How to start learning kanji and/or hanzi using Heisig's method

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As a Japanese or Chinese learner, have you ever wondered what is the best way to learn the kanji/hanzi?

If you are serious about learning Japanese or Chinese, and eventually being able to read texts with lots of kanji or hanzi on it, then I think you have thought about this at some point in your language learning journey.

Maybe you are just getting started with this whole Japanese/Chinese thing, and you've already heard some horror stories surrounding kanji/Hanzi, like:

"It takes the Japanese/Chinese their entire schooling years just to learn the most important characters!" or "You have to drill each character like 20 times by hand, everyday, just so you don't forget them!"

Maybe these stories intimidate you, and they make you wonder if learning to read and write in Japanese/Chinese is actually attainable for a mere "gaijin" like you.

Or maybe you've applied the traditional methods used in classrooms and most textbooks to learn the kanji/hanzi (and the kana/bopomofo), and you've experienced first-hand how unrewarding, frustrating and even painful these methods are.

Either way, I'm here to help! I created this article to share with you what I believe is the best way to learn the Japanese characters, so that you can attain full literacy in the language.

I have to warn you that this article is kind of long. If you want you can plow through it in one go if you have time, but I suggest you bookmark it and read portions of it at different times.

With that said, let's get to it!


How most people try to learn the kanji/hanzi - The detrimental process of grinding


Let's say you are in Japanese/Chinese class right now and it's time to learn 10 new kanji/hanzi. In most places, the process of learning each new kanji/hanzi goes more or less like this:

First, your source (i.e. your teacher and/or your textbook) shows you a new kanji/hanzi you've never seen before. This source will give you:
  • A picture of the new kanji/hanzi you have to learn.
  • A short list of possible readings for the kanji written in kana.
  • (If you are learning Chinese, you get the one reading for that hanzi, most likely written in pinyin.)
  • Some example word compounds where those readings (or single reading) are used.
  • A translation in your native language for each word compound.
  • And the stroke order of the kanji/hanzi (First you draw this line, then this other line, then a drop, then another stroke, then this weird squiggle... and there, profit!)
After seeing all of this information you then have to memorize the stroke order of this kanji/hanzi. You do this by drilling (i.e. writing over and over) the kanji/hanzi, stroke by stroke, about 10 to 20 times on paper.

Then, you have to memorize the listed readings for the kanji (or single reading of the hanzi) and their respective translations by repeating them over and over in your mind as you drill the kanji/hanzi, or right after you are done drilling.

After that, you repeat this process for the next kanji/hanzi in your source, until you are done for the day.

I like to refer to this process as grinding. This core process can also be complemented with tools like:
  • Paper flashcards, either made by yourself or ready-to-buy.
  • "Vanilla" flashcard software, which is the same thing as paper flashcards, but operating in your computer or smartphone screen.
  • Pictographs (like the kneeling woman behind the kanji of "onna").

Why grinding sucks


At first sight grinding seems to be the most natural, efficient and just plain straightforward method for learning any kind of new symbol set or alphabet.

Most Japanese/Chinese classes, textbooks and language learning materials out there implement this grinding method for learning and practicing the characters, and even Japanese/Chinese kids have to learn the characters this way.

Thus, if even the Japanese/Chinese follow the grinding method to help them learn the characters, then grinding must be the very best method out there to master the kanji/Hanzi... right?

Not by a long shot. Students of Japanese/Chinese (and even teachers of these languages) around the world know how dull and ineffective grinding actually is.

Not only you can't even recall less than half of the kanji/hanzi you drilled on your previous grinding session every time, but the overall process is horribly slow.

For instance, after 2.5 years of taking Japanese classes at my local university (which translates into what... 200 net hours of classes, more or less?) we supposedly knew and mastered 160 characters at the end of the last level course...

Read that again, please. Just 160 kanji after 2.5 years of freaking classes!! That wasn't even slightly close to the 2136 general use characters (a.k.a the jouyou kanji) one is required to know to be at the most basic level of literacy in the language. For Amaterasu's sake...

Whether you've experienced grinding yourself or not, this method is mind-numbing, ineffective and frustrating to the point of emotional pain. No wonder why some eager Japanese learners are quickly put off by this detrimental method and even quit learning the language all together.

Sure, some brave warriors out there have managed to develop a very decent level of literacy in Japanese/Chinese through sheer grinding, I don't deny it. But these gals and guys are the outstanding exception to the rule. Most learners either develop mediocre literacy, or can't read in Japanese/Chinese altogether, or simply quit learning either language.

Why is grinding so ineffective and painful? Because it relies primarily on rote-visual memorization. Through the grinding method you are forced to brute-memorize the shape of each kanji/hanzi as a whole as well as the individual shape of each one of their strokes.

No mnemonic aids of any kind are used to help you with this difficult task; instead, the method just force-feeds into your head the stroke order of each kanji/hanzi with their respective readings and translations until one day (hopefully) all you have crammed is finally burned into your brain! YAY!

Alas, what actually happens is that your mind burns in frustration, but very few kanji/hanzi are actually "burned" in it. As you will see, there are much better alternatives to following this popular yet inefficient method to master the kanji...


The unconventional kanji learning method introduced by James Heisig


James Heisig, philosopher and professor currently living in Nagoya - Japan, developed his own method for learning the kanji (which also works for hanzi!) while living in the country for the first time.

Deciding not to take beginner Japanese classes, and after reading about the grammar of the language for a month, he started to research how people went about learning the kanji.

