Learning kanji with elements & mnemonics


Maybe that's a scary word for you. Maybe this is among your first times seeing it. Or maybe you think they're beautiful and you want to stare at them all day.

The Japanese writing system has 3 types of characters: hiragana, katakana, and kanji.


Hiragana and katakana represent sounds of Japanese. Kanji can represent both sounds and meanings.

Wherever you may find yourself in regards to kanji, we'll be here with you to guide you smoothly through learning them and — perhaps more importantly — ensuring they don't escape your brain.

We do a few things to ensure that kanji stick with you.

Kanji elements

First, we break kanji down into the elements that make them up.

Sometimes these elements are smaller parts that cannot form a kanji on their own. Sometimes they're a combination of a part or two that cannot stand on its own, and one or more kanji that can. And sometimes elements are multiple kanji mushed together to form a new one.

To give you an example on how these can be broken down, let's take a look at this kanji:

Kanji song
[250px “歌 song; sing”]

The kanji 歌 (song; sing) is actually made up using three other kanji: 可 (passable; acceptable) (which appears twice) and 欠 (lack).

Let's break this character down and see how kanji actually make a lot of sense under a microscope.

First, on the left side we have two of the same kanji above one another:

Kanji passable
[250px “可 passable; acceptable”]

可 can have a few meanings depending on what words we use it in, but when we use it as an element to build up other kanji, we just use passable for the sake of simplicity.

So we have two 可 (passable) kanji on the left side of 歌 (sing; song).

What's more, 可 can be broken down even further:

Kanji mouth
[250px “口 mouth”]
Kanji neighborhood
[250px “丁 neighborhood”]

口 (mouth) and 丁 (neighborhood) are simple enough that we can remember them just by sight. This is easier to do when we tie them to vocabulary, all of which the NativShark platform does for you by default.

How do we remember all this?

Maybe the handful of characters above was a breeze to remember, but how can we keep track of all the 2,200+ characters we'll need to know?

Being able to recognize kanji is much more important than being able to produce them from memory. Luckily, recognizing them is not a complicated process if you break kanji down into elements, use mnemonics, and see them in vocabulary.

Since it's a lot of effort and potential frustration for minimal fluency gain, we don't recommend hand-writing kanji — and especially not trying to do some from memory — until the later phases, and even then it's only if you want to do so. If you ever find yourself in the rare situation where you need to write kanji, you'll have your phone handy to look up any kanji you need to.

Since our kanji flashcards show the order that each stroke of a kanji should be written, you should learn how to write a kanji — how to move a pen or pencil in a way that resembles a kanji — even if you don't have to remember how to write it from memory.

Aside from everything above, vocabulary is key to keeping these characters in our heads.

They are tied so closely to vocab that it might even be helpful to not think of them as a different thing. Kanji are used in vocab, so knowing one piece of vocab or a kanji will quickly lead to you knowing the other.

Given time, you may very well find yourself to be in the same position as I am, having more trouble remembering words that don't use kanji, instead of the ones that do.

Another very effective way to keep kanji in our heads is...


A mnemonic is a memory technique that allows us to keep track of everything going on in a character.

If you've ever told yourself you're no good at remembering things, there's no need to worry. Memory, like language, is something that can be trained. And mnemonics are one of the techniques we can use to do so.

In short, mnemonics are short stories that we make based on the elements of a given kanji.

Mnemonics make it significantly easier to memorize a given kanji because when you see the elements all tied together, it makes you recall the story, which will include the meaning of the kanji.

We provide mnemonics, but also encourage you to make your own as you please. In general, self-made mnemonics can be easier to remember because you put in that extra effort to make it, and you can make them personal to you, which makes it stick better.

So, in the case of 可 (passable; acceptable), which combines 丁 (neighborhood) and 口 (mouth), we could say something along the lines of...

All the mouths in the neighborhood talking about what is passable as acceptable behavior there.

We have our two elements and they help point us to the meaning of the kanji.

In this particular mnemonic, we were able to squeeze both of the meanings mentioned earlier into the mnemonic. But in general all we need to do is get the feel for what a kanji means, because the meaning is almost never exact, especially when we try to use English to describe them.

Full understanding comes with vocabulary, and that's why we teach them alongside one another.

Back to breaking down 歌

Moving on, all that's left to do is apply these concepts to the kanji on the right half too, and then we'll have 歌 (song; sing) nice and cozy in our brains.

Kanji lack
[250px “欠 lack”]

欠 (lack) is made up 人 (person), which is a kanji in and of itself, and 勹 (wrap), which is simply a building block, not a standalone kanji.

Kanji person
[250px “人 person”]

The meaning of wrap for 勹 is based on its use among the kanji it's found in. Namely, it appears in 包 (wrap; cover), which is a combination of 勹 and 己 (self).

Kanji wrap
[250px “包 wrap; cover”]
Kanji self
[250px “己 self”]

Anyway, let's make a mnemonic for 欠 (lack) using 人 (person) and 勹 (wrap):


A person is wrapped in a blanket when they lack heat.

With that, we're now able to make a mnemonic for 歌 (song; sing), which uses 可 (passable; acceptable) and 欠 (lack):


Two judges say it is passable, and one says something is lacking after they listen to your singing.

Note that it doesn't matter that we using "singing" in the mnemonic above instead of "song" or "sing."

As mentioned before, we can fill out the specifics with vocab that use this kanji. When we're focusing on breaking kanji down, we only care about getting the general feeling of that kanji ingrained into us.