How I Study Japanese: The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course

Kanji Practice

Several sheets of genkō yōshi, or Japanese manuscript paper, used to practice my handwriting.

When I was in college, I studied Japanese for three years. That’s 36 credit hours, so if you do the math I could have graduated about three semesters sooner if I hadn’t! You’d think after all that time I’d be pretty fluent, right? Not even close. If you’ve ever taken any sort of class you know that it’s very easy to get in the cycle of studying, cramming for a test, forgetting everything, and repeating. That’s not to say I forgot absolutely everything — It would have been impossible for me to get that far if I had — but because vocabulary varied wildly from module to module, my brain was more of a revolving door for everything but the most common and generally-applicable words. This is in stark contrast to grammar, which thanks to constant repetition and re-introduction stuck with me much, much better. Learning Japanese wasn’t as easy as it seemed. (Go figure, right?)


After I finished the class, I didn’t really use Japanese for about a year, until I rented an apartment in Tokyo and lived there for two months. Daily life was jarring, to say the least! I could get around, but not anywhere near as easily as I thought I should or would be able to. It was my vocabulary. That wallet I wanted to buy wasn’t a 財布 [wallet], it was something like a 金入れ物 [money-put-in-thing] (which I totally lucked out with because that’s actually almost a correct thing to say). Before my trip I was proud of the few hundred kanji that I knew, but living there I realized that even if you know how to read 4 of the 5 kanji in a sentence, it still might be completely unintelligible without the fifth character. This isn’t always the case, and context is often quite helpful, obviously, but it was still an issue.

Well, with the lessons of that trip behind me, and an additional year of using the language much less than I should have been, I recently decided to straighten up this year and come up with a focused, easy-to-follow (though not necessarily super easy to do) plan for learning the 常用(daily use) kanji, a list of 2,136 characters issued by the Japanese Ministry of Education as a baseline for those who have completed required schooling in Japan. That’s right, even 2,100+ characters is just considered a baseline. But it’s a good start.

Choosing the System

I agonized over how to approach this for a week or two, reading reviews of and considering about a dozen different systems and courses, until I found the Andrew Scott Conning’s Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course. Why did I like this book so much? Well, there are a few reasons:


The book in question.

Mnemonics That Work

Like many other kanji study systems, the book relies on mnemonics to remember each character, but unlike any other system I’ve seen, it uses a mixed approach to actually forming the mnemonics, which Conning calls eclecticism, along with a heavy focus on making them visual, rather than abstract, as our brain is better built to remember such things. As he puts it:

Different strategies are appropriate to different kanji. Some are easy to remember as pictograms. Others are best approached by linking together the meanings of their component graphemes. Still others are best learned by considering their etymology, or by focusing attention on one of their distinctive features, or by applying some ad hoc method.

As someone who tried and struggled to keep track of several stories in James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji because of how abstract they became by trying so hard to maintain consistent meanings for component graphemes, I found this approach refreshing.

Clever Kanji and Vocabulary Order

Conning points out that many kanji learner’s texts make an unfortunate compromise by ordering characters based on frequency, Japanese grade levels, or proficiency test requirements. He argues (and I agree) that for adult learners, the most important points are to (a) learn kanji graphemes step by step, so that one does not learn a complex kanji without first learning the component parts to be used in interpreting its meaning; and (b) learn kanji in logical groupings based on similarities in graphical form, so that one can give meaning to the features that distinguish one kanji from another as one learns them. For example: 常、堂 & 党 are all listed in close proximity to each other.

For each kanji, he also provides a few sample compound vocabulary words which tend to cover most readings (both on and kun-yomi) and meanings of a character. Where this gets even cooler, is when you realize that every sample compound only contains the new kanji in question and kanji that have already been introduced. If you stick with the course, the vocabulary should almost never contain an unfamiliar character! Frankly, this was a huge selling point for me, and if you’ve ever made any effort to learn kanji before, I’m sure it is for you too.

Vocabulary Guidance

While Conning may provide upwards of five or six example compounds for each kanji, memorizing them all is a pretty tall order. What’s nice is that he has marked compounds that he thinks are of specific import, and advises you to memorize only those and use the remainder as simple examples. Usually these marked examples cover the most common readings of the character, a particularly common word, or both.

