How To Learn 2,000 Kanji in Record Time

Everything you need to know to memorize 2,163 Kanji (based on the JLPT 日本語能力試験リスト.

These may look like Kanji (a handful are) but these are the bits and pieces that make up all Kanji. Know these, and you can both write and recognize all the Kanji. About 40 years ago, a brilliant man named James Heisig came up with a method of breaking Kanji into its component parts, learning them individually and then using this to teach himself how to read Kanji at a time when native speakers thought he had a photographic memory, as a non-Japanese person couldn’t “possibly” learn to write Kanji at the level he did.

This method has some pretty severe limitations (at scale) which i’ve overcome and it allowed me to learn all the Kanji incredibly fast (you can learn all of them in 8-10 weeks if you are motivated) and you can also read the Kanji’s Onyomi (which you cannot do after completing Hesig’s Method). But this is not a critique of Heisig. Without his method I wouldn’t have been able to build what I did today. New research is always built on the research of others and I like, the rest of the world, thank him for his contribution. Heisig has proved an ‘index’ for us to traverse the vast hallways of Japanese Kanji and it is this index that allowed me to hypothesize and then execute my research to great success.

This image here, this one page, has the 350+ pieces you need to learn to read and recognize over 2,000 Kanji and by proxy thousands of words. Yes on this page, are the ‘keys to the kingdom’ so to speak.

Now for a brand new person this might look like “noise”, and rightly so. For you, it would be ‘noise’ as you have no reference for these types of characters, except maybe seeing them on Chinese restaurant signs or the once in a blue moon occasion you might go to a Japanese restaurant and see some characters. But breathe easy, this feeling is quite normal (and expected). I felt the same way. But when you take a step back, the noise becomes a dull hum. Look at the following chart:








Whatever your goal is (reading, writing and speaking) they are all linked to the Kanji, because to learn words and grammar and to read example sentences you need Kanji. Obviously there are ways around this, but even if you developed advanced speaking ability, not knowing the Kanji eventually sucks for most people.

Our alphabet has 26 letters, which form every single word that we see. Without knowing these letters, we cannot read. Children must learn the alphabet to be able to eventually read words. Since Japanese has different character sets, you might say this is not the same, but let’s think of the first block in the diagram (Kanji Radicals/Primitives) as an ‘advanced alphabet’. Instead of thinking of “thousands of Kanji”, think to yourself that all Kanji you will ever encounter are built by a limited set of characters. A native english speaker may know up to 100,000 words, but no word is ever written without using a combination of 26 letters from its alphabet. Once I knew this, it set up a rule:

Once I know the radicals/primitives , it is a factual impossibility that I can encounter a Kanji from this list that I cannot read. Kanji I am unable to read, are simply Kanji whose radicals or primitives I have no learned yet. 

It is why children love the Mary Poppins song, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious because this is completely made up word that children are fascinated to know they can read and learn. It is an extreme example of using the english alphabet. A child can read and learn this word because once they know their letters, any child can read this. 

Thinking of the radicals like an ‘advanced alphabet’ sets you up mentally to shatter your preconceived notions of ‘what i can’ versus ‘what i can’t’.Learning anything in record time means getting rid of all previous conceptual limitations. In this regard there are two major limitations that people face when trying to think of learning the Kanji.

Time and Ability.

Time — People think that because the average Japanese school child literally ‘grows up’ around Kanji, it will take them several years to even being to understand what is going on. This is simply not true, as I have demonstrated learning over 1,000 Kanji in one month with full recall. Time is not your limitation.

Ability — Like most people, I also thought it was ‘impossible’ to learn this, but the more I learned about memory and the capacity of the human mind (especially with visual memory) these opinions changed. After I had memorized for the first time over 4,500 German words and seeing how that drastically transformed my German learning experiment at the time, I realized that I was not even close to using my full potential. Ability, I learned, is a factor influenced heavily by strategy. 

Think about it. As a native English speaker you may have an active vocabulary of 75,000 up to 100,000 words that you can use effortlessly. Even words you ‘never use’, you never forget. Thinking along these lines is what lead me down this path.

Native Speakers Don’t Walk With Dictionaries

To ‘truly’ be competent (at some eventual time) I would need to be able to operate ‘without reference’, or the ‘crutch of flashcards and books’ that keep so many learners in structural limbo. I though to myself that a Japanese person doesn’t use a dictionary when they read day to day stuff, so that should be my goal. If I didn’t have to look up every other Kanji I learned, I’d be able to focus far more attention on other tasks. Now is this an unreasonable thing to ask myself? Of course not! It was my base goal. Everything that came after was based on this desire.

So three new words I recently encountered will illustrate this.

削除、 sakujo  this is on my phone that I recently switched to Japanese. it reads ‘saku jo’ which means delete. So in your 写真 shashin (picture) icon, when you delete this pops up. 写真を削除?

任務、- ninmu I heard this word a lot in Star Trek episodes and purposely didn’t look it up until I heard it in another movie. I figured it meant ‘objective’, or ‘mission’ but it wasn’t ‘always clear, until I learned it means ‘mission’.

美貌の公爵 – bibou no  koushaku I was testing out some novel reading (I say testing because I haven’t dedicated the raw energy to really dive into this actively) and encountered these two words. bibou means handsome and koushaku means ‘prince’ or ‘duke’

Now you might say to yourself, ‘but Marcus, you had to  look these words up right?’ The answer is yes. But just like English, if you saw a word you didn’t know, you’d read it, maybe make a mental note and then learn it later. I’m not looking at the screen and cursing like a sailor because I don’t know what’s going on.

