If you Want to Learn Japanese, Learning Kanji is Essential

Your Japanese learning goals may be just to be able to speak and especially understand spoken Japanese so that you can enjoy audio-visual Japanese media and conversations with native speakers. You may not be that interested in reading. This may lead you to wonder whether you can learn Japanese without learning kanji. While learning kanji does take significant effort, it is worth your time.

It is unadvisable to try to learn Japanese without learning to read kanji. Taking in written input via reading is critical for language acquisition. Kanji is not just necessary for reading; it is also important for listening and speaking as a high percentage of Japanese words are kanji-compounds.

Let’s have a look at what will happen if you do not learn to read kanji. For starters, most Japanese instructional materials, even at the beginner level, are going to teach kanji and assume that you are learning it concurrently alongside your studies of grammar, vocabulary, verb conjugations… So, if you are not spending at least some time on kanji it will be difficult to study Japanese even at the beginner level.

If you cannot read kanji, you will miss out on being able to take in written input. Input, both audio and written, is probably the most important element when it comes to language acquisition. If you don’t know kanji, then audio input is your only option. Fortunately, audio input is the one on which you’ll want to spend the most time, but reading is still critical, and your progress will be hindered without it.

I wrote another article here in which I further describe the importance of input and value you get from audio and written input respectively. Incidentally, that article is about what to focus on when learning Japanese, and kanji is one of my big recommendations. I can say from experience that for a very long time I did not focus on kanji. I know that it was a mistake because my progress was painfully slow. But now that I do focus on kanji, my progress has accelerated a lot.

Another thing that happens if you don’t learn kanji is that you miss out on being able to use it as a way to understand and acquire new vocabulary. Extensive reading is an important way to get repeated exposures to words which will help you acquire them [1]. But knowledge of kanji helps for verbal understanding as well.

Many words in Japanese are kanji-compound 熟語 jukugo words. When you learn kanji, you will learn both the meanings and the various sounds (pronunciations) associated with them. When you hear new jukugo words for the first time, you may be able to infer their meaning. And because you know the kanji and context in which the word was used, you now have a way better chance of remembering it!

Finally, without kanji you won’t be very literate. Knowing hiragana and katakana will certainly help you gain partial literacy, but the reality is that the proportion of kanji in written Japanese is more than 65% [2]. So not knowing kanji will really limit you. Reading is an essential skill for daily life in many countries and Japan is no exception.

If you are interested in living in Japan with a certain level of independence, being literate is necessary. There are plenty of written forms to fill out at city hall, at the bank, rent documents, your income tax… And if you want to work at a Japanese company, your prospects will be much better if you can read. Furthermore, Japan has a very high literacy rate and reading is even an important part of Japanese culture.

In Japan, people who love reading books are called 読書家 dokushoka, printed manga (comic books) are still extremely common, and the famous tutoring institute, Kumon, even comes from Japan. Kumon’s two main focuses are math and… reading! Overall, if you live in Japan your life will be easier and better if you can read. But even if you don’t plan on living in Japan, just remember that kanji and reading are still important contributors to your Japanese learning.

Limited Exceptions and Workarounds for Kanji

There are cases in which kanji in printed text is accompanied by furigana, the hiragana reading of the kanji, but these cases are limited, for example, to material that was deliberately made for beginner-intermediate learners. A great example is the amazing beginner textbook series, Genki. If you are just getting started learning Japanese, I highly recommend Genki. I wrote in detail about the benefits of Genki here.

In the vast majority of cases, Japanese text will not come with furigana for the kanji reading. If you can’t read the kanji for yourself, then you need another method. Fortunately, there several tools which can be used as workarounds to get the reading of kanji in both printed and digital material.   

The way to be able to read Japanese without knowing kanji is to use web-based tools and smartphone apps such as Google Translate, Jisho, 10ten, Yomiwa and Yomiwa Browser. Each tool functions differently but will ultimately provide kanji readings in either romaji, or more commonly in hiragana.

Before moving on, I did ask one of my Japanese tutors if he knew of any cases where a person was able to speak Japanese but could not read it. It turns out there is one rare exception: people who grew up outside of Japan but have at least one native Japanese parent. Although their dominant language is not Japanese, they did learn it from their parent(s) from a young age and are quite fluent.

