Use the Best Learning Systems to Conquer Kanji!


A key element of overcoming the challenge of learning kanji, especially as a non-native Japanese learner, is to have a system that both effectively teaches it to you and manages your review of what you have learned. Fortunately, there are many apps and services available for learning Kanji, but there are a few that really stand above the rest.

Wanikani, Kanshudo and Skritter are the best kanji learning systems. They are paid services available at reasonable cost. Kanji Koohii and Kanji Damage are workable free alternatives. The learning experience is different in each system. All have pros and cons.

An effective kanji learning system will have the following key attributes: employs the best techniques for teaching you kanji, provides a way for you to practice and test what you have learned until you have it memorized, and provides you with a fully managed learning approach that enables you to build your kanji mastery over time.

The table below is a side-by-side comparison of the above-mentioned kanji learning systems. I have spent time with each one. The criteria used for comparison are mainly based on the above key attributes, but also include a few extras that facilitate learning. I will briefly explain the relevance of each criterion, but for a detailed breakdown of how to learn kanji, independent of the system, I write about it here.

Criteria to compare kanji learning systems:

  • Memory aid for meanings, Memory aid for readings, Radicals teaching, Component analysis – these are beneficial for initially encoding kanji which is the first step to learning.
  • Onyomi and kunyomi readings – knowing kanji meanings without readings is not that useful. You at least want to know the primary onyomi and kunyomi readings so that you can read kanji as part of words in a text.
  • Built-in Vocabulary teaching – the end goal is to be able to read kanji in texts, so you will want to learn whole words including their meaning and kanji readings. Learning kanji in isolation is not enough.
  • SRS based flashcards – SRS stands for spaced repetition system which is one of the best learning management techniques, especially for long term memory retrieval practice, which is the second step of learning kanji.
  • Kanji review by meaning – this is where you review a kanji flashcard in which the prompt on the front side just states the meaning. Based on the prompt you try to recall the kanji’s reading and how to write it. This is only useful if you want to learn to handwrite kanji.
  • Built-in handwriting practice – this is a nice feature for directly inputting on a screen the writing of a kanji and checking if you wrote it correctly.
  • Phone app – this makes for convenient study.
  • Cost – this could be an important factor to help you make your decision about which system is right for you.

Note: the words radical and component are being used interchangeably in this article. There is technically a difference, i.e., radicals have a specific use for classifying kanji, all radicals are components, but not all components are radicals. However, for this article the meaning of both terms is: small, identifiable, recurring pieces that combine to form whole kanji.

The table below indicates a ‘Y’ for yes the system meets the criteria, or ‘N’ for no it does not.

 WaniKaniKanshudoSkritterKanji KoohiiKanji Damage + Anki
Memory aid for meaningsYYY*YY
Memory aid for readingsYNNN*Y*
Onyomi and kunyomi readingsY*YN*Y*Y*
Radicals teachingYYY*N*Y
Component analysisYYY*Y*Y
Built-in vocabulary teachingYYYN*N*
SRS based flashcardsYYYYY*
Kanji review by meaningNYYYY*
Built-in handwriting practiceNYYNN
Phone appY*NYY*N*
CostPaidPaidPaidFree*Free*

I did my best to clearly show whether a system meets a criterion or not, but as you can see there are many asterisks (*), which means there is more to the story. I will explain the asterisks in the reviews of each system below.

WaniKani: A User-Friendly System with Powerful Memory Aids

WaniKani is my personal system of choice. I love it because it is a set and completely guided path to learning just over 2000 useful kanji and associated vocabulary. There is no customization or setup needed, no multiple decks to manage, you just need to show up and enjoy learning. Kanji is taught in a really engaging way via a system that is highly user-friendly and downright ingenious!

The way WaniKani teaches kanji is the best way I have come across. In terms of my learning style, it is exactly what I need. The primary instructional method is assembling kanji by components and tying them together with a mnemonic (usually a pretty funny and memorable one) to arrive at the meaning of the kanji. You are gradually introduced to more and more components followed by the kanji built from them.

