Review: Remembering the Kanji, volume 1, by James W Heisig

So, I recently took the time (about 2½ months) to work my way through volume 1 of Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji. The following is my review, which I also plan to post on Amazon.

Bottom Line: It works

Okay, so here’s the bottom line. It works. It does precisely what it sets out to do. I’ve been studying the Japanese language since I was 13 years old; it’s now been about 20 years of studying the language. It hasn’t been entirely consistent; it has often been a few months on (full-bore), a few months off (after burnout). Before I worked through RTK, I was probably familiar with around 300-400 of the most frequently-used kanji. I could never seem to get much past that hump, it always felt very much like an uphill battle, and even though I’d hit the foot of the hill running full-bore, I’d never quite make it to the top before, exhausted, I’d start to slip downhill again.

I’d beat my head against a Japanese reader for a while, which, though organized in such a way as to introduce a few characters at a time, instead of leaving you to deal with whatever characters you may happen to find in other reading materials, still progressed fairly rapidly, and was also fairly outdated. Then I’d beat my head against some “real” reading material for a while. Then I’d try to ramp myself up on gradeschool-level texts, so there’d be fewer kanji to deal with; but this doesn’t necessarily help so much, since kanji can often be a key to understanding a compound word’s roots, and help a good deal in learning the words from which they’re built.

The problem is, every time I came to an unfamiliar kanji, it would put a hard stop to the flow of my reading. I don’t know the meaning, I don’t know the pronunciation, I probably don’t know the next couple of characters after it, and I don’t know the word in which it’s appearing. I can’t continue reading until I’ve spent a while studying each individual character, how they’re pronounced in this context, and what the word means in which they appear.

Since finishing volume one of RTK (about a week ago), reading is dramatically easier for me. I still don’t know how to pronounce many of the characters, but since I’m already familiar with the character (which at this point has become like an old friend), it’s easier for me to attach a pronunciation to it, since I’m no longer having to learn the pronunciation, and the writing, and the meaning (maybe—sometimes it’s necessary to attach new meanings to old friends). Progress moves much more quickly; and often, even if I haven’t learned how to pronounce a string of kanji, I can tell right away, from the Heisig keywords, and from surrounding context, what the word’s meaning is. The first time I encountered 怒っている in some text after Heisig, I knew instantly what word it was (おこっている, roughly “is angry”), because I was already familiar with the Japanese word (but not its writing), and the Heisig keyword associated with that character was “anger”. Similarly, words like 簡単 (かんたん, simplicity + simple/not complex = easy) and 閉じる (とじる, to close) are immediately clear at first encounter, without having to look them up (though doing so to learn the pronunciation is advisable).

Even words whose meanings don’t happen to match the particular keywords I learned, such as 設定 (せってい, establishment + fix (in place) = “preferences/settings” (for computer programs)?), or 削除 (さくじょ, plane + exclude = delete/remove?) are easy to remember, and deepen my understanding of the characters’ true meanings (削 = plane, but also “to whittle”). Even learning 弾 as “bullet”, and then later discovering its use as “play (an instrument)”, isn’t a problem: I already know how to write it, and one of its meanings, so it’s easy to add the new meaning. Easier than learning it without context and without familiarity with its primitives (弓/bow + 単/simple), and trying to learn it amidst a sea of other graphically unrelated characters surrounding it. Basically, just having something that takes away about one and a half (how to write + an approximation of the meaning) of the three or four things I usually have to study at once when learning a kanji – how to write it, what the character means, how to pronounce it in this specific context, and the meaning of the whole word or compound in which it appears – eases the process for me tremendously.

I wish I’d found and studied this book years ago, as I’d be much much further along in my understanding of Japanese at this point if I had.

What it does not do

But let’s be clear: completing this book (or even this series) is not the end of your journey—not by a long shot. Having completed this book, you can’t claim (or at least shouldn’t, though many do) to “know” ~2,000 kanji characters. You do not. You do know “how to write” about 2,000 kanji characters, and you know a meaning for each one (not necessarily the only meaning, or even the most usual meaning). You don’t know how to pronounce a single one of these newly-learned kanji in a single context, unless you already knew beforehand. (If you proceed to volume 2, you will find a system to organize your learning of the “on’yomi” of the various characters, primarily based on signal primatives that give a strong clue to characters’ pronunciation—I’ve heard many people say you don’t need volume 2, and this is true, but I personally find it useful enough to have. Just take what you can use from it, and ditch the rest; don’t feel obligated to do it exactly as laid out.)

