Category Archives: Kanji

分かる vs 解る vs 判る – the Three Wakarus

As part of our ongoing series of “what’s the difference” kanji close-ups we look at the three ways of writing wakaru, which is usually – but very misleadingly – translated as “understand”.

Please don’t panic. Even at upper beginner level you don’t need to “learn” these. But you can get a lot from reading about them and gaining  a deeper understanding of the word wakaru – which is actually one of those “trap words” that makes Japanese less understandable overall if you – ahem – misunderstand it – that is, if you believe the textbooks that tell you it means “understand”.

So what does it mean? It has several shades of meaning, but let’s start off with the root-meaning, which is to “become clear”. The fundamental  wakaru kanji – 分 – shows a sword dividing something in half. Literally wakaru means that something becomes clearly distinguished from other things* – i.e., understood.

Sanseido dictionary’s first and most basic definition of the word is:

Meihaku ni naru
Become clear

Not “understand”. Become clear – which includes “be clear” or “be understood”. In other words (most of the time) the thing being understood is the real subject of the sentence  (not the person doing the understanding as English prefers and the textbooks imply). Therefore the thing being understood is what takes the subject-marker ga-particle

(watashi wa) nihongo ga wakaru
“(in relation to me) Japanese is understandable”

Of course in English we say “I understand Japanese” and that is a valid “loose translation”. But it matters that we know what is really being said because if we don’t we will become very confused about what the ga and wa particles are really doing in this sentence and about the structure of Japanese as a whole.

This is explained more fully in Unlocking Japanese, which shows you how clear and regular the language really is, as opposed to the rather complicated and confusing way the standard Western grammar texts teach it.

All right. So what about the three ways of writing it? They are all pronounced the same and all get the same dictionary definition, regardless of which kanji is used. So does it matter which kanji is used?

Japanese texts that try to give English equivalents say

「分かる」=know.「解る」=understand.「判る」=prove or judge.

However, they are following the Western translations and giving rise to the same misunderstandings. So let’s go a little deeper and see what Japanese texts independent of English tell us.

The first thing wrong with the above definitions is what I have already told you. It is important to realize that they should have said “be known”, “be understood”, “be judged or proved (to be)”.

The second problem is that it is misleading to suggest that 分かる has a separate meaning. You will see 分かる used in all three senses a lot of the time. That is why I don’t advise people who are not intermediate to try learning them. You probably won’t encounter the other two in simpler texts.

What happens – as with the different kanji for kiku (hear) and many others – is that the less common kanji are used in writing to hone the word down to a more exact meaning. Also, if you see either or both of the others used in a text, you can assume that when 分かる is chosen, it is chosen advisedly to give its particular implications. Otherwise, it very often isn’t.

So let’s look at them from the Japanese perspective.

The implication of 判る

判る easy to remember because it is really just 分かる with the sword and the halving arranged horizontally rather than vertically.

This is the kanji used in 判明 hanmei “(with suru) establish or prove”, 判断 handan “judgement” etc.

In a phrase like

han’nin ga wakaru
“It has become known (to us) who the criminal is” (in English this might be “We now know who the criminal is”).

Clearly the “judgement” element is present. The “correct” – or better, the precise – form is 判る.

Equally with

mimoto ga wakaru
“His background has become known (to me/us/them)” (in English probably “I/we/they now know his background”).

The implication is of having been able to form a judgement on something previously unknown – or to put it closer to the Japanese, if somewhat more awkwardly in English – something having become the subject of an accurate judgement or investigation.

Note that the “understander” is not the grammatical subject and is not even visibly present in these statements as she is in English equivalents. We will know who the understander is from an explicit or implicit wa-statement drawn from context. This may sound complicated but it really isn’t at all once you understand it. Japanese six-year-olds use it with ease. Find out how you can too in Unlocking Japanese.


The implication of 解る

If you are intermediate you certainly know this kanji from words like 解く which all have to do with unraveling or untangling. If not, you can remember it as a 牛cow in the 角corner having her matted hair untangled with a 刀sword. Note that the sword-element is common to all three wakarus.