WaniKani also focuses on teaching the readings of kanji with mnemonics. This is a huge differentiator from some of the other systems. When learning a kanji, you learn at least one reading with a mnemonic, usually the onyomi (occasionally the kunyomi). You’ll learn the kunyomi with a word that uses the kanji, often the kanji on its own is itself a word. You won’t learn every possible reading for every kanji, but you will learn the most useful ones.

Another differentiator is the use of mnemonics for the vocabulary words. This is a feature only found in WaniKani and one that I feel is highly valuable! Japanese has a limited number of sounds that make up the whole language. Consequently, many kanji have the same onyomi sound. Let’s take the example of trying to remember the kanji in a two-kanji compound word.

You may remember the sounds (readings) for both kanji, but you might forget one of the kanji and not know which to use. This is actually a common mistake among even native speakers [1]. But with a mnemonic for the word that ties together the correct kanji that make it up, you have a much better chance at remembering the correct kanji to use!     

It’s not just the instructional method that makes WaniKani great, but its delivery system as well. All kanji to be learned are spread out over 60 levels. Once you complete a level, new kanji are unlocked and become available for learning. The system is highly gamified. Once you learn a new kanji, word or component, it gets added for review in WaniKani’s SRS.

To unlock new kanji, you need to continuously review kanji you’ve learned, and get to a certain point in the SRS. The result is that you are learning kanji with effective memory techniques by leveraging the use of components that allow you to continually build on what you have learned previously, all while maintaining and reinforcing what you have learned using the power of SRS. Wow!

One drawback of WaniKani is its lack of a writing practice feature. This seems to be by design as one of WaniKani’s philosophies is that in a world where we type more than write kanji, it’s more important to just be able to recognize a kanji and know its reading so that you can read it when you see it and type it via phonetic input. So, if you are not interested in learning how to write kanji, WaniKani is the best. But even if you do want to learn to write, I would still choose WaniKani and supplement it. This is what I do.

WaniKani does not have an official phone app, but a few have been made by WaniKani community members. The one I use is Tsurukame. It has almost all the features of the desktop site. The only thing it seems to be missing is part of the context information for vocabulary items. Short sentence fragments which show how the vocabulary combines with particles and expressions that use the word are not given. Full example sentences however, are given.

Before you start WaniKani, you will probably have the follow two questions:

How long does it take to finish WaniKani?

WaniKani could theoretically be completed in 5.5 years, by learning 5 items per day, completing the required reviews everyday, and assuming no mistakes are made during reviews. Mistakes made, missed study days and the number of items learned per day will lengthen or shorten completion time.

At 5 items per day, on average you will be spending just over 30 minutes per day working on WaniKani. This includes learning the 5 new items and time reviewing previously learned items that are due for review in the SRS. If you want to increase to 10 items per day, then you can shorten the total completion time to 3.0 years, but your daily time commitment will be just over an hour.   

Is a WaniKani lifetime account worth it?

A Wanikani lifetime account is worth it for those learning at a slow or even at a moderate pace. Anything less than a consistent daily time commitment to learning about 10 items per day and completing all daily reviews with a low error rate calls for a lifetime account.

You need a high degree of consistent daily time commitment to make a lifetime account not worth it. I would say those that can do it are outliers. Personally, I do have a lifetime account. It allows me the flexibility of missing study days without any time pressure. And furthermore, even after I finish WaniKani, I still foresee it being useful long-term for reference and for additional practice.

For more information about WaniKani, the knowledge base can be found here. To get started, go here.

Kanshudo: The most Feature Rich and Comprehensive System

Kanshudo is a feature rich and highly customizable kanji learning system. But it’s even more than that, Kanshudo is a comprehensive platform for studying Japanese with kanji at its core. Vocabulary and grammar are also taught, and features are provided to integrate all that you learn. Also, beginner and intermediate lessons are available for those just starting to learn Japanese.

To use Kanshudo to study kanji effectively, you first need to identify the kanji that you want to learn, and then add them to a flashcard deck. You are in charge of building out your decks, but Kanshudo gives you lots of easy and logical ways to add to them. For example, some of the main ways to add are by:

  • Using a Kanshudo’s visual Kanji Wheel which groups kanji by usefulness in segments of the wheel. (Pro feature)
  • Browsing Kanshudo’s collections and adding groups of kanji based on multiple different groupings like JLPT level.
  • Importing kanji from Kanshudo’s beginner and intermediate lessons.
  • Searching whichever kanji you want and adding them one by one.

