Do you suffer from Kanji/Character phobia? Here are some remedies

Have you ever been curious to check what’s included in the Wikipedia “official” list of phobias (or irrational fears)? Have a look and you will not find Kanji (or character) phobia anywhere on that list. But  if you are a student of Japanese or Mandarin, you know very well what I’m talking about. How many times have I (or you) sat in an exam fearing that all the many strokes that I worked so hard to anchor in my mind will play tricks on me and I will end up mixing and matching wrong radicals at will, drawing a curve where there should be a pointy hook or writing from the bottom up instead of from the top down?


Yes, Kanji-phobia.

There should definitely be a medical term for this condition. And we should all work towards finding a cure. But for now, how about injecting yourself with some of the most effective remedies out there? But remember, the cure will work differently for everyone. What cures one might not help another. A concoction combining some (or all) of the five ingredients below might be the best solution for you. If that doesn’t work, vary the recipe until you find the dose that works for you.

1. Radicals, radicals and more radicals.  Not everyone might agree with this, but if you ignore your radicals from the start, you will be building a house without foundations. Because, remember, a radical can help you identify the meaning (left) and the sound or reading (right) of the Kanji/Chinese character. Besides, it makes sense to learn the 214 radicals you are going to encounter constantly in different Chinese  and Japanese characters. Think of radicals as the building blocks of the language without which, there will be no language.

2. Work from the simplest written characters up. If you start by learning the simplest characters in terms of complexity (not in meaning) and work your way up, you are allowing the characters to automatically build on each other. So when the time comes to get to characters with a larger number of strokes you’ll be able to use the simpler characters to put together more complicated ones, helping you add more bricks to the foundation of the building you already started constructing with the radicals. Remember that the first 500 kanji are the most common so you’ll be able to review regularly in your other learning activities. However, those that you will have to face later on in your learning curve tend to  appear less frequently (as well as being more abstract in meaning) so it will take more effort for you to remember. The more solid your foundations the easier they’ll be to remember.

2. Repetition, repetition and endless (but structured) repetition. I know, technology is here to help us. I will get to that in a minute. But without the hard yakka (by this Australian expression I mean the tedious, dull and at times seemingly pointless repetitive writing and memorising) and a consistent approach, it will be very hard to get through the initial stages of the process. Pacing yourself might make it easier. Learning 5 kanji/characters a day is more effective than learning 50 kanji once a week, all at once. Be consistent, create a realistic schedule and stick to it. Make it a habit, and don’t overdo it or you’ll end up burning out.

The problem with repetition, though, is that it comes to a point when your brain hits the auto-pilot and prevents you from remembering what you are writing. To help you fight this tendency, try not to write a single character more than three times in a row. I have found creating patterns like the following to be quite useful (and a little more entertaining than the repeating the same character 20 times): 样, 样, 样, 今, 今, 今, 样,今, 要, 要, 要, 样,今, 要, 起, 起, 起, 样,今, 要, 起, 笑, 笑, 笑,  样,今, 要, 起, 笑. Try a pattern that challenges your brain to think and process the information instead of switching to auto-mode.

3. Repetition in context
Having said that repetition is key, repetition without context is like a home without the environment it sits in. That’s why I would definitely recommend the Kanji in context series from the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies and the Japan Times. A lot of thorough work has gone into classifying the 1945 kanji recommended for learning by the Japanese Ministry of Education, along with most of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test 1kyuu vocabulary.  Kanjis have been regrouped based on frequency, similarities, oppostites, same radicals, etc. But most importantly, the reviews offered in each workbook lesson include half page of phrases representing the common uses of the compounds from the textbook. The rest of the lesson is dedicated to a series of example sentences, one for each word you are supposed to learn. So you are effectively learning sentences rather than characters or words, and so it’s much easier to remember how a word is used because you already have one good example of correct use.

4. Mnemonics 

Here is another way to trick your brain. Call it absurd, call it a waste of time, call it whatever, but if it works for you as it works for many others, it’s worth trying to apply some kind of mnemonic strategy to your kanji learning.

Mnemonics are designed to leave hints and clues in your brain that when recalled later will trigger a specific memory and will help you remember the studied character.

The best know Kanji/Hanzi-specific mnemonic methodology is James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji and Remembering the Hanzi.

Heisig teaches the student to use all the components of a kanji (known as “primitives”) and combine them with what Heisig refers to as “imaginative memory”. Each kanji (and each non-kanji primitive) is assigned a unique keyword. The method requires students to imagine a story or a scene  connecting the meaning of the given kanji with the meanings of all the primitives used to write that kanji.

For instance, take the character (歩)く – aruku (walk) in Japanese/ bù (step, pace) in Chinese, composed of:

止 – to stop   / 小 – small /ノ – slide

So, we want to mnemonically construct a story that helps us remember that 歩 means to walk in Japanese. How about “Stop! It’s a small slide. We should walk from here”.

Or how about the word 惑 (delusion)?

 戈 -spear/ 口 -mouth = 或 – possibility +  心 -heart at the bottom

So, the story could go something like “If you have many possibilities in your heart you may  feel like none of them are real and it’s all a delusion.

Interesting? Useful? If you want to explore the Heisig’s method further, have a look at the list of characters and its mnemonic explanation in this link.

Another useful resource is Fusako Beuchmann’s ストーリーで覚える漢字300 (Story de Oboeru Kanji 300). Beuchmann associates each Kanji part with an interesting story while helping with writing and piecing together common Kanji pairings.

Kanji Koohii is a site designed to support you mnemonic efforts by allowing you to edit and sharing kanji stories with other learners, vote for the best stories and participate in a  community forum.

5. Technology

No such thing when I started learning Japanese in 1985. Those were the days. Now, we can certainly rely on a number of useful apps and games to drill the kanjis we learn using the methods described above in our memory.

Intelligent flashcards and Anki can be programmed to bring back the characters you are having trouble with to help you learn more effectively.

Nintendo DS Video games

Tadashii Kanji Kakitori-kun’s players learn to write just over 1,000 kanji through the various activities provided in the game by using the system’s stylus.

Nazotte Oboeru Otona no Kanju Renshu DS, another DS game, great for handwriting practice but with a number of shortcomings, including the lack of built-in-review process or the missing meaning of the characters.

Kanji wordsearch Iphone App  it’s a mobile game designed to help you learn kanji while tracking your progress.

Slime Forest Adventure, free versions of this online game are available for Windows, OS X, and Linux. The free version of Slime Forest Adventure includes a brief introduction to kanji, katakana and hiragana. Players travel through 2 cave test of 100 kanji each. The full version has an expanded set of nearly 2,000 kanji and complete readings training with 3,000 words.

For a full list of resources to learn all aspects of the Japanese language, visit my earlier link to Tofugu’s 100 best resources for learning Japanese. For a more comprehensive discussion on how to tackle Mandarin characters, visit Learning Mandarin, making your quest a little easier.


2 thoughts on “Do you suffer from Kanji/Character phobia? Here are some remedies

  1. Nice list! I’m also from “the technically challenged old days” and was limited to The Kanji Dictionary. But teaching my kid Japanese now and you bet we’ll be using Slime Cave. Thanks!

    • Thanks Tracy and well done, I think it’s great to pass the knowledge and interest onto the little ones. And if you find any other interesting resources, I’d love to hear! Good luck! Teresa

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