Kanji Isn’t as Scary as It Looks: an American’s take on learning kanji

What is Kanji?

Kanji is one of the three “alphabets” used in Japanese, the other two being hiragana and katakana. All three alphabets are written either horizontally and left to right, or vertically, top to bottom, and right to left. (Review of hiragana and katakana at the end of the blog post.*)

Kanji is like your neighbor’s great dane. It’s scary and maybe plays a little too rough, but when you get to know it, it’s actually friendly and pretty harmless. So harmless, in fact, that in Japan, children start learning it in the first grade.

Kanji is word pictures. Most western languages only have sound-based alphabets, so kanji is terrifying for many westerners.

Think of kanji as vocabulary. Each picture describes an actual thing, rather than a sound. And, like vocabulary, you just have to memorize it.

In the beginning, when I was starting out learning Japanese, I didn’t get the point of kanji. Hiragana is easier to learn and you can actually use it to bypass kanji altogether. So why bother with kanji?

As I progressed in my studies, example sentences turned into paragraphs, and paragraphs into pages. I finally understood. Sentences in hiragana are long and uniform. There’s nothing scarier in Japanese than seeing an endless wall of hiragana.

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“Kimi Janakya Dame Mitai” by Masayoshi Oishi

Where’s the subject? Where does one word end and the other begin? It’s hard to see the important parts of the sentence when everything looks the same.

Kanji has two extremely useful jobs: 1) It shortens sentences, and 2) It highlights the important words.

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Simply put, kanji makes reading easier.

But How Do You Read Kanji?

Each kanji has its own meaning and it keeps that meaning, whether it is alone or part of a longer word.

For example, 母 means “mother,” so any word or phrase that contains 母 has something to do with mothers.

The tricky part is, while 母 always means “mother,” it is not always pronounced the same way. For example, by itself, 母 is read “haha,” and it means “my mother.” But if you want to refer to someone else’s mother, you would not say “haha” but “okaasan,” spelled お母さん. Notice, お母さん contains 母, so you know it’s talking about mothers, even though it’s pronounced differently.

Another example is 食 (pronounced “ta”), which refers to food. I say “refers to” because this kanji can’t actually stand alone. Unlike 母, 食 is always part of a larger word, like 食べます (tabemasu), meaning “to eat.” As with 母, even if you don’t recognize the word, if it contains 食, you know it has something to do with food.

It is common for more than one kanji to show up in a single word, thought it’s rarely more than two per word. Here is where kanji really starts to show off its magic.

For example, let’s look at 物 (pronounced “mono,” and means “thing”). Any word you see that contains this kanji is talking about a specific thing, probably a physical object.

Now, here’s the magic part. Look at this word: 食べ物

Even without knowing how to pronounce this word, you can decipher what it’s talking about. That first kanji 食 refers to food. There’s the hiragana character べ in the middle for readability, and the second kanji 物 means “thing.”

It’s a food thing, a physical piece of food. And that’s exactly what it is. 食べ物, read “tabemono,” means “food,” just as 飲み物 (nomimono) means “drink.”

Let’s try another.

夏 (natsu) means “summer.” 休 (yasu) means “rest.” What, then, is 夏休み? Even before you know how to pronounce it, you know it means “summer rest.” 夏休み (natsu yasumi) means “summer vacation.”

Sometimes words made of multiple kanji take a bit more sleuthing to figure out. For example, 上手 (jouzu) means “skilled/good at something.” 上 (ue) means “above,” and 手 (te) means “hand.” 上手, broken down, literally means “upper hand.”

If you want to say “unskilled/bad at something,” you use 下手 (heta), where下 (shita) means “beneath/under.” So下手, broken down into its parts, means “lower hand.”

How Do You Know How to Pronounce Kanji When It’s in Different Words?

You don’t. The best way is just to get used to recognizing the word itself and knowing how it’s said (Ex. This word means “food.” How do you say food in Japanese? Oh, “tabemono.”).

Each kanji has its own list of sounds, but the lists are so long that I’ve found it more helpful just to learn through everyday use. The common words will make it into your vocabulary without you even realizing it.

Rules of Thumb for Stroke Order

Trying to write kanji can be a daunting task at first. But while there is an official way to write each kanji (called “stroke order”), kanji tend to follow the same rules.

– Left to right, top to bottom.

mimasu stroke order
Stroke order for 見 (to see), Wikipedia, 2010

– Boxes are drawn left to right: outside first, then inside.

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Stroke order for 買 (to buy), Tanoshiijapanese.com

– When there are lots of horizontal lines, draw them first.

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Stroke order for 書 (to write), Tanoshiijapanese.com

– Some kanji have multiple sections. Draw each section separately.

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Stroke order for 帰 (to undo/go home), Tanoshiijapanese.com

– Start with the box, or the T. It’s all about drawing the main feature first. Most kanji features one or the other as the main component.

Most online kanji dictionaries include stroke order. Here’s a good one to start with.

Kanji is a lot of work to learn, but as you spend more time with it, you’ll start to realize it’s nothing to be afraid of. It just takes a little effort and a little patience. Try to learn one kanji a day and put it into practice. There are tons of free apps and websites out there to help you learn kanji. Find one that works for you and go for it! You can do it!


*Review of Hiragana and Katakana

Hiragana is the standard alphabet for Japanese words. Each character makes a sound, and to make words, you put them together. Hiragana is full of curls and swirls.

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Hiragana Chart, Wikipedia, 2017

Katakana is the alphabet for foreign words. Katakana is all sharp edges and smiley faces. And, 9 out of 10 times, if you sound out the katakana, it ends up being an English word, like プール (puuru, or “pool”).

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Katakana Chart, Wikipedia, 2017
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