Why This is Important

Look at the chart above again. Reading, Writing and Speaking are linked to these Kanji. 美貌の公爵 would be considered by many to be ‘advanced vocabulary’ because it is more obscure. But I can read it. Training sentences by reading them over and over will only make this ability stronger. Now this has nothing to do with ‘figuring’ out words in context. That ability comes after having a pretty massive vocabulary(more on that another time). But the thing is, do I want to spent months and months and MONTHS learning the Kanji before i’m able to do any of this? No! Remember, if you don’t know the Kanji, you can’t read much of anything. There is no way around it.

So once I realized that this goal was not a  matter of time ( I know how to learn all the Kanji and read them in 8-10 weeks, 12 max) and this goal was also not a matter of ability (I already have memorized potentially millions of memories in my life thus far) then it was just a matter of execution.

The Game Changer TPK (Time Per Kanji)

I broke things down to a constant I call TPK, or Time Per Kanji. Once you know this, you’ll be able to see the actual time it takes per day to memorize a set and then extrapolate from there. With my memorization method, it took me about 2-3 minutes per Kanji to memorize them. — memorization means, the full memory of how to write the Kanji relative to the keyword, without looking at it —

Being conservative at 25 Kanji per day.

25 per day = 750 per month , 2 months 1,500 , 3 months 2,250.

35 per day = 1,050 per month, 2 months 2,100, (2 more days last 63)

So even if you don’t stick to this formula exactly, you can pretty much gauge your end point. For month one I was at around a 35 per day phase (while testing a bunch of other stuff) in fact, I realized I could have easily done 50+ per day if I wasn’t trying to test other ‘overlap mechanisms’, but that’s what research is eh?

The point is, with this I was able to predict an endpoint for this monstrous goal, which would then set me up for the third pillar which has Reading, Writing and Speaking.

Why Speed is Important

From what I have learned you don’t need more than 4-6 months to get really good at a new romance language. A large part of this is due to the fact that with an advanced strategy, you can progress quickly because you can already read most romance languages, or master the new alphabets quickly. French pronunciation is tricky, but I can technically already read it, since I know the alphabet. It will not take me months of training to be able to read French. I won’t be able to speak rapidly from the get go obviously, but I don’t need more than a few days to learn the proper pronunciation. I realized this when I did a Russian experiment and learned the Russian alphabet in about 3 days. Now with Romance languages, once you get the pronunciation you can then dive into massive vocabulary acquisition and accelerate your learning. So in around 4 months (I’ve done this) you can hit a B1 or B2 level of understanding and even speaking.

With Japanese your delay with such strategies are relative to your ability to read. This is what makes speed very important. With Japanese, because people do not ‘believe’ they can learn how to read anytime soon, they hop all over the place, from speaking to writing to reading and it just becomes chaos and most people give up. The majority of this drama and worry would vanish if they had one core ability: the ability to read. Language learning is extremely stressful and a thrilling challenge, that we must be equipped to train for. Once I master French phonetics, I am now better equipped to listen to, read and learn French words. It sets up all my activities down the road. One we master Japanese Kanji and are able to read it, it sets up the “real work” which starts for most other learners after only one week. With Kanji, we are staggered by about 3 months because that is the general time frame it can take to fully  learn the readings. So add 4 months to that, and we get a range of 6-7 months where you’d be able to get some of the romance language abilities that you can learn in about 4.5 months with significant effort. So it isn’t far behind! and it is made possible by the ability to learn the Kanji rapidly, so that you can focus your complete attention on vocabulary acquisition, grammar and so on. 

My upcoming course will take this to a next level, which I will be announcing soon. But I assure you, you CAN learn Kanji in record time.

Here is my one month video below: More to come soon! cheers


About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
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2 Responses to How To Learn 2,000 Kanji in Record Time

  1. Adriano says:

    Dear Marcus,

    After thoroughly reading this post I have to say I feel pretty frustrated since the most important part which is radicals/primitives and how to properly utilize them is not trully explained in my opinion. How come do you have 350 radicals to work with when it is said there are 214 historical ones. Where can I find such material ?

    Thank you

    • marcusbird says:

      Adriano hello! Thank you for your comment! First things first, thanks for reading the article, and secondly, I know how you feel, try your best not to get frustrated! In the beginning, as we learn a new language, one of our biggest areas of stress, is “perceptual stress”, how we think and feel about the task ahead of us. I’ve based my techniques on the list of Kanji and radicals from the James Heisig Method, so I used this is a kind of “map” to navigate the creation of my systems using a pre-existing index. In the article, I say there are about 350 “pieces” that I encountered overall that represent most of what we need to function. In fact, when people talk about “radicals’, “primitives” and “pieces” it can all get a bit confusing! lol, I think I meant to put “350 pieces” in my graphic and put “350 radicals” instead.

      The most important thing though : What you will learn when you master all the 214 radicals is
      that most of the radicals have various forms (which are not counted) and then there are also about a 100+ Kanji to learn individually (that do not have Onymoi and Kunyomi reading) that you need to know to read the JLPT list. Many of the radicals/pieces you encounter have different forms (which are generally not counted) and these are some of the extra “pieces” that i refer to. I will actually edit the graphic in this article, re: “350 radicals” as it is a bit misleading. For example “person” is 人 which has three other variants 𠂉 𠆢 亻. These variants are just how they are written when used IN other Kanji, like 傘 (umbrella) or 似る (resembles). Another example, like “hand” 手 can be written as 龵 or 扌 when used in a Kanji for example 技(skill) or 看 (billboard). So for me, I stopped trying to count used weird words like “radicals”, “variants” and “primitives” because that was a constant headache! i just said “pieces” and simplified things. So I will update the graphic to say “350 pieces” as that is what was referring to in the article!

      please tell me how is your Japanese learning journey is going?

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