Heisig researched how to study the kanji by checking out some books on the subject as well as speaking with his colleagues and other teachers. He also skimmed a huge tome on the history and etymology of the Chinese-Japanese characters. After this, Dr. Heisig came up with a very interesting method for learning these complex symbols:

First, he took full advantage of the way kanji/hanzi are constructed: through building blocks denominated radicals. There are more than 100.000 kanji/hanzi in existence, and each one of them can be written as a combination of the 270 or so radical elements.

Consider the following examples:

畑 - this kanji/hanzi is composed of 2 radical elements: 火 and 田

湖 - this other kanji/hanzi is composed of 4 radicals: ⺡, 十, 口 and 月

窓 - this one is composed of 4 radicals also: 宀, 儿, 厶and 心

With this principle in mind he developed the idea of "primitive elements" (or "primitives"), where a single primitive element can consist of one radical, a small group of radicals or even a full kanji/hanzi sometimes.

Therefore, if you remember which primitives compose a single kanji/hanzi and in what order, you can remember the character as a whole.


After conceiving the idea of the primitives Heisig also realized that the order in which kanji/hanzi are learned IS important. Most methods he researched required him to learn the kanji/hanzi in phonetic order, frequency order, or from simple to more complex concepts (like, learning 'bird' before 'delusion').

To James, these orderings were kind of chaotic, as there is no connection between kanji/hanzi previously learned and kanji/hanzi being worked on at the moment.

He realized that if he was going to learn the kanji/hanzi using primitive elements as a basis, then the kanji/hanzi should be learned in a rational order.

Accordingly, Heisig established an special order for learning the characters, which consisted in placing the most basic primitive elements first, along with kanji/hanzi made up of those elements, and gradually showing up more complex primitives that could be combined with the previous ones to create new kanji/hanzi.

That way every single kanji/hanzi in his list would be built from previous primitives and/or kanji/hanzi in that same designated order.

Heisig then proceeded to give a keyword in English to each primitive element in order to differentiate and identify each one of them.

And then, with the aid of a bunch of Japanese-English dictionaries, he assigned a keyword in English to each new kanji/hanzi he was to learn, where the keyword would be a rough meaning of one particular Japanese reading for that character.

Finally, James would then take advantage of these English labels to help him remember each particular kanji/hanzi. He would do this by connecting in his mind, through a mnemonic story, all the primitive elements that compose a particular character with the keyword of the kanji/hanzi as a whole.

He relied on his imaginative memory instead of his visual memory to help him remember each primitive and each kanji/hanzi.

Heisig would then review the characters he had learned using paper flashcards (Note: all of this happened before home computers existed!), and would try to recall each character using their respective mnemonic stories.

One month later, after working on learning the kanji full time, James was able to master the rough English meaning (although not the Japanese readings... yet) and writing of 2042 or so characters.

Eventually, after some shenanigans and a special request Heisig worked on a book that not only outlined this unconventional method, but also included a "Heisig-ordered" list of 2000+ kanji/hanzi characters to be learned using this very method.

The book was first called Adventures in Kanjiland, which would then evolve to become the book Remembering the Kanji, or RTK for short. He later on published Remembering the Traditional Hanzi (RTH) and Remembering the Simplified Hanzi (RSH) with the help of Timothy Richardson.


What is Remembering the Kanji/Hanzi, and how does it work?


As outlined above, Remembering the Kanji and Remembering the Traditional Hanzi are books written by James Heisig where he explains how his method came to be and how you can implement it for your own kanji/Hanzi learning.

The bulk of the book consists of a list of 2000+ most widely used kanji (3000+ most widely used hanzi adding up both volumes of Remembering the Traditional Hanzi), all of them ordered according to Heisig's idea of learning the kanji/hanzi from more simple primitive elements and combinations of them to more complex ones.

Every kanji/hanzi in RTK/RTH is given a keyword in English, which is basically a rough meaning of one of the Japanese readings (or only Chinese reading) for said kanji/hanzi.

Also, each character in the book is described in terms of the primitive elements that conform it. Each one of these primitive elements is given a keyword as well, which may correspond to a pictographic representation of the element in question, or a semi-arbitrary choice.

Once you are presented with a certain kanji/hanzi, its keyword, its primitive elements and how they are ordered in that respective kanji/hanzi, you now have to resort to your creativity to build a story that interconnects the primitive elements to the main keyword of the kanji/hanzi in question.

The more impact the story has on you (it's crazy, very funny, ironic, weird, dirty, etc), and the more familiar are its components to you, the better the story will stick in your mind.

Here's are some examples of this, applied to some kanji:



Keyword: Utensil

Kanji/Hanzi:

Primitives: 口 (Mouth) x 4 | 大 (St. Bernard Dog)

Story: "Here we have the four mouths of the guests sitting around the table, getting ready to eat a fluffy, steamy and stuffed St. Bernard dog! Yummy! However, the feast cannot start until the utensils arrive!!"



Keyword:
Practice

Kanji/Hanzi:

Primitives: 糸 (Thread... or Spiderman :P) | 東 (East)

Story: "As fighting thugs is becoming more and more tough, Spidey decides to travel to the east of the city in order to practice his web swinging and fighting skills in there. Crime rate is usually low in the eastern part of the city, so it's perfect for him to practice without any issues."



Keyword: Delicious

Kanji/Hanzi:

Primitives: 匕 (Spoon) | 日 (Sun/Day)

Story: "Just imagine yourself using your trusty spoon to gobble up a delicious sun-dae as immense as the sun itself!! :D"



For the first lessons in the book Heisig provides stories made up by himself for you to use. After that, you will be on your own to come up with stories to remember each kanji/hanzi.


