Remembering the Kanji


Should I use Heisig’s ‘Remembering the Kanji’?

When it comes to learning kanji, there are many approaches to consider. Today, we’ll be looking at how one approach, Heisig’s ‘Remembering the Kanji’, can help get you started with learning kanji meanings. There are 2,200+ kanji you have to learn at a minimum in order to be able to read the Japanese language in daily life. Unlike the roman alphabet or kana, each kanji can have multiple meanings, so you will have to learn thousands of these.

And, let’s not forget, as well as semantic meaning, kanji have multiple readings (sounds associated with the character, based on whether it’s used in compounds or not). And then there’s pitch, intonation, irregular readings, simplified and archaic versions of kanji, not to mention stroke order. We’ll go into more detail about all of this in another article.

It’s not a simple task to memorize this many characters. But there are methods and shortcuts to help you tackle this impossible task.


Ways of learning the kanji

As a beginner, you will inevitably focus on the pictographic qualities of a character. The most famous examples are ki (木), hayashi (林), and mori (森). They translate as tree, grove and forest.

First of all, the character for tree looks like one, with branches and roots. You can see that the second and third characters are simply made up of the first one. Sensibly, they seem to scale in size semantically as well as visually. A single tree becomes a grove, or a forest, by adding more ‘radicals’.

Examples of tree, grove and forest

These very gentle examples might convince you that learning 2,200+ kanji can’t be all that difficult.

Not so fast!

But, unfortunately, simple pictographic kanji are actually pretty rare. Most kanji can not be relied upon to have a consistent semantic or visual meaning. As an extreme example, take utsu (鬱), which translates as gloom/depression. If we were to break it down into its constituent parts, we get two trees, a beer can, a roof, a seated man thinking… it doesn’t really look like any of those things. Much less like a nebulous concept such as gloom/depression.

Example of gloom

So, how are you meant to learn and memorize characters like this? One method is by rote, a primary method in Japan. You simply write out the characters over and over, learning them one by one, until they’re etched into your memory.

Another method is to memorize what are known as ‘radicals’ (the building blocks of kanji), and learn all their combinations. Another method is simply to start learning vocabulary and memorizing which kanji make up which words. Each method has its benefits and downsides. We’ll go into more detail about this, and learning Japanese in general, in another article.


‘Remembering the Kanji’ by James Heisig

Enter James Heisig, author of ‘Remembering the Kanji’. The main focus of Heisig’s approach is a mnemonics-based method to learning the infamous Japanese characters. Mnemonics are memory aids used to help recall information from long-term memory, usually with visual or semantic clues.

With regards to kanji, Heisig breaks down a character into its constituent parts as ‘radicals’ (familiar to kanji learning generally) and ‘primitives’ (what Heisig denotes as the original/primitive meaning of combined radicals). Taking the semantic meaning from each of these building blocks, a student can construct a unique story or phrase to help them remember the overall meaning of the kanji. By using their imagination, a student will come up with a personal story that reinforces the meaning.


For example, in the below image we can see RTK No. 633, 庫 (note that RTK orders kanji differently to most standard indexes), has the meaning warehouse. It consists of two radicals, cave (广) and car (車). A story to help us remember this kanji might involve something like the Batcave (cave), a large underground warehouse where Batman stores his Batmobile (car). Or something else. It doesn’t really matter what the story is, so long as it’s something memorable for the student.


RTK Example


Heisig does tend to use either incorrect or slightly more archaic meanings, so be careful. For instance, in RTK No. 221, 村, the meaning given is town. But this actually translates as mura, which means village. The actual kanji for town is 町, read machi.


Positives and negatives

The benefits of Heisig’s method are that you can learn and recall a lot of kanji quite quickly. Within a month or so, you might have a few hundred to a thousand kanji memorized. It’s a great way to begin to understand kanji, how they work and to get you over the initial hurdles of starting to learn.

The negatives are that the first volume only focuses on semantic meanings. A second, more complicated volume then focuses on readings. This is an issue, since learning the readings separately from the meanings means double the work. Not only that, but only one meaning is given per kanji. Sometimes a more obscure or less relevant meaning has been selected.

For example, RTK No. 75, 乙, has the actual meaning of second rank, and comes from the sexegenary cycle in the Chinese zodiac. What does RTK say the meaning is? Fish guts! Why? Because it looks a bit like a fish hook, and somehow remembering it as fish guts will help you with storytelling. Once you start to learn and read Japanese vocabulary in kanji, it will become clear quite quickly how much nuance is lost with Heisig’s translations.

Once you move past the easier, early pictographic kanji, it becomes more difficult to construct helpful stories for the meanings. Recalling earlier kanji can become an ongoing struggle. Eventually, you may fall into a pattern of rote memorization, simply to recall earlier stories and meanings.


Is ‘Remembering the Kanji’ right for me?

In conclusion, Heisig’s ‘Remembering the Kanji’ is a mixed bag. It can be fun to see how quickly you pick up learning kanji, and inventing stories keeps you engaged. But it’s an isolated approach, it can give you a bit of a wobbly foundation, and it won’t get you actually reading the Japanese language any sooner.

I would recommend a combination method. Take a month or so to try out Heisig’s ‘Remembering the Kanji’, see how quickly you can begin to pick up kanji, and learn the method. Then, take a radicals-based approach, learn all the individual parts (primitives too if you like). Following this, I would suggest continuing with a vocabulary-based learning method. Learn words with individual kanji, okurigana and kanji compounds, pick up the readings and then investigate the kanji themselves.

Ultimately, you have to find what works for you. Perhaps rote memorization is ideal. Perhaps mnemonics. Maybe apps and videogames with points systems. Or lengthy research into oracle bone script. Whatever it is that keeps you engaged with kanji, and will keep you involved for the years of study ahead of you. Happy learning! 幸運を祈ります!


*The information and links provided are accurate at the time of publishing. This is not a promotion. We have no affiliation with the author or publisher, and other textbooks are available.
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A Japan-enthusiast from the UK, with a particular interest in history and the language, as well as cycling, writing and rock climbing.