Many beginners in Japanese wonder whether they should really learn kanji. I know this, because I also wondered when starting my Japanese learning journey. Actually, rather than wondering, I did everything possible to avoid them and was trying to hang on every reason not to learn them.
"If I know hiragana and katakana, it's enough to read"
"I don't need to read kanji to be able to speak"
"There are too many kanji anyway and my time is better used learning a new grammar point or something else"
Well, unfortunately for my young-self and in answer to all the good remarks, yes, learning kanji is necessary.
But the good news is, you don't have to follow old textbook methods. You might even be able to skip some crucial elements that you couldn't skip a few years ago. In this article I'll also give you the best resources to learn kanji.
What is Kanji?
Kanji is one of the three scripts used in Japanese, alongside hiragana and katakana.
While hiragana and katakana cover sounds (e.g. "a, i, u, e, o") and can be learned in a few weeks, kanji convey meaning, and are pronounced with sounds made of hiragana. And each kanji represents an idea or concept.
Why Should You Learn Kanji?
- Kanji is the Japanese alphabet. I think anybody would recommend to someone wanting to learn English to learn to read the latin alphabet. It is the same here.
- Understanding the full language. Japanese is a rich language, and kanji is a big part of it. Many words in Japanese have the same sound but different meanings, which kanji help distinguish. A good example would be 漢字 and 感じ. Both are read かんじ or "kanji". But the first one means Kanji (the topic of this blog post), the second one means "feeling".
- Kanji is used everywhere in Japan and in Japanese content. Without kanji, you will find it hard to read Japanese texts, be it emails, books, websites, restaurant menus, street signs and store signs, and even people's names.
- Kanji is much easier to read than hiragana. Ok, this one is weird if you're starting Japanese. But yes, I promise, kanji is much easier to read. There are not a lot of space or punctuation in Japanese. Kanji helps with distinguishing words. Also with a meaning directly attached to each kanji, you make out the sense of the word much faster than by reading hiragana that only convey the sound.
The Debate: Do You Really Need Kanji in the Digital Age?
Some argue that in the digital age, with translation tools like Google Translate and phonetic scripts, you might get by without kanji.
It’s true that for occasionally translating a restaurant menu or read an article on a Japanese website, you might not need to learn kanji and just use technology instead.
However, for a deeper understanding and a fuller experience of the language, kanji is unavoidable. And if you're learning Japanese, it's probably because you intend to use it. If you intend to use it, you'll need kanji.
How Many Kanji Do You Really Need to Learn?
Ok, now I said that yes, you absolutely have to learn kanji. But I didn't say you needed to learn everything.
There are around 50,000 kanji in total. But there are only 2,136 kanji that are labelled as "commonly-used". They're the Jōyō kanji. They're the kanji taught in school to Japanese kids.
Now out of these 2,136 kanji (that you will need to learn if you want to be fluent), you can focus on the most common ones first.
A lot of kanji appear in just one or two words, or in a lot of topic-specific words that you might not even use in daily life.
Depending on the level of proficiency you're aiming to reach, you might get by by only learning around 1,000 kanji.
Actually, this is the level expected of someone passing the JLPT N2, which is the level often required to be able to work in Japanese.
Do You Need to Learn How to Write Kanji?
Now this is a tricky question. Learning how to write kanji helps with memorization and definitely helps if you live in Japan, especially to fill forms and write your address on documents.
But I'd still say that no, you don't need to learn how to write kanji.
Texting with friends, emailing clients, browsing on the internet, or talking with ChatGPT don't require you to write kanji.
There are less and less opportunities to write. Actually, I barely even write in English. I type. And let's be honest, this is only going to increase in the future.
Is Learning Kanji Readings Really Necessary?
You might have heard of Kunyomi and Onyomi readings. As if it wasn't enough to have 2,136 kanji meaning to learn, you also need to learn each kanji's two pronunciations. And some have even more than two, with multiple Kunyomi and Onyomi.
Unfortunately, this question is a not a real question, because you'll have no choice but to learn the readings one way or another. You have two options here:
- Either you learn the readings directly with each new kanji. In this case, you should only focus on the common readings. Forget the rare or exceptional readings. Then when you see a new word with kanji you've learned, you'll be able to read it and maybe even guess its meaning.
- You decide not to learn the Kunyomi and Onyomi readings with the kanji, but to learn only the meaning, or even just recognize the kanji (after all, Japanese kids don't learn a "meaning" with each kanji). In this case, you'll need to learn each vocabulary word individually. And with time, your brain is likely going to make the association between a kanji and a certain pronunciation naturally.
Whatever method you follow, it will end up in you knowing the kanji readings anyway.
Personally, I prefer the first method. I find it just much more pleasant to be able to read a text without knowing all the vocabulary in it first. It's also very useful if you live in Japan and are surrounded by kanji all day. Little by little, you'll find yourself being able to read more and more.
What Are The Best Apps to Learn Kanji?
Without hesitation, I'd recommend WaniKani. It is the best way to learn kanji fast and easily. And they even make it funny with their mnemonic system.
WaniKani is an SRS (Spaced Repetition System) app that teaches you the kanji, their readings, and the vocabulary associated to the kanji.
Starting with the most simple and common kanji, and going to the more rare and complicated ones. With WaniKani, you can learn all kanji in a couple of years, by using the website around one hour per day.
How to Memorize Kanji? The Last Tip You'll Ever Need
Immerse yourself. Try to read, try to surround yourself with kanji. Easier said than done, but at Hirakan, we've made Kanji posters to do just that.
You can learn directly form those posters, or use them as a support to remind yourself of the kanji, their meaning, and their Kunyomi and Onyomi readings, every time you look at it. And you don't even need to open an app for that.
It will make remembering your kanji much easier:
Final Words: Is It Necessary to Learn Kanji?
So, is it necessary to learn kanji? Yes.
Kanji is the main Japanese alphabet. If you want to progress in Japanese, you cannot avoid kanji.
But learn kanji in a smart way. Choose a method that fits your learning style, and decide for yourself if you want to learn how to write them, or just typing and reading is enough.