How I Study

Hopefully by now I’ve convinced you of the merits of this book, or at the very least laid bare my thought process. If you’re as convinced as I am, let’s get down to brass tacks and talk about a study plan.

The ritual I go through everyday is as follows:

  1. Complete Anki cards due for review – Anki is, at it’s core, a spaced repetition system for learning and a flash card app. I’m not going to get into too many details about what it is, but I love Anki because a) it helps you both study efficiently and effectively and b) I can use it from my smart phone, web browser, or a desktop application… just about anywhere! If you’re curious why SRS is so great, here is some further reading. For this course, I created a new sub-deck for this book and configured it to show me up to 9999 new cards and 9999 review cards a day. Basically, if a card is due, I want to review it, so I set the numbers high enough that I will never hit the limit. Where do these cards come from? Steps 2 and 3, below.
  2. Read through 5 new characters and write them 5 times each – This step is pretty straightforward. I review 5 new characters following the study plan prescribed in the book’s introduction. You may be tempted to power through more than 5 a day, especially in the beginning when they’re easy, but the nature of Anki (and spaced repetition learning systems in general) is that it repeatedly re-presents cards for review in the future. This means that the number of characters you study each day will snowball and has the very likely potential to grow out of control if you bite off too much. Trust me on this; you should build a sustainable path to completing the whole course and learning things well rather than rushing through it and quickly getting overwhelmed. As for the writing practice, rather than buying expensive “real” genkō yōshi (manuscript paper), I print copies using the templates freely available on this website. You can see a great example of my bad handwriting filling a few sheets at the top of this post!
  3. Create new Anki cards – Now is where the convenience of this course really begins to shine through. As mentioned above, several kanji compounds for each character are marked for you to memorize. Quickly, I create new cards in Anki for these compounds. Be sure to set your deck up to generate reverse cards! Recall and recognition of something are two VERY different skills, and you must teach yourself accordingly.
  4. Memrise – Anki covers studying the kanji compounds well, but when it comes to remembering the course-specific keywords for the characters, I can’t recommend anything more highly than Memrise. Memrise already has a pre-existing course for this book. Much like Anki, you can use Memrise on your desktop computer or phone. On top of that, you get points for studying, and can set a daily point goal, get badges, compete on leaderboards and more. I’m a big fan of the gamification of things when it’s done well, and rest assured, this app does it well. Something else to be aware of is that you can configure the app to show you 5 new characters a day, which lines up perfectly with my study plan above! My general approach to this app is to complete the “learn new words” step twice (it takes two run-throughs per day to “learn” a character as far as the app is concerned), followed by classic reviews until I hit my daily point goal. If I still haven’t hit my goal, a single run through the speed review mode is usually enough to push me over the edge.
  5. Study new Anki cards – Finally, I return to Anki to do a quick review of the cards I just added to the deck. I like to take the Memrise break in between so that I’m a little distracted and not immediately parroting back the cards I just created.

Wrapping Up

This whole post comes with a caveat, of course; This is a system I’ve found that works for me, but it may not necessarily work for you! I set aside a little more than an hour almost every single day to do this, and on the days I can’t find the time to learn new kanji, I still cram in as much review (both Anki and Memrise) as possible. It’s a big time commitment. That said, if you give my ritual a shot (or don’t), I’d love to hear from you! Comment below and let me know how it worked for you, or if there’s anything in this post you’d like to hear me elaborate on. favicon-16x16

UPDATE (1/2/2017) : I’ve been asked a few times to write a follow-up to this post, and while I’m not quite there yet — give me a month or two — it is coming. Meanwhile, there are a few new KLC resources I wanted to share!

26 Responses to “How I Study Japanese: The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course”

  1. FukuDream says:

    Glad I bumped into this. Assumed it was a very old post but its just a day old?
    Thanks for the tip. I tried Remembering the Kanji before and as you observed, I got lost in the imaginary words.

