Japanese Calligraphy

In September 2006 I was unable to read Japanese. Hiragana (and some katakana) was all I knew. If you’re familiar with written Japanese, you probably know that there are about 2000 unique characters that you should know if you want to be able to comprehend Japanese newspapers, magazines, websites, etc. While you don’t necessarily need to know all of them to survive in Japan, you should still know at least close to a thousand characters to get the gist.

So in September 2006 I decided to apply for an exchange program to Japan, but I couldn’t read any Japanese. My Japanese speaking abilities were adequate enough to get by (because my father is Japanese) but I came to realize that if I’d want to join the advanced Japanese class, I would have to learn how to read and write kanji as well. The only way was to start learning.


The important point was having a clear deadline. If didn’t acquire the skill until that time, I would have to start with the basics. I knew that I would also have trouble getting around in Japan, because any official documents would have to be filled out in Japanese.

The deadline was the driving force that helped me to focus on studying Japanese on a daily basis. But that was not the only factor. I also had to make a learning plan.

A simple learning plan was all I needed. I decided that I would learn five new kanji characters everyday and also spend time on revision. Most of the time I would review characters and try to write sentences using what I had learned. I would do an hour of focused practice each weekday, and assign no tasks for the weekend. During practice, the computer would be put to sleep, and I would allow only three objects on the desk: a pencil, blank sheets of paper, and my kanji book.

I probably would’ve slacked off and ended up sacking the project had I not been conscious of the looming deadline. I knew that I would lose many opportunities in Japan if I stopped studying kanji.

The reality that I had to reach the goal until time ran out made me find alternative ways to accelerate the learning process. I started writing a simple diary in Japanese. I used instant messengers to improve my reading skills. I started to read blogs written in Japanese.

The deadline helped me achieve a comfortable level of competency in less than six months. So I was able to accomplish what I had wanted in half the time, which granted me six additional months to improve my Japanese before leaving. The reason why I was able to accomplish the task so effectively was that I had a deadline to meet, and a strategy to follow. The rest just took care of itself.

Now, if you’re just starting out and don’t have a kanji textbook, I recommend that you get yourself a good kanji book which will serve as your daily handbook. When I was learning kanji, I used a book called A Guide to Reading and Writing Japanese (just $19.50), which I highly recommend for a number of reasons. First, it focuses on starting with the most essential characters that most commonly appear in written Japanese. Second, the book shows you the stroke order for every character (until much later when you’ve already figured out how strokes work). Third, for each individual kanji it gives you a number of commonly used compound words to familiarize you with different readings. And, it covers all the kanji taught in schools, so you won’t ever need to buy another kanji book.

I look forward to hearing about your kanji learning endeavors. Post your experiences below.