So you’ve learned the kanji 生 as “life”. Good for you. But how about its meanings of “student”, or “fresh”, or “birth”, or “breathe”, or “grow”? Is it pronounced セイ or ショウ, or maybe it’s なま or う.まれる or い.きる or は.える? Well, if you haven’t learned what it means and how to say it in each of a variety of contexts (all commonplace), you can hardly claim to “know” it, can you? (If you’re panicking at seeing how confusing it can be to know what a single character means and how to pronounce it, please relax: 生 is a bit of an extreme example; while there are several characters that have a wide variety of meanings or pronunciations, most have only a couple, and in fact, many “kun’yomi” are shared across multiple kanji—which one should be used depends on the nuance intended, or context.)

Completing RTK vol. 1 is not the end or even the middle of your kanji-learning experience (unless of course, like me, you were already middle-ish in your kanji-learning journey). It is the beginning: it serves as an excellent foundation (but only the foundation) for proceeding to learn real meanings and pronunciations in a variety of contexts, which is something you can only really get by reading plenty of material.

Note: The majority of complaints I’ve seen about the Heisig system seem to be that it doesn’t do various things it’s not trying to do in the first place—possibly because some of the people who complete the system claim that it does… “Now I know 2,000 kanji characters!” …no, you don’t. The other common complaint I hear is that no one who finishes this book goes on to gain an intermediate-to-advanced understanding of Japanese. This is silly, as in order for this to be true, the book would actually have to have some property that prevents you from further study. Pssht. In any case, nearly every time this challenge is issued, someone steps forward as a counter-example.

Do not kid yourself that all you have to do is read and visualize each of the kanji in order, and you’ll have learned to recognize 2,000 characters at the end of the book, without ever spending any time to review the ones you learned before. A few reviewers have complained that by the time they got to the end of the book, they’d forgotten all the previous characters from the rest of the book. Well, I mean, duh? Heisig not only never said you wouldn’t have to do any reviews, rather he outlines a specific system for you to use in reviewing them. So, um… review ’em.

Actually, I recommend ignoring his system for creating (and using) flashcards, and using a Spaced Repetition System (SRS) such as Anki, or instead. Anki has several sets of flashcards for RTK that you can download right from within the application, and is geared specifically for RTK. You will not only need to review, you will need to review a lot. You will become frustrated at how quickly you can forget kanji, or at least pieces of kanji, and how certain kanji (fortunately just a handful for me) keep slipping from your memory over and over (tip: if the “story” you’re using isn’t working, use a new one—however, some keywords may be inherently difficult to make associations for). The point isn’t that RTK eliminates the need for repetitive review (he does state that repeated writing of kanji is unnecessary for learning, but that’s different; either way, though, take that advice with a grain (or more) of salt), but that it significantly reduces that need (you need to review, but instead of reviewing entire character forms, you’re mostly reviewing stories, plus infrequent idiosyncratic changes to primitive forms, or unusual primitive positions).

Things it does poorly

Alright, now for some complaints about the book. Honestly, RTK sucks (it just happens to suck way less than any other method I’ve tried). The keywords chosen for kanji are frequently very poor choices (IMO). I imagine I’ll never have a clue as to why the keyword “junior” was chosen for 徒. In several cases, the English keywords themselves are obscure, and I have to look them up in a dictionary. “Decameron”?

Likewise, not enough effort is made to ensure the student chooses a helpful connotation of the keyword (Okay, the keyword is “mould”. Is that “mould” as in “there’s mould on my bread”, or is it “mould” as in “to shape” (and what’s with that British spelling for “mold” anyway 😉 )? Is it “gain” as in “he’s gaining on me”, or as in accquiring something?) Effort is made, but usually for keywords I didn’t actually need much help with, and for far too few of thsoe I really did need. Using the keyword in an example sentence for each character (or something) would have been appreciated.

