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How I memorized Japanese kanji - Part 1

Updated: Sep 4, 2022

by Kim Christian Botho Pedersen

A bit about the #Japanese #kanji in general

In this post, I will try to give my thoughts on what is needed to reach a level of understanding and mastering Japanese kanji to be able to #communicate in Japan on various levels.


How I memorized Japanese kanji - part 1

A lot can be said about Japanese kanji. Countless number of books have been written on all imaginable aspects of the kanjis. The history, #pronunciations, meanings, combinations, form and balance, #radicals, #strokenumbers and stroke orders and much more. As if this is not making kanjis complex enough, kanji also has aspects like, yonjijukugo, place names, name of people and even ateji, which turns around all your acquired #knowledge of kanji completely.

Can you believe it? The kanji with most acknowledged number of readings has 184 readings! Some years ago, the Japanese newspaper Asahi and Yomiuri, had discussions whether it was 182 or 184 readings. This alone is breath taking for a person who has just started the journey on learning Japanese.


Common kanji has between 1 and maximum of 30 strokes. However, as you may imagine, there are kanjis with extreme number of strokes. If you are interested, below is a link to a webpage which is elaborating on number of strokes in kanji:


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How many kanjis is expected to master?

The number of kanjis you need to master to be able to navigate in the Japanese society without major problems, is around 2000 (常用漢字). This is what the Japanese children #memorize during the 9 years of compulsory #education. It also corresponds to what is required by the #JLPT #N1 level.


When starting on universities or any other higher education in Japan, the Japanese will have to memorize even more kanjis related to whatever field they have chosen to study. It is expected that an adult should master around 3000 kanjis. After the primary and secondary school, there are no fixed kanji education scheme, but if a Japanese wants to enter a #university, where the #entrance_exam contains questions related to the Japanese language, it is expected the student master between 2500 to 3000 kanjis. This corresponds to the Japanese #kanji_kentei Jun-1-kyu (漢字検定準1級 or “Pre-1-kyu”).


For kanji-kentei 1-kyu, which is the highest level of kanji-kentei, the kanjis expected to be mastered is around 6.000.


Difference between JLPT and kanji-kentei

JLPT is usually the one foreigner will take, as proof for Japanese language knowledge in general. Companies and immigration will ask for the JLPT certificate when evaluating your Japanese language ability. When I applied for my visa back in 2018, I was nearly declined a visa back then, with lack of Japanese language skills as the reason. I had provided the immigration with my Japanese primary and secondary school papers as well as kanji-kentei certificates, but they don't count any of those. They want the JLPT test result, so I had to go and take the JLPT N1, which I managed to get right away.


JLPT contains much more than just the kanjis. JLPT is also a multiple-choice test, so you won’t be required to write the kanjis in hand, which make it much easier to #pass.


Kanji-kentei is specifically for kanji. There are no grammar or vocabulary tests. However, kanji-kentei requires much more knowledge of each individual kanji than JLPT. You will need to master all readings, stroke orders, okurigana, whether the reading is onyomi or kunyomi, which radical is used, which kanji is correct in a sentence, four kanji words (四字熟語) and much more. You need to be able to write the kanjis in hand and even the slightest error (とめ・はね・はらい) will count as an error. So, kanji-kentei, even it only is about kanji, is a much more difficult test to pass than the JLPT.


Some years ago, I passed kanji-kentei 3-kyu and went on hoping to pass the 2-kyu. I “only” got sixty some % correct, so I failed. I think 70 or 80% is needed to pass it, so I was close but didn’t make it. I haven’t tried since. Most Japanese will probably be able to pass 2-kyu if they study a bit. Even Japanese forget a lot about kanjis, like stroke orders, or which radical is correct and so on, so they probably need to brush up a bit before they can pass. For JLPT N1, ordinary Japanese won’t have any issue passing it.


How many kanjis are there?

There are much more kanjis though than what is required for JLPT, or even kanji-kentei 1-kyu. One Chinese #dictionary published in 1994, contains an astonishing 85.000 kanjis (中華字海). I read somewhere years back that the biggest dictionary ever made contains 104.000 kanjis! It’s an absolutely insane number, impossible for anyone to master.


Even for Japanese, kanji is a lifelong education. Depending on your occupation and interest, Japanese will occasionally encounter kanjis they have never seen before. Reading books about Japanese history for instance, can be a nightmare, since there are so many kanjis for names, places and things which does not exist any longer. Many of those kanjis have a reading variation most people don’t know. For many such words, the first time it appears, there will be an indication of how it is read. You won’t get the indication the second time it appears, so if you don’t write it down somewhere, it can be very difficult to get through such a book without loosing track of who is who.


The complexity of kanji, however, also make it extremely fascinating. Which other language in the world has this many letters where each letter has a history, a meaning, form, stroke order and so on?


Continues in "part 2"


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