But the interesting caveat that my tutor mentioned is that it seemed as though their vocabulary was not as rich as others who had learned kanji. Perhaps these people only use Japanese in limited circumstances where a broad vocabulary has never been required of them? In any case, apart from the rare exception, my tutor said that everyone else he’s worked with who wants to learn Japanese to a high level takes the effort to learn kanji. For better or for worse, kanji is part of learning Japanese.

Kanji Learning Myths

If you’re coming from an all-alphabetic language background, learning kanji, which is a logographic writing system, is a challenge that requires a significant time investment. If you feel daunted by kanji and would rather not learn it, some of the reasons why are probably valid, but many of them are probably myths. 

Yoshiko Mori of Georgetown University wrote a paper called Five myths about kanji and kanji learning which explores some of the misconceptions that many students have about learning kanji [2]. Correcting any misconceptions that you may have about kanji may change how you feel about it and give you the confidence to learn it.

The first myth is that there are too many kanji to learn. Well, there are about 10,000 kanji in use in written Japanese [3], but not all of them are equally common. About 2000 characters account for 98% of kanji used in Japanese written material [2]. So, to be functionally literate you will need to know approximately this amount.

200 high-frequency kanji characters cover approximately 50% of the characters in Japanese newspapers and periodicals. 500 high-frequency characters cover 75-80%, 1000 characters 90%, 2000 characters 98%.

Yoshiko Mori

Another myth is that kanji makes reading in Japanese hard. If you don’t know kanji, then indeed, you won’t be able to understand over 65% of written Japanese if there is no furigana available. But if you do know kanji, it does make reading in Japanese much easier. There are no spaces in Japanese writing, so if it were all in hiragana, it would be really hard to know where words start and end.

Kanji makes it very clear where words start and end, but the benefits of kanji don’t stop there. When scanning a text, it is easier to spot keywords written in kanji as they stand out better. Kanji is also much more compact than hiragana and katakana. Another benefit is that lots of words in Japanese are homophonous (words that sound the same but have different meaning), kanji allows for disambiguation [2].

As mentioned earlier, yet another benefit of kanji is that it can help you learn new words. Oftentimes, even technical terms are written in high frequency kanji that you are more likely to be familiar with [2]. You will be able to read these words even if you don’t know the meaning. And after looking up the meaning you can use your existing knowledge of the underlying kanji as a key to remember the word and it’s meaning.

The next myth is about being able to guess the meaning of word written in kanji by analysing the meanings of the component kanji. The fact is that it is easy to guess wrong. The meaning of the word might not be a combination of the meanings of the underlying kanji. This phenomenon is known as the semantic semitransparency of compounds [2]. So, it is better to lookup the meaning of the word, and use e.g., a mnemonic to help you remember the meaning (more on this below).

Now we come to the myth about sound. You may think that just being able to recognize a kanji for it’s meaning is sufficient. But it is actually really important to know the various sounds (or pronunciations) of a given kanji. The sound (phonetic reading) of a kanji is actually a stronger memory tie to the kanji than the meaning [2].  

Interestingly, for those who can write kanji, when they miswrite a word, the mistake is most commonly that they replace the correct kanji with a kanji that has the same sound [3], not a kanji that has a similar meaning or incorrectly drawing the character. When you use the wrong kanji in a word, it is called 誤字 goji (mistaken character).

Various Strategies for Learning Kanji

Yet another myth is that the only way to learn kanji is via rote memorization. Although this can be an effective method, it’s not necessarily the best one, and it’s rather painful. Children are often made to learn through rote memorization because they do not yet have a large body of knowledge and experience to connect new kanji that they are learning with things they already know.

Apart from children, [kanji] instruction that heavily emphasizes rote memorization may not work for mature learners with high cognitive abilities [2]. There are many other strategies to learn kanji such as: morphological analysis, context-based strategies, association methods (mnemonics) and metacognitive strategies.

Morphological analysis is all about knowing the radicals that make up kanji. Radicals are the building blocks of kanji; they are simpler characters that combine to make up a more complex kanji character. Memorizing a kanji as a set of component radicals is much easier than trying to remember the kanji as one whole [4].

Context based strategies is about learning kanji in the context of a word that uses the kanji, and also a sentence that makes use of that word. Learning kanji in context is a strategy used in textbooks such as An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese and Tobira: Gateway to Advanced Japanese. I have written in more detail about these textbooks here.