Also, the “stories” used in the book are frequently very, very poor for visual association. Often they are obscure and rambling monologues with only light connections to the elements in the kanji. I very frequently replaced them with my own visualized connections, and was quite happy when Heisig finally stopped providing his own clumsy narratives.

Wait, didn’t I basically criticize the implementation of every one of the key features of this system? Why yes, yes, I did. Why do I still recommend this book, then (you may ask)? Because in the end it doesn’t matter so much that he didn’t do any of these things well; in the end, that he did them is really all that matters. He provided unique keywords to associate with each primitive and each character, so that you can easily review from keyword-to-kanji. If you don’t like ’em, you can swap ’em with your own (just be sure to check that they are unique – use the index at the back of the book to see if your keyword is already taken). He teaches the characters only after all their component pieces have been learned, which vastly improves the learning experience—instead of learning character forms, you’re learning character components, and just putting them together. As for the stories, you can always substitute your own (and, for the majority of the book, are required to in any case).

Of course, substituting your own keywords would require you to already be familiar enough to realize that the one chosen for you isn’t helpful. But the truth is, even if you learn a keyword that has nothing to do with the most common meaning (or even really any meaning) you’re going to see this character used for, you have the character in your arsenal. Once you’ve learned 徒 as “junior”, even if “junior” has little to do with anything, you still recognize the character, are comfortable and familiar with it. If you should then learn to think of it as “disciple” (キリスト教徒 = Christian, イスラム教徒 = Muslim, 聖徒 = disciple/adherent), it’s not remotely hard to replace the keyword you learned with a new meaning (which is what you’ll have to do anyway for many characters, even when the keyword you’ve learned is an actual meaning of the character).

Basically: the primitive keywords suck, and the stories suck, but you don’t need the stories, and the keywords are only a temporary association anyway that you’ll later either expand on or replace outright. The book does a good job of teaching you how to write the characters properly, and illustrates the differences between printed and written forms; and most of all, it presents everything in an order that streamlines learning.

Shortcomings to the system

The system itself has a few disadvantages which are worth mentioning, even though in my opinion they are crushingly outweighed by the advantages of this system.

First, a significant portion of your energy in reviewing and associating the characters with keywords, is that many of the keywords are confusingly similar. This is an unavoidable consequence of trying to map each character to a unique and individual keyword, since many kanji have very close meanings (which are often used to reinforce eachother when they are paired to make a kanji compound word). “Exam”, “examination”, and “test” are separate keywords. “Admonish”, “criticize”, “rebuke”, and “censure”. “Shoulder” versus “shouldered”. “Marriage”, “matrimony”, and “marry into”. Some keywords differ only very, very slightly. During review (per Heisig, always keyword-to-kanji, never the reverse), I’ll sometimes get mixed up and write the character for a similar but different keyword. I’ll then have to devote some time into focusing on what connotations the different words have that I can add to my stories to better distinguish them. This is energy I would not have to spend in learning kanji “normally”; I would learn the characters just from the contexts in which I see them used, and be able to distinguish them just on that basis, even when they have essentially the same meaning. I wouldn’t have to concentrate to think which character was associated to some specific meaning; instead, I’d just know which of the similar characters I “meant”, and use that.

Additionally, this system comes with a condition: it only really works if you work through it all at once, to the exclusion of other study methods. I don’t think you can effectively combine this with other systems simultaneously, and Heisig himself says this at least once in the introduction. This means that you have to work through all 2,000+ characters before you can begin making any use of any of them. This can be a daunting task to contemplate, and this is only for the worse since as far as I know, this system will not be effective if it is interrupted. If you drop it partway through, you can’t pick it up again where you left off, unless of course you’ve been dilligently reviewing those keywords that you had learned up to that point the whole time you were away.

For my part, I had beat my head against other methods for quite long enough to be motivated to work all the way through without stopping, and I’ve been rewarded with an excellent foundation for continuing my kanji studies.

