Tag Archives: self-study

The SPI Test & Job Searching in Japan — Learn Japanese Antonyms & Synonyms

If you’re like me, then you’re probably one or both of these two things:

  1. You’re thinking about working in Japan one day (but perhaps aren’t a computer science major…)
  2. You want to enhance your Japanese vocabulary

If you ever want to work for a Japanese company, especially as a fresh graduate right out of college, then you might find yourself having to take something called the SPI適性検査, which is one of the most popular “recruitment aptitude tests” in Japan. While many learners aiming for Japanese company employment might assume that having JLPT skills at Level 1 would be sufficient for general job searching in Japan, this is in fact not the case in the beginning of the process. Let me explain.


Welcome to your worst Japanese nightmare

When you apply to a typical Japanese company, assuming you have no direct connections that would boost you straight through to the interview process, after listening to a general info session (can be online but quite often in person) you first submit an エントリーシート (entry sheet), which is a one-page form that includes your name, university, and perhaps a small box for your 志望動機 (reason for applying). When you submit this form in person—such as at a career fair with Japanese companies, including CFN, Mynavi, Works Global Japan, Top Career, etc—you will hand write it in Japanese, so be sure to practice writing Kanji just enough to answer the questions that are typically asked. Memorizing your 志望動機 down to the letter is probably not a bad strategy.

If the company is interested in talking to you further, you will likely receive instructions to take a WEB検査, or online test. If you’re lucky you’ll skip right to the interview where you can show off your Japanese and interviewing skills, but there are plenty of large corporations in Japan (Softbank, for example), that require the test first. And while some companies, such as Rakuten and most foreign investment banks have their own English version, most companies have it in Japanese only. In this blog post, Ms. Melfi sums up the test quite well:

Imagine having to take the JLPT1 in 30 minutes, with two more 30 minute sections on logic and math. […]

Unequivocally, the JLPT1 does not qualify you as ready for the Job Hunting process.

In other words, if you just passed the JLPT level 1 and are feeling rather good about yourself for barely squeaking by, be prepared to be pummeled by the typical web test (SPI test) that job searchers are required to take. Sure, if you were able to skip the test and get right to the interview and show your employer that you’re perfectly competent at speaking, and could look up unknown job-specific vocabulary as it comes your way, the world would be a perfect place. But it’s not, and the SPI, in my opinion, is a big unspoken roadblock that prevents non-native Japanese from entering Japanese companies, despite their constant pleas for “more global talent.”

According to a friend of a friend, he was asked by a Japanese company to take the test, but he responded that as a non-native Japanese person the test had no meaning, and that he should not have to take it. In reply, the company agreed with him, moved him right along to the interview process, and then he got the job. I can’t say this is typical, or even if the story is true, but if you don’t feel ready for the test this might be a nice hail mary move to try out.

At any rate, just because the test is hard does not mean it’s impossible. It’s a Japanese test, which means, for the most part, it’s perfectly study-able. If you have come this far in your Japanese study to consider applying to a Japanese company, then you can get over this as well. It just requires you to change what you’ve been studying.

Enter the Antonyms (and Synonyms)

When studying Japanese, my vocabulary generally comes from sentences and vocabulary lists that correspond to something I’m reading. I believe this is a fairly practical way to go about learning new words, since I’m learning things that directly relate to what I want to understand. For the SPI test, however, a decent portion of the 国語 (Japanese language) section revolves around identifying antonyms (反対語) and synonyms (同意語), which is something I simply have never done before in Japanese. Thankfully, this is probably the part of the test that is easiest to study: rote memorize enough antonym/synonym pairs and that should mean a decent shot at doing well.

There are two sites online I have found (other than buying a test-prep book on Amazon.co.jp) that seem useful and are free:

  1. StudyPro ~SPI2 • SPI3対応
  2. SPI試験対策集会所 (site looks right out of the early 90s, but still good)

For instance, combining the lists of 同意語 (synonyms)  provided on both of these sites, I’m able to compile a list of 238 vocabulary words. Each word’s reading and definition is listed, along with its synonym provided in parenthesis. If for each word in Kanji you can quickly recall it’s reading, meaning, and corresponding synonym, you should be good to go.

