Remembering Kanji through Mnemonics and Radicals

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In this blogpost we’ll take a look at an efficient and handy technique for memorizing Kanji, one of the primary Japanese character systems. Kanji are a big but beautiful hurdle to overcome when studying Japanese. With over 2000 essential Kanji, Jōyō Kanji, with multiple readings and similar looking parts a lot of students get demotivated.

A lot of students also get taught Kanji the wrong way, they get a Kanji and simply have to copy it, over and over until it sticks. That’s not really an effective method, and when you have to aimlessly study about 300 of them in one year, depression easily does the rest.

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Radicals

Kanji’s are composed of smaller parts, radicals: small parts on its own with a (usually pictographic) meaning (like the left part, found in洗 (wash), meaning water, and used in other Kanjis related to water.)

Radicals are in essence a way to classify Kanji for lookup in a dictionary, so their meaning won’t always make sense or make you memorize the Kanji meaning straight away, but it’s definitely a great help to give some context to the Kanji. For simple Kanji’s you can do a whole lot by just knowing the radical. For example姑 consists of 女(woman) and古 (old) and means mother-in-law. Similarly 森 consist of three trees (木) and means forest.

Common radicals include person, sword, earth, roof, road/to walk fire, and so on. Unfortunately WordPress has trouble to display some of these radicals.

You can find the full list here, please learn them! For some more abstract ones, you can give them your own meaning as long as you stick to it when creating mnemonics (see below)

Mnemonics

For more complex Kanji you’ll have to get a little more creative, and a great learning tool are mnemonics.

Mnemonics is a little trick that you create to remember something, it could be a personal story, a song, seeing a funny shape in a Kanji or anything else memorable enough and associated with what you’re trying to remember. For some people it also helps to put the thing they try to remember in a specific room, or to see alphabetic characters in Kanji

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For Kanji, many people break down the Kanji in parts/radicals and create a story for them. Remembering them like this is much more efficient and fun than writing the Kanji over and over and having it look like a bunch of random strokes, a Kanji is never a bunch of random strokes. It’s worth making up mnemonics as it will make you remember Kanjis more easily and make you differentiate between similar looking Kanjis (like 暗-意-竟-瘴 or音)

On the topic of visually similar Kanji, this worth reading

I make mnemonics frequently for myself (to remember Kanji I practice with Anki). Sometimes it’s challenging because the Kanji can be abstract, but it’s always fun to come up with something and seeing how I remember complex Kanji’s with it.

Examples

The Kanji for jealousy is 妬 consisting of 女(woman) and 石 (stone),  I always imagined a woman being jealous at her husband’s younger admirer and throwing rocks at her. 働 contains the primitive for person (亻) and to move (動), the complete Kanji means To Work, (aka, a person doing an effort to move things).

When trying to remember more complex Kanji’s things might even become easier to remember, as there are much more radicals/parts to work with. For example the Kanji for doubt (疑) contains parts for dart (矢) spoon (匕) and the animal counter (疋)  so my mnemonic becomes “I’m a vet, and I’m in doubt how I will sedate this animal, shoot a dart of feed it some with a spoon?” One of the Kanji for Guard/Protect is 護 containing speech (言), grass (艹), bird (隹) and again (又). I imagine here Donald Trump on a grassy field opening his mouth and scaring away all the eagles again and again with his words, well, not all of them.

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Sometimes, I divert away from radical stories and let my memory or imagination do the work. For example the王 part of the Kanji for pillar/post (柱) remind me of a pillar. For me it specifically reminds me of the pedestal/pillar thing you had to move in Final Fantasy X’s cloister of trials, a game I used to play a lot and which has a special place in my heart.

Similarly, the Kanji for egg is卵 and clearly looks like 2 yummy fried eggs no? Sometimes a Kanji also conveys beauty and a whole baggage of additional meaning, like 好 the Kanji for “like” consisting of 子 (child) and女(woman), signifying a woman likes her child.

I always recommend making up your own story or hint for a Kanji, but if you need inspiration there’s a great book out there: “Heisig Remembering The Kanji” This book had numerous revisions and is popular worldwide for its intuitive Kanji mnemonics and how it progressively builds up your Kanji knowledge. A real book is always better but there a countless copies and a cheat sheet floating around online.

Personally I don’t recommend the order as described in the book because while it starts from a radical, it often jumps to advanced N1/N2-level Kanji and that’s not necessary for beginning Japanese students and might scramble your brain in the end. Focus on the Kanji you see in your course and on the internet, the daily life Kanji and build up from there. It’s cool that you know the Kanji for echo (響) but if you don’t know some basic Japanese grammar/vocabulary/Kanji first, that knowledge doesn’t have much use. Nonetheless, the book should be used as reference when you can’t make up mnemonics and it has some great examples of stories in there.

AbroadInJapan made a great video about this too

Absorb your knowledge

Regardless of how much you learn, you need to scale your knowledge to its practical use in daily life. You should try to read some Japanese websites, magazines, social networks and such and you need to see how the Kanjis you’ve learnt are used. You need to frequently re-evaluate if you still know what you learned too.

A great learning tool for this is Anki, an application to make your own flashcards and great for practicing Kanji, and it even syncs your progress online so you can use anywhere, from any device. Kanjis are a daunting step, but it’s worth knowing that Japanese people learn these over a period of 10 years all while constantly being surrounded by them (and yes, they have a hard time too). Don’t get demotivated, take it easy, learn the radicals and their meanings, and find shortcuts and mnemonics to help you along.

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