Comparison to Kanji ABC

It’s worth pointing out a similar system for learning the Kanji: Kanji ABC. It takes a very similar approach to learning the kanji, and in particular focuses on the same key concept behind RTK: learn the primitives first, and build your knowledge of the characters from that. In my opinion, it also has a tendency to choose more useful keywords for the primitives than RTK does. However, it suffers from two shortcomings that really prevent it from being as effective as RTK, in my opinion: first, it does not teach unique, reviewable keywords for the characters themselves; only for the primitives, so you really can’t use it in isolation; you’d have to study each character thoroughly (using external means) in order to really retain any information about them. Second, it only demonstrates the printed forms of kanji, which can differ significantly from the written forms, and doesn’t really provide great coverage in general on how to write the characters.


I would love to see someone completely rework this system, and perhaps choose better keywords, and address some of the other problems I mentioned above. However, it still remains at this time, the most effective system for quickly gaining a solid repertoire of characters, and at the end of it, you really can read Japanese much more effectively. You obviously can’t read without effort and further study, but the difference in ability is well worth the 2 to 4 months you will have spent in study with RTK.

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29 Responses to Review: Remembering the Kanji, volume 1, by James W Heisig

  1. Nathanael Ayling says:

    do you know what the difference is between the different editions?

    • Micah Cowan says:

      Do you mean different editions, or different volumes?

      Between the different editions of volume 1, there are mostly the addition of a few characters, and some changes to what some of the mnemonic keywords are. As for the difference between the different volumes, you can get that from any online description of the individual books, but roughly: volume 1 associates English mnemonic keywords with kanji, focusing on developing the ability to write and recognize the characters, but not to read or interpret them. Volume 2 teaches the “on” (Chinese-origin) readings for the kanji that you memorized in volume 1, with special attention to learning groups of characters that share a common “signal” component that belies a common pronunciation. Volume 3 is the same as volumes 1 and 2, but on a new set of an additional thousand characters (or thereabouts), not covered in volume 1.

    • Michael Mackinven says:

      There is a fantastic new resource that came out this year (2013). It is a cross between Heisig’s and Henshall’s book. KanjiPro is academically based but with systematic mnemonics similar to Heisig’s book that make learning kanji super easy. See and

      • Michael Mackinven says:

        By the way, I am actually the author so feel free to e-mail me with questions. You can contact me from the website.

  2. Alex Townsend says:

    I’m new to Japanese (only studied for a month,) and I have the pdf of this book. Do you think it’s a good idea to learn the kanji if I don’t know the word in Japanese yet? or should I learn kanji and pronounciation together?

    • Micah Cowan says:

      I’m definitely at the point where I believe that learning the kanji’s writing, meaning, and various pronunciations all together is an exercise in frustrated futility. OTOH, I do find myself wishing that Heisig’s characters were presented together with a few of the most typical examples of the character’s use, so that if we do already know the word, that word can aid us greatly in remembering that character.

      A given character usually has at least two pronunciations, and a few have quite a few more than that. Often, the same basic Japanese word (usually verbs or adjectives) can be written using one of several entirely different kanji, depending on the specific use (see my “Miru” and friends article.

      But I think Heisig works so well precisely because the first volume completely ignores pronunciation, and focuses on meaning (or at any rate, a caricature of one of its meanings) and writing, which gives you a more manageable chunk of information to learn. Its chief downside is probably that you have to learn all ~2,000 characters before you can proceed to actually start using the information you learned; but the upside is that learning kanji is actually pretty fun, and empowering.

      You can absolutely learn the kanji using Heisig, without even knowing any other Japanese first; the website All Japanese All The Time actually recommends it as the first step in learning Japanese, before even learning kana. I disagree with that particular point, and recommend learning the kana first. The creator of that site seems to be under the mistaken impression that the Heisig “Remembering the Kana” book assumes knowledge of the kanji, but this is not my experience at all (by the way, that book too is excellent, and I started using it to teach my eleven-year-old daughter the kana).

      I think the kana is the most crucial component, as you can immediately jump into Japanese (kids’ material, especially – or, say, the Hiragana Times) without anything more. But following it immediately after with kanji, rather than waiting until after a year or two of grammar, does seem like an excellent idea – I certainly wish I’d done Heisig a decade ago.

