Learning kanji is tough. The unfamiliar shapes. All the different ways to read a single kanji. And what’s more — there are over 2,000 of them to learn?!
Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut around these hurdles. And I’m not gonna lie, learning kanji does take time and energy no matter what method you choose. But if you’re making the investment, you want to do it in the most efficient and effective way possible.
If you’re scrolling this page with a hand that’s hurting from writing kanji on paper a gazillion times — you came to the right place.
Luckily, there are learning programs you can just follow along to make the kanji learning experience less of a pain (literally, and figuratively). With the right program, kanji can be manageable. It doesn’t have to be this big hairy goal for Japanese learners.
In this article, I’ll introduce you to the best kanji learning programs available. They come in various formats like textbooks and apps, but regardless of the format, I’ll use the word “program” for a structure that guides you through your kanji studies and helps you build a foundation for Japanese literacy.
How To Choose A Kanji Learning Program
There are many kanji learning programs out there, so what are the differences between them, and how do you pick one? Well, there are some things to consider…
1. What Aspect(s) of Kanji Does It Teach?
The first thing to consider is what kanji-related skill you’re looking to improve. Like when you say “I want to learn kanji,” what do you mean by that?
Do you want to be able to tell the meaning of a kanji when you see one? Do you want to remember how to pronounce it too?
I recommend you pay attention to a couple aspects: kanji readings and kanji vocabulary.
Almost all kanji learning programs teach the meaning(s) of each kanji, but not all of them teach kanji readings. So this is definitely something to consider.
So what about kanji vocabulary? By this, I mean vocabulary that uses the kanji characters the program teaches. Kanji and kanji vocabulary go hand in hand. Even though kanji are semantic (that is, each kanji has at least one meaning), they’re characters rather than standalone words. Sure, some single kanji characters can be words on their own, but they’re more commonly used as components to make vocabulary. It’s important to learn them together.
Learning vocabulary along with kanji is not just about seeing how the kanji is used in real life. It also helps you remember the kanji readings. Many kanji have multiple readings and are pronounced differently depending on the word they’re used in. By learning kanji vocabulary, you can reinforce various kanji readings. It can be overwhelming to think about having to learn multiple readings per kanji, but learning the readings along with vocabulary makes it a lot more doable.
2. How Does It Teach Kanji?
With a photographic memory, learning kanji would be so easy — all you’d need is a kanji dictionary. But in reality, that’s not the case for most people, and remembering kanji is hard without help.
So, it’s important to check: Does the program help you actually remember kanji?
Some programs may only introduce information as opposed to giving you a meaningful way to remember it. One of the most common approaches for this is called mnemonics. Mnemonics are basically a memory technique to help you remember things.
For kanji learning, mnemonics come in different formats. Some programs tell you the history of how the kanji were created, whereas other teach you components of kanji and what they mean, then what the kanji means from those broken-down parts (which is what we like to call Radical + Mnemonic method).
And pay attention to what aspect of kanji they offer mnemonics to help you remember, too. For example, many provide mnemonics to help you remember the meanings, but what about mnemonics for readings or vocabulary? Not all programs offer these.
Another consideration is: Does the program help you retain the knowledge in any way?
As time passes, you’ll likely forget what you’ve learned. So reviewing or refreshing what you’ve learned is important for turning that knowledge into something concrete and stable in your mind. One of the most popular solutions is to use an SRS (Spaced Repetition System), which repeatedly prompts you to recall an item you’ve learned over time. Depending on how well the item sticks in your memory, it aims to optimize the intervals and number of times an item appears in your review queue to improve your recall and strengthen each item in your memory.
3. How Many Kanji Does It Teach (& Does It Teach Useful Kanji)?
While the total number of kanji in existence is debatable, luckily, you don’t have to study them all to be able to read most of the things you need to get by on a day-to-day basis.
“So, how many kanji should I learn?” Just to give you an idea, the ultimate goal for serious learners is around 2,000 kanji. You should be able to read most things comfortably with that level of literacy. But the number of kanji isn’t the only thing you should care about when choosing a kanji learning program. It’s also important to pay attention to whether they’re trying to teach you useful kanji, too.
Many programs focus on introducing jōyō kanji, a set of kanji selected by the Japanese government that are commonly used in daily life. These kanji are also taught in Japanese schools, and there are roughly 2,000 of them (2,136 to be exact).
However, you should keep in mind that the jōyō kanji list doesn’t cover all the useful kanji you should know. After all, the list is meant to be a foundational guideline. It’s not an exhaustive list for those who are learning Japanese as a foreign language.
