Remembering the Kanji Part 1

Remembering the Kanji Part 1

Remembering the Kanji (RTK) is a three volume set by James Heisig meant for learning to easily recognize and write kanji. While most every RTK user that is midway to finished will talk of RTK in hushed revered voices, or loud excitable ones, you wont find many who hate the RTK way. Most users have a hard time describing just why they love Heisig’s way to learning kanji. Some claim its even impossible for the beginner to understand until they get to about 500+ kanji, but well, I’m going to give it a try.

RTK isn’t a means to an end. RTK is simply a nice way to get the ball rolling so you can steam roll written Japanese. RTK isn’t even a method to learning to use Japanese fluently, which is why its here in the tools section. Heisig’s method is really simple when you get down to it, which is why it can be used successfully by so many different types of learners out there. Heisig also isn’t for everyone, but its defiantly worth a try.

When starting out looking at kanji, beginners tend to sweat. They think, “what the heck is all these pictures and how can I possibly even begin to understand them! They all look so alike!” I hear that a lot, I also hear “I can communicate in kana, its just so much easier for me, why should I even bother learning kanji!” Kanji’s a vital part of Japanese, and you wont get by without it. Kanji actually makes Japanese so much easier. But often people try to tackle kanji by not even familiarizing themselves with the shapes that are common in a lot of kanji. Lets give some examples how Heisig tries to make shapes easier to recognize in kanji.

Heisig teaches you how to write and recognize a simple kanji like 月 by assigning it a keyword that generally is a decent definition or feeling of the kanji, in this case month. He will also sometimes use it as an element because it will appear in other kanji. The element 月  is called moon. You come up with a story to help you remember it. So you’d get something like “the moon is full once a month”.

He then will teach you another kanji like 日 which means day. Its element is also sun, or wagging tongue. So you could use the story “the sun wag’s it tongue at us every day making it so hot!”

Seems silly huh? but it really helps make these shapes familiar, so that when it shows up in the kanji 明 you already feel familiar with it because it has the two kanji elements you’ve already learned. 明 means Bright, and the story most people come up with is something like “The sun and the moon are the brightest things in the sky” or “the sun’s light is so bright it can even reflect off the moon”. All the sudden its a lot easier to recognize kanji. Here are some more that use 月 and 日: 昍 朋 晶 晿 That’s 4 more just using the shapes you just now learned for a total of 7 right there. See how easy that is? Of course some are a bit more trickier, but you’re never presented something until you’ve learned how its made.

So the biggest thing Heisig is trying to help you overcome is your ability to welcome in shapes of kanji. The second I would say is the ability to write kanji! The biggest plus is that writing kanji becomes second nature, which then leads to looking them up being a sinch. You know exactly what the strokes are, you know exactly the feel of the kanji and can write it out for recognition software even.

People claim the downside to Heisig is you spend a lot of time on a keyword that doesn’t always portray the kanji well, that is in English, and doesn’t teach sounds, and takes to long, and is boring. So lets talk about these “negatives”.

Keyword that doesn’t always fit. This is obvious, in fact, kanji can sometimes cover two seemingly different feelings, but be the same kanji. English has only so many words anyways, and kanji can have similar meanings to it too. But you’re going to be dropping all English as you go anyways, so you shouldn’t have spent time trying to ingrain the keyword in your head to begin with. This is probably a mistake by newbies who are specifically perfectionists.

As for sounds, RTK 2 does address this, however most of us don’t like it. Not because Heisig does bad with it, but simply a lot of the people I know learn Kanji’s sounds in context only, not separate like so many do. I personally think any other way is akin to banging ones head into a brick wall. Heisig can be made into a lot of fun if you make your stories hilarious, sexual, or deviant. I’m constantly chuckling at my stories, and these stories are always easier to remember too. Heisig challenges you to make your stories silly, zany, and memorable, which can change your pace from boring to fun. Also, SRS Heisig up and make it a mini game. This takes out a lot of the boredom!

As for the length, and it actually to me is the most valid argument about RTK. Some people will spend roughly 3 years going through RTK. This doesn’t make them bad, at all, however 10 a day will take about a year, and that is the average. In the same respect I’ve heard of some people doing it in a month. Insane!

The claim is that within that yearish time frame, said people could have been actively learning kanji in other means and would teach sounds at the same time too. Everyone learns differently, and because of that, I certainly don’t want you to do Heisig if another way is faster. All I can do here is explain my reasoning behind choosing Heisig.

I started trying to learn kanji flat out by doing the core 2k for The first week was okay. I learned a lot of phrases and words but I noticed that I began to get sluggish and the kanji was starting to run together. I also couldn’t look them up easily because I didn’t know what stroke order they were, and quite frankly it was a little overwhelmingly boring because I felt like my brain mushed up on me. If you’re unfamiliar with the core2k, here is an example:

それはとってもいい話だ。” not only was I trying to remember the sounds for the kanji, はなし, but I was trying to remember the word I was suppose to be learning, “それ” and its definition, as well as the sentences meaning. And remember the shape of the kanji. That’s roughly 5 times for just this sentence. Imagine if there were several kanji in the sentence. While you can get away not paying attention to anything but the “それ” in this one and its definition technically, the next sentence isn’t so: “私は絵を見るのが好きです。” It’s vocab word has a kanji!, so at the barest I was trying to remember at least 3 things. If the vocab contained more kanji, then up and up!