      Heisig is by no means perfect, and I can think of several ways it could be dramatically improved (in my opinion). Nonetheless, it is by far the best kanji-learning system I’ve seen, and I recommend it very highly.

      An important point, though: once you work through Heisig, do not hesitate to begin applying it. In my experience, after I finished learning the characters, I quickly stopped drilling on them. This has resulted in my forgetting some of the characters, however I still retain most of them, because I’m actually using them in my Japanese reading. I recommend finding Japanese reading material immediately after you’ve learned both the kana and the kanji; even if you don’t understand the grammar yet, you can begin to get exposure to the language. Ideally, you should choose straightforward material, such as manuals (those are also relatively easy to find for free in product manufacturers’ “support” sections), that avoid colorful and idiomatic expressions; try to find material that includes furigana (pronunciation information written above all the kanji), so you can begin to learn common pronunciations through “osmosis”, to the kanji that you by now already know thanks to Heisig; and try to find material that includes an English translation in parallel, so that even before you have any grammar training, you can begin to piece together how the words fit together to form the sentences. One source I can recommend is the book “Reading Japanese with a Smile” (see my article Resources That Gave Me a Leg Up in Japanese); there are several other resources of a similar nature, but this one is small, cheap, accessible, and divided neatly into relatively easily conquerable 2-page packets.

      I also can’t recommend highly enough, once you get into reading real Japanese that doesn’t have furigana, that you get yourself a Nintendo DS and the kanji-lookup dictionary software that I recommend in that same “Resources That Gave Me…” article. I could not imagine trying to study Japanese without that.

    • Micah Cowan says:

      By the way, look carefully: you may not have the PDF of the full book, but rather the first several hundred kanji. I’ve seen several PDFs claiming to be the book, but all of them turned out to be a hefty initial portion of the book (which is actually available from the book’s publisher, I think). So you may still need to purchase the book anyway (which you should do at any rate, since actually possessing a PDF of the full book, if you had not paid the publisher for it, would be illegal).

  3. Pingback: RTK – Links and Reviews »

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  5. HolyEyE says:

    I don’t get it, you say that volume 1 doesn’t really make one know 2000 kanji, since it does not teach readings (to sum it up), and I agree. Volume 2 teaches readings (I still haven’t reached it). But then you say that you agree with all the people saying that volume 2 is not needed. How would *you* recommend learning the readings of every kanji? Another book?

    • Shaun says:

      I have some friends who swear by RTK #2, saying it’s the only legitimate way to learn the readings. Some of them even do translation work as a part time job, having learned the vast majority of their Japanese reading/writing knowledge from Heisig. However, I was told by a fluent Japanese speaker (foreigner) to use “Kanji in Context”. It has no neat tricks like RTK, but like RTK it is a completely systematic approach to learning how to read and “feel” kanji. All 2,100+ that you learn in RTK are addressed in the book. It takes some Japanese knowledge to use, which is its main caveat. (Think: intermediate level). However, provided you’ve finished RTK it also eliminates the need to pound the kanji into your head 900 times until you get it. Just stick the sentences in anki and review them daily, same as RTK. You’ll be reading words like 直通電話 and 感覚器官easily and quickly. (The other part of this is that it uses a lot of somewhat useless vocabulary, mainly to build your kanji reading skills and kanji-based vocabulary instead of daily conversational vocabulary).

      I’m not a fan of the “just read” philosophy as it can feel like banging your head against a wall. However, again I do have friends that learned this way as well and they read Murakami during their leisure time. Kanji in Context gives me that feeling every single day of “wow, I learned a lot today and I can apply what I learned yesterday at will!”

      • Micah Cowan says:

        “Only legitimate way” sounds unrealistic to me. And I have to say that I’m skeptical that about half of it is of any real use whatsoever. But the major grouping portions – the pure and semi-pure groups, are probably of great benefit. I have no argument with those. However, I also suspect you’d learn those groupings naturally, and pretty quickly, through just more exposure to kanji.

        I agree with the “banging your head” comment, though it can greatly depend on what your reading sources are, and how much you limit the variety of material at the start. For me, though, it stopped feeling like “banging my head,” after I finished RTK vol 1.