封建  ほうけん    feudalistic(独裁)
独裁  どくさい    dictatorship(封建)
宿命  しゅくめい   fate(運命)
運命  うんめい    fate(宿命)
冷静  れいせい    calm(沈着)
沈着  ちんちゃく   calm(冷静)
没頭  ぼっとう    absorption in(専念、熱中)
専念  せんねん    absorption in(没頭、熱中)
熱中  ねっちゅう   absorption in(没頭、専念)
不平  ふへい     discontent(不服)
不服  ふふく     discontent(不平)
傑作  けっさく    masterpiece(名作)
名作  めいさく    masterpiece(傑作)
秀才  しゅうさい   prodigy(俊秀)
俊秀  しゅんしゅう  prodigy(秀才)
損益  そんえき    profit and loss(損失)
損失  そんしつ    loss(損益)
欠点  けってん    defect(短所)
短所  たんしょ    defect(欠点)
欠乏  けつぼう    shortage(不足)
不足  ふそく     shortage(欠乏)
著名  ちょめい    famous(有名)
有名  ゆうめい    famous(著名)
規定  きてい     regulation(規則)
規則  きそく     regulation(規定)
形見  かたみ     memento(遺品)
遺品  いひん     memento(形見)
意外  いがい     unexpected(案外)
案外  あんがい    unexpected(意外)
尽力  じんりょく   endeavor(献身)
献身  けんしん    endeavor(尽力)
断続  だんぞく    intermittent(中断)
中断  ちゅうだん   interruption(断続)
不意  ふい      sudden(突然)
突然  とつぜん    sudden(不意)
必然  ひつぜん    inevitable(当然)
当然  とうぜん    natural(必然)
転居  てんきょ    moving(移転)
移転  いてん     moving(転居)
疑問  ぎもん     doubt(疑念)
疑念  ぎねん     doubt(疑問)
了承  りょうしょう  consent(許諾)
許諾  きょだく    consent(了承)
滋養  じよう     nourishment(栄養)
栄養  えいよう    nourishment(滋養)
準備  じゅんび    preparation(用意、支度)
用意  ようい     preparation(準備、支度)
支度  したく     preparation(準備、用意)
落胆  らくたん    disappointment(失望)
失望  しつぼう    disappointment(落胆)
自然  しぜん     natural(天然)
天然  てんねん    natural(自然)
督促  とくそく    demand, urge(催促)
催促  さいそく    demand, urge(督促)
順序  じゅんじょ   order(次第)
次第  しだい     order(順序)
永遠  えいえん    eternity(永久)
永久  えいきゅう   eternity(永遠)
対等  たいとう    equivalent(互角)
互角  ごかく     equality(対等)
願望  がんぼう    wish(希望)
希望  きぼう     wish(願望)
筆記  ひっき     written(記述)
記述  きじゅつ    written(筆記)
不偏  ふへん     universal(一般)
一般  いっぱん    universal(不偏)
負債  ふさい     debt(借金)
借金  しゃっきん   debt(負債)
知己  ちき      friend(友人)
友人  ゆうじん    friend(知己)
発達  はったつ    development(進歩)
進歩  しんぽ     development(発達)
親切  しんせつ    kindness(厚意)
厚意  こうい     kindness(親切)
質素  しっそ     thirfty(倹約)
倹約  けんやく    thrifty(質素)
原料  げんりょう   materials(材料)
材料  ざいりょう   materials(原料)
承認  しょうにん   approval(承諾)
承諾  しょうだく   approval(承認)
同意  どうい     agreement(賛成)
賛成  さんせい    agreement(同意)
瞬間  しゅんかん   moment(瞬時)