Now, since I realized then I didn’t want my brain mushing up kanji all together, as some of them to me felt too alike at the time, I decided maybe I should focus on them alone. There are a lot of tools out there, but Heisig caught my eye. While I’ve been doing Heisig, I’ve studied a lot of other ways too, building up to where now, that first sentence, I don’t have to actually learn anything. I learned it all through immersion, save for the kanji’s sound. So its from 5 to 1. Second 12 to 4. That second sentence has 4 kanji, so only 4 sounds! And technically if sticking to just the way grades: I don’t need to know anything for the first, and only the sound of one kanji for the second sentence. Because of that, I can now go through the core2k millions of times faster than when I was just trying to mush it all in at once.

In the end, could I have still been where I’m at, if I just stuck with it? Maybe? Perhaps, however my confidence dealing with kanji is so much higher going in, that it alone gives me so much motivation. Not to mention, I got tons and tons and tons of hours and hours of immersion around me. I hear Japanese like its English. I never confuse the sounds and I even know how to mimic them making fun of people, or being gangsters and what not. I can even hear the Japanese people pretending to have French or American accents to the Japanese now, or detect non natives who’ve not honed their skills. I know countless phrases and body language I can use now because I was wise in the time I spent alongside of RTK. Yes, RTK has been roughly a year and a half endearment that I could have done a lot faster, but I actually have enjoyed all the immersion, and its making a huge differences now that I’m going to the next phase of my studying.

RTK is just a tool. Don’t let it define you as a language learner, just use and abuse it till your done and toss it by the wayside! Don’t focus to hard on perfect recollection of keywords, but rather embrace the kanji’s looks, feelings, and writing.

Now that we’ve discussed what and why, next Part will cover the hows. It still amazes me that a lot of people don’t even do Heisig’s method correctly and then wonders why they’re having such troubles with it. So if you’re one of those people struggling, check out Part 2 of RTK!

8 Responses to “Remembering the Kanji Part 1”
  1. e_dub_kendo says:

    For anyone who has struggled with RTK, or is slogging through it but would love to check out an alternative, let me introduce Lazy Kanji:

    (I recomend reading both posts)

    Created by our friend Khatzumoto from AJATT
    and modified by yours truly, it’s an alternative to Heisig which can claim to have most of the benefits from Heisig’s method while avoiding some of the “problems.” Again, this is highly experimental and I can only tell you what my personal experience with this system has been*, but if you are considering giving up, or putting kanji off again because RTK seems too hard, this is definitely something worth looking at. And, because I’m super nice, as I made my Lazy Kanji deck, I formatted it to be useful to the general public and made it a shared deck on Anki. That means you don’t even have to create your own cards if you don’t want.

    mikoto, not trying to steal the show, just wanted to let folks know there is an alternative to Heisig that retains much of Heisig’s structure but takes a bit of the work out.
    You mentioned that there were other methods, and some people will find RTK not to their taste, so I thought I’d promote one of those alternatives a bit. Hope you don’t mind…:)

    btw, are you gonna join the reading contest?

    *very successful although I don’t think I have quite as solid a grasp on writing all the kanji as people who did RTK the original way, I have watched it grow more and more solid, especially as I’ve begun to learn vocabulary which really seems to cement the kanji in place. After doing Lazy Kanji my ability to learn new vocabulary has probably quadrupled, and I can sit down with reading material and, with the aid of a dictionary and some other tools I can read at a pace that’s slow but fast enough to be worth the effort it takes to slog through it.

    • mikotoneko says:

      Not stealing at all! I was going to talk about the lazy kanji way in fact in the next section along with rtk lite as well again. I actually downloaded and tried your lazy cards out about 2 weeks ago to see how it was so when I discussed it, I’d have first hand feel.
      Thanks for your posting on Anki btw, makes for it to be even more of a lazy feel 😀 hehe.

    • mikotoneko says:

      oh and yes, I will be participating in READ OR DIE! and tracking my information here on the blog to help keep up with the information. I’ll also do a small spread probably tomorrow about it for my readers who haven’t heard about it yet.

  2. フレムロックス says:

    Almost precisely a year ago (err, it’s nearing a year, I don’t know exactly) I had found AJATT on a whim. Before that point I had never seriously considered learning Japanese despite my immense otaku tendencies and what-not on the mere basis that I would never go to such lengths just to be able to read 漫画 and watch アニメ in their original form. Well without stretching out this introduction something changed within me and I decided I wanted to live and work in Japan.