        Kanji in Context sounds rather like the ideal sort of reading practice. There are other books like that, if I’m understanding correctly, but Miller’s A Japanese Reader is too difficult to be useful, and Jorden’s Reading Japanese is both out-dated and limited in coverage – but is very excellent in what it covers (and is now effectively in the public domain, due to an explicit clause in the copyright claim at the front of the book).

        Kanji in Context sounds good, but it appears to be hard to get a hold of: Amazon has used copies for ~$120+. I’ll have to fish around for something cheaper; but thanks for recommending it.

  6. Micah Cowan says:

    Basically, I don’t believe volume 2 will get you the rest of the way to learning the kanji, though I think it will take you some steps closer.

    First of all, it basically doesn’t cover kun-yomi at all. You’re on your own for those, and of course, there’s the wonderful fact that many kun-yomi can be written in different kanji, and choosing the correct kanji to use often varies based on fairly subtle changes in meaning or context, and also that many kanji have a large number of possible kun-yomi they can be used for. So you need something else for that.

    As for on-yomi… the book’s kind of all over the map in terms of usefulness. It starts out with a chapter on the kanji from which all the kana come from, many of which aren’t used much any more, and many of which very rarely actually use the readings from which those kana came. I deem that chapter informative, but not really useful.

    The next chapter is probably the most helpful in the book: the one on “Pure Groups”, or groups of kanji from the ~2000, where the presence of a specific grapheme invariably means that that kanji has a particular on-yomi. By learning the sound associated with that grapheme, you learn all the graphics in which it appears (at least, among the common 2000 or so – there may be some few exceptions, but they would be in fairly rare characters). It starts with the largest groups of such characters, and ends with the smallest groups. I have my doubts as to whether the chapter remains useful once it gets down to groups consisting of only two total characters, but there you go.

    The next-most-useful chapter is probably the one on “Semi-Pure Groups” (which is a few chapters after the “Pure Groups” one), which is the same thing, except that each group has a single kanji character that is the exception, and usually has a different, though very similar, reading.

    Beyond those two chapters, there are chapters on characters that are the only character that has that particular on-yomi (that character may have other on-yomi besides that one, but for that particular reading, only that one character might be read with it), characters that have no on-yomi whatsoever, groups that are “mixed” (where some characters with a particular grapheme share the same on-yomi, and some others don’t), characters that get their own chapter because they are part of common/useful words, etc. The “One-Time Chinese Readings” chapter is a little less useful than it sounds, perhaps, because I probably already knew most of these characters and their readings when I got to that chapter, which leads me to think that most people will come to learn these just as a matter of course in reading practice. The one on characters that lack any Chinese reading whatsoever isn’t that useful, because it doesn’t really teach you anything beyond the fact that there’s nothing to teach you about those characters (except for kun-yomi, of course, which it doesn’t teach you anyway). “Readings for Everyday Words” isn’t as helpful as simply encountering these words in the course of reading – and if they’re everyday words, you’re going to learn them quickly anyway, just by virtue of the fact that you’ll encounter them frequently.

    So, basically, the “Pure Groups” and “Semi-Pure Groups” are great, and everything else IMO is fluff. For me, those two chapters alone make the book worth having, but you can certainly get by without it; as to all the rest, and especially for kun-yomi, you’ll learn best simply through the practice of reading. This may leave a few characters that you don’t encounter often enough to know all that well, but you can either become comfortable with the idea of looking up the odd character when you happen upon one of those, or else spending some dedicated time to shoring up your knowledge about those few you don’t know well.

    So, to answer your question: I wouldn’t recommend one single other book as a replacement to volume 2, in order to gain mastery of the kanji: I’d recommend a daily habit of reading something in Japanese (it especially helps to ensure that you get a variety of types of reading – a cookbook or website on recipes, for instance, is a great way to gain a kitchen-concentrated vocabulary you might not otherwise gain so quickly). For my money, the easiest sort of reading to make progress in, is instruction manuals, where the vocabulary is typically limited, the grammar is normal, and the writing is intended to be easily-understood. Children’s books, and adult fiction, tend to be harder sometimes than you might expect, because while children’s literature tends to contain fewer kanji, it also tends to contain heavy contractions and not-really-words that are easily understood by Japanese children, but not so easily by people who learned the language from textbooks that describe an ivory-tower sort of view of the language. Adult fiction, meanwhile, especially if it’s well-written, tends to use more flowery language, and use language to hint at things, in ways that may not be very straightforward to non-native readers.