解 appears in words like 解釈 kaishaku “explanation” and 理解 rikai “understand” (this is the word you want when you really want to say “understand”, not wakaru).

So when you say

Nihongo ga wakaru
“Japanese is understandable (to me)”

解 is the most exact kanji, though more often than not it will in fact be written 分かる.


Implication of 分かる

As you see, you can’t really judge the special implications of 分かる much of the time, but it does have the implication of “be(come) known” which is not appropriate to either of the others.

To give a simple example of how these kanji can sometimes be useful: if someone asks “what is the oldest a turtle has ever lived?” in Japanese and you answer “わからない wakaranai” there could be a confusion over whether you mean “I don’t know how long a turtle has lived” or “I don’t understand the question”. If you could specifically say 解らない wakaranai it would be clear that you meant the latter.

If you said 判らない the implication would be “that is not something on which (I am) able to form a judgement” and if 分からない were taken in its exclusive sense it would mean “I do not have that information” – which is probably the most likely interpretation of the spoken phrase unless there were reasons to suppose one of the others (such as being a foreigner, which might lead the questioner to be unsure that you had understood).

To sum up – you can always use 分かる in any of the senses on this page. You will never be wrong. If you use one of the others, be careful to use it correctly

* It isn’t a coincidence that the two words wakareru both mean separating.

湿る vs 濡れる Shimeru vs Nureru – the wet kanji

What is the difference between 湿る shimeru and  濡れる nureru?

The answer here is very simple. (Become) damp vs wet.

湿る shimeru shows ⺡– “water” falling on the ground and being sucked up by the 日– “sun”. The kanji is often used for atmospheric moisture, but it can refer to anything damp or somewhat wet, as opposed to really soaked.

The main on-reading of 湿る shimeru  is shitsu. You want to know this as it appears in a lot of compounds like 湿度 shitsudo – “humidity level” and 湿気 shikke – “humidity, dampness”.

Note that in 湿気 shikke  the つtsu of しつshitsu is replaced by っsmall-tsu to become しっけ shikke. This is absolutely regular and happens almost all the time when a つtsu is followed by an unvoiced consonant in making a compound word.

So remember that damp things shimmer. And you can think of damp sheets shimmering on the washing line for both kun and on readings.

濡れる means wet. Like soaking. You see there is both ⺡– “water” and 雨 – “rain” and also a 而 – “rake”. Why a rake? Well, it is that kind of wet that if you just raked the ground the grooves turn into little rivers.

If you need a mnemonic, just remember to keep new rare things out of the rain, or they will get soaked and ruined.

What about the on reading(s)? Well, unlike 湿, 濡 does not have many on-compounds that are much used. Most compound words use the kun-reading. So I really wouldn’t bother about the on-readings at the learning-the-word stage*. This is one of the reasons why blindly learning on-readings from lists is inefficient and wastes a lot of time.

Note that both 湿るshimeru and 濡れるnureru have transitive すsu-versions: 湿すshimesu and 濡らすnurasu. If you know the First Law of Japanese Transitivity, you will find this entirely predictable and know exactly what they mean!

*Note: It isn’t necessary or recommended to learn on-readings when learning kanji organically as words, but these articles are primarily intended for tying together and clarifying the main points of words/kanji you already know. Of course if you learn them for the first time here – ♪bing-bong-BONUS

The warm kanji: 温かい vs 暖かい. What’s the difference?

As you probably know, the word あたたかい atatakai (warm) can be written in two different ways: 温かい or 暖かい. Is there a difference between them?

Yes there is, and actually it is a fairly obvious one, but I think it is a little less well known to learners than similar differences in other temperature-words.

Of course you know, unless you are a very early beginner, that there are two words for cold: 寒い samui, which means cold weather or ambient temperature, and 冷たい tsumetai, which means a cold object, cold hands, a cold drink etc.

You probably also know that there are two forms of あつい atsui (hot), which correspond directly to the two words for cold: 暑い (atsui with a double dose of sun) is hot weather or ambient temperature, 熱い (atsui with a fire under it) is a hot object.