Next comes association methods or mnemonics. This is the best way I have encountered to learn kanji. With mnemonics, when learning a kanji character, you not only associate it with its component radicals, but you can also associate it with imagery, a story, and a keyword or phrase that you already know. The imagery and story help you remember how the radicals come together and keyword or phrase help you remember the sound of the kanji.

You can make up your own mnemonics, but there are some amazing pre-existing mnemonics-based kanji learning resources that you can make use of to conquer the roughly 2000 kanji you need to know. An older resource is a book called Remembering the Kanji by James Heisig. Another resource is an app called Wanikani by Tofugu, which I highly recommend. Wanikani is a colorful and fun to use app for learning not just 2000 kanji but 6000 vocabulary words as well!

The Real Challenges of Kanji: Writing it and Maintaining it

In order to write by hand in Japanese, you need to learn three writing systems. Two of them, hiragana and katakana are somewhat alphabet-like and can be learned quickly but learning to write kanji will take a long time. I honestly do not write by hand very much, not even in my native English, let alone Japanese.

When I was taking beginner Japanese classes, I was learning to write kanji by hand. But when I stopped taking classes and switched to self-study, I had only learned to write a few hundred characters and I stopped trying to write by hand. I adjusted my focus to just reading and typing. I can say from experience that not being able to write kanji by hand will not hinder your Japanese communication abilities.

It is possible to learn Japanese without learning how to handwrite kanji. For learners who can read kanji, written kanji can be produced by typing a word’s phonetic reading on a keyboard and using an input method editor to select the correct kanji for the word from a prediction candidate window.  

Learning to recognize and understand a substantial number of characters when you see them is a challenge in and of itself. Learning to also handwrite kanji further adds to the challenge. I give a huge amount of credit to those that do learn to handwrite kanji. But after all that work to learn kanji, the next big challenge becomes maintaining your reading and writing abilities.

Learning to read and write in Japanese is not as simple as learning a new skill and retaining it through reading, as it is in English. Instead, being functionally literate in Japanese requires more deliberate, methodical encoding, and continuous effortful retrieval practice, lest the new literacy skills may soon fade from memory.

Heath Rose [3]

Kanji is a use it or lose it type skill, both in terms of reading and writing. In today’s digital world, you probably don’t have too many occasions in which you must write by hand. Conversely, you probably have ample opportunities where you need to use your reading skills. Or at least, it may be easier to make some time for reading so you can maintain your reading ability.

As for maintaining your writing ability, this is something you will need to be more deliberate about. In fact, one of my Japanese teachers in university, a middle-aged native speaker, said that she practiced writing kanji every Saturday morning. If you don’t practice writing, what you will likely find happen is something called the tip-of-the-pen phenomenon [3].

The tip-of-the-pen phenomenon is where you stop writing mid sentence because you have forgotten how to write a particular character, or you might begin to write a character but then get stuck part-way.  Tip-of-the-pen is derived from tip-of-the-tongue, where you know a word, but you just can’t quite pull it out from your memory. But if you make good reading and writing habits, kanji will be yours to enjoy forever!


[1] Leung, Ching Yin. (2002). Extensive Reading and Language Learning: A Diary Study of a Beginning Learner of Japanese. University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. Reading in a Foreign Language Volume 14, No. 1

[2] Mori, Yoshiko. (2012). Five myths about kanji and kanji learning. Japanese Language and Literature, 46, 1

[3] Rose, Heath. (2017). The Japanese Writing System: Challenges, Strategies and Self-Regulation for Learning Kanji. Short Run Press Ltd. Edwards Brothers Malloy, Inc. DOI: 10.21832/ROSE8156

[4] Schiller, Travis. Suito, Naoko. (2009). Kanji Radicals. Available from: https://laits.utexas.edu/japanese/joshu/kanji/kanji_radicals/radicals2.html

Works Consulted

Kondo-Brown, Kimi. (2006). Affective variables and Japanese L2 reading ability. University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. Reading in a Foreign Language Volume 18, No. 1

Colten Dumonceau

My goal is to provide information that will help you learn Japanese as quickly and effectively as possible. I have spent more than ten years learning Japanese, mostly self-taught, from absolute beginner to an advanced level. I believe its possible to go much faster than I did. Please let me share with you the best learning strategies I have uncovered.

Recent Posts