Some common and useful kanji like 嬉 (glad) and 嘘 (lie), are not on the jōyō kanji list, while some of the kanji included may not be useful or commonly used in real-life communication.
4. What Format/Media Type Is It?
Like I said earlier, kanji learning programs come in various formats — textbooks, apps, video lessons, etc. You might have a strong preference for a specific format over others, but try to keep an open mind.
For example, reviewing kanji can be so much easier and more effective when you use digital tools that use SRS, which automate the entire reviewing process. You can still use textbooks or video lessons, but you might also consider pairing it with an SRS flashcard app for reviews.
The Best Kanji Learning Programs
Ok, now let’s talk about actual options.
I picked four of the finest and most popular kanji learning programs for an in-depth comparison. Two of these are textbooks, Remembering The Kanji 1 and Kodansha Kanji Learners’ Course, and the other two are the online programs WaniKani, and Kanji Damage.
For full transparency before getting into more details, I want to let you know one of the programs, WaniKani, is our own product we created here at Tofugu. I tried my best to research each resource in detail and write up all the pros and cons from a neutral position, but I’m probably somewhat biased. It’s because I’ve been witnessing what our users have achieved over the past years with WaniKani (and I’m proud of them), but I just wanted to make sure you know WaniKani is our own.
Anyway, getting back to the actual options…
First of all, they all share some similar qualities that make them effective for learning kanji:
- They all have good coverage of kanji (at least 1,700, not just a few hundred).
- They all use mnemonics (at least to help you remember the meanings).
- They all use the approach of breaking down kanji into components (Radical + Mnemonic method).
Despite the similarities, they’re all very different programs designed and created with various intentions in mind. There are several factors that make the learning experience unique, ranging from small to large features. Here’s a quick chart for easier comparison.
|Kanji||Vocab||Mnemonics||Stroke Orders||Built-in SRS||Cost||Format|
|WaniKani||2,074||✅||✅||✅||✅||❌||✅||$9/month, $89/year, $299/lifetime||Web App|
I’ll go through each program in detail, but in case you want a quick summary of what I think, here’s the TLDR version:
- If you’re looking for an interactive tool to remember (and not forget) kanji and vocabulary, try WaniKani.
- If you’re looking for a quality textbook to learn kanji, Kodansha’s Kanji Learners’ Course is a decent and trustworthy option.
- If you’re on a budget (and don’t mind an overall-inappropriate use of language), Kanji Damage can be a great option. You might even find the humor hilarious.
- If you want to cram for only the meanings of kanji very quickly, consider Remembering The Kanji 1, but be aware of what you will NOT get out of it. For actual Japanese literacy, you’ll have to make up for your kanji reading and vocabulary knowledge outside of this book. I will talk about this textbook first because it’s one of the most well-known methods, but I personally don’t recommend this option as much as the others.
Now, let’s explore each option.
Remembering The Kanji 1 (RTK 1)
The quickest resource that helps you remember how to ‘recognize the meanings’ of 2,200 kanji. Warning: You won’t learn kanji readings or vocabulary.
Remembering The Kanji 1: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters is the first volume of the Remembering The Kanji series, often referred to as “RTK.”
It was first published in 1977, and is probably one of the oldest resources that uses the now somewhat common approach of breaking down kanji into components and providing “stories,” aka mnemonics, to help you remember those kanji.
The first volume of the RTK series is the most well-known. It has a reputation for being the quickest method of learning 2,200 kanji, with learners who have completed the first volume and learned all 2,200 kanji in only a couple of months or less, which is an exceptional speed.
But there’s a catch — it teaches you kanji meanings exclusively, so you won’t know how to read the kanji. While it’s an effective resource for recognizing the meanings of kanji quickly, you won’t be exposed to kanji readings at all. The second volume of the series is dedicated to teaching the readings of the kanji you learned in the first volume. However, it doesn’t offer as much guidance as the first volume. Unfortunately, no mnemonics are provided to help you remember the readings, even though that’s what the readers of the first volume might have expected to see in the second volume as well.
In addition to the ability to recognize the kanji meanings, the goal of the first volume is to familiarize you with the shapes of kanji to help you handwrite the characters. Although it’s still a popular kanji learning series today, keep in mind that this book was first published in 1977. Learners’ needs have changed since then. Typing is far more common and practical than handwriting skills, and you won’t be able to type if you don’t know how to read.