So it isn’t too surprising to learn that atatakai does the same thing – though not quite as absolutely.

tsume-chan暖かい usually means warm weather or ambient temperature.  I see this one as 爪 tsumechan lifting her 友 friend into the warm 日 sunshine.

Oh – you haven’t met tsume-chan yet, have you? Some day I would like to do a book introducing my personal kanji-element characters.  Tsume-chan is the 爪 element – a happy UFO-catcher claw who rescues her friends from all kinds of danger. For example, she helps 子 childrenfloat when they fall in the 氵water.

ufo-catcherShe looks like a UFO because she works in a UFO Catcher when she isn’t out on rescue missions.

Anyway, enough of that. I do love my characters!

The only other thing to remember about 暖 is that its usual on-reading is dan, as in 暖房 danbou (interior heating) and 暖炉 danro (hearth fire).

温かい is more prone to mean a warm object, warm water etc. From the kanji, warm water might seem to be a primary meaning. It is easy to remember that the 日 sun warms water in a 皿 dish .

The on reading of 温 is on. Easy to remember if you think of 温泉 onsen (a warm-water spring or spa).

The two atatakai forms are not as absolutely distinguished as samui and tsumetai, and there is some crossover between them. 暖 especially seems to cross over into the area of things that warm the body, like a warm coat or a hot (i.e., warming) drink. It also seems much less used than 温 for metaphorical warmth (warm-heartedness etc), just as a cold-hearted person would be described as tsumetai, not samui.

While the two are not absolutely distinguished, if you bear in mind their general tendencies it will help you to use them in a natural-sounding way (for your own use you can treat them as equivalent to samui and tsumetai on the warm end of the scale) and to catch the nuance when you see them used.

Note that both forms of atata(kai) are used to make the two verbs atatamaru and atatameru. This is a regular maru-meru transitivity pair, so if you know the Honorary Fourth Law of Japanese Transitivity, you will know exactly what the words mean!

Kanji Distinctions – 初 vs 始 : Cloak ‘n’ Dagger vs the Lady on the Pedestal

kanjiThere are a number of words in Japanese that have the same pronunciation and roughly the same meaning but can be written with two or more different kanji.

In some cases the two are interchangeable, but often they have a subtle difference in implication and sometimes a distinctly different (though related) meaning.

I am going to be covering some of these over the next little while. So let’s begin at the beginning!

Hajimeru means “begin”. But it can be written in two ways:




Does it matter which one we use?

In this case, there is a distinct difference between the two. They both mean “begin”, but they mean it in different senses. Let’s look at them.


kanji初 – Cloak ‘n’ Dagger at the Beginning of Time

This one I call “cloak ‘n’ dagger” since it is made up of the kanji elements for clothes and sword.

It means begining in the time sense. The first time something is done or the beginning of something (in a time sense), for example:

hajime wa kowakatta
(it was) scary at first / (I was) scared at first

It is often used in the form hajimete, meaning “for the first time”. For example:

nihon wa, hajimete desu ka?
Is this (your) first (visit to) Japan?

The construction actually makes more sense if we render it according to the system in Unlocking Japanese:

“Speaking of Japan, is this (your) first time?”



Cloak ‘n’ Dagger sounds like an old show, doesn’t it? Useful to remember, because the on-reading of 初 is regularly sho, unlike 始, whose on-reading is regularly shi.


kanji始 – The Lady on the Pedestal, Starting to Act

始is made up of the elements 女 (female) and 台 (platform or pedestal).

This 始める refers to action rather than time. It doesn’t mean “the first time I did something” but “beginning to do something”, sometimes a subtle distinction, but quite definite. In

Shigoto wo hajimeyou
Let’s start work

we are taking action. Work isn’t just “starting” at a particular time. We are actively starting to work.

Sometimes the two kanji can be used in similar circumstances, but 初 is always stressing the first time or beginning period of something. 始 is stressing taking action.

So when you see the lady mount the stage or pedestal, you know that she is always about to do something. And shi is also the regular on-reading for this kanji.

