to find Japanese subs without kanji and delay kanji altogether on the basis that I was less interested in writing and reading anyway.

      However I very quickly came to understand how completely integral to the language kanji are and how much they actually help with learning vocabulary. I am very thankful that I was not able to find subs with hiragana because it helped to push me to this realization early.

      While actually learning kanji does necessarily involve some non-organic drilling I really do believe in learning them organically as part of the language and not as a cut-off section that can be delayed till later.

      Now if you are someone who can auditorily pick up vocabulary easily and quickly with no drilling at all, please don’t let me discourage you. People learn differently and if you have that natural skill, go ahead and make the most of it. Build a vocabulary early in the best way you can.

      However if you are having to find some artificial means of making the vocabulary stick (like most of us), then I really would advise learning some kanji along with the words right from the beginning (that is to say right after you have learned hiragana and katakana).

      You don’t need to learn the kanji for every word (especially if it is not often used or if it is complex). But you will start finding very quickly that understanding words in terms of their kanji makes life a whole lot easier and helps the whole language to hang together and make more sense in your mind.

      I talked about learning kanji organically in this article and I did really mean it.

      I did not try to disguise the fact that there is an inherently non-organic aspect to learning kanji (as also of learning grammar, though that can be done wholly organically). However I will have done everyone a disservice if I ended up giving the impression that because of this aspect one should go right back to treating kanji as a “separate subject” that should be tackled on its own at some point later.

      Kanji are an organic part of the language and I believe it is much more beneficial to learn them as an organic part of the language. This is exactly what Japanese children do. Even though they, like any learner of any writing system, have to drill, they learn kanji for words that they know, and their knowledge of kanji and of their language grow together, hand in hand, from an early age.

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