Another big downside is that it teaches you kanji in isolation from vocabulary. That means you won’t be learning kanji in any sort of context. In real-life, kanji are basically components of words. It’s important to know how and in what kind of words they will be used. This is why many RTK users move on to other resources for vocabulary learning once they finish the first volume.
RTK 1 is probably the quickest way to get through and get familiar with a huge amount of kanji. If you’re the kind of person who wants to cram and drill down kanji meanings in a short amount of time, it is worth checking out. Knowing the meanings of kanji isn’t completely useless after all — that’s absolutely better than having zero kanji knowledge. You can use that to guess the meaning of Japanese words that they make up. Well, kind of…
However, with its strict focus on meaning-only, what you actually get out of it may be limited and superficial — You won’t be able to read, type kanji, or gain vocabulary knowledge from this book.
Overall, RTK 1 is not designed to give you practical knowledge or skills for reading Japanese texts. It covers all the jōyō kanji, which includes uncommon kanji, and some non-jōyō kanji as well. These are mainly kanji used in proper names or added with the intention of using them as components of other kanji, rather than for their usefulness. This also means that you’ll be missing some extremely common non-jōyō kanji too.
Also, note that the first volume expects you to learn how to create mnemonics on your own, so the mnemonics gradually fade out and aren’t provided later in the book. Coming up with your own mnemonics could help you strengthen your memory, but it’s also time-consuming. Especially if you’re considering RTK for its speed, use Koohii, a database of user-generated mnemonics for RTK.
Finally, this is a textbook. Using it alone won’t help you retain your kanji knowledge. If you decide to go with RTK, definitely pair it with Anki or another SRS.
|Kanji Coverage||2,200 kanji|
|What You’ll Learn||
|SRS Feature||No, but there are user-generated premade decks.|
The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course (KLC)
A well-thought-out textbook to help you remember 2,300 kanji with mnemonics and carefully picked kanji vocabulary.
The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course, also known as the “KLC,” is a textbook designed to help Japanese learners remember 2,300 kanji. Since it was published in 2013, it’s built up a reputation as one of the best textbooks for learning kanji.
While it can be compared to the other very popular kanji textbook, James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji, the KLC offers a more updated and thorough approach as well as features that RTK was missing. Their fundamental methods are similar — they both teach kanji with component parts (they call them “graphemes”) and provide mnemonics to remember the core meanings of kanji. While RTK is most known for being the quickest kanji learning method while sacrificing some of the important aspects for Japanese learners (such as kanji readings and vocabulary), KLC is designed as a practical resource to help learners gain genuine literacy.
One of the biggest differences is that while RTK teaches you kanji in isolation from vocabulary or any sort of context, KLC teaches you kanji in context. KLC offers a few sample vocabulary words per kanji to represent the use of kanji as well as common readings. And, the vocabulary only uses kanji that you’ve learned previously, so you’ll be able to reinforce your kanji knowledge in subsequent vocabulary. Although this approach may not be as hand-holding as WaniKani (I’ll be talking about this next), which provides you with mnemonics to help you remember the kanji readings as well as vocabulary, the intentional teaching order and carefully selected vocabulary definitely makes KLC valuable.
KLC also takes into account the frequency of usage of each kanji, meaning that you’ll learn the most commonly used kanji first, which will help you to start reading real-world Japanese materials more quickly. The selection of kanji has given a lot of thought to it too. The only downside is that it includes all the jōyō kanji, including some uncommon ones. The full coverage of jōyō kanji makes the total number 2,300, which is definitely on the heavier side of most kanji learning programs. It also covers non-jōyō kanji based on how useful they are and how easy they are to learn, but just be aware that not every kanji from this book will be useful (especially uncommon kanji kept for the sake of being jōyō kanji).
The KLC textbook is quite simple — once you open the book and flip the pages, you’ll realize it looks almost like a kanji dictionary or a reference, rather than a course to go through. And because it is a book after all, it doesn’t come with an integrated system to review what you’ve learned like a built-in SRS. So to further review and practice the kanji you learn, there are supplemental resources like graded readers, or handwriting worksheets available. While potentially helpful, it can end up costing quite a bit if you’re purchasing all the recommended materials.
