Stop Learning Kanji

By John Dinkel

The #1 Problem Beginning Learners Have 


The #1 problem that I tend to come across with beginners that are learning Japanese, is the overzealous and premature attempt to learn Kanji. Working in Japan as a Mormon missionary, as well as a Teaching Assistant and eventually a Professional Language teacher, I have run into this problem time and time again. 


Young beginning learners trying to ‘hack’ Japanese by plunging head-first into learning Kanji before creating a stable foundation in the language. Young learners seem to latch onto learning the Joyo Kanji characters as if it will help them learn the language faster. When in reality, learning Kanji too early will hinder your learning. The Danger of ‘Decoding’


The first problem this causes is something called ‘decoding’ where learners attempt to translate words by their kanji composition, as opposed to the word's actual meaning. This is a major problem for Chinese and Cantonese learners particularly. Because they can grasp each of the symbols but don’t have enough of a grasp of the grammar or vocabulary, they are left finding meanings that were never implied or intended. 

Here are a few examples of words that are commonly decoded incorrectly. 


To Confess – 告白 (Symbols for Inform and White)

Son – Musuko 息子 (Symbols for Breath and Child)

Baby – Akachan 赤ちゃん (Symbol for Red)

Perhaps – Tabun多分 (Symbols for Many and Part)  

Moreover, each of these above words are written in Kanji that have little-to-nothing to do with their original meanings. Which means that by learning Kanji prematurely they will incorrectly identify, or not by able to identify any of these words properly. 



Intransitive and Transitive verbs are already a major hurdle for learning Japanese as it is. However, the hurdle is compounded in difficultly for people who emphasize the learning of Chinese characters above grammar. The words below use the same Kanji but have very different meanings. 

To Enter – 入る

To Insert – 入れる 

The key to understanding these difficult verb types is in the study of particles. As for where Kanji-centered linguists will often misunderstand, and not be able to identify or parse these words as they, unfortunately, learn that 入 only has X meaning. Which is not correct. 


Kanji’s Many Meanings.

This carries me to my next point. Kanji is an adopted syllabary (alphabet) from the Chinese tradition. When the Japanese adopted this writing system they attached their native words to Chinese characters. Which means that when there was no kanji that fit a particular word in their native tongue, they simply attached it to an (often arbitrary) kanji. See the example below. 


To Heal (a wound) - 治る (なおる)

To Rule (a kingdom) - 治める (おさめる) 


While the above Kanji use the same symbol, what exactly is the connection between Osameru and Naoru? Studiers who base their study exclusively on Kanji often focus on only one meaning as to simplify their study. This leads to many many problems, which is yet another reason why learners should wait until they have a solid foundation until they learn Kanji. 

Common readings  


With two different reading to memorize for each Kanji, learners of Japanese often will often memorize the most common reading initially and learn the rest with time. This is effective and can help the learner expedite their learning process. However, without a solid foundation, how do they know which reading is the most common? Hence, take the Kanji below as an example

Kun: うえ、 -うえ、 うわ-、 かみ、 あ.げる、 -あ.げる、 あ.がる、 -あ.がる、 あ.がり、 -あ.がり、 のぼ.る、 のぼ.り、 のぼ.せる、 のぼ.す、 たてまつ.る

On: ジョウ、 ショウ、 シャン 


Lack of Feedback


Kanji is a super fun and interesting writing system. Heck, half of the reason some people learn this amazing language is because they like the complex and intricately creative symbols. However, just like with everything, you need to learn how to walk before you run. I hate seeing beginners glut their brains with Kanji, only to give up due to the shear amount there is to learn. Getting stuck and dis-heartened with Japanese at an early stage is often because the new learner doesn’t get any immediate positive feedback from their study. They need to see results right away, or their fire for the world’s best language will go out. Yet how are they supposed to get positive feedback if all they know are Kanji? 


People who study mostly Kanji in the beginning, often find themselves not being able to read, speak, write, or listen. All they get are a couple hundred interesting but otherwise useless symbols. Moreover, while this whole time these amazing young Padawans are thinking they are diligently studying Japanese, but in reality, all they are doing is learning a poor party trick. Because without a solid and sufficient background they WILL founder. This is why there is no Kanji in our 30 Day Challenge 

How to actually Study Kanji 


One bite at a time. Kanji can be a great toll for explaining concepts, expanding vocabulary and crucial to reading and writing. The knowledge of how Kanji works can even effect speaking and communication if implemented correctly into their study. The key is HOW. 


The best advice I can give to make sure they are using Kanji as a tool to elevate language study, as opposed to dominating it. Learn the kanji for the word, and not the word for the kanji. Add Kanji into your study to expand understanding of concepts, like verb stems and conjugation, but not exclusively. A truly effective method, that helps people speak, read, write and listen requires a holistic and balanced approach that moves the learner to communication. Communication that makes the listener feel comfortable. 


Final Thoughts

I love Kanji. I have kanji that are important to me on my wall in my living room. I have Kanji on the background of my desktop, phone and even as my company logo. I think Kanji in the Japanese world is a quintessential part of Japanese. So much so I feel it captures powerful intrinsic meaning and information, with in part influences my opinion that Japanese is indeed the world’s best language. Just make sure you take it a step at a time.  

Learn Japanese Kanji with Our Youtube Channel Show: Kanji Stories!

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