I just wanted to share with everyone the method I'm using to learn the Kanji as part of the first step in the AJATT method of learning Japanese (besides learning the kana of course). Most of what I'm doing stems from the NihongoShark article "Hacking the Kanji", but there's a lot of fluff there and some stuff that's really not important (takes forever to read). I'll be reposting the relevant and important sections here. Feel free to ignore this post if you aren't learning Japanese, or already know the kanji. I won't be including the information on his memory techniques, the motivation strategy, etc. So if you're interested in that... sorry just go check the clearnet link. The following is not my writing or work, but merely edited and reposted for convenience.
How NOT to Learn the Kanji
Before we get into my system, I should clarify some ineffective kanji study methods. Your Japanese teacher, Japanese friend, study buddy, etc. may very well encourage you to do one or all of the following. Don’t listen to them.
1. Stroke by Stroke
This is how a lot of Japanese classes will encourage you to learn the kanji. That’s because they teach kanji in the same way that Japanese children learn them—stroke by stroke, over the course of 10+ years.
There’s another word for this method: masochism.
Seriously, this is torture. I’m not saying it’s impossible to learn this way. I’m just saying that it wastes an unbelievable amount of time.
2. Learning Each Kanji as a Whole
Kanji are made up of parts… and those parts have meaning. So you should learn the parts first, then the kanji as a whole.
3. Using Only 1 Kanji Study Tool
A lot of people will write books and blog posts and just about anything you can think of in which they tell you about “the best, fastest, most awesome way to learn the kanji”…which, as coincidence would have it, is their way. Not only that, but pay us money for it, too.
There are a ton of useful kanji study tools and methods out there. But the only way to learn kanji fast and effectively is to combine the best methods into one super-method.
How You SHOULD Learn the Kanji
Divide the Kanji into Constituents
Say I want to learn the kanji for gather. My Japanese teacher might have told me to write this 1,000 times while repeating the meaning in my head:
Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Gather. Forget it. I quit.
Instead, we’re going to take the (now highly evolved) Heisig approach, yeah?
隹 (turkey) + 木 (tree) = 集 (gather)
“I saw a bunch of turkeys gathered in the tree outside my window.”
I’ll see the constituents 隹 (turkey) and 木 (tree) in a lot of kanji. So, I’m pretty much guaranteed to remember what those mean, because they’ll appear in a story for every kanji that includes them. This means that if I create a good mnemonic (memory device) for remembering that those two add up to mean gather, then I will learn the kanji 集 and it will stick.
Only Worry About Recognizing the Meaning
As you will learn very early in your Japanese studies, there are many different elements to “learning the kanji,” which, by itself, is quite a vague statement. For example, consider the following. Say we have the kanji 食, which means “eat.” There are many aspects to “knowing” this kanji:
In general, it means “eat,” “eating,” or “food.”
The On’Yomi (Chinese-derived reading) is しょく / shoku or じき / jiki. Yeah, by the way, there are different sounds for each kanji. This is one of the side effects of smashing Japanese into the Chinese writing system. So, for one character, there are many possible readings (ways to pronounce it). We’ll worry about this later. Also, it won’t be stressful at all.
The Kun’Yomi (Japanese reading) is た.べる / taberu or く.う / kuu or く.らう kurau.
The stroke order.
That’s a lot of info, right? There is a much simpler and more positive solution, however:
Only learn the meaning of the character (#1 above).
Review Them with an SRS Program (Anki)
I’m not going to talk much about this here, as I talk about it every three seconds throughout this whole guide. But, yeah, let’s use Anki so that we can remember these characters long-term. Also, because Anki is set up very nicely to walk us through the kanji one at a time… which I’ll be showing you in just a moment here.
Ninja Tool Amalgamation
We can learn kanji by using these three tools:
Anki Flashcards will keep us from forgetting what we learn.
Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji will help us break our kanji into parts so we can learn them via stories and mnemonics.
Reviewing the Kanji (http://kanji.koohii.com/) will save us when we have a hard time coming up with our own kanji stories and mnemonics.