Why I believe Heisig's method is the best way to start learning kanji/hanzi


When following the process of grinding it is assumed (although rarely achieved) that you not only learn how to write and recognize each kanji/hanzi, but that you also learn how to actually read them in Japanese/Chinese and form word compounds.

However, Heisig's method focuses only on you learning the writing and rough meaning of each character. While it may seem that not working on the Japanese/Chinese readings renders Heisig's method incomplete or even useless to some people, the method focuses exclusively on the recognition and writing of the kanji/hanzi for a very specific and important reason.

In a nutshell, through Heisig's method you gain the same advantage that a Chinese person would have for learning Japanese from scratch, or viceversa:

People from China/Japan are already familiar with most kanji/hanzi characters, and relate each one of them to a certain concept in their own language.

Thus, already knowing how each kanji/hanzi looks like, and what they mean, they only need to learn how to read them in the other language they want to learn.

That is the same kind of advantage you get, only that you would relate each kanji/hanzi to a keyword in English or in your native language.

Having that in mind, I think Heisig's method completely destroys grinding because:
  • Using imaginative memory is much more effective than using rote, visual memory for remembering ideographic symbols like the kanji/hanzi.
  • Remembering from 3 to 6 meaningful primitive elements conforming a kanji/hanzi is much less mentally taxing than trying to recall 20+ meaningless strokes.
  • You can learn and actually retain the shape and "meaning" of more kanji/hanzi in just one month than you would in literally years of grinding.
  • The process of creating stories with the primitives of each kanji/hanzi and their defining keywords can be very fun. Sometimes the results are hilarious!
  • You also gain the ability of distinguishing very similar looking kanji/hanzi by comparing the primitive elements that conform them. For instance, try comparing 感 and 惑. They are very similar and can be easily confused, but with a grasp on Heisig's primitives you can tell them apart easily .
  • Once you master the kana (pinyin and maybe bopomofo in the case of Chinese), and at the very least 2000+ kanji (3000+ hanzi for Chinese) through this method, learning Japanese/Chinese vocabulary becomes much easier.
If you wish to read a more in-depth explanation of why this method for learning kanji/hanzi is superior to the traditional grinding method, I invite you to check out this free report, written by Heisig himself: A brief note on the kanji.


How to review the kanji/hanzi effectively - Tools to ensure you never forget what you've learned!


While it's true that Heisig's method and Remembering the Kanji/Hanzi offers a pretty effective method for learning the writing and rough meaning of the Japanese/Chinese characters in a meaningful, effective, efficient and even fun way, you must consistently review the characters you've learned to ensure that you never-ever forget them again.

The insane stories you make up to remember each kanji/hanzi will be pretty damn memorable, sure... but its natural to start losing track of all the stories you've come up with once you start learning your 500th kanji/hanzi and beyond.

Heisig himself recommends following a review method that involves using paper flashcards, just like he did when he first learned the kanji. However, times have changed a lot, and by today's standards using physical flashcards to do your reviews would be... let's say, medieval.

I recommend you stay away from paper flashcards. Don't waste your money buying an overpriced deck of kanji/hanzi cards and don't waste your time making physical flashcards yourself... unless you plan to post them around your room to get more exposure to the kanji/hanzi or something similar. There are much better tools for you to use as you will see.

Nowadays, thanks to the work of researchers like Piotr Wozniak (creator of the software SuperMemo) we now have special software tools we can use to review lots of information at timed intervals, so that we only review what we need to at the right time; not too soon and not too late.

This kind of software applications are called Spaced Repetition Systems (or SRS for short).

An SRS works very similarly to "vanilla" flashcard software: you are presented with a question, you write down your answer somewhere else (or you just keep the answer in your head), and then you flip the virtual card to check if your answer is correct.

What makes the SRS special is that once you flip the virtual card you have to rate yourself on how easy or hard was to answer that question.

The higher you rate yourself, the later you will have to review that same question. The lower you rate yourself, the sooner you will have to see that question again.

Thus, by using an SRS to review the kanji/hanzi you save yourself from the hurdle of carrying a huge deck of kanji/hanzi flashcards, and you also save yourself from the mindless drilling of the grinding method.

Sure, while using an SRS it is recommended you write down a couple of times each character you review... but not 20 or 30 times like you have to do when you grind.

Also, using an SRS is much more effective than using plain flashcard software because an SRS automatically schedules the best date to review each item in your virtual deck. As I mentioned, not too soon, and not too late.

There are many kinds of SRS tools out there, both free to use and paid. Let me share with you my favorite two resources for reviewing the kanji/hanzi using Heisig's method:


Reviewing the Kanji


Also known as RevTK or Kanji Koohii, this free-to-use website for Japanese learners implements its own SRS (called a Leitner System) for reviewing the kanji you learn by following the Remembering the Kanji book.

As I explained before you have to make up stories that interrelate primitives with kanji keywords, but sometimes this can be hard to do all on your own.

Sometimes nothing comes to mind when you look at the primitives of a particular kanji. Sometimes you just don't find any idea or inspiration to forge a particular story.

What to do then? An invaluable advantage of the RevTK is that if you are struggling with a certain kanji story you can just copy one from other users in the Study section, or use those stories as an inspiration for your very own.

An small disadvantage of this site is that its SRS system is not as sophisticated as Anki's (the following SRS we'll talk about), but even then RevTK gets the job done pretty well.

The site also has a forum if you want to share thoughts, ideas and tools with other people following Heisig's method.

You can access Reviewing the Kanji here.

I remember that some time ago Fabrice, the webmaster of this site, developed a mirror version of this website for the hanzi, called Reviewing the Hanzi, or Hanzi Koohii. Sadly, it seems that portion of the site is now down. Sorry about that Chinese learners :(


Anki SRS


This right here is the number one SRS tool I recommend for kanji/hanzi reviewing.