At the time of writing, there are 14,000 kanji available on Kanshudo and 4000 of them have mnemonics. But I would say the 2136 joyo kanji seem to be the central pillar. Kanshudo provides a breakdown of information for each kanji: a mnemonic that is based primarily on the components of the kanji, all the onyomi and kunyomi readings, the components, associated vocabulary, and stats such as frequency level.    

When adding kanji to a deck, one downside is that you are going to need to add the components on your own. Some ways to add them are by selecting them from the breakdown of a given kanji you are studying, or you could add them from component lists. But on the plus side, you can add way more to a deck than just kanji and components, you can also add vocabulary, example sentences and grammar points.

The ability to add all sorts of items to a deck is a really great feature. But it does not stop there, Kanshudo has many other really helpful features. One that really stands out for me is the Challenge feature. For a given kanji, you can click the Challenge icon which leads you to a series of study drills (which are more like games) which really helps get the kanji into your mind. Challenge is one of the ways Kanshudo goes the extra mile to gamify kanji learning.

Two other hugely beneficial features of kanshudo are Reverse Study Mode and Draw. These features correspond to the ‘review kanji by meaning’ and ‘built-in writing practice’ criteria mentioned at the start of the article. On the downside, the writing feature is a little tough to use on a computer with a mouse. Also, Kanshudo is strict with stroke order, and there is a stroke snap-in-place feature which is annoying.   

In Reverse Study Mode, when you flip a card, it gives you all the kanji information: animated stroke order, readings, stats, associated vocabulary, example sentences and a bunch of buttons. One is Challenge and yet another is Keywords in which you are given a series of incomplete words that use the target kanji, and you complete them based off of their English definition.

In the end, Kanshudo really does have a lot to offer and the best way to learn about it all is by exploring their site! Good places to start are the Kanshudo System and Features pages. You can get started on Kanshudo with a free account, and upgrading to a Pro account to unlock everything is very reasonably priced.

Skritter: The System for Learning Kanji by Writing

Skritter teaches both kanji and vocabulary, with a focus on learning to write kanji, including writing with proper stroke order. The writing input feature is the main one, but another great feature is the variety of pre-made kanji and vocabulary decks to learn from. You can learn kanji in JLPT order for example, you can also learn kanji and vocabulary from popular Japanese textbooks such as Genki. (By the way, I highly recommend Genki and write about it here).

The first step is to choose a deck and press the Learn button to do your initial learning of the kanji in that deck. For each kanji, you are presented with the kanji itself, the kunyomi reading, the English meaning and example sentences. Press the (i) information icon in the top right corner to show the component breakdown and mnemonic for the kanji.

Press the teach me button to go through a series of slides in which you test whether you remember the meaning and reading, followed by a guided instruction of how to write the kanji in the correct stroke order. Press the Test button to go through the deck as flashcards. Marking cards as Learned adds them to your Review Deck. This is your SRS based master deck to review everything you have added. You can review everything or limit your focus to a smaller deck.

You are going to want to spend time adjusting the settings to your preferences. For example, by default there is a feature that when you draw a stroke, it is automatically shape corrected and snaped into place according to an underlying template for the given character. I do not like this, but this behaviour can be changed easily. See my settings tips below.

Skritter Settings Tips:

  • Turn on Raw Squigs. This gets rid of the automatic stroke snapping, but still forces you to draw with the correct stroke order.
  • Turn on Rawest Squigs. This lets you draw kanji with no aid, stroke order can be ignored.
  • Turn on Mnemonics from the Community. If you don’t do this, you will probably find that most kanji won’t have a mnemonic available.

My favorite feature in Skritter is the ability to choose how you review your kanji and other items. You can review by: Definition, Reading, or Writing. You can choose just one or some combination of the three.