It doesn’t always have to be a person acting. It can be a thing. For example:

yoru ga akehajimeta
Dawn began to break

Note that ga. As explained in Unlocking Japanese, it always marks the actor, the subject. Literally, the sentence means “night began to clear”, and night, the actor, is doing something. It is becoming light/clear. Thus the pedestal lady is the correct kanji.


So does it matter which one we use for hajimemashite? In my early days I used to write this one in kana because I could never quite remember.

Hajimemashite, sometimes vaguely translated as “pleased to meet you”, actually means “this is the beginning (of our acquaintanceship)”, so the correct kanji is 初 (cloak ‘n’ dagger, the time-beginner).

Armed with this knowledge you will have a clearer idea of the meaning of words using these kanji as well as a nearly-always-correct idea how to pronounce them in two-kanji on-reading words.

始 is very consistently shi, but remember that 初, while mostly sho, is sometimes hatsu, as in 初恋 hatsukoi (first love). People with cloaks and daggers often have hats pulled down over their eyes too!


The Key to Kanji Learning

There aren’t many shortcuts to learning Japanese. But there is at least one, and we want to share it with you!

People say that there is no Golden Key to the kanji. You just have to learn them. Preferably as words, bit by bit, organically.

But while there is no Golden Key, there is a Silver Key that can help enormously.

You can get it right here. The cost is – free, ’cause Dolly loves you!

It can help you to recognize kanji you only half-know. It can help you to guess the pronunciation of kanji you don’t know at all. It can help you with words where you know the sound but are very vague on the appearance of the kanji, and conversely it can help you with words where you know the kanji but don’t remember the pronunciation.

number-one-kanji-hackYou can get it right here. The cost is – free, ’cause Dolly loves you!

It can help you learn the kanji in the first place, and it can help tie together the triplicity of sound, meaning and appearance. It even talks to you (audio on every card).

The secret of this kanji hack is that there are a number – something under 100 – of kanji elements that pretty regularly indicate the on-reading of a kanji (the one usually used in two-or-more-kanji words, which make up the majority of Japanese words). I introduced an important selection of them in my Sound-Sisters article. I have now made a Complete Sound Sisters Anki deck with all the main Sound Sisters (including many not in the article).

I am not a fan of learning kanji in the abstract. I am especially not a fan of trying to learn kanji readings in the abstract. However, the leverage involved in learning the full Sound Sister set is so huge that (pragmatist as I am) I make an exception in this case.

For the investment of mastering a very small set of kanji elements and their sounds (the main part of it will take a week or so at a few minutes a day), one has in one’s hand a key that will make kanji much, much easier. It affects many thousands of words and a substantial proportion of all the Joyo kanji.

key-to-learning-kanjiYou can get it right here. The cost is – free, ’cause Dolly loves you!

This deck includes the fundamental 90 most common and regular Sound-Sisters elements, main examples of the kanji they appear in, audio and mnemonics for each of them, and other notes where appropriate.

Using the Deck

The deck is designed to be used in conjunction with the Sound Sisters article, which groups together similar sounds with mnemonic narrative. It helps you to learn the elements there and a large number of others.

Download the deck, unzip it (your computer will likely do that for you automatically) and add it to your Anki.

Pro tips:

Use the deck in conjunction with the Sound Sisters page. Remember that you will only need the mnemonics for a short time.

Remember that sounds may sometimes appear as their voiced variants – ひょう as びょう, さい as ざい etc.

You will “finish” the deck quite shortly as it is a small deck by Anki standards. After that, either keep it in your deck-list and run through it when reviews appear, or merge it with your main deck (but don’t do that until the reviews have dropped off to zero or very few most days).

Apply what you’ve learned. Use it to help you learn kanji as words. Also do some Sister-spotting while reviewing words, even with kanji you already know. This gets you used to the Sisters and helps to cement the whole process. You will also be using it to firm up still-learning words where you are a bit shaky on the appearance and/or pronunciation.

You can get it right here. The cost is – free, ’cause Dolly loves you!


Another importance of knowing the Sound Sisters is that working with them helps one to be more aware of the many other sound-connections in kanji.

