2,136 kanji in 97 days

There are 2,136 “regular use” Chinese characters in Japan and they are commonly called joyo kanji. This is not actually a comprehensive list of all the kanji used regularly in Japan, but it is a literary baseline for compulsory education and does compromise all the permitted characters for use in official government documents. 1,006 of these are taught in primary school and the remaining 1,130 are taught in secondary school.As of this moment I probably know a grand total of between 3- and 400 kanji. That means my current Japanese literacy is roughly in line with a Japanese elementary third grader.


I have never really been good at self-study. I think it comes down to having a lot of trouble motivating myself to keep putting one foot in front of the other without someone breathing down my neck and checking my work every step of the way like I had all through school. Getting some grit and resilience is just something I have to work on.

I believe kanji are beautiful. Frankly, each one is a piece of art. That’s why I thought that writing them over and over again would be a fun and relatively easy way to memorize them. It only took a little while to realize that doing that really didn’t help me. Although the stroke orders make sense to me, the way the kanji is written combined with its meanings and the different sounds they make feel straight up arbitrary. I would spend a ton of time writing something repeatedly while chanting all its parts out loud, and then a couple days later it’s as though none of it ever happened.

It can feel defeating to work so hard and not get any results. I started getting pretty salty and avoiding studying altogether. I can’t tell you how guilty I feel for having wasted so much time in Japan without actively learning and practicing Japanese in a disciplined way. That’s why I decided that it’s time for me to sit down and find a way to make sense of all these damned kanji.

I hit the internet and found loads of different study techniques. One article in particular got my attention though. The title read Hacking the Kanji: 2,200 Kanji in 97 Days. Pffffffft yeah right – there’s no way! But it had peaked my interest. Before I knew it I was well into a very detailed and long step-by-step breakdown of how to learn all the joyo kanji in less than four months. I won’t go into all the details, but Niko at Nihongo Shark basically whittles it all down to systematically using a set of tools in a set process every day until all the kanji are finished. The tools are:

  1. Anki flashcards (to keep us from forgetting what we learn)
  2. Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji (to break the kanji into parts)
  3. Using mnemonics, mainly memory palaces (to solidify the kanji and all their parts into our brains)
  4. Reviewing the Kanji (to get inspiration for when we have trouble making our own mnemonics)

A lot about Niko’s process really drew me in. I love how he explains practically every detail of it, from the why’s to the how’s. He doesn’t sugarcoat. He says it’ll be hard and frustrating at times, but could it really be more frustrating than all the wasted hours I’ve put in already? But what really got me was the really thorough explanation and application of mnemonics and memory palaces.

For any of you who’ve watched Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch, I am sure you’ve got a general idea as to what a memory or mind palace is. While watching Sherlock I didn’t get the sense that anyone aside from some sort of autistic genius or savant could actually create a working memory palace but watching Joshua Foer talk about memory and the history of mnemonics in this TED Talk convinced me otherwise.

I am a highly visual person, and I love telling stories, especially ridiculous ones. This is when I realize that Niko’s method just might work with me. Of course, I have been making short stories about each kanji to help me remember them, but the problem is that each story stands completely alone. They aren’t tied together in any way, much less tethered to a real place that I can conjure in my mind’s eye. And I am a real sucker for a highly planned out and regulated system. Why not combine my silly imagination with a strict learning regimen and really give this a shot?

The biggest hole in Niko’s method for me is how he focuses 100% on memorizing the meanings of the kanji only without any time spent on how to actually say them in Japanese. According to both him and Heisig, once you can see and recognize the meanings of the kanji, the way they are read and how they are used in vocabulary comes like second nature. I am still a bit suspicious of this. But at this point, any progress at all is good progress, not to mention this is the first time in a long time I’ve actually felt excited to study kanji. That has to count for something!

So here starts my journey deep into the recesses of my mind and the joyo kanji. I plan on writing out and posting the memory palaces I make and the kanji they are linked to in the hopes that the more often I think about and jot them down the better I will remember them. I have no clue how this will really turn out so…. Wish me luck!


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