瞬時  しゅんじ    moment(瞬間)
模範  もはん     model(手本)
手本  てほん     model(模範)
関与  かんよ     participate(介入)
介入  かいにゅう   intervene(関与)
待望  たいぼう    long desired(念願)
念願  ねんがん    long desired(待望)
根底  こんてい    foundation(基本、基礎)
基礎  きそ      foundation(根底、基本)
基本  きほん     foundation(根底、基礎)
責任  せきにん    duty(責務)
責務  せきむ     duty(責任)
冷淡  れいたん    cold-hearted(薄情)
薄情  はくじょう   cold-hearted(冷淡)
実践  じっせん    put into practice(実行)
実行  じっこう    put into practice(実践)
活用  かつよう    use(利用)
利用  りよう     use(活用)
手腕  しゅわん    ability(技量)
技量  ぎりょう    ability(手腕)
便利  べんり     useful(重宝)
重宝  ちょうほう   useful(便利)
綿密  めんみつ    careful, detailed(細心)
細心  さいしん    careful, detailed(綿密)
正確  せいかく    accurate(的確)
的確  てきかく    accurate(正確)
帰省  きせい     return home(帰郷)
帰郷  ききょう    return home(帰省)
生涯  しょうがい   (one’s) lifetime(一生)
一生  いっしょう   (one’s) lifetime(生涯)
起源  きげん     origin(発祥)
発祥  はっしょう   origin(起源)
揶揄  やゆ      tease(愚弄)
愚弄  ぐろう     tease(揶揄)
我慢  がまん     endure(忍耐、辛抱)
忍耐  にんたい    endure(我慢、辛抱)
辛抱  しんぼう    endure(忍耐、我慢)
高尚  こうしょう   refined(典雅、上品)
典雅  てんが     refined(高尚、上品)
上品  じょうひん   refined(高尚、典雅)
貢献  こうけん    contribution(寄与)
寄与  きよ      contribution(貢献)
出色  しゅっしょく  excellence(抜群)
抜群  ばつぐん    excellence(出色)
疎外  そがい     (to be) cast out(排斥)
排斥  はいせき    (to be) cast out(疎外)
漂泊  ひょうはく   wandering(放浪)
放浪  ほうろう    wandering(漂泊)
腐心  ふしん     take pains to(苦心)
苦心  くしん     take pains to(腐心)
歴然  れきぜん    evident(明白)
明白  めいはく    evident(歴然)
廉価  れんか     low price(安価)
安価  あんか     low price(廉価)
頑丈  がんじょう   healthy, solid(壮健)
壮健  そうけん    healthy, solid(頑丈)
横柄  おうへい    arrogance(尊大)
尊大  そんだい    arrogance(横柄)
堅持  けんじ     adhere to(墨守)
墨守  ぼくしゅ    adhere to(堅持)
邂逅  かいこう    chance meeting(遭遇)
遭遇  そうぐう    chance meeting(邂逅)
格言  かくげん    proverb(金言)
金言  きんげん    proverb(格言)
確執  かくしつ    fued(反目)
反目  はんもく    fued(確執)
敢行  かんこう    decisive action(断行)
断行  だんこう    decisive action(敢行)
簡単  かんたん    simple(容易)
容易  ようい     simple(簡単)
機転  きてん     quick wit(機知)
機知  きち      quick wit(機転)
工面  くめん     raise money(算段)
算段  さんだん    raise money(工面)
啓蒙  けいもう    enlightenment(啓発)
啓発  けいはつ    enlightenment(啓蒙)
激励  げきれい    encouragement(鼓舞)
鼓舞  こぶ      encouragement(激励)