There are a lot of Sound Half-Sisters: that is, sound relationships that are not regular enough to be included in the deck, but certainly very useful. Rather than learning them in the abstract it is best to become aware of them in an organic manner. But the use of the regular Sound Sisters is excellent training for spotting and using the Half-Sisters.

For example, the hyou/byou of 平等 byoudou is found in 評価 hyouka and 評判 hyouban and we will find it in other places too. 忍 and 認 are nin most of the time (the nin of 忍者 ninja).

Such examples are either not regular enough or do not govern enough kanji to be full Sound Sisters, but once we become attuned to these links by using the main Sound Sisters we will find this sort of thing quite often and it is very useful.

斉, sei on her own, is sai/zai often enough (剤, 済, 斎) that I almost included her as a full Sound Sister*. I may do so in a future edition of the deck (of course subscribers will receive any updates as they come along).

This really shows how fluid the situation is, and how getting a feel for the sound-associations of kanji elements can help so enormously.

Some of this really has to work organically, by reading, making friends with kanji, and getting used to Japanese.

But with a set of nearly 100 reasonably regular Sound Sisters that are easily assimilated, we can give the organic process a huge kick-start.

You can get it right here. The cost is – free, ’cause Dolly loves you!

* We did eventually includein the deck.

Avoid Kanji Overload! And write Japanese like a native

kanji-overloadOne thing that immediately marks a Japanese language novice may surprise you.

In many cases they use too many kanji.

Yes, I know. Learning kanji is a big challenge in Japanese. Surely it is good to know as many as possible? Yes it is. And it is good to know when to use them and when not to as well.

Writing 有難う for ありがとう, 晩御飯 for 晩ご飯, 居る for いる etc. tends to look strange, stiff or over-formal, or in the case of someone who is clearly a learner, just as if she doesn’t know how Japanese is normally written.

This isn’t to say that no Japanese person ever uses these kanji, but they do so at particular times and for particular reasons and usually wouldn’t use all these in one sentence.

For example, I knew a sensei who wrote 有難う. This was because her correspondence was extra-formal and polite. Sometimes people will write, say, 居る to distinguish it from 要る, though in most cases they write いる for both.

They may also write a more-often-kana word in kanji when a sentence seems a bit too over-kana-ized. Most Japanese people find a long sentence that is nearly all kana and one that is a wall of kanji about equally awkward and prefer a balance.

You may have heard of 中二病 chuunibyou, literally “second year of junior-high disease”. Symptoms are: being overly self-conscious, believing that one has special powers, and, among other things, using far too many kanji. That last symptom is not surprising, as in junior high school Japanese children learn the second thousand joyo kanji. In other words they learn as many kanji in three years as they learned in the previous six years.

They are being crammed with kanji and they kind of want to show them off. Interestingly they are in a somewhat similar position to Western learners who started with Heisig. If you follow the Heisig method rigorously, you know nearly all regular-use kanji before you know any Japanese at all. And of course you want to use them.

In the case of chuunibyou, kanji over-use is deliberate. But of course Heisig users have less choice in the matter since they know the kanji but have very little experience of how Japanese is normally written. As you probably know, I favor learning kanji more organically along with the language itself. However, Heisig works well for some people and I would never decry it. But if one uses that approach one should be sure to use one’s shiny new kanji with caution.

There are no words that are absolutely never written in kanji (assuming they have kanji) but there are many that are almost always written in kana unless there is a very particular reason for using the kanji. There are others that are written in kana most of the time but the kanji is used between, say, 5% and 40% of the time depending on the word.

“Oh no, more to learn!”, you may say. Well, fortunately it isn’t that difficult. The real solution is massive input. Lots of reading. You will soon get the feel for when and when not to use a kanji. Massive input is necessary anyway if you are ever going to pick up real Japanese, and fortunately for us all, it makes a lot of the dry study unnecessary. So solving the kanji problem is just icing on the cake.

The super-simple solution to the kanji-overload problem

However, there is a quick-and-cheap answer to this question too, which is invaluable while you are still inexperienced..

Whenever you are in doubt, use Denshi Jisho or Rikaisama (or Rikaichan -kun -tan). All of them flag some words with “uk” or “usually written in kana alone”. If you aren’t sure where to use kanji, simply make sure to write these words in kana.