Anki is available as a standalone desktop application (for Windows, Mac and Linux-based OS), as an Android app (the app is called AnkiDroid), as a paid iPhone app, and is also available as an online service (which is free and can be synced with all previous versions).

If you want to try out this tool for your kanji/hanzi reviews then download the desktop version of Anki here. Also remember to check out the user manual, where you will find documentation and video tutorials on how to use Anki.

Once you download and install Anki, experiment with the program for a little bit. Read some of the documentation, watch the video tutorials, make a sample deck if you want, just mess around with it for a bit. Learn how to suspend/unsuspend cards in a deck and also learn how to install decks downloaded from the Anki Shared Deck List. Familiarize yourself with Anki before using it for your kanji/hanzi learning.

Once you feel comfortable using Anki go to the AnkiWeb Shared Deck List and search for "remembering the kanji" or "remembering the hanzi". For Japanese I suggest you download the deck called "Heisig's Remembering the Kanji 1+3 with 2010 joyo kanji". Once you download your RTK/RTH deck make sure all cards are suspended except for the ones you've learned so far. After that... time to start reviewing!

The next day, when you learn a new batch of kanji/hanzi, un-suspend the corresponding kanji/hanzi cards so that you can review those, and so on.


RTK iPhone App and other stuff


There is an official Remembering The Kanji iPhone App in the Apple Store. You could buy that application if you have an Apple device, but I'd recommend sticking either with Anki or Kanji Koohii... or better yet, both.

For instance, I used Kanji Koohii to find inspiration for my own kanji stories, and sometimes I would just copy stories from other users. I even had fun contributing with stories of my own creation as well!

But once I was done with the stories I would then copy-paste them from RevTK into their respective Anki entries. Then I would proceed to do my kanji reviews in Anki.

Finally, if you are learning the traditional hanzi, you can also take advantage of the stories on Kanji Koohii! You can create an account there and read kanji/hanzi stories from other users, which you can also copy or use to inspire your own mnemonic stories.


How to get started using Heisig's method


First, if you are learning Chinese, I recommend you learn the traditional hanzi first, and then learn the simplified hanzi. As Khatz from AJATT.com would say, it's much easier to step down from traditional to simplified than to step up from simplified to traditional.

Now, given what you've learned about Remembering the Kanji, Rembering the Traditinal Hanzi, Kanji Koohii and Anki... what do you think? Would you like to try out Heisig's method to see if it works for you?

If so, then let me show you how you can get to it:

First, you will need to get a free .pdf sample of the latest edition of Remembering the Kanji or Remembering the Traditional Hanzi.

Then you have to open your .pdf sample and read the entire Introduction. It's important that you don't skip the Intro; read it carefully so you get a better understanding of how Heisig's method works and what you need to have in mind while following RTK or RTH.

After reading all of the introduction, proceed to open up an account at kanji.koohii.com whether you are learning Japanese or Chinese. Then, download and install Anki. Start exploring both systems and really familiarize yourself with both tools before you start to learn the kanji/hanzi. Then, download and install the respective Anki deck you need as I mention in the Anki section above.

If you are learning Japanese, remember that if you want you can ignore Anki and do your reviews entirely on the Kanji Koohii website. If this sounds more practical to you, go ahead and do that. Personally, I prefer to use Anki for my reviews, as it has a more sophisticated SRS algorithm and I can use it if my Internet goes down.

If you are learning Chinese, and you sign up for Kanji Koohii, some hanzi will not be directly included in the list of the Study section. However, you can search for the character by copy-and-pasting it from the .pdf guide to the search bar in the Study section. That will send you to the page with that kanji/hanzi, and you might find some stories for that kanji/hanzi by other users.

Once you feel comfortable using both Anki and RevTK, open your .pdf sample copy of RTK or RTH, fire up both Anki and Kanji Koohii, and start learning kanji!


Some tips regarding following Heisig's method


One tip I can give you is to follow Heisig's advice and practice writing each new kanji/hanzi you learn a couple of times on paper or on a smartphone/tablet.

Because you are just starting out, following closely the stroke order of each new kanji/hanzi you draw is a good idea, but have in mind that the stroke order is meant as a writing aid, not something you have to memorize or that you have to follow perfectly to-the-tee on each occasion.

Another tip: If a story provided by Heisig doesn't help you remember a particular kanji/hanzi, go to the Study section of Kanji Koohii and copy another user's story, or read the stories in there to find inspiration for a story of your own.

And once again, if you are learning Chinese and the hanzi for which you want to create a story is not included in the Study section, copy-paste it in the search bar of the Study section to see if there might be user created stories for it.

Then, in your Anki deck, copy/write your story in the "Story" field of the corresponding kanji entry. If you are only using Kanji Koohii for your reviews you can edit the story field for each kanji right in the Study section.


How many new kanji/hanzi each day, and other review formats


First, I recommend that you review all of your pending kanji/hanzi for the day before attempting to learn any new kanji/hanzi. Once you are done with all your reviews for the day, then learn as many kanji/hanzi as you have decided to learn that day.

You can set up a daily kanji/hanzi goal for yourself, like 20 new characters per day. If you feel ok learning that many new kanji/hanzi each day, then do that. If you feel 30 is not much of a stretch, then learn 30 a day. If you have enough time each day to learn 50 or more kanji/hanzi, do it as long as you don't feel burned out.

And if one particular day you feel tired and fed up, and you only feel like learning like 3 kanji/hanzi or something, then ok, learn those 3 characters and focus more on your reviews. Just make sure you don't fall off the horse the next day.