回顧  かいこ     recollection(追憶)
追憶  ついおく    recollection(回顧)
険悪  けんあく    threatening(不穏)
不穏  ふおん     threatening(険悪)
原因  げんいん    reason(理由)
理由  りゆう     reason(原因)
合格  ごうかく    pass an exam(及第)
及第  きゅうだい   pass an exam(合格)
安泰  あんたい    tranquil(静穏)
静穏  せいおん    tranquil(安泰)
婚礼  こんれい    wedding(婚儀)
婚儀  こんぎ     wedding(婚礼)
妨害  ぼうがい    hindrance(阻止)
そし  そし      hindrance(妨害)
蹉跌  さてつ     setback(挫折)
挫折  ざせつ     setback(蹉跌)
残念  ざんねん    unfortunate(遺憾)
遺憾  いかん     unfortunate(残念)
賛美  さんび     praise(称揚)
称揚  しょうよう   praise(賛美)
示唆  しさ      hint, suggestion(暗示)
暗示  あんじ     hint, suggestion(示唆)
交渉  こうしょう   negotiation(折衝)
折衝  せっしょう   negotiation(交渉)
多弁  たべん     talkativeness(饒舌)
饒舌  じょうぜつ   talkativeness(多弁)
知悉  ちしつ     deep knowledge(精通)
精通  せいつう    deep knowledge(知悉)
執着  しゅうちゃく  be a stickler(拘泥)
拘泥  こうでい    be a stickler(執着)
大衆  たいしゅう   the masses(庶民)
庶民  しょみん    the masses(大衆)
賢明  けんめい    wisdom(利発)
利発  りはつ     wisdom(賢明)
詳細  しょうさい   details(委細)
委細  いさい     details(詳細)
長所  ちょうしょ   strong point(美点)
美点  びてん     strong point(長所)
崇拝  すうはい    admire(敬慕、傾倒)
敬慕  けいぼ     admire(崇拝、傾倒)
傾倒  けいとう    admire(崇拝、敬慕)
心配  しんぱい    worry(懸念)
懸念  けねん     worry(心配)
辛酸  しんさん    hardships(困窮)
困窮  こんきゅう   hardships(辛酸)
頑健  がんけん    robust, brawny(屈強)
屈強  くっきょう   robust, brawny(頑健)
精読  せいどく    careful reading(熟読)
熟読  じゅくどく   careful reading(精読)
切望  せつぼう    longing for(熱望)
熱望  ねつぼう    longing for(切望)
束縛  そくばく    restraint(拘束)
拘束  こうそく    restraint(束縛)
粗相  そそう     blunder(失敗)
失敗  しっぱい    blunder(粗相)
完遂  かんすい    to accomplish(成就)
成就  じょうじゅ   to accomplish(完遂)
抜粋  ばっすい    selection from text(抄録)
抄録  しょうろく   selection from text(抜粋)
核心  かくしん    kernel, core(枢要)
枢要  すうよう    kernel, core(核心)
奪取  だっしゅ    capture by force(攻略)
攻略  こうりゃく   capture by force(奪取)
敗走  はいそう    retreat(退却)
退却  たいきゃく   retreat(敗走)
功名  こうみょう   great feat(殊勲)
殊勲  しゅくん    great feat(功名)
繁忙  はんぼう    busy(多忙)
多忙  たぼう     busy(繁忙)
卑近  ひきん     familiar(身近)
身近  みぢか     familiar(卑近)
緩慢  かんまん    slow (worker)(遅鈍)
遅鈍  ちどん     slow (worker)(緩慢)
歳月  さいげつ    time, years(星霜)
星霜  せいそう    time, years(歳月)
変遷  へんせん    (historical) change(沿革)
沿革  えんかく    (historical) change(変遷)