It isn’t a perfect solution, but it will make your writing look 90% more natural than just using every kanji you know.

The perfect solution comes from immersion, and you will have it in time. Immersion cures everything! Except possibly the common cold.

I will end with a few notes that you may find helpful. Please feel free to add to these in the comments below.

こと/事 is written as kanji in compounds like 出来事, but when used as a nominalizer is almost always written in kana.

Similarly, while 言う as a word is more often written in kanji, という in nominalizing and similar uses is usually written in kana.

These uses are probably somewhat related to the fact that common verbs attached to other verbs are very often written in kana. So 来る is common but it is nearly always やってくる, not やって来る;持っていくrather than 持って行く.

It is worth remembering that small, basic words when concrete, like 日, 人, 小さい, 大きい etc. are usually written with kanji. But when abstract and grammatical, like また, など, ある etc. they are usually written in kana. Again the Rikai and dictionaries flag the latter group with “uk”, so you are safer if you follow that.

Few of these rules are absolute. Japanese is quite free about when and when not to use kanji. However Japanese people make the decision on a number of grounds and on the basis of what effect they want to produce at a given time. At an early stage this is not possible to a learner and simply using kanji everywhere possible produces very unnatural-looking Japanese.

So the best advice is to begin by following the “uk” guidelines in Rikai or whatever you use and grow into a fuller understanding of kanji usage with massive input.

You are growing up in Japanese. Like a child you learn day by day, and like a child there is no short-cut to full knowledge. But luckily these little tricks can help you to write Japanese in a much more natural-looking way.

Ojousama: the Aristocratic Young Lady and Her Kanji

Ojousama: a complex character but fine when you get to know her
Ojousama: a complex character but fine when you get to know her

A lot of people consider Ojousama to be a complicated character, and if you look at her portrait to the right you can see why.

The central part of お嬢さま ojousama is 嬢 jou (the rest is simply honorific o and sama, of course).

It is one of the more complicated kanji. Its right-hand section consists of 六 six, 井 well and the regular truncated form of 衣 clothes.

(If you want to know why a well looks like 井 you may want to go to this post on the forums.)

The right section together means “soft” and is a bit obscure. So we are going to associate it with ojousama herself:

ojousama-by-the-wellOjousama is a young 女 lady in beautiful 衣 clothing who comes upon 六 six 井 wells.

If we remember this little story we can remember Ojousama and we can use her to remember the other kanji in which her right-hand element appears. The most important of these is 譲 which we find in 譲る yuzuru which means to hand over or yield.

譲 is the Ojousama kanji with a word 言 as its left, type-defining radical, instead of a 女 girl. When Ojousama 言 speaks in her gentle voice, people hand over anything she wants. It is love, not usury (sound-mnemonic).

Another word with the Ojousama kanji is 醸 which means “brew” both literally (brewing wine or beer) and figuratively, (to cause or bring about, as in English “brew trouble”). This is the Ojousama right hand with 酒 sake, alcohol (without its own left liquid-definer) its left, type-defining, radical.

In the old days, brewing wasn’t done in factories but was a woman’s job. Ojousama is a fine lady and one of her activities is brewing fine sake.

There are other kanji with Ojousama’s right-hand side. We don’t need to learn them all now. In fact we don’t need to learn any of them now unless we want to. We can just learn Ojousama, and pick up the others as we come to them (譲る yuzuru is a particularly useful one).

This is a good example of how using the organic method of learning kanji, we often take the first or most striking or picturesque word that we come across using a particular kanji sub-section and then use that to remember other words with the same sub-section.

Six wells? Don’t magical things come in sevens? Actually Ojousama herself is the seventh 井 well, because she is so well-衣 dressed.

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.

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

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 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.

On and Kun readings in Japanese and English

Kun reading "see". On reading "vis" (-ible, -ion)
Kun reading: “see”.
On reading: “vis” (-ible, -ion)

People sometimes find the concept of on and kun readings of kanji difficult to grasp, and consider them terribly complicated and foreign. However, they have a rather exact parallel in English.