Overall, KLC is a well-designed resource for learners of Japanese to help you not only familiarize yourself with kanji, but also be able to read Japanese text in real-life. If you decide to give KLC a go, start at the beginning to understand how the program is designed and its recommended use to maximize the benefits. Make sure to check out the appendix, too — you’ll pick up some fundamental kanji knowledge that will definitely be useful!
|Kanji Coverage||2,300 kanji|
|What You’ll Learn||
|SRS Feature||No. KLC recommends using the graded readers for review, but there are user-generated premade decks|
|Format||Paperback and Kindle|
A complete package for kanji and Japanese vocabulary learning, using built-in SRS and mnemonics to help you remember and not forget kanji meanings, readings, and vocabulary.
WaniKani is a kanji and Japanese vocabulary learning platform created here at Tofugu. It’s an online program that teaches you 2,074 kanji and 6,528 vocabulary words (as of March, 2023) over a total of 60 levels. WaniKani’s aim is to teach you the most useful kanji based on factors like frequency and native speaker intuition, in addition to whether a kanji is jōyō or not. And the list is continuously updated and improved.
What sets WaniKani apart from other kanji learning resources is that it’s an all-in-one interactive tool to learn and remember kanji and vocabulary. There are kanji textbooks that have great content, but many users have to pair it with a separate SRS like Anki in order to review what they learned in these books. WaniKani streamlines this process, offering lessons to introduce you to new items (radicals, kanji, and vocabulary), and a built-in SRS to review what you’ve learned.
WaniKani also takes the approach of slowly building on what you’ve learned. Like many other effective kanji learning resources, it breaks down kanji into component parts or what we call “radicals.” You’ll be introduced to radicals first, then kanji that use those radicals. And what’s more — you’ll learn vocabulary words that use the kanji with WaniKani. Because its SRS keeps a record of your correct and incorrect answers, WaniKani knows how familiar (and how not yet familiar) you are with the items you’ve learned. This way, WaniKani makes sure you’re already familiar with the prerequisite items first, then unlocks new items only when you’re ready.
Another thing that differentiates WaniKani from other resources is that it offers mnemonics for kanji readings in addition to kanji meanings. Many resources offer kanji meaning mnemonics, but only a few provide mnemonics to help you remember kanji readings. WaniKani also prioritizes kanji readings according to how useful they are so you don’t have to worry about which reading(s) you should be putting more effort into remembering.
And don’t forget — WaniKani teaches you vocabulary that uses the kanji you previously learned. It’s designed in a way that you’ll be reinforcing various readings of kanji through learning Japanese words, not only seeing kanji as a part of vocabulary. While other kanji learning resources only show vocabulary alongside kanji, WaniKani helps you remember the vocabulary with mnemonics and SRS, too.
As a bonus, you might like WaniKani’s fun and friendly voice. (Users have described our personalities as silly or quirky.) Traditional textbook-based kanji programs like RTK or KLC often use more formal academic language, but WaniKani keeps things approachable and engaging (at least, we try). WaniKani also has a large community of fellow learners offering advice, support, and activities like book clubs. Knowing that you’re in it with other people can be reassuring and motivating, especially if you are a self-learner.
However, despite all the nice things that I’ve said about WaniKani, like any other resource, WaniKani is not for everyone.
One of the benefits of using a kanji learning program is that there’s structure. You can jump right in and just follow the program without worrying about what to do next. However, it also means programs restrain flexibility for effectiveness, and WaniKani’s program is fairly rigid.
For example, if you’re learning from textbooks, you can skip pages and certain kanji (even though they usually recommend not to, there’s nothing to stop you). With WaniKani, you can’t skip items or levels. This could be potentially frustrating for learners not to be able to skip the kanji that they already know. However, there are also many successful users who started WaniKani with months or years of kanji study under their belts who can attest that they could learn kanji more efficiently with WaniKani than ever before.
Also WaniKani might feel slow for users who’ve just started because the built-in SRS makes you wait. But that’s just in the beginning — you should enjoy it while it lasts. The number of reviews can also be quickly overwhelming as you progress. One of the most common pieces of advice that fellow WaniKani users are giving out is to make sure to pace yourself. Even when new lessons are available, you might hold off on doing them so that you won’t get overwhelmed by reviews. If you’re trying to complete WaniKani, you’re in it for the long haul — it takes at least a year to complete the program. It’s important not to burn yourself out.
Finally, WaniKani is not the cheapest program. There’s a team of us continuously working hard to support our users, improve and update the program (content-wise as well as feature-wise). Having said that, the first three levels are free and should give you an idea of how it works and whether or not it’s for you.
|Kanji Coverage||2,000 kanji|
|What You’ll Learn||
A free kanji learning program using the NSFW mnemonics in the form of ‘Yo Mama jokes’ (as they call it).
