learn kanji

The Japanese Writing Systems for Beginners: Learn Kanji

learn kanji

When you’re studying Japanese, you will learn new vocabulary, grammar, and writing systems. Now that you’ve been introduced to hiragana , it’s time to talk about kanji. Here, Brighton, MA Japanese teacher Karou N. shares some effective study tips to help you learn kanji…

If you’re interested in studying Japanese, and you’ve made up your mind to learn the language, there’s no way to avoid kanji. Understanding kanji, and being able to read and write the letters correctly, is important for anyone who wants to learn Japanese.

Kanji characters have become increasingly popular among non-Japanese speakers because of the way the symbols look. Some people get kanji tattoos or print kanji on clothing.

Many people are interested in learning kanji, but shy away from the writing system because they think it’s too complicated. Despite what you may have heard, I’m here to tell you: with a little bit of patience and persistence, you can learn kanji!

First, let’s break down some aspects of kanji which may seem confusing, and then talk about what you can do to make it easier to learn kanji.

Writing Order

Each kanji character has a specific writing order. This can get confusing, however, because some kanji have stroke order variations.

Most kanji follow a pattern. This means you can develop a sense of the writing order by learning other characters. Look at the letter . This character means yon or shi (four).

There are six lines in the letter , and the writing order goes like this:

  1.  left vertical line
  2.  top horizontal and right vertical in one stroke
  3. curved line inside left
  4. clunky line inside right
  5.  bottom

This pattern applies to other kanji like or . Both kanji have a big square with another symbol inside the square. These letters have to be written in the same pattern – left vertical, top and right vertical in one stroke, then inside materials, and finally bottom.

Stroke Order

There are a few rules that determine how to draw each line. These rules are the same in print and calligraphy, which requires a brush instead of a pen. Calligraphy rules, which were established a long time ago, still apply to print today.

When it comes to stroke order, there are three rules you need to remember:

  1. tomeru (to stop)
  2.  haneru (to jump)
  3. harau (to sweep)

These rules don’t just apply to kanji, they are also mandatory in hiragana and katakana.

Reading Variations

Kanji can be read in many different ways. There are several different ways to say person or people: nin, jin, hito, bito, and ri. There are two types of reading in kanji which causes all these variations.

The first reading method is called on’yomi. Nin is the on’yomi term. The direct translation of onyomi is “sound reading.” Kanji was originally imported from the Han Dynasty in China, and kanji actually means the “letter of Han.” When kanji was first introduced, many Japanese people imitated Chinese pronunciations.

Kun’yomi is another way to read kanji.  Unlike hiragana and katakana, kanji has a meaning for each character. When kanji was imported, Japanese people matched kanji to corresponding Japanese words. Kun’yomi can be translated as “meaning reading.” Hito is the kun’yomi for “person” in kanji.

A lot of kanji need to be followed by hiragana in kun’yomi. Most kanji have both on’yomi and kun’yomi. Other pronunciations developed because of conjugations with other words.

For example, jin is a variation of nin in on’yomi, and bito is a variation of hito in kun’yomi. Ri is only used when you are counting the number of people. To avoid being confused by so many variations, I suggest memorizing a term rather than all of the variations of pronunciations.

Here are some tips to help you understand kanji.

1. Start With the Basics

This applies to anything you want to learn—it’s important to start off slow and learn the basics. This can be boring and frustrating because most students want to learn and advance quickly, but you need to build a solid foundation before you can move on to more advanced concepts.

2. Complex Kanji are Combinations of Other Kanji

Understanding this idea will make learning kanji much easier, and this is another reason you need to start with the basics. Some kanji look terribly complex, but if you understand some basic characters, you will be able to recognize repeating patterns.

Kanji can be divided into two or more parts: left and right, top and bottom, left, middle, right, top, bottom, and so on. The difficult kanji are combinations of more basic kanji. This means that once you know the basics, you will no longer be intimidated by complicated kanji.

Doesn’t this make you feel much better about kanji?

 3. Use Tracing Paper

When learning new kanji in elementary school, students are always given tracing sheets. This method isn’t just great for children, it’s helpful for adults, as well.

Find sample kanji letters to use as a reference. A sample also gives you instructions for writing order and stroke rules. After you understand these details, all you need to do is to repeatedly trace the characters. Once you get used to tracing the characters, try writing them on your own.

Studying kanji requires time, patience, and diligence, but it’s definitely not impossible to learn. I have helped many students learn kanji using the steps that I have outlined. If you’re apprehensive about learning kanji, I’m here to let you know that you can do it!

Want to master kanji and other advanced Japanese concepts? Find a Japanese tutor today! 


Kaoru NKaoru N. teaches Japanese, guitar, and classical guitar lessons in Brighton, MA. Originally from Tokyo, he graduated from Berklee College of Music with a dual major, and is available for in-home, in-studio, and online lessons. Learn more about Kaoru here!



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