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Beginning your Study of Kanji

written by: Tommy Carlton • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 9/11/2012

Kanji can be an intimidating subject for any student of Japanese. However, with some guidance and self-motivation, learning Kanji can be a simple process that greatly enhances your understanding of the Japanese language and culture.

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    What are Kanji?

    There are three separate writing systems in the Japanese language, Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. All are very important to reading and writing the language, but Kanji can be the most intimidating to students. Kanji were originally derived from Chinese characters, and in fact, once you have studied enough Japanese Kanji, you may recognize certain ones the next time you go to a Chinese restaurant. But due to the sheer number of characters in the Japanese language, many students find themselves overwhelmed when presented with Kanji for the first time. There are, in fact, thousands of Kanji, and to be considered fluent, you must know between three and five thousand, depending on your field of expertise. Despite this fact, Kanji are not quite the impossible task they may seem.

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    When do I Start Kanji?

    Depending on how your Japanese program is structured, or if you are working by yourself, you will learn the two sets of kana first. Once you have completed both Hiragana and Katakana, and know them well, that is the perfect time to start Kanji, because as with all character-based learning, repetition is the key. Also, the earlier that you begin your study, the more time you will have to learn the necessary characters, thus making the task more approachable. And finally, the sooner you begin, the sooner you will find yourself feeling at home when working with native Japanese text.

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    How to Begin Kanji Practice

    As with kana, both reading and writing of Kanji is very important. In today's computer-based world, of course, writing may seem less important, as computers can translate kana directly to Kanji, but writing is important nonetheless, and can also improve your reading abilities. Think about it: if you can write a certain character, then you can certainly read it! And also, due to the frequency with which Kanji are written in calligraphic styles, understanding how they are written can be crucial to being able to read them. Like kana, there is a specific stroke order for each Kanji. There are minor variations between regions and handwriting styles, but the vast majority of the time, the standard stroke order is a must, especially for a foreigner learning the language.

    So, which Kanji do you learn first? If you have a textbook, it may have a set of Kanji for each lesson, perhaps relevant to the vocabulary or dialog. If not, the best Kanji to learn first are the most common, as they will be the most useful. Numbers, days of the week, and your favorite verbs are good starting points, as they will be used multiple times per day. If you are self-taught or trying to work ahead in your class, this is a great way to begin, because it will be simple. If you write a lot of sentences with the verb taberu (to eat), then learn the Kanji for the ta- and you will be set. If you have class assignments each Friday, learn the Kanji for the kin in kinyoubi and you can impress your teacher. The key when starting out is to find the words you use the most and learn those Kanji first, as this will allow you to start using Kanji immediately. Once you have learning a particular Kanji, try to use it every single time you can, to increase your familiarity with it. The native Japanese typing systems on both Windows and Mac computers will automatically convert kana to Kanji, though you must be careful to pick the correct one on occasion, so even if you don't do a lot of writing, you can still practice your Kanji often.

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    A Light at the End of the Tunnel

    Keep in mind that Kanji are made up of parts, called radicals, which you can read about in another article. What this means to you now is that learning one Kanji, such as the ta in taberu, can come in handy when you learn the no in nomu (to drink), as the ta is one of the radicals in the no. Also, don't forget that some Kanji are used multiple times, for different words. If you have learned the days of the week and the numbers, then congratulations, you already know the Kanji for all the months! Overlaps such as these can make your Kanji learning experience more meaningful and also allow you to see the beauty of the Kanji, and see the representation of a concept in a single character.