Successful Strategies for Remembering and Using Kanji

2014 July 11
by Dani A

Let’s face it, 漢字 kanji is torture. It is. It’s Chinese characters that have been tweaked to *fit into Japanese, and have both Chinese readings, 音読み on’yomi, and Japanese readings, 訓読み kun’yomi. Not to mention that a lot of kanji has the same exact reading as other kanji. For example, the following characters have the same 音読み reading of しょう:

小, 性, 少, 賞, 正, 章, 生, 称, 省, 商, 症, among many others.

*Many kanji resemble their original Chinese counterparts, but are not the same character. That’s why if you know Chinese, you can probably understand what a Japanese character means, even though it’s technically different, and vice versa.

As there are well over 2,000 kanji, it is important to be able to read, write, or at least be familiar with as many as possible. In order to make the kanji retention fun, I use the kanji game (also called the radical game). Click the following for more details:


Word Associaton






Kanji can typically be broken down into smaller characters, called radicals. These radicals, especially in Chinese, indicate what a kanji means or what other characters it’s related to. For example, the kanji for rain 雨 is used in other kanji: 雪 – snow, 雲 – cloud, 電 – electricity, and so on. Thus, the object of the game is to remember kanji through the radicals.

The game starts with writing one kanji, and then writing as many other kanji with the same radical as possible. When you can’t remember any more kanji with the same radical, choose another radical and start again. (This can lead to the overlapping of kanji, as there tends to be more than one radical in more complex characters, i.e. 経 = 糸 + 土 + 又).

I always start with a simple kanji and go from there! I’ll start with the sun radical, 日:

日 白 早 宿 題 曜 映 時 明

If I got stuck after 明, I’ll continue the game with the moon radical, 月:

明 月 服 消 清 青 育 勝



Word Association

Although remembering kanji through radicals is easy enough, sometimes I can only remember certain kanji through the word with which it’s associated. Take the following, for instance:

道 首 手 紙  糸 結 婚 女 好 子 字 学

I started with 道 then went to 首, which means neck. I then thought of body parts and went to hand, 手. From hand I got 手紙 and thought of 糸, followed by the kanji for wedding, 結婚. I then started a new train of thought by using the woman radical for 女 and 好. Finally, I finished by using the radical for child, 子. (The game never really ends . . .)

So if you get stuck, remember that the kanji giving you problems may be part of a word, like 結婚. Just start writing from the second half of the word or go back to another kanji and go from there. Here’s another example:

自 転 車 運 連 絡 終 冬 秋 私 仏 作 休 体 本 木 曜 日 白 百 的

Do you see how they connect?




As seen above, there are a lot of kanji with the same 音読み on’yomi and 訓読み kun’yomi (Chinese and Japanese readings, respectively). Thus, thanks to kanji having multiple readings, you can remember the characters by using heterographs, words with same sounds but different meanings and spellings.  The object is not to distinguish which character falls under which reading, however.

For example, the following kanji have the same reading of き:

木 来 気 機 期 記 黄 着 季 帰 生

You can also use verbs and adjectives for this! The following have the reading of かえる:

蛙 帰る 変える 返る 買える




さて, let’s try combining the aforementioned methods of remembering kanji through radicals (r), word association (wa), AND heterographs (h):

鼻 花 化 北 東 京 方 旅 遊 族 医 意 立 新 聞 文 校 高 紅 葉 洋 服 月 静 青 精 米

Could you follow along? Here’s what happened:

I started with 鼻 (はな), followed by h 花 (はな), followed by r and got 化, continued with one r and got 北 (north), followed by wa 東 (east), followed by wa 京 (東京 = Tokyo), followed by r and got 方, continued that r and got 旅, 遊, and 族, followed by a different r and got 医 (い), followed by h 意 (い), followed by its parent r 立, which is seen in 新, followed by wa 聞 (ぶん, 新聞 = newspaper), followed by h 文 (ぶん), followed by r 校, followed by h 高 (こう, which is also wa: 高校 = high school), followed by h 紅 (こう), followed by wa 葉 (よう, 紅葉 = leaves change color in autumn), followed by h 洋 (よう), followed by wa 服 (洋服 = Western clothing), followed by r 月, continued with h 静 (せい), followed by h and r 青 and 精, followed by r 米.

WHEW! See the method to the madness?

Let’s see if you can follow from 米:

米 国 主 住 全 然 犬 猫 狭 人 内 容 欲 飲 院 員 買 目 耳 恥 心 臣 姫 賢 券 勝つ 活

Pat yourself on the back, that was a rough one!


Now, I typically play this game when I’m bored or going somewhere to pass the time. You don’t have to play this game alone, however. If you’re in a Japanese class or study group, play this game! If in a classroom with a big enough blackboard, break up into teams, with each group at a different section of the board. Each team has the same starter kanji and has to write as many characters using one of the above methods for, say 1 minute. This can get super intense!

When you learn a new kanji, make it your starter character and break it down from there! This game can be played by anyone, including *beginners. I do suggest that unless you know a lot of kanji and their respective readings, stick with radicals and word associations for quick games. *If you’re using Genki I, I suggest not playing this game until after learning the kanji of Chapter 6.

Go to‘s list of kanji radicals to see how many there are and through them the kanji you know!


Kanji can be a pain, but retaining them need not be  a bore!

Thanks for reading and 頑張ってください!




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