    Websites are probably best, because you can take advantage of browser plugins that allow instantaneous lookup of vocabulary and kanji (though of course that can also become a crutch). And I like to use video games as a source of reading practice, since (a) you can usually find a wide range of both super-easy, and more-advanced reading, and (b), it’s fun which can mean more motivation to continue. 🙂

    Hope that helps.

  7. Shaun says:

    In regards to some of the comments toward the very end about it working all at once or not at all: I find this to be mostly untrue. Yes, you are completely correct that if you do step away you need to continue reviewing in order not to set yourself back to 0 (the RTK website are full of ‘I was at 1,000 now at 0’ people). But, you have to continue studying daily even if you finish the book and indeed while you are working on the book anyway, so this isn’t really a change. I think there is some point in the book where once you get passed it you have enough kanji under your belt to make some headway elsewhere if you so desire.

    Take me, for example. I suddenly lost motivation for RTK at kanji 1889; I haven’t looked at the book in several months. However, I have kept up my reviewing so I haven’t slipped. I recently started the wonderful book “Kanji in Context” (if you haven’t checked it out or reviewed it you should) and getting through the first two levels, which the book says puts you at an intermediate level with 350 kanji under your belt, meant only encountering a few kanji I didn’t know from RTK. Even so, with only 1 or 2 exceptions I already knew all the primitives meaning I could create a story on the spot for my new kanji if I so wished.

    I don’t advise stopping before you complete the book, but I also think it’s ok if someone does lose some motivation learning RTK things and not learning any Japanese elsewise to stop for a bit and pursue other avenues. As you also said in the post, it’s not as if RTK stops you from other studies of Japanese nor does it LESSEN the amount of Japanese you know.

    • Micah Cowan says:

      Good point: if you keep reviewing what you’ve learned so far, it’s certainly not useless to have studied only up to that point.

      But I also think that 1,889 kanji are close enough to “complete” that you could simply stop there (after all, some of the kanji of that book are far more important than others, and studies have shown that knowing the 1,000 most frequently-used kanji is enough to comprehend 80% or greater of the text you’re likely to encounter).

  8. vonessa says:

    Hi Micah, you really put in alot of effort here. I wonder what your final goal is for this site? But more related to the topic. Do you have a list of Kanji learning resources or sites? Not books, so much but sites that teach Kanji, or do a good job of it? (maybe an idea for a post?)

    • Micah Cowan says:

      Hi vonessa, thanks for your comment!

      That’s kind of the problem, I couldn’t decide on a final goal for this site. Maybe I need to think of it less as a potential “system”, and more of a “chip away at your kanji goals” thing…

      I’m afraid I really can’t provide many links to great kanji sites, because I really haven’t looked that thoroughly at what’s out there. There are some links on the right sidebar, but most of them are about Japanese in general, and not kanji specifically; but the one labeled “Kanji Clinic” looks quite interesting to me, but I never spent a large amount of time there. The vast majority of what I’ve encountered out there are more reference in nature, or else provide a very light glazing of learning (perhaps much like this site). The koohii site is often recommended for people going through the Heisig kanji books, though personally I used Anki.

  9. vonessa says:

    ok, thanks. If I compile a list I’ll be sure to send it over.

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  11. Henry Hall says:

    This advise is all fine and well for anyone who has the mental capacity to get through the book within what is assumed to be a standard time range. In that case they would be making a sacrifice now (a not insignificant one) to get a later reward. However, for those who are going to be outside that range – people who, for example, would take two years or more to get through the book, it is a questionable exercise. It should be noted that a large number of those who have successfully gone through the book within an acceptable time frame and are happy with the result are people who already had a lot of Japanese study under their belt, which would have sped things up for them.