  • Definition – you are shown the kanji and you need to recall the English definition.
  • Reading – you are shown the kanji and you need to recall the kana reading (usually kunyomi).
  • Writing – you are given the English definition and you need to successfully input the kanji by drawing it. This is awesome!

Skritter does have several drawbacks. For example, while component breakdowns and mnemonics are available, the focus is learning kanji by writing, which is a technique mostly relying on rote learning. Components are not explicitly taught (although there is a deck for the 214 traditional radicals). So, with Skritter’s instructional method, kanji are not built up by learning their components first.

When learning a kanji, you learn the whole thing, but you can still check its component breakdown by viewing the information for that kanji. But in the end, you will just need to pick components up as you learn more and more kanji.

In terms of mnemonics, as mentioned, those are also found in the information. It’s nice that they are there, but for me at least, I find they are not as powerful as those in WaniKani. Also note that it is possible that a mnemonic won’t be available, most of the ones that are seem to be user generated. However, you are able to add your own.

In terms of readings, when you learn a kanji for the first time, you will most likely learn it with the kunyomi reading. There does not seem to be a list of onyomi readings available, although you may be able to derive them from the component breakdown which gives the various readings of the components. Otherwise, you will still learn the onyomi readings indirectly as they appear in associated vocabulary.

Overall Skritter is great, but it’s a bit pricey. If you are not sure yet that you want to commit to a subscription, there is a very nice thing that you can do. Most of the decks are locked in the free version (the free version is really just a trial), but what you can do is press Browse to see all of the locked decks. You can then go into any locked deck of interest to see what’s inside!

You can get a pretty good preview of what you’ll learn which will help you decide whether you feel like a subscription will be worth it. I feel like if I had known about Skritter and the Genki decks had been available when I was working through Genki many years ago I would have subscribed to have it as a companion. And even now, I noticed there is a deck available for WaniKani vocabulary, which is tempting me to become a long-term subscriber. Learn more about Skritter here.

Kanji Koohii: Great Free Companion to Remembering the Kanji

Kanji Koohii is a free service for learning kanji via user generated mnemonics and SRS based flashcards. The system is mainly designed to be a companion to the book Remembering the Kanji (RTK) by James Heisig. RTK popularized the use of using mnemonics (referred to as ‘stories’) for learning kanji as an alternative to just pure rote learning. RTK is a paid resource and is available here.

The easiest way to use Kanji Koohii is to start with kanji #1 and add flashcards kanji by kanji. The really cool thing is that for each kanji you have the choice of creating your own mnemonic (story) or choosing from the many user-generated ones. Kanji Koohii must have a large and active user base because there really is a big variety of stories to choose from, you’re bound to find one that works for you.

RTK presents kanji in a unique order and like WaniKani, it leverages components (referred to as ‘primitives’) to build up kanji and create meaningful mnemonics from them. You do not necessarily need RTK to use Kanji Koohii, but I think you would be at a bit of a disadvantage if you did not. The reason is because components (primitives) are not explicitly taught in Kanji Koohii.

On the plus side, many components are whole kanji in and of themselves, so you will learn quite a few components for free with just Kanji Koohii, but not all of them. By using RTK, you will learn all the components you need to build out the kanji. Also, many of the user generated mnemonics in Kanji Koohii won’t make sense without knowing the components being referred to.

The best way to use Kanji Koohii is definitely in concert with RTK but let me mention a really powerful approach you can take. Neither RTK nor Kanji Koohii provide mnemonics for kanji readings. Let RTK be your main source for meaning mnemonics, but for readings, make your own mnemonics, or choose a mnemonic that contains readings from the user-generated ones if available (sometimes they are).

By doing this, you now have a mnemonic for meaning and one (or more) for readings! Furthermore, you have all your flashcards added and managed via SRS in Kanji Koohii. And yet another benefit is the ability to practice writing.  Although there is no writing input feature, the main benefit of Kanji Koohii is that you review kanji flashcards by meaning (which allows you the chance to practice writing).

When reviewing flashcards, you are given a keyword that you learn with the kanji to represent the meaning, and then you write down the kanji separately (and you should also try to recall the reading) before turning the card. And a really nice thing is that if you forget, you can press the Story button on the flashcard to reveal the mnemonic right on the spot. For stroke order, you can get them from RTK if you choose to purchase it, or you can get them here free.