Some of these words are not especially difficult, such as 有名 and 当然, but being able to point out from a list of words which has the closest meaning in about 15 seconds is likely something that requires a bit of studying, hence the hefty list above. Using the links above you could compile a similar (but perhaps even longer) list for antonyms as well.

After antonyms and synonyms, the next part of the Japanese language section of the SPI test involves reading short passages and answering 1-3 questions about them, often in less than a minute or 90 seconds. I wish I could say I had an ultimate trick or study method for this portion of the test for us non-native speakers (as reading speed is not exactly an easily upgraded skill), but purchasing an SPI test-prep book and going through questions is likely your best chance. Something else you may want to try is to estimate how fast you read English, and then give yourself that amount of time to answer a JLPT level 1 reading passage. Obviously you’ll be hampered by the time limit, but you may discover what works for you when trying to rush through a Japanese passage.

Finally, there is also a math section in the SPI test, which isn’t terribly difficult (think back to the SAT or ACT if you’re from the United States), but is made difficult because, again, it’s in Japanese. What that means, then, is that additional practice is  required. In a future blog I hope to go over some math vocabulary in Japanese (which I have been meaning to study myself), something is not covered in typical Japanese language classes as far as I know.


1 Comment

Filed under Japan, Japanese, Language

My Kanji Skills Suck Worse Than Those of a Six Year Old — And What I’m Doing to Fix It

The Background Story

Just yesterday I took a two-hour Japanese exam for the MEXT Scholarship, which would give me a free-ride for a year at a Japanese university to study Japanese. A great deal, but apparently so highly competitive that my local Japanese consulate has been only able to successfully send one student in the past several years to Japan—and on top of that, the person they were able to send was half-Japanese, and apparently already fluent in Japanese. For example, I found this post on the Reviewing the Kanji  forum posted by Zorlee, who is going for the same scholarship, except that he’s already long passed the highest level of the JLPT, and therefore is much more likely to get the scholarship than I am. Hmm, perhaps if the Japanese government were really trying to bring more foreigners over to Japan, they shouldn’t require near-native Japanese as a prerequisite? (Sorry, that’s my bitterness speaking.)

At any rate, I had already come down to the consulate for the interview, so they let me take the qualifying Japanese exam for the scholarship as well. It was mostly multiple-choice, split into 3 difficulty levels. If you’re familiar with the JLPT, I would say the easiest difficulty was around 5/4-kyuu on the JLPT, the intermediate level around 3-kyuu, and the hardest difficulty 2/1-kyuu—certainly no walk in the park. The test was two hours long, with each difficulty level having the same sorts of questions. First some grammar fill-ins, then some expression/keigo questions, and then a reading passage.

Furthermore, while there was no listening section to the test, the test did have a short “Kanji Writing” section, where you would have to produce Kanji based off the given readings in a sentence. This is where I failed, big time.

While I’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing the meaning and readings of Kanji when I come across them in reading, my writing-kanji-by-hand skills have taken a very sharp nose-dive. After all, I do all my writing on the computer, so thanks to the magic of auto hiragana-to-Kanji input, my ability to actually write almost any even moderately complicated Kanji has all but disappeared.

For example, with a word like 準備 (junbipreparation), I can recognize it in writing, hear and understand it easily, and even use it in a conversation freely without much effort. But if you were to place a blank piece of paper in front of me and ask me to write it down, I would laugh in your face—I would simply have no idea where to start. How do I bring my horribly deficient writing skills up to speed with my comparatively strong listening and speaking skills?

Enter Kanji Kentei — Kanji Learning Software for the DS

On my way back from the Japanese Consulate, I stopped off at BookOff to browse a few manga titles to distract myself from my failure at being able to reading Kanji when I came across a used copy of 200 Mannin no Kankena Kanji learning game for the DS. Kanji learning games for the DS are nothing new, but at least for me, I had always been tempted by the idea of buying one but had yet to through with it. But since I was already there at the BookOff, I what-the-heck-ly decided to purchase it.

For those who don’t know, the game is actually designed to prep one for the Kanji Kentei (Kanken) — a test of Kanji ability designed for Japanese people, which has a wide variety of levels, from  elementary school all the way up to beyond-adult at the highest level, where even a fully-literate Japanese adult would need to sit down and do some studying in order to expect to pass. And unlike tests of Japanese ability designed for non-natives (e.g. the JLPT), the Kanken is not fully multiple-choice—rather, many of the questions require production of Kanji just from its reading in context, or from its location in a 4-kanji expression. Example questions can be found here.

I’m not sure how interested I am in taking the test—it seems like there’s too much emphasis on memorization of tiny little Kanji rules that wouldn’t be so useful for me to learn as a non-native, at least not at my current, relatively-low Japanese level.

