James W Heisig: Remembering the Kanji 1

The aim of this book is to provide the student of Japanese with a simple method for correlating the writing and the meaning of Japanese characters in such a way as to make them both easy to remember. It is intended not only for the beginner, but also for the more advanced student looking for some relief to the constant frustration of forgetting how to write the kanji and some way to systematize what he or she already knows. By showing how to break down the complexities of the Japanese writing system into its basic elements and suggesting ways to reconstruct meanings from those elements, the method offers a new perspective from which to learn the kanji. There are, of course, many things that the pages of this book will not do for you. You will read nothing about how kanji combine to form compounds. Nor is anything said about the various ways to pronounce the characters […]


First things first

This is a textbook of sorts. It teaches a method of remembering kanji, which are Chinese characters used in the Japanese language. You can download a sample chapter from the publisher’s website and see for yourself how it works. I have just finished working through it with the help of a web forum dedicated to it, and I think the book and its method is the single greatest thing I’ve encountered in my quest to learn Japanese. Of course, this may just suit me really well because I have some obsessive qualities that this learning style complements. I shall now explain.

Why I read it

I have been trying to learn Japanese. For a while now I’ve dabbled in different beginner courses: a great app called ‘Human Japanese’; the Pimsleur CDs (ugh); the Michel Thomas CDs (better). Then J and I went to Japan for the northern summer and I realised how crippled you are if you don’t know any kanji, which are the Chinese characters used in the writing system.

See, the thing is, Japanese has three different sets of symbols with which to write. Two of these sets, the hiragana and katakana, have sound-based symbols, so if you learn the 45 symbols in one or both sets you can theoretically spell out anything in Japanese. Kanji are more complex in application, pronunciation, interpretation, number and formation. They are used singly or in combination to represent entire words, there are tens of thousands of them, and a single character can have many more strokes than a hiragana or katakana character. Those have a maximum of 4 strokes each; there is a common-use kanji with 29.

As a result, most beginners’ courses in Japanese leave kanji out altogether. They spell everything in hiragana and katakana, something that’s only done in Japan for very young children. So when you go overseas, you can’t actually read anything.

I knew, when I got home from Japan, that I wanted to continue learning Japanese, and I wanted to do it properly: with kanji. I found a great shiny new hardcover textbook called ‘Introduction to Modern Japanese’ at a university book sale for $5, and it involved kanji from the start.

Problem was, every time they introduced a new character, I’d be taken out of the flow of learning. I had to turn away from the text, go to my special kanji practice sheet, and start copying out the character multiple times, trying to learn the strokes by sheer rote memorization. My mental chatter would go something like, ‘So this one has horizontal-vertical-horizontal, then two diagonals, then horizontal-vertical-horizontal. Or was it horizontal-horizontal-vertical at the end? Or have I confused it with that other character that looks the same but has three horizontals at the bottom…’

Then other characters come along and they are almost the same but not quite. Others borrow similar sub-parts. And how do you know, from looking at a printed symbol, how Japanese people identify it? As in, do they see it as a single unit, or is it divisible into sub-parts, and where are the divisions? If I leave a gap between that stroke and this, does it cease to resemble the character to a native speaker?

I remembered seeing a TED talk where a guy mentioned finding some logical chart of kanji that enabled you to learn them in a sensible, systematic manner. I got on the net to try and track it down, and ended up discovering the Heisig method.

The Heisig method

This is the key to the Heisig method: learning fundamental building blocks of kanji characters, then combining them to make new ones, each with its own unique ‘key word’ in English (usually the primary meaning of the character). Each fundamental part, called a ‘primitive’, gets associated with a visualisable thing (e.g. sun, a filing cabinet, Spiderman), and when they get combined, you remember the resulting character by combining the primitive images to make a new story.

For example, the character for ‘bundle’ 束 can be deconstructed into the primitives for ‘mouth’ 口 and ‘tree’ 木. So you can think of a ‘bundle of joy’, or a swaddled-up baby, that’s been dropped in a tree by the delivery-stork en route, and now is resting in the middle of all the branches, crying with its mouth wide open. Thus bundle = mouth in tree.

Because you learn them in a logical order of primitives, not order of frequency of use, you learn some comically uncommon ones early on. ‘Decameron’ (a period of ten days) is famously in the first 70 characters you learn (‘effulgent’ is another entertaining early presence), while you don’t get to ‘horse’ until character 2132.

The book covers all 2200 government-mandated ‘General Use’ kanji, which will let you recognise 95 out of every 100 kanji you encounter in the wild.

My process

I started at the end of August, did about 20 new characters a day, and was finished by New Year’s Eve. I made a nerdy spreadsheet.


I used Reviewing The Kanji every step of the way for mnemonic ideas and flashcard revision via spaced repetition, and the Kanji LS app for writing practice. I also made some actual mnemonic images along the way and shared them here.

Not everyone understands

Heisig is divisive. A lot of people diss on it really hard. These people are divided into two kinds, generally.

First, there’s the people who type really loud, angry, vitriolic comments against the Heisig method on internet forums. Their argument tends to include things like “What a waste of time, spending months learning the kanji and not even learning how to pronounce them, then you say you ‘know’ Japanese and really all you have is some kind of party trick that’s totally useless!” The second type of critic is more mellow but just doesn’t understand. They tend to say things like, “I learned kanji organically as I learned the language and it worked fine for me; why bother with this fad?”

My answer to the second people is that ‘organically’ didn’t work for me. At all. This did. My answer to the first people is, stop being so insecure. Yes, we’re comfortable with not knowing the pronunciations yet. No, we don’t think we are ‘learning Japanese’ yet. We are just laying the groundwork that will help later.

And it does help. Now that I’ve finished, I’ve decided to start ‘proper’ learning via Tae Kim’s guide. In the first section he describes hiragana and gives the Japanese word for some diacritical marks used: dakuten, written 濁点. Revelation: now I’ve finished Heisig, I recognise these as ‘voiced’ and ‘spot’. This makes sense as dakuten are in fact dots that change a sound (say, ‘k’) to its voiced equivalent (‘g’). I don’t need to go away and learn two new characters – they are already my friends and I just slot them in. Soooo much easier than before. It feels like I’ve been given a superpower.


This book was mostly read (and written on) in Newcastle and Port Macquarie.

Read an interview with James Heisig here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s