    My advise to anyone considering using this book who is in the very early stages of their study would be to try the first few hundred kanji using free materals, time it out and then come up with a realistic calculation of how long the whole process will probably take for them, before investing in a purchase. The end goal is to think in Japanese. Therefore all these English meanings for Kanji and all the mental framework of stories built up to assist your memorisation of them must ultimately be discarded.

    • Micah Cowan says:

      Agreed, on all points.

      But, crutches (of this sort, or any other) remain useful nevertheless, as a bridge to getting to that point, after which it may be burned. 🙂

  12. SF says:

    junior 後輩

  13. SF says:

    とてい 徒弟

    Sorry bout the mistake above.

  14. Luisa Pastore Alinante says:

    A very humble–I mean it–question. I am just starting on the Kindle edition of RTK. Right after the explanation of the kanj for the number three, after putting the number 2 in brackets to explain that it is written with two strokes, the author adds two …are they kanjis? Please bear with me and explain!

  15. Luisa Pastore Alinante says:

    Oops, of course I meant the kanji for the number two

  16. Wigglysquire says:

    I am half-way through the second volume and I am loving it. In my opinion, the RTK books are my most important tools for studying Japanese. After about 2-3 years of study I stopped most of everything and just pushed through RTK volume one starting at the beginning of a summer break from school. I saw my classmates get ahead of me in terms of being able to read out loud (knowing the pronunciations) but I began to surpass them in reading comprehension since I started to know all the meanings. Now that I am half way through the second volume, everything is starting to come together and I am really starting to get good results. I have passed JLPT N5, N4, and N3 in consecutive years during all of this and I am currently awaiting my results from N2. Main point is: as an upper beginner/lower intermediate student, quitting almost all other kanji activities and focusing on finishing volume 1 of RTK was the best choice I have made in my Japanese studies so far.
    Has anyone here finished volume two, or maybe even moved on to the third volume? I cannot wait to see what lies ahead!

  17. Hinnerk says:

    Hello Micah,

    thanks for your splendid article!
    I just finished my first Semester of Japanese and we have hack of Kanji to learn. Today I rent Heisig 1 from the library (in my mother-tongue which is German) and I’m thinking about working through the entire book until my next Semester begins.
    The preface of the book sounds promising and so does your article which also points out the shortcomings and proposes method to learn with it.
    But one thing is irritating. Neither Heisig nor you mention the vocables which two or more Kanji form, when they’re combined.
    So my question is: to what extent do the method of Heisig help you to read (=understand) the many combined Kanji in japanese texts?

    • Micah Cowan says:

      Hi Hinnerk, excellent question!

      Yes, Heisig gives you nothing to help specifically with kanji compounds. I find that, by and large, it’s not a big issue… many, probably most, kanji compounds are very straightforward in their meaning, even if you have never encountered them before – they are an obvious combination of the meanings of the individual characters. For instance,
      視線 (しせん: ”inspection” + “line” = line of sight/one’s gaze), or 最初 (さいしょ: ”utmost” + “first time” = beginning; [at/from the] first). I think most of the others feel “reasonable”, or are memorable, after you learn what the meaning is, even if the meaning wasn’t actually obvious from the characters alone: 未来 (みらい: ”not yet” + “come” = the future), or 表情 (ひょうじょう: ”surface” + “feelings” = facial expression).

      But a number of them don’t necessarily make intuitive sense, and there’s no help but to memorize them. This is also compounded by the fact that Heisig teaches you single keywords, which certainly give you a “handle” for easy reference to a character, and are generally connected to common meanings, but honestly are often not nearly the commonest meaning, or the one I’d personally choose for remembering a character. I find myself differing quite frequently from what would be an appropriate keyword for a given character, and even when it is a genuine meaning, a number of characters have multiple possible meanings, and the keyword Heisig chose, even when it is the most important one, may not be the one best suited for understanding a particular compound.

      But the good news is that having a handle on the characters, even any handle, is enough of a foothold to get you to the next level, with reading practice. You’ll quickly learn with just a little time, what other meanings and connotations the characters commonly have, besides the ones you may have learned with Heisig. And I think that most of the less obvious kanji compounds are also some of the most common ones, so you’ll tend to learn them pretty naturally.

      Hope that helped!

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