What is Kanji? Learning Kanji - the Japanese Alphabets and Language

If you're just starting out learning Japanese, then you probably have a lot of questions.

You may have already read about Hiragana and Katakana, the more basic Japanese alphabets (if you haven't, definitely read about those as well!)
  • But why are there so many alphabets in the Japanese language, and how do they all fit together?
  • How many kanji characters are there and how many do I need to learn?
  • Why do Japanese still use such a complicated writing system like Kanji?
  • And, most commonly: how on Earth do I learn to read and write such a complex language?
Kanji Components

What is Kanji?

Kanji is one of three Japanese alphabets/writing systems that exist in the Japanese language (the other two are called Hiragana and Katakana). Kanji originated from China and was adopted in Japan in the early 400s AD and shares many similarities with the Chinese writing system known as Hanzi. Kanji is a writing system where each character represents one or more words or concepts. One of the most difficult aspects to Kanji is that the meaning and pronunciation can change depending on the context in which it is used.

For example, some kanji can be used by themselves, like 水, which is pronounced 'mizu' means 'water'. But the same character when used in the word 水準 which means 'level, standard' is pronounced 'sui'. Confusing, right?

How Many Kanji are there and How Do I Learn Them?

Believe it or not, there exist over 10s of thousands of kanji in the Japanese language! But the good news is that you need to worry about learning "only" roughly 2,100 of them in order to achieve fluency in the language.

There are many different methods for learning Kanji, and you will likely need to use a combination of several in order to learn and retain each kanji, its meanings, its pronunciations, and its stroke order.

A great place to get started with learning Kanji is the Genki Kanji Poster which contains over 300 of the most essential Japanese Kanji along with their meanings, pronunciations, number of strokes, and more. The king size poster is also an artistic centerpiece and makes a perfect gift for any Japanese language learner.
Genki Kanji Poster
Other resources for learning kanji include textbooks, kanji dictionaries, and flashcards.

With Kanji, simply learning a character is often not enough; because there are so many different characters that look alike, it is important to continue to review and practice using each kanji to help with long-term memorization.

Why is Kanji Still Used and Why Hasn't It Been Simplified Yet?

Kanji characters have a rich history spanning thousands of years, which is part of the beauty of the language. But why hasn’t the language been simplified by now? Korea for example has adopted a simplified alphabet in modern times similar to Hiragana, so why not Japanese?

For better or worse, it is very unlikely that Kanji will be going away anytime soon, as Kanji is an essential part of the language due to the limited number of sounds that exist in Japanese. There are almost 15 times the number of possible sounds in the Korean language versus the Japanese language. This means that in Japanese, there are many words with different meanings that are pronounced the same! Using a simplified alphabet like Hiragana alone would make it too difficult to quickly comprehend meaning when reading Japanese text. Kanji convey meaning while an alphabet like Hiragana is purely phonetic.

Your Kanji Learning Journey

Learning Kanji is indeed one of the greatest challenges out there, but it can be very rewarding when your hard work pays off and you are able to read and write Japanese! Take it slow, learning the most common and essential Kanji first and then adding additional Kanji to your vocabulary time.

If you are looking for a great resource for learning over 300 of the most common Kanji, check out the Genki Kanji Poster, a best selling Kanji poster that was started on Kickstarter!