Set Up Your Anki Deck
(Kaffie pro-tip: Just go set up Anki u lazy fucks. Do you really need a guide for this? See the clearnet link if you need help as he walks through it in painstaking detail. I personally use Ankidroid on my phone.)
Download the NihongoShark.com Kanji Deck
(Kaffie pro-tip: This section of the guide walks through how to download it and put it into Anki. I've uploaded it on ZeroUP here.)
Set Anki Preferences for Efficient Studying
(Kaffie pro-tip: Just make sure to change "Mix new cards and reviews" to "Show new cards after reviews". This is to ensure you review everything you need to before you start new kanji. It helps ensure you'll never forget them.)
Understanding the Formatting of This Deck
Click the “Study Now” button (Kaffie: or whatever is the equivalent. Feel free to actually follow along on this part), because… That’s right. It’s time to start learning kanji right from the start. So clicking “Study Now” will bring up the kanji 一. If you click “Show Answer,” it will bring up the back of this flashcard.
There’s a lot of interesting information there, but none of it really helps us to remember this kanji. So what we want to do is click the “Edit” button. Clicking “Edit” will bring up the data for each of this card’s field.
Everything we might need is there, things like stroke order, kanji numbers (in the Heisig system), etc. But the real item of concern is the mnemonic. So, let’s scroll down and look at the mnemonic fields.
Here’s a breakdown of what each of these is referring to:
myStory – This field is where we’re going to enter our mnemonics. That is, here is where we write the story or memory device that we want to see for this flashcard when we review it.
heisigStory – This field has the story that appears in the Remembering the Kanji Some of you will realize that this means that you probably don’t even need to be buying this book, then. I feel like that’s not totally fair to Heisig himself, though. So if you have the funds, maybe buy it anyways?
heisigComment – This field has the comment that appears in the Remembering the Kanji book as a supplement to the kanji’s story.
koohiiStory1 – This field has the most popular story on the koohii Reviewing the Kanji site.
koohiiStory2 – This field has the most popular story on the koohii Reviewing the Kanji site.
(Kaffie pro-tip: Basically just read all of these fields from top to bottom. I like to scroll down and see example vocab too, in order to ensure the keyword matches the actual usage. Some need to be changed, so keep an eye out. The koohii stories will usually mention it. Try to come up with your own, or just copy which sticks in your mind the best. Try to go for wacky/crazy stories. Put your copied/created story in "myStory". Kinda obvious.)
As you can see, now my story [ = my mnemonic] appears right under the list of constituents [ = parts] of this kanji. I click “Good” and that kanji hides away for a few minutes, programmed to pop up at whatever time I might be prone to forgetting it today, next week, a month from now, in a year—whenever.
(Kaffie pro-tip: Literally always press "good" during this learning step, you'll be tested later. I like to remove the times shown on the buttons. And then when tested click "again" if you fail. "Good" if you got it. Hard/Easy should only rarely be clicked. Do "hard" if you struggle with it but eventually get it. "Easy" should only be for stuff you already know, like the number kanji. Anki will retest right before you forget, to extend the length of time you remember it.)
So now we have learned our first kanji! And because it’s in our Anki deck, we will never forget it. That’s amazing!
Go ahead and repeat that same process for the second and third kanji, which, as you might have guessed, are the kanji for “two” and “three.”
Learning New Kanji
I’d like to take an in-depth look at the kanji learning process. In doing so, let’s walk through the kanji for “four:.
Dividing Kanji into Constituents
You might see this kanji for “four” and think, “Hey, things are starting to get complicated.” You hit “Show Answer,” and you even get some new constituents that you’ve never heard of.
“Pent in?” “Human legs?” Those “constituents” are referring to the parts of the kanji. If you have the Remembering the Kanji book, these are written out for you: The outside “mouth” (strokes #1, 2, 5) is written separately for you, and the inside “human legs” (strokes #3, 4) are written separately for you. This makes it very easy to understand what these “constituents” are referring to.
For those of us who don’t have the Remembering the Kanji book, however, the next best thing we can do is look at the heisigStory and heisigComment fields. So let’s click “Edit” and take a look at it.