    So instead of going hardcore danny choo take-Japanese-classes-and-beast-them, I more or less took AJATT at its face value and started doing it. During this entire past year I’ve honestly not been going super hardcore on the AJATT method due to (dumb) excuses like academics or what-not, but I my plan was always to get the actual train rolling once post-RtK hits. Anyway, ignoring my rather irrelevant introduction above, I’m nearing the end. I’ve hit some 漢字 1969 and plan to call it a night once I hit 2000. The absolute biggest advice I would give to someone? Don’t skimp out on the daily reviews. There were two or three instances where I had too much academic pressure and I just couldn’t handle so much stuff and decided to take a break from reviewing and RtK altogether. These reviews ended up piling to numbers like 700-800 due reviews, and even 1000 one time (Not fun to grind through, by the way). For 4 months I let myself sink around in the 1300 mark without learning ANY new 漢字. After summer break had started I decided to make a strong effort to return, and in these past few months I’ve jumped from 1300 to the 1969 I mentioned earlier. My point is that hitting burn-out on the Japanese project is so detrimental that it’s not worth it in the first place. So the absolute key is most definitely to take your time with it. Well, the above advice is probably a given to most, but I figured that a personal-touch would make the advice more meaningful.

    Now one year later, people have come up with things like Lazy RtK or RtK with Japanese keywords , etc. etc. as alternatives to the original method. I wasn’t particularly keen on switching tracks mid-way so I just kept with what I was doing. To this day I haven’t ventured into grammar or full-on sentence mining (although I did do Kana, this was pre-AJATT; even so I would recommend doing Kana before Kanji anyway just to make the journey a little less dull). My comment/reply is getting nowhere and I was sort-of just writing this on the top of my head so I guess I’ll close with a few extra comments.

    I say academic pressure, but I am actually still in high-school (going on as a Junior after this break). Yeesh, to imagine what college students go through with balancing RtK on their palate of studies.

    Also, before any attempt to learn Japanese; I compared my Japanese comprehension abilities with that of a friend who had taken classes for 3 years. Embarrassingly enough (for her), mine was better (don’t get me wrong, in the wider spectrum of fluency, both of us stink real bad); any knowledge of Japanese I had accumulated at that point was just from watching アニメ or reading 庵が (mostly the former). Although to her defense she wasn’t an arduous student; all the same, to those of you who plan to just wait ’till “you take a class” to learn it, the class isn’t going to do the learning for you (that and why bother when AJATT exists?).

    The whole revolution of language acquisition (that’s what I call it since most people still seem to perceive languages as a class-only zone) is exciting but boring for me with no one to talk to. I guess most people in high-school aren’t inspired to take on projects themselves. Maybe I should make an effort to actually contact other folks doing this stuff.

    Okay I have nothing else to say, haha. This comment has been incredibly long-winded and half-relevant to the article. I’m sorry for anyone who didn’t get anything out of it. Just wanted to share my story.

    Anyone who’s been reading all the Japanese-learning blogs like AJATT and mikotoneko still hasn’t done anything, GO DO IT! RtK is free on google books, so no excuses.

    Also, you can find RtK Volumes 2 and 3, as well as RtKana (yes the latest editions), just search by ISBN.

    • mikotoneko says:

      I’m glad to hear that you’re taking your time and getting back on the horse!

      As for having no one to talk to, I highly recommend getting into a community like or lang-8. Get skype, its free! I’ve found lots of people who want to practice and talk in Japanese, both native and non native from around the world.

      Also, start a club! “meet-up” is a great website to try and get stuff rolling as well too in your area, and you might find there is clubs already there. Check out your local colleges and you might find they have open clubs for Japanese there too.

      Thanks for your story. I love to hear how other learners are doing in their self studies!

  3. フレムロックス says:

    Okay for some reason (I’m really absent-minded at the moment) I ended up commenting on your About page about the following, so you can go ahead and reject that comment over there.

    Quick addendum to what I said about free on google books. It’s actually more like half-released but at least that gives you a bit more than the sample to do if you’re waiting for a copy to arrive. Still, do something.

  4. James Elsey says:

    Great write up, a pleasure to read.

    I’m toying with the idea of JLPT 5, but think I have a long way to go as yet. Will definately check out RTK.


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  1. […] used the Heisig‘s method for remembering Kanji. Pretty much there’s components (primitives or […]

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  • Read More or Die! 2011

    _2011 End Results_
    Total read for Tadoku:
    __433.3 pages!__
    Placement: 115/188
    October 2011 Contest:
    Placement: 97/120
    End Tally: 59.2
    July 2011 Contest:
    Placement: 86/142
    End Tally: 195.6
    April 2011 Contest:
    Placement: 62/106
    End Tally: 154.5
    January 2011 Contest:
    Placement: 84/99
    End Tally: 24
    August 2010 Contest:
    Placement: 20/41
    End Tally: 160

  • Read Or Die 2013

    Goal: 600
    Total: 906.26
    blew my goal outta the water!

    March 2-Week:
    Goal: 125

    Goal: 250
    Total: 314

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