Once you are done learning kanji/hanzi for the day, un-suspend all the kanji/hanzi you edited in your Anki deck, or "Add" them in the "Manage" tab of Kanji Koohii if that's what you are using. Then, proceed to do your reviews for the day. You will notice that the virtual flashcards you'll find in Anki and RevTK have the following format:

FRONT: Heisig keyword, or Heisig keyword + Mnemonic story

BACK: Respective Kanji/Hanzi

Heisig explains that although you need to review the kanji consistently, preferably using some sort of flashcard system (or an SRS), you don't need to review flashcards that follow the "Kanji in the front, keyword and story in the back" format. In the book Heisig explains that reviewing flashcards from keyword (or keyword+story) to kanji is enough.

That said, some people over at AJATT.com have found success following a different flashcard format they like to call Lazy Kanji, which is formatted like this:

FRONT: Kanji + Mnemonic story with a blank where the keyword should go

BACK: The respective keyword + Some synonyms for the keyword

This is the review format I personally prefer. You can only implement this review format in Anki, not Kanji Koohii. You can read more about this particular flashcard format for your RTK reviews on AJATT.com. See if you'd like to implement this format for your own SRS reviews or if you'd rather follow Heisig's default format.


How often should you do your kanji reviews?


If you ask me, Spaced Repetitions Systems are one of the most powerful tools we currently have to learn languages and maintain knowledge in our heads. However, the "magic" of these systems only works if you use them consistently.

How often is consistent enough? I would say about 30 to 40 minutes of reviewing every single day. These 30-40 minutes could be broken into blocks of 10 minutes of reviewing scattered throughout the day. Or you could follow a session of 10 minutes of reviewing, 2 minutes of resting, 10 minutes of reviewing, 2 minutes of resting and so on.

If for some reason you cannot do your reviews every-single-day, the next best thing I can think of would be about 40-45 minutes of reviews every other day:

One day you don't do reviews. The next day you review a lot. You don't do reviews the next day. The day after that you review a lot. And so on. I think that would be the upper limit; if you take more than one day off between review days then the "magic" of the SRS starts fading away.

Choose a reviewing schedule you can maintain, and stick to it! Do your best not to miss reviewing days according to your chosen schedule... but if it happens, just re-start your normal reviewing schedule after that. Remember: consistency is the name of the game!


What to do once you reach the end of the RTK sample


Remember that the free RTK sample ends at frame 294, and the RTH sample ends at frame 102. Once you reach the last kanji/hanzi in the sample, how do you keep going?

From that point forward, if you are sure you want to learn the writing and rough meaning of the kanji/hanzi using Heisig's method, then I suggest you get the full books:
  • If you are learning Japanese, get Remembering the Kanji 1 (6th edition) and work through it. Getting Remembering the Kanji 3 (3rd edition) and learning the extra kanji in it after RTK1 is a good idea and a worthwhile investment. Remembering the Kanji 2 is a valid option, but I don't recommend it that much.
  • If you are learning Chinese, get both Remembering the Traditional Hanzi 1 (1st edition) and Remembering the Traditional Hanzi 2 (1st edition), and work through them. Then, if you want to learn the Simplified Hanzi too, you could also get Remembering the Simplified Hanzi 1 and Remembering the Simplified Hanzi 2 if you want.
You can search and buy any of these books at Amazon.com, or on the Nanzan Institute site.


Another option could be to try to go "rogue" and rely only on the Study section of Kanji Koohii to learn every new kanji (and maaaaaybe hanzi) you need to learn.

After you've learned your 294th/102th character you will have a strong enough grasp of the primitives and general patterns the kanji/hanzi follow, so you will likely be able to distinguish the primitive elements of each new kanji/hanzi you come across by just reading the user stories for that kanji on the Study section.

If you are not sure about how to write a certain kanji/hanzi you can copy-paste said character from the Study section into any kanji/hanzi dictionary online (like the one at Jisho.org) and check the stroke order section for that particular kanji there.

If despite all this you are still having a hard time figuring out the primitives of each kanji/hanzi solely through Kanji koohii, then just get the respective books - the investment is worth it!


Some extra tips for your kanji/hanzi journey!


You can boost-up the positive effects of using an SRS like anki by seeing kanji/hanzi not only in front of the computer screen when you are doing your reviews, but in other places as well. Here are some ideas on how you can "kanjify/hanzify" a bit more your environment:


1) Take some post-it notes, draw kanji/hanzi on them that describe objects in your house, and then paste them on those objects. For example, you can write the kanji/hanzi of "time" and paste it by the side of your wall clock, or you could draw the kanji/hanzi of "basket" and paste it at the border of a basket you have. Thus, every time you see the object, you will also see the character that describes it. Doing so helps you relate each kanji with their meanings even more.

2) Try to see if you can find Japanese/Chinese newspapers in your local library, or just print out manga or webpages full of text in Japanese/Chinese, and paste them around your room. Also, if you google "Heisig kanji wallpaper" you can download one from several wallpapers that include lots or all of the kanji/hanzi from the books. You can use one of those as your desktop background so you can have a tiny bit more exposure to the characters.

3) If you want a more physical way of tracking your kanji/hanzi progress besides your RevTK/Anki stats, then you could try writing any new kanji/hanzi you learn on a post-it note and paste it behind your door or on a free wall in your room. If you don't want to use post it notes you could try printing lists with the kanji/hanzi and pasting them on a wall, or you could buy a laminated kanji/hanzi poster from sites like White Rabbit Press.