    I am interested in giving this book a try. WHat I want to know is if I can start somewhere not in the beginning. I know some kanji already and I worry that if I start from the beginning I will bore myself out of interest.

    Also, would love to hear how you incorporate this into other fields of study such as grammar etc. My goal is to improve my conversation skills primarily but also want to learn to read and type Japanese. Would you recommend thos book as the centerpiece of my study from which all the others revolve around?

    • Daniel Collotte says:

      You sound like you’re in a similar boat as I was with regards to how many kanji you know. If I were you, I’d zoom through something like 10 or 25 characters a day for the first 50 kanji (because the book only starts recommending kanji compounds to memorize for characters after number 50). Of course, be sure to pause and focus on those that are actually new (if any( The order is also distinctive enough that, while I frequently know one or a few of the characters each day, there are still enough new characters to keep me engaged and interested. You really shouldn’t start anywhere but the beginning, in my opinion.

      As for your second question, I don’t know that I could recommend any one book as your primary study resource (this one included). That said, as far as kanji and vocabulary (to a certain extent) go, I’ve found this method to be the most rewarding and painless. I really can’t overemphasize how awesome it is that it gives you vocabulary that only use the kanji you’ve learned thus far in the course. Depending on how good your grammar is, I’d supplement with a textbook of some kind. I’m coming from the unique situation that I already have plenty of that down. Also, Conning recommends that you begin trying to read native texts when you’re at around 1200 characters in the course, and so that’s the point I’m going to begin emphasizing reading as well as straight kanji studying.

      tldr; If you are solid with your kana, and semi-solid with grammar, I think focusing your studies on this book is a great idea, at least initially.

  2. crew says:

    So I got myself the book and following your method. I have a question about your anki cards. Do you only use 2 sides? One showing the kanji compound and the other side the hiragana? What about the english definition? Is there no need for that? Trying to find a way for the English word to be the prompt from time to time. Or is that not recommended?

    • Daniel Collotte says:

      There’s a great little discussion thread on making custom Anki card types and cards here. Basically, I created a custom card type for this course (Ctrl+Shift+N to manage card types in Windows Anki) called “KLC Japanese”. Once you add this card type, click the “Fields” button to give it the 4 pieces of info you will provide, “Expression” (ex: 行く), “Reading” (ex: いく), “Meaning” (ex: To go), and “Number” (ex: 123). Side note: Check the box that says “Sort by this field in the browser” for the “Number” field to make your life much easier. Now, the cool thing is that given some pieces of info, you can set up Anki to dynamically generate cards. Click “Cards” in the card type manager to do this. I have it generate two; a recognition card with the expression on the front side and the reading and meaning as the “answer” on the backside, and a recall card with the meaning on the front and the reading and expression on the back. Here’s a link to my templates if you’d like to copy and paste them into your own cards. Obviously, don’t copy and paste lines with equal signs or asterisks in them.

  3. FukuDream says:

    thanks for the tip, but under your setup, you will be flashed both the reading and the meaning at the same time right?

    Is it not possible to be confronted with the english word, then answer with the expression or reading? or flashed but the kanji and answer with the english as well?

    • Daniel Collotte says:

      You’re right, my setup doesn’t ever test on the reading alone. When I first started studying kanji, I had a setup like you described where I created three cards, one to test for the expression, reading, and meaning each, but it really quickly grows prohibitive. You can do that if you like, I’m not the end-all master of studying. 🙂 I just found that it doesn’t work well for me. I like this setup because it’s realistic; If I ever need to recall how to write a word, I’ll probably need to remember both the kanji and the reading, and if I ever try to read a kanji compound, I’ll need to know both the reading and meaning.

  4. Bridges Gijsbers says:

    Hey! I met you at a meetup, and you suggested your blog to check out your Kanji learning style! I’m going to give it a go! I’m tired of buying japanese text books, but I suppose one more won’t hurt! Thanks for the suggestions!

    • Daniel Collotte says:

      I’m glad this seems useful to you! Let me know if you have any issues, or if you have none let me know how it goes!

  5. Bryan says:

    The one thing missing in an otherwise fantastic Kanji book, is an alphabetized index. I have created a Word document that does this and I’d like to share it. Do you know where I could post it for others?