But getting back to the game, while the reviews for it on Amazon.co.jp are not terribly high, most of the given complaints have to do with how the Kanji-recognition system is not too great (often being too generous with writing mistakes). While I understand the complaints, I’ve found that for my purposes, the recognition system is good enough. What’s most important is that it’s giving me a chance to easily practice my Kanji recognition and writing skills in a rather fun way. I’ve been reviewing the easiest Kanji levels (the ones designed for first graders) pretty quickly, but expect to slow down once I head into middle-school level and start coming across lots of new words. Perhaps it’s just the strange pull of using a DS itself, but I do find myself a little addicted to learning Kanji right now using this game. Here’s hoping this isn’t just a passing obsession.


This is the basic Kanji writing mode I've been using the most. Not as concerned about the other modes, like "count the number of strokes" or "what stroke number is this." Maybe helpful, but I think I have the general writing order down without feeling the need to go into crazy-anal-kanji-learning-mode.

There are a number of gameplay modes, including ones that force the player to count the number of strokes in a character, or figure out which number a certain stroke is, but I don’t find those too useful. The ones I’ve been using most often include:

– Write the kanji from the given reading in context

– Write the reading of the kanji in the sentence

– Write the correct Furigana (for example, choosing whether 登る or 登ぼる is correct)

There are also modes for writing 3 and 4 character kanji compounds and for determining if the kanji in a certain word are compliments, opposites, etc, but again, at the moment I just want bare-bones kanji writing and reading practice. The modes I’ve listed above have been sufficient for my needs in that respect so far.

So is this the Best Method? Is this worth my precious Japanese-learning time?

Everyone on the internet seems to be concerned about using the “best” and “fastest” method to learn Japanese—just see the claims made on AJATT about various learning methods that say, “This […] is not how to learn. Not effectively.”

I’m wary to suggest one learning method over another, but I will say that the addictiveness of the game environment has been important to me in helping me stick with it. I can just pop open my DS and do some reviews of Kanji for a little bit without much hassle. I’m also a sucker for progress bars and learning statistics pages, and the game is luckily chock-full of those too. Furthermore, the game has lots of sample sentences that I plan on compiling in order to review for later.

Since the game is designed for native-speakers, the game does not include any sort of dictionary (the biggest problem for me in my opinion), but I’ve been able to supplement my playing by looking up unknown words on my computer. A lot of the vocabulary in the sentences is not always the every-day sort of stuff found in Japanese textbooks—even on the easiest levels I’ve come across words I never bothered to learn in Japanese, like stilts, plaza, steamboat, harbor, feather, etc. Not the most useful words in the world, but at this point, these are words I need to force into my passive vocabulary so I can prepare myself to read texts more fluently, and not get tripped up when a conversation turns to something rather specific.

I’ll try to update this blog with sentences from the game so that others can see what it offers more concretely, and for my own learning purposes. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the sentences in the game for shadowing practice—the vocabulary is not terribly useful—but for kanji and reading practice these should be worth a look.


Filed under Japan, Japanese, Language

Language Learning Tip: Finding Japanese in Odd Places

I haven’t been updating daily because of a certain absolutely awesome distraction, but today while wandering my home I came across a certain nostalgic item:

Ah, the playstation. So many childhood hours spent on classics like Spyro and Crash Bandicoot. And despite all the days spent collecting gems in Spyro—which seemed like months and months to me when I was younger—I fired up the game again about two summers ago, only to find myself easily completing it 100% in no more than two days. Man did I suck at video games.

But putting aside my Spyro skills, on the inside of the lid of the playstation I found the following warning:

Ah ha, Japanese! It reads:


Despite being barely a sentence, it’s the perfect way to practice Japanese without input overload. That is, because the sentence is short, contains no more than three kanji, and has been found in a relatively odd place, remembering comes much more easily.

Breaking down the sentence, I could study:

  • レンズ — The beginner just learning Katakana will be happy to have a common word to practice with, in this case, lens.
  • レンズ [には] — the use of the double particle「には」gives beginners practice with this trickier grammar construