How to Memorize Kanji

I speak Japanese and people often ask me how I memorized kanji when I was learning Japanese. Actually I don’t really remember because it was a long time ago, I started learning Japanese in 1998. I went to a Japanese language school in Tokyo for a year in order to learn Japanese.

Let’s see… I remember we did weekly kanji quizzes so of course I did a lot of cramming for those quizzes. When I graduated, our teacher told us that we had learned like about 1,000 kanji. You know we need about 2,000 kanji to read newspaper and pass JLPT level 1 (now it’s N1), so I memorized the rest by myself, and this I did by looking up new kanji I encountered when I was reading books/news articles. My electronic dictionary helped a lot. Now there are a lot of apps available and they’re cheaper than an electronic dictionary so maybe you don’t need to buy one. I didn’t use memorization tools like Anki or Quizlet because they didn’t exist at that time, but I remembered all those kanji anyway because they immediately became useful and used over and over again as I continued reading. And I was young, I had a better memory. Now I can’t memorize Korean words without conscious effort, that’s why I’m glad I can use Quizlet.

At the Japanese language school, the teachers gave very minimal explanation about kanji. They didn’t give us tips to memorize, just a short explanation that this kanji is the shape of a tree (木), this is water (水), each kanji has on-yomi and kunyomi, and there is an order of how to write it. And that’s all. Oh, and then they gave weekly quizzes and harsh judgement about your intelligence if you failed. OK, I lied, they didn’t. The teachers were nice. We made the judgement to ourselves and among ourselves. It was a school. Students compete with each other at school, you know.

That’s all that happened at my school. No magic trick or anything special.

Teachers don’t have the power to give you fluency, it’s something you achieve by studying and practicing every day.

For the tricks to memorize kanji? I looked for books about it at Kinokuniya bookstore in Shinjuku by myself.

So I think… you can easily get the same information about kanji from textbooks. You can learn Japanese on your own. No need to go to Japan or Japanese language school. Just study every day. And so I believe I don’t need to go to Korea or Korean language school to learn Korean. Every time I say this, people don’t believe me. Or they become angry. Or they give long lectures about how important school is. As if I haven’t been there. *sigh

Wait, where was I? Hahaha.


So recently, I read an article in Japanese about Taka of ONE OK ROCK on the internet.
*I love Taka, he’s so cool, I want to marry him! which is totally a lie, but I love saying it!

In the article I found a kanji character I couldn’t read! Oh, no! I translate Japanese books and I never knew about this kanji! How could it be possible?

So, what to do when you find a kanji you couldn’t read?


1. Copy paste it to Tangorin (, and click search!

And then I found that it’s actually read まとう [ma-to-u]. This word is usually, almost always, written in hiragana. But it’s so easy to type in kanji, maybe people have started using its kanji version.

2. Remember the kanji as a part of a word!

Kanji is a part of a word, so if you want to use that word, you must use the kanji, too. 纏 is a part of 纏う [ma-to-u].

3. Study each part of the kanji, and use mnemonics to memorize it!

In the article the kanji is used in this phrase: オーラを纏う [o-ra o matou] which means ‘to have some kind of aura with his presence’ to describe about Taka.
Part of the kanji is: 糸 (thread, cloth), a roof top or a room, 黒 (black), and 土 (soil).
So I imagine Taka wearing a cape (cloth), in a room, and his face is black because he has dirt on his face.

4. Write the kanji a couple of times, while trying to remember it, with a pen or just your finger.

糸 (ito, thread)… a roof top… 黒 (kuro, black)… 土 (tsuchi, soil). 纏う [ma-to-u]. OK.
Now I know how to write and read オーラを纏う [o-ra o matou]. Wow, I’m smart.

I hope this helps… or at least you can see that memorizing kanji or 한자 [hanjja] is not that hard. ###


7 thoughts on “How to Memorize Kanji

  1. Nice post. I started learning Japanese sometime around the same time you were, and had to stick to flash cards and books, since apps and the internet weren’t that great back then.

    I didn’t know that Kanji either, I thought it was 縫う at first (:

    I see you’ve moved onto Korean. I’m still studying Japanese all these years later. Still not satisfied with my conversation ability and want to keep learning. Maybe I’ll try Korean some day, or Hindi.


  2. I was lucky enough to learn both hanja and kanji at the same time, back in the 80s. Most of the practical teaching came from the Japanese professors — the Korean professors relied on them to teach us the basics before jumping in. We had good tools — the Nelson dictionary, for Japanese, and a bunch of purely Korean dictionaries, called 玉篇 — and we were taught the proper basics: 部首, stroke order, etc.

    We were not given much help to memorize per se — the students in the Chinese department had to write oodles of pages of the same characters, and they were learning 25 new ones every week. So it was up to us to practice on our own. As a double major Japanese and Korean, I had twice as many opportunities — back then we still used hanja in Korean. And in the Korean department we studied Literary Chinese (文言文) so there was even more practice.

    The trick, in the end, was practice. The professors gave us the tools to learn and recognize characters, but it was up to us to write, write, write, and read read read. The *was* a class by a professor about the etymology and origin of characters, including some time spent on Middle Chinese. It was a fantastic class, but flew right above the head of most students, unfortunately. Like advanced maths in primary school.

    Of course learning hanja was in a way easier than kanji as there were fewer readings than in Japanese. And it helped tremendously learning Korean words, as the compounds made more sense than just looking at them in hangul…


    • That’s interesting. Thank you for sharing how you learned kanji/hanja for all those languages… Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. Practices/repetition makes them stick. 어느 나라 분이시죠? I read somewhere that most Korean people can not read hanja, that they learn a little at school, and forget because hanja is not used that often in real life.


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