    • Daniel Collotte says:

      Are we talking an index of kanji keywords or the didactic vocabulary? I’d be happy to host it for you. Just shoot an email to [daniel (at) this domain]. As for where to post it, I’d recommend the Learn Japanese subreddit. The kanji koohii forums might also be a good place to share it; I’ve seen some traffic to this post from there, though I’ve never participated myself.

  6. Yokoro says:

    There’s a very thorough review here that describes the advantages of KLC (Conning) over RTK (Heisig) and Henshall:

  7. Reaper says:

    Hey, I’m happy I ran across this article as it has been very helpful and it seems to be a good study plan!
    I just wanted to clarify but are you learning the kanji meaning plus the vocabulary at the same time through anki? And are you using anything else to learn grammar and listening comprehension?

    • Daniel Collotte says:

      I’m glad you found it helpful! I wrote it because coming up with the study plan is always my biggest hurdle, so I thought it was worth sharing mine. I’m relying on Memrise for the kanji meaning, and then I use Anki for the recommended kanji compounds/vocabulary. (They have a little circle next to them.)

      As for grammar and listening comprehension, I don’t really have a single study plan for them, because I was coming from a place where I already had studied Japanese for a few years. This is focused on vocabulary and kanji because I think they are my greatest weaknesses!

  8. Benjamin says:

    So beyond grateful to have found this post. Thank you for the comprehensive overview of your strategy (and KLC strategy) and also for the wonderful resources you have linked to. Everything from the Anki templates to the writing practice patterns are huge treasures. Not to mention your excellently reasoned study plan.

    I was about to dive into Wanikani again despite serious reservations and trying to fill in the gaps with a bunch of scripts so I can add my own content… every one of my frustrations is addressed with this method. So excited to get started with Kodansha!


    • Robert J Ford says:

      Benjamin, I’m in much the same boat as what you’ve described. Longtime speaker, but back in America for some years now, my あちこちで knowledge base of assembled smatterings of kanji are in need of a systemic approach. I have my lifetime subscription for Wanikani, and was about to start back on that , but your reservations might be some I share (though I’ve only seen the beginning chapters of that system). Could you go deeper into these reservations, and also, give some suggestions to me (an “older” student) who’s not entirely in love with all things SRS for how to best go about judiciously using Memrise / Anki to augment self study?

  9. Kyle Hipke says:

    Just wanted to add my gratitude, this is an extremely valuable post you have put together. This will really streamline my progress with KLC. I think it might be helpful if you add some info on how you structured the Anki cards (fronts and backs), though.

  10. vaanen says:

    Hello, great post ! Does anyone knows when the graded reading sets will be available ? Seems they have been announced for a long time, but nothing is coming 🙁

  11. lars says:

    Great post! There is only one thing I’m struggling with (just bought the book). If you’re familiar with WaniKani, then you know they also use mnemonics for the on’yomi and kun’yomi readings. But this book doesn’t do that, so how did you remember the readings when using this book?

    • Daniel Collotte says:

      I am of the opinion that studying kanji readings alone, except in a few circumstances, is not very useful. I learn the recommended vocabulary which seems to include the most common readings (and I’m fairly certain that’s the intention). I don’t want to stress about learning EVERY reading of every kanji. I can pick up the less common ones as I come across them.

  12. Jordan says:

    Hi there,

    I know this is an older post, but I’m just coming across it. I’m in a similar boat as you were. I had studied Japanese in college for two years, I then moved to Japan for a little under a year. Since then I have lost most of what I learned, but I know it’s in the back of my head somewhere.

    I’ve downloaded Anki and bought this book after reading the wonderful reviews. However, sitting here looking at Anki I’m not sure I’m understanding how you set your cards up from start to finish. It’s really not the most intuitive program, at least at first glance. I looked at your Anki template but I’m not really understanding the two cards thing.

    Any help in getting the Anki side of things would be appreciated. Also, if you don’t mind, I could email you if that would make things easier.

    • Daniel Collotte says:

      I shot your comment email a message. If you don’t get it, feel free to message me at daniel (at) this website.

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