What I am about to explain does not directly assist us in learning Japanese, but some people have told me that it makes the whole concept of on and kun readings much more friendly and graspable, so I am presenting it to you in case you too find it helpful.

The truth is that differing readings are not unique to Japanese. Something  very similar can be found in English, and it came about for very similar reasons.

Kun readings represent the original Japanese pronunciation of a word while on readings represent the more “learned” Chinese word that came into Japanese so long ago that it is now a completely naturalized Japanese word. On readings are more usually found in compounds and more “learned” or abstract words.

Exactly the same is true of English. English “on readings” are not Chinese but Latin (sometimes Greek), and because English doesn’t use kanji it is less immediately obvious, but when we take a few examples it becomes very clear:

見 see
Japanese: Kun reading mi(ru). On reading ken/kan (ex: 見物  kenbutsu = watching, sightseeing
English: Kun reading see. On reading vis (ex: vision, visible)

手 hand
Japanese: Kun reading te. On reading shu (ex: 手動 shudou = manual, by hand)
English: Kun reading hand. On reading man (ex: manual)

星 star
Japanese: Kun reading hoshi. On reading sei (ex: 火星 kasei = fire-star = Mars)
English: Kun reading star. On reading stell (ex: stellar, constellation)

犬 dog
Japanese: Kun reading inu. On reading ken (ex:犬舎 kensha = kennel, doghouse)
English: Kun reading dog. On reading ken/kan (ex: canine, kennel)

Sometimes, of course, there are several readings in both Japanese and English. English words sometimes have on readings from both Latin and Greek. For example book has the on readings bibl (as in bibliography, Bible) and libr (as in library).

Of course this is somewhat fanciful, since English does not have kanji and therefore we do not really have the concept of “readings” in English. However, if Greek/Latin had had “kanji” (ideograms) and English had adopted them (as Japan did Chinese characters) we would probably have had an exactly parallel situation.

In many ways kanji make things easier. It is clear to see how the concepts expressed in a kanji are in fact the closely related despite pronunciation differences. The foreign learner of English is forced to learn book, library, bibliophile etc by “brute force” as unrelated words. Kanji  make such relationships clearer.

But, as you see, on and kun readings are not actually something that is very foreign to English even though they work somewhat differently in the two languages.

I hope this makes them feel a little more approachable.

How to Write Kanji—a free kanji tutor (for people who don’t write kanji)

how-to-write-kanjiKanji Recognizer as a self-teaching tool

How to write kanji is a question that Cure Dolly would precede with another question, namely whether to write kanji. As a matter of fact, I am largely of her school. Like Cure Dolly, I hand-write maybe two dozen words a year in English. So why do I want to learn to do in Japanese what I don’t even do in English?

The arguments over whether you need to learn how to write kanji in order to learn kanji at all are discussed by Cure Dolly, and I am broadly in agreement. It depends on who you are, what your needs are, and how you learn best.

But let’s say you are like Cure Dolly (and I am). Let’s say you don’t need to write kanji (for exams or whatever) and you only need to recognize them for purposes of both reading and (electronically) writing. Is there any need to learn to write them at all?

I really don’t see any value in sitting down to write kanji hundreds of times. I have heard people complain about doing this and still finding the kanji to be strangers to them in a week or so.

I actually am learning a tiny bit to write kanji, but none of them are strangers to me. I know the kanji. I am familiar with their components. That isn’t the point of writing them to me. So what is it?

One thing I have realized is that while my recognition is reasonably good, my ability to picture shapes is (perhaps abnormally) terrible. I can read hiragana with no problem, but I recently realized that I could no longer write several of them. I did learn them in the beginning and could write them easily. I found that a year or so later, even though I had no trouble at all recognizing them and reading them, I don’t actually remember how they are made up. I can’t picture them in my head. I only know them when I see them.

I am not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. Personally I don’t want to lose my ability to hand-write kana, so I did a little practice with a kana-writing app just to get it back. If I wrote anything by hand—shopping lists, anything—I would do it in Japanese just to keep my hand in. But I don’t. I am a near-total non-writer.