So far, I’ve only introduced you to programs that cost some money. While I personally believe a quality program is a worthy investment considering how much time you can save, I also wanted to introduce you to an option that you can use for free.
Kanji Damage is a website where you can learn 1,700 kanji using the method of breaking down kanji into components and offering mnemonics for both meanings and readings. And, it’s free!
What makes Kanji Damage different from other kanji learning programs is its unique voice and writing style. Like I mentioned earlier, textbook-based kanji programs tend to use professional and academic language. Kanji Damage goes in the total opposite direction and keeps things unapologetically casual. Maybe a little too casual (and slightly offensive) for some people. But let’s be honest — traditional textbooks can sound too uptight sometimes. Kanji Damage is maybe extreme by comparison, but you might find it more entertaining or approachable.
Overall, the content is definitely NSFW, and not something to let your kids use for their kanji studies, but if you don’t mind that kind of language, Kanji Damage is a decent option you can try for free.
The language may be inappropriate overall, but don’t just judge it by how they speak. The program is designed from a learner’s perspective. There are hints to help users tell lookalike kanji apart kanji and each kanji page has a list of vocabulary that uses the kanji as well, so you can see the kanji in context. Each kanji compound word (jukugo) shows how it is made out of different kanji components and how the meanings are derived, making it easy for you to piece them together and remember.
Although Kanji Damage is a website, note that it is NOT an interactive tool. It is a collection of static web pages, and in fact, the author actually calls it a “book.” So, it won’t save your progress, and you won’t be able to review or practice with built-in digital flashcards like WaniKani. However, you should note that Kanji Damage has an official Anki deck, so even though it’s not built-in, you can use that as a tool to review what you learned on Kanji Damage.
Also, be aware that the total number of kanji is 1,700, a few hundred fewer than what similar kanji learning programs cover. The author used a list of kanji from JLPT and jōyō kanji, then “threw out all the bullshit ones,” using their judgment of what’s useful and what’s not. While most of the excluded jōyō kanji are indeed obscure, there are some that you would run into in daily life. As a native speaker of Japanese, I would say the list may be a little too pared down for learners looking to achieve a decent level of literacy, and familiarize themselves with most of the kanji they’d encounter on a daily basis.
|Kanji Coverage||1,700 kanji|
|What You’ll Learn||
|SRS Feature||No, but there’s an official Anki deck|
|Product Link||Kanji Damage|
Other Kanji Learning Resources
We hope this article helped introduce you to one or two kanji learning programs you want to check out.
In case you couldn’t find what you were looking for, there are a few other resources that didn’t quite make the shortlist you might be interested in. They are all quality resources, but they were excluded for various reasons; less kanji coverage, focus on one particular kanji-related skill (such as handwriting), etc.
- Outlier Linguistics Kanji Masterclass: If you’re the kind of person who wants to learn from actual speaking human beings, there’s even an online video course. It only covers 300 kanji, but it teaches you how to learn more kanji on your own with that foundational knowledge.
Kanji Look and Learn: If you’re a Genki textbook fan, Kanji Look and Learn might be a good option that comes with illustrations for mnemonics for each kanji. It also has a separate workbook full of activities, including practice handwriting. Just note it only covers 512 beginner to intermediate-level kanji.
Kanji from Zero!: The “from Zero!” series has textbooks to study kanji too. While the textbooks include a bunch of activities, including handwriting, they come in separate volumes, each only covering a couple hundred kanji.
Tools To Practice Handwriting
Skritter: If you learn kanji best through handwriting (or tracing) the characters, or you want to master writing kanji by hand, the Skritter app may be a perfect option. It’s pretty pricey though, so if you simply want to practice handwriting, consider using an alternative like Japanese Kanji Study, which I talk about next, and pair it with your main kanji learning program.
Japanese Kanji Study: An Android app with a lot of features and flexibility to study kanji. It comes with plenty of options — information related to each kanji as well as how to study them, including a feature to practice handwriting. Since the structure is compromised for its customizability, I’d recommend using it as a secondary resource to pair with a kanji learning program of your choice.
Regardless of what you pick, make sure to take advantage of the trial or preview of the product if it’s available. Everyone learns differently, and you won’t know what works best for you until you actually try it out. Hopefully, we can help you point you toward resources that will be right for you, but it’s also important to stick with something once you’ve started; no need to stress about finding the absolute perfect method, just the one that suits you where you’re at in your language journey right now.
Now, go do some kanji learning, and hopefully you’ll enjoy it!