4) Being free from having to drill kanji/hanzi by hand in order to memorize them is like a blessing... but what if you actually want to practice your calligraphy and handwriting? In that case I would suggest you do an exercise that goes beyond just doing mindless drilling:

Take some piece of Japanese/Chinese writing, like a newspaper article or a blog post. Then, take pen and paper, and copy the entire article on paper... and that's it! If you want to practice your handwriting this is a good place to start. You can practice your creative writing in Japanese/Chinese once you master a fair amount of vocabulary.

5) Finally, if you want to type Japanese/Chinese text in your computer install a Japanese/Chinese IME for your operating system and learn how to use it.


What do you do once you've learned the writing + meaning of 3000+ characters?


So, let's say that you did it. You got the RTK or RTH books, set up Anki and Kanji Koohii, learned a set of new kanji/hanzi daily, day after day, month after month, and you stayed consistent with your Anki reviews. Congratulations on getting to the end! You are now way ahead other learners of the language! MEGA-ULTRA-kudos on your efforts!! :D

Now, if you are learning Japanese, you need to have mastered the Hiragana and Katakana as well as all the kanji. If you haven't completed this step yet, then don't worry about learning Japanese vocabulary yet. Seriously, don't worry about it until you have the kana and the RTK kanji nailed down.

If you are learning Chinese, learn the pinyin system to write Chinese pronunciation if you haven't already. I've heard Khatz from AJATT say that learning the Bopomofo system is a good idea too.


And now, once you master the kana/pinyin and can recognize 3000+ ideographic characters... how do you learn to actually read them?

In the grinding method, Japanese/Chinese students are forced to try to memorize not only the stroke order of each character but also their On'yomi (readings of Chinese origin) and Kun'yomi (readings of Japanese origin) in the case of kanji, and its single reading in the case of hanzi. In Japanese, a single kanji can have as much as 7+ different readings depending on its context!

And that's the thing: the only way of knowing how to read a kanji, and even a hanzi, is by analyzing it's surrounding kanji/hanzi and the context of the phrase where that particular kanji/hanzi is written. That's why I wouldn't recommend you use a book like RTK2 to learn how to read the Japanese characters: the book focuses on memorizing the readings of each kanji separately, without any context or examples.

If you want to learn a new word in Japanese, Chinese, or in any other language, you must learn it in the context where that word is used.

Doing otherwise (for instance, when you study vocabulary lists with translations that hardly have any examples) is like trying to figure out the spot where a jigsaw piece goes in a puzzle... but the piece is painted black: you think the piece fits in a certain spot because of its shape, but you cannot tell if the piece actually fits with its surrounding landscape... you are just kind of hoping it does.

So, my first recommendation is that you don't learn kanji/hanzi readings and compounds in isolation... like, from materials like vocabulary lists and so on. Always learn new kanji/hanzi in conjunction with other characters, and Japanese/Chinese words in conjunction with other words.


Methods for learning vocabulary


There is a wide variety of methods, resources and activities you can do and use to start learning vocabulary and grammar once you "graduate" from RTK or RTH. What you need to have in mind is that it doesn't matter that much what methods, resources and activities you decide to follow to start learning Japanese or Chinese.

What matters most is that whatever you do and use follows the principle of comprehensible input. The principle of comprehensible input in language learning dictates that we humans learn languages in one way, and only one way: When we understand messages. When we, in some way, manage to understand what we are reading or listening to in a foreign language.

Whatever you do, if you are obtaining comprehensible input in Japanese or Chinese, if somehow you are understanding, not necessarily perfectly but more or less, what you are listening to or reading in your target language, then you will gradually learn it, bit by bit, word by word, pattern by pattern. This is true for all humans and all languages in the world.

It's also important that you use, as most as you can, content of interest to help you learn your target language. A textbook can give you comprehensible input, but if you rely only on content that bores you to death to try to learn your target language... you will likely not stay on track for long.

Methods on how to obtain comprehensible input in your target language are far and wide. My favorite method, and the one I'm currently using to learn French, is a method I like to call the "deciphering" method. I call it that because, in a nutshell, you "decipher" (i.e. convert into comprehensible input) content of interest in your target language (like songs, videos, TV shows, movies, podcasts, ebooks, etc.) through the use of transcripts and dictionaries.

You can read about this method of language learning on my articles on How to improve your reading skills in English and How to improve your listening skills in English. Just apply the same methods to Japanese or Chinese instead of English :D


SRS-based methods for learning vocabulary


I no longer use an SRS to review vocabulary, opting instead to just "decipher" more content of interest in my target language as my primary way of learning more. However, if you are interested in learning about how you can use your SRS to learn and review vocabulary, then take a look at the following formats:


Sentence Mining

This method, popularized by Antimoon.com and AJATT.com, basically consists on using SRS software like Anki to review full Japanese/Chinese sentences instead of single kanji/hanzi or single compounds.

When you are just getting started with Japanese/Chinese vocab you use Japanese/Chinese sentences with English translations, and once you master a fair amount of Japanese/Chinese vocab you ditch the English translations and do your vocab learning in Japanese/Chinese only.

One Japanese-English sentence item for reviewing in Anki might look like this:


FRONT:

謙遜な態度を取る。


BACK:

To assume a humble attitude.

謙遜 = けんそん

態度 = たいど

取る = とる


One entire Japanese/Chinese sentence like this one includes vocabulary, kanji/hanzi readings with kana/pinyin, a grammatical structure and context (if the sentence was taken from a bigger source, like an article). Learning the reading and meaning of full Japanese/Chinese sentences is much better than studying vocabulary lists, readings and grammar rules all apart, because a sentence ties all of these elements together.