Another great feature of Kanji Koohii is the dictionary. For each kanji, you can press the Dictionary button and get a list of associated vocabulary. For each word, the kanji and hiragana spelling are given, and the reading of the kanji in each given word is underlined. You get the main onyomi reading with each kanji, but looking in the Dictionary is a great way to get other possible readings in the context of words.

Unfortunately, the biggest downside is that you cannot add the dictionary words to your flashcards! You could however supplement by adding them to a separate deck in Anki, for example. The last thing to mention is that Kanji Koohii does seem to have a phone app available called Kanji Ryokucha, but at the time of writing, it is only for Android. Overall, Kanji Koohii is a pretty good system, to learn more about it, go here.

Kanji Damage: A Free Way to Learn Kanji through Crude Humor

Let’s start this with a disclaimer. Kanji Damage relies heavily on the use of crude humor to teach kanji. The language on the site and in the mnemonics is often explicit and adult oriented. If this type of thing works for you and will help you remember kanji easier, Kanji Damage might be just what you need, but if not, you will be better off using one of the other systems.

Initially, Kanji Damage did not have an SRS flashcard system, which was a huge drawback, but still workable if you made your own cards. Now, at the time of writing, there are two freely available Anki flashcard decks that contain all the kanji and components in Kanji Damage. One deck is Kanji Damage’s original ordering, the other is a reorganized deck based on frequency.

The original Kanji Damage system presents kanji in a unique order, and like other systems, builds up kanji through instruction of the underlying components (the reordered deck still does this too). In total there are 1757 items to learn. Most are kanji, but some are components only. This means that Kanji Damage has pared down the kanji to learn by a fair amount, but on the plus side it makes for a more manageable number to get through.

The Kanji Damage system really offers you a lot: meaning mnemonics, reading mnemonics for the main onyomi, kunyomi, component breakdown, associated vocabulary, and more. When paired with Anki’s SRS based flashcards, it makes for a pretty solid system. But a drawback is that there are no individual cards for the associated vocabulary. It is simply listed on one side of the kanji’s card.

By default, there are two types of flashcards, Read and Write. Read is looking at the kanji first and trying to remember its meaning and reading, Write is looking at the meaning and trying to write down the kanji before turning the card. When practicing writing, a nice addition to the flashcards are stroke order diagrams. If you forget, it’s available right there.

A couple tips for Kanji Damage Anki flashcards:

  • You can filter the cards to do just one type of review at a time: Read or Write.
  • You can customize the information that shows on the front and back of the cards via Tools > Manage Note Types. For example, by default the onyomi and one of the associated vocabulary are shown in addition to the meaning on the front side read cards. I didn’t like this, but I did like the freedom to customize as I wanted.  

Supplementary Kanji Learning Apps

If you are looking for an alternative to practice writing kanji on your smartphone, I recommend Kanjibox (iOS). This app has an adaptive learning system that helps build your ability to write kanji over time. You start by tracing the kanji, and over time fewer and fewer strokes are shown as a guide until you are writing completely on your own. The downside is that Kanjibox is strict about stroke order, but on the plus side, its available for a really low price!

For even more kanji training, if you are feeling really adventurous, you could try an app designed to help you prepare for the 日本漢字能力検定 (Japan Kanji Aptitude Test). I recommend 漢検漢字トレーニングDX (iOS, Android). It’s all in Japanese, but it takes you from level 10 (lowest) to 2 (full knowledge of all 2136 joyou kanji). It’s gamified and drills you on kanji writing, reading, radicals, fill-in-the-blanks, and more!

That does it for kanji learning systems. I hope this helped you find the right one for you. If you are curious to know even more about kanji in general, please have a look at my other articles linked below. Happy learning!

Even more articles about kanji!

References:

[1] Chikamatsu, Nobuko. (2005). L2 Japanese Kanji Memory and Retrieval: An Experiment on the Tip-of-the-pen (TOP) Phenomenon. Second Language Writing Systems, Chapter 2. Multilingual Matters.

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.

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