Okay, whatever. That didn’t help me figure out these “constituents” much at all. Sometimes it does, but not this time. Luckily, it’s kind of obvious what is referring to “mouth” and what is referring to “human legs,” so maybe we’ll be okay without the Remembering the Kanji book after all.
(Kaffie pro-tip: Heisig has a list of "parts" that aren't really kanji, but he refers to when writing his stories. They're pretty easy to infer, but if you're having trouble, you can pick up a deck specifically for Kanji radicals or just pirate/buy the damn book (Remembering the Kanji). Alternatively you can ignore them and come up with your own story. But pay attention to how the parts are broken down. It's important!)
Using Constituents to Make Mnemonics
Once I figure out what each “constituent” is, I need to decide what myStory is going to be. As for 四, the story for koohiiStory1 isn’t bad.
This story is a great example of why I encourage writing your own mnemonics. This story seems great, and it seems easy to remember. But a lot of stories that seem to have great mnemonics just don’t stick, and I think that the reason is a lack of connection to the learner.
Just because the mnemonic is clever or makes sense does not mean that you will remember it.
(Kaffie pro-tip: this is actually true. Make sure to try and directly connect the parts with the meaning, as best as you can. And make sure the story mnemonic is really weird. The weirder it is, the better it'll stick. Likewise the more obvious the connection between the parts and the meaning, the better.)
However, koohiiStory1 has given me an idea for a story that will stick, which I write in myStory:
"A four-year-old version of myself with four human legs in his mouth (sitting on the floor next to my bedroom door at my apartment in Sapporo)."
You might be thinking, “That story sucks, Niko.” Well, perhaps. However, there are some features to it that I’d like to point out, features that make it very easy for me personally to remember:
This is a real place that I am extremely familiar with.
I know exactly what I looked like when I was four, because I have seen a picture of myself at the age of four (a specific picture that I’m recalling).
This story is kind of creepy. And anything that’s creepy, ridiculous, frightening, hilarious, or shocking is much more likely to stick in my mind.
I will never use this exact spot (on the floor next to my bedroom door at my apartment in Sapporo) ever again. The kanji 四 now owns this spot. Every time I see this spot, there should be a four-year-old version of myself with his four legs in his mouth. Every time I imagine this spot, it should have a four-year-old version of myself with his four legs in his mouth. It’s almost like I’m pretending that this actually happened in this place that exists in the real world that I am familiar with.
(Kaffie pro-tip: I mostly just ignore the 4th one. Spacial memory can be really good, but it's hard to come up with stories for them IMO. But if you can do it along with the other stuff, then great! It'll help. But don't fret about it. Also, a lot of the kanji are literal pictographs. Use that to your advantage. If you can just look at the kanji and see the meaning due to how it's drawn, that'd be great. Even if that wasn't the intended interpretation of the strokes.)
Clean Up Mnemonics over Time
There is a delicate balance between creating mnemonics that work and optimizing the time spent writing them. If you feel like your mnemonic is “just okay,” but you don’t want to waste more time working on it, then just save it and move onto the next kanji.
The cool thing about Anki is that every card you save will show up in the future (over and over and over again). So, if you find that you’re forgetting the meaning of a kanji multiple times during review, then it’s probably a sign that your mnemonic isn’t so good. At that time, you can just hit “Edit,” clean up the story, and keep on moving forward.
Perfectionism will be your doom. Small, consistent improvements over a long period of time are the key to huge successes, especially when talking about the acquisition and mastery of skills.
That's the end of the copy+pasted article. Just be ABSOLUTELY SURE to do your reviews every day. No need to learn new Kanji if you aren't up for it, but at least do the reviews. The standard pace is about 20-25 new kanji per day. This will get you done with the jouyou kanji in about 90-100 days or so (about 3 months). I started with 22, rose to 25, and dropped down to 10 for a bit. Feel free to vary it up. It's best not to go above 30 kanji per day, as reviews can stack up and you can start forgetting a lot. Be sure to pace yourself so that your success rate for reviewing is above 90% (mine usually varies from 93-98%).
Hope this helps!