By working with Japanese/Chinese sentences in this way your brain learns to memorize and then recognize the patterns that make up the respective language, and by recognizing language patterns is how you will be able to understand Japanese/Chinese without having any knowledge of grammar rules... just like you do in English!

One con of this method is that, although Sentence Mining works, and many learners have experienced success with it, the truth is that it can be much, much simpler while still being effective.

Sentence Mining works, but the method can get frustrating at times. I mean, trying to recall a sentence where 7 different kanji/hanzi are being used, with all their readings, while remembering the meaning/translation of the whole thing? Sure, after lots of repetitions in Anki you will eventually nail down that freaking sentence, but... man...


MCD - Massive-context Cloze Deletion

This method, which can be seen as an evolution of the Sentence Mining method, is the result of several experiments done by Khatzumoto, author of AJATT.com. As I mentioned before, Khatz is an original supporter of using Sentence Mining to master Japanese/Chinese vocabulary. But in the summer of 2010 he decided to experiment with different SRS card formats just to spice things up in his language learning adventures.

The result of his research and testing was a new card format that was so simple to follow and use, yet so effective, that he not only started using it in his Chinese and Cantonese learning, but he also ended up destroying his original Japanese sentence deck, which had 15000+ items on it, in favor of cards in the new format.

The MCD method is much less mentally taxing than Sentence Mining because you have to remember only one element per review: a word, a syllable, a single kanji/hanzi with its reading in kana/pinyin. But this method is also very effective because it leverages lots of context that support that one element you need to recall.

In a nutshell, the MCD card format involves:

1) Recalling an element from a Cloze (i.e. a blank space): It can be a kanji/hanzi and its kana/pinyin reading for that particular context. If you are learning Japanese, it could also be a string of hiragana (4 characters max.) or an entire word in katakana.

2) Having as much context as possible surrounding one or more instances of the "Clozed" element: For instance, you can have a single sentence in Japanese/Chinese, with the element occurring once in it, and have an English translation of the sentence on the front of the card.

Or you can have 5 or 6 example sentences (with translations for each one) where the element occurs once in each sentence. Or you can even have several paragraphs of pure, raw text in Japanese/Chinese where the element appears multiple times!

Here's a couple of examples of how Japanese-English MCD cards would look like:

FRONT:

結婚の[...]手。

Marriage Partner

BACK:

相手・あいて



FRONT:

身長とは(人間[...])体[...]高さ。

Body-height is the height of (a human's) body.

BACK:




Finally, although MCDs are effective, they were still problematic for me because they require you to remember the writing, pronunciation and meaning of a kanji all at once on the same card!

So, I came up with a format that addresses this issue in Anki and makes review cards that are, in my opinion, more simple and less mentally taxing to review. You can check out my format on my article about Spaced Repetition Systems.


Bonus: Have a couple of awesome videos!


The first one is titled 100.000 Kanji, which is a kanji-learning montage made by Tom C, who (I think) works and lives in Japan. An awesome and touching work, this video inspired me, and I hope it inspires you too!

The second video is titled The Secret to Learning Japanese! Amazing!, which I include here because it's one of the funniest things I've seen related to language learning, but it's pretty damn true nonetheless xD


So, do you really want to start learning kanji or hanzi in this way?


In this article you've learned about the grinding method to cram kanji/hanzi, Heisig's method to learn the writing and rough meanings of these ideographic characters, and I even showed you how you can start applying Heisig's method right away.

Now, my question to you is... what will you do with this knowledge?

I mean, you could just bookmark this page and say "Hey, all this RTK/RTH and vocab stuff sounds kind of cool and all... but oh well, time to continue drilling kanji/hanzi for tomorrow's exam and study the grammar lesson in chapter 7... yay...", and let this article collect digital dust... or you could make the decision of breaking free from the horrible grinding cycle and actually achieve what your classmates will most likely never accomplish:

To actually know and recall the writing and meaning of 3000+ kanji/hanzi in less than one semester, all if you just learn 20 measly new kanji/hanzi a day. Or if you have the opportunity of working full-time on learning the kanji/hanzi for a while, and you tackle 100+ new kanji/hanzi every day (... yes, with Heisig's method this IS doable), you can learn them all in just one month!

I'm not saying this will be a walk in the park, of course. If you decide to actually apply Heisig's method you need to have in mind that as with any kind of project, you'll need to work and be consistent with it for it to bear fruit.

It's true that by using RTK/RTH you will save a lot of time that would've normally go to waste grinding, and the overall effort of this endeavor is reduced. However, as Heisig himself notes, stamina, constancy and a little creativity will be required from you to make this whole method work.

I know it's an overused cliché, sorry... but don't expect overnight success or success in one week yayz. Learn a certain number of new kanji/hanzi each day and do your reviews using your SRS of choice according to your chosen schedule... and do your best to NOT miss any day of reviewing! Don't feel down if some kanji/hanzi or primitives are hard for you to remember at the moment - the most important thing is that you remain constant!

Also, a very important note that Heisig makes in the book is that Remembering the Kanji and Remembering the Hanzi are meant to be used for self-learning only. Using RTK/RTH on your own while you are taking Japanese classes might be ok if you make the conscious effort of not confusing the kanji/hanzi you have to grind for class with the ones you are mastering on your own. And learning new primitives through Heisig might even make your grinding for class easier.

But, if your genius of a teacher tells you that RTK/RTH is a required textbook in his Japanese/Chinese class... then make like a tree and get the hell out of there and LEAVE.

Sign out of that class immediately. Seriously. Otherwise, if you are forced to work through RTK/RTH at the pace your teacher orders you and the rest of your classmates to follow, it will become an ordeal worse than grinding. You will most likely come to hate Heisig's method and how "utterly useless" it is. You might even become totally discouraged about learning kanji/hanzi altogether, even through some other method.