However, kana is not the point here. The point is kanji. What I have found there is similar. Since I didn’t know how to write kanji, I didn’t really know how they were made up. I didn’t really know the difference between 家 and 象, for example. I tended to recognize them by context rather than their actual differences. I don’t think learning to write kanji is the only way to overcome this problem. One could just familiarize oneself more firmly with the components of each and make up little stories around them, which is how I learned them in the first place.

One of my problems with writing is a pathological fear of paper. I really can’t manage the stuff. If you start allowing it into the house it gets everywhere—but you can never find the bit you want. I really can’t start toodling around with bits of paper. For me it would open the door to nameless chaos.

But I did start to feel it would be worthwhile to write kanji. Not hundreds of times—just a few times each. Not in order to learn them—the kanji I write I already know by sight—but simply in order to clarify my mind on their exact composition.

And it works. But you really need the right tool. Fortunately I found it. It is called Kanji Recognizer. It is an Android app. You can write the kanji with a stylus on your tablet or keitai. Although this is not the purpose of the software, what it does is both allow you to write kanji (without all that scary paper) and act as an instant tutor at the same time.

Let me show you how:


You write the kanji freely, and as you can see, Kanji Recognizer tries to work out what you wrote and places its top ten guesses along the top. The higher you come in the top ten, the more accurately you have written the kanji. This in itself is very, very useful.

The software also numbers your strokes, so you are able to check your stroke order. It puts the number at the start of each stroke so you can also check the stroke direction (this comes into its own later as you will see).

The two buttons ringed in mizuiro (pale blue—I don’t know why there isn’t an English word for the “pink” of blue, but there isn’t) are 画削除 kakusakujo (delete stroke) and クリア (clear). 画削除 is very nice as it allows you to get rid of strokes you messed up. Paper is just mean about that sort of thing.

The app is free, though ad-supported. If you have your device in Japanese (and you should) the ads will tend to be Japanese too, as you can see at the bottom of the screenshots.

Once you have written your kanji, you can tap the correct one at the top to get a screen of information about it:

how-to-write-kani-2This, of course, is immediately useful for making sure the kanji is what you thought it was! The most important thing here for our purpose is the button we have ringed: 書き順 kakijun (writing order—or stroke order, as they tend to say in English). This gives you, as you might expect, an image of the kanji (written with an enviably steady hand) with its correct stroke order marked:


However, the really useful thing here is the (ringed) button labeled 動画 douga (animation). Press this and the app will clear the kanji and re-draw it for you, so you can watch it forming stroke by stroke and see how it is done.

You can then click the home button (ringed) which will take you back to the page where you wrote the kanji originally. It will still be there, just as you wrote it, so you can check whether you had the stroke order and direction right. If you didn’t make number one in the top ten, you can hit クリア and try again.

If you have an idea of the general rules for stroke order, you will get it right a lot of the time. The surprises will tend to impress themselves on your mind. The animation is particularly useful for this, I find. What you will also start to find instinctively is a lot of kanji-order sub-rules. They aren’t taught and rightly so, as they are fiddly and have exceptions, but they do start to make a kind of sense in practice, I find.

I am still not really trying to learn how to write kanji. I know hand-writing is never going to be a part of my real life. Actually, I would like to learn Japanese calligraphy one day, but that is something of another matter. What I am finding is that this gives me a better feeling for how the kanji work, how they hang together.

My method is perhaps unusual. I have never in my life “learned a kanji”. I learn words as I go along, and I make friends with the kanji that form them. People have occasionally asked “how many kanji do you know?”. I have no idea how to answer. How would I know? Maybe some people go through a book from Kanji 0001 to Kanji 2500, but I really wouldn’t even know how to do that, and I am sure it wouldn’t stick that way.

When I write kanji on my little slate, I am already friends with those kanji. I have known them for some time. Now I am taking tea with them and learning their funny little ways. I am a horribly inattentive friend, and there are so many things about them I never noticed. I love them so I want to learn.

If you love something, you should pet it. Kanji recognizer was essentially made to be a dictionary, not a tutor. It works as a tutor, and (for me at least) as something else too. It is my favorite Virtual Pet game!