And now, to end this article, here's a controversial piece of advice for you:

If you really want to learn Japanese or Chinese, to actually master the language really, really well... Then don't take Japanese/Chinese classes for this purpose.

Do not enroll in Japanese/Chinese classes at an academy or university, even if they are free. At least from my experience (yours may vary) I can attest that taking classes will be more of a stressful distraction from your mastery goals than an actual aid... and usually, a very expensive distraction too.

I discuss in much more detail why classroom instruction is obsolete nowadays in my article How to learn Japanese - My take, but the main point I want to make is that you should be the one in charge of your own learning process. You should claim and use your freedom to decide how you want to learn your target language.

If you want a tutor who can help you stay on track and give you personalized and structured one-on-one Japanese/Chinese instruction, then go ahead and hire one if you have enough money to pay for that service. And if you want to follow your very own method for learning the language, mostly on your own, and on a shoe-string budget, then do your research and then freaking implement what you learn!

That said, whether you have the help of a tutor or if you are entirely on your own... how do you get started, then? What activities should you do everyday in order to learn Japanese? What tools can help you do this? Or in the words of John Fotheringham would say:

"Only you can acquire Japanese/Chinese by getting enough exposure to (and enough practice using) the language.

Fortunately, the modern learner has more chances than ever to do just that. The problem today is not a lack of resources, but an over-abundance. It can be hard to know where to start. That's where Master Japanese / Master Mandarin comes in."


Master Japanese and Master Mandarin are a couple of digital guides that are, in my biased opinion, the most comprehensive digital resources out there on how to master the Japanese and Chinese language respectively, on your own terms, and in a fun, brain-friendly way.

The complete-package version of these guides include a compilation of audio interviews where John picks the brain of several linguists, language bloggers and polyglots. And you know what my second favorite interview is? The one with James W. Heisig himself! That one is a very insightful and amusing interview right there.

If you want to check out any of these awesome guides then I invite you to follow any of the links below:

Note: The following images and blue buttons contain affiliate links. That means that if you follow any of these links, and you buy a product in the page you end up in, I earn a commission.


¡Click here to buy the complete Master Japanese package!





¡Or click here to buy the complete Master Mandarin package!


Thank you very much for reading this article! I hope you find it pretty useful for your Japanese or Chinese learning! Cheers! :D


Summary


Most Japanese/Chinese learners try to learn the kanji/hanzi through grinding, a common process consists of drilling on paper 20-30 times each character, and trying to keep in your memory their stroke order, reading(s) and meaning(s) while you drill each character.

This method is tedious and ineffective, and only a very small selected handful of students succeed in learning a big enough number of kanji/hanzi through this method.

A better method to learn the kanji/hanzi, originally developed by James Heisig, consists on learning the writing and rough meaning in English of each characters before learning how to actually read them.

Here's what constitutes Heisig's method:

First, you don't memorize each character stroke-by-stroke - instead you memorize its "primitive elements". A primitive element can be one radical, a group of radicals, and sometimes a full kanji.

Second, you don't learn the reading(s) in Chinese/Japanese yet. At first you assign a rough meaning in English, a keyword, to each new character you learn.

Third, through "mnemonic stories" you connect the keyword of the kanji/hanzi in question to its respective primitive elements and their order.

Doing that helps you remember better each kanji. The crazier and more outstanding each story, the more effective. An example:

Keyword: Delicious

Kanji/Hanzi:

Primitives: 匕 (Spoon) | 日 (Sun/Day)

Story: "Just imagine yourself using your trusty spoon to gobble up a delicious sun-dae as immense as the sun itself!!"

Fourth, you first learn characters that have less and more simple primitive elements, and gradually move to characters that have more and more complex primitive elements.

Five, you review the characters you've learned using either paper flashcards (not recommended), or a Spaced Repetition System like Anki.


Heisig first created a book that outlines this method and also has a list of all the 2000+ general use kanji to be learned using said method. The book was and is called Remembering the Kanji (sample here).

Eventually he also published Remembering the Traditional Hanzi 1 & 2 (sample here), and Remembering the Simplified Hanzi 1 & 2 for Chinese learners.

You can get any of these books at Amazon, and it's recommended you do if you want to use Heisig's method to learn the kanji/hanzi.

Note: If you are learning Chinese, learn the traditional hanzi first, and THEN step down to the simplified hanzi. That's actually easier than going vice-versa.

Why use Heisig's method? Because by doing this you will become familiar with the writing and rough meaning of the characters first, and once you are done with that, actually learning how to read those characters in Japanese/Chinese will become much easier than trying to learn the writing, reading(s) and meaning(s) all at once.

For reviewing the kanji/hanzi you learn by following Heisig's method, it's suggested you use the site Kanji Koohii and/or the SRS program Anki.

Try to learn a set of new characters each day (like 20), and do your best to not miss a day of reviews in your system(s) of choice.


Once you master the writing and rough meanings of 3000+ characters, it's time to start learning how to read them. For tips on how to do that I suggest you read my reading and listening articles (they are focused on the English language, but the main ideas can be applied to any language).

You could also check out my article about learning Japanese, or you can check out a premium guide like Master Japanese or Master Mandarin for tips on how to learn Japanese/Chinese vocabulary and grammar once you "graduate" from Heisig's method.

If you want to check one off these guides, click the respective link below:

Note: The following are affiliate links. If you buy anything through them, I earn a commission.

Click here to buy the complete Master Japanese package!

Or click here to buy the complete Master Mandarin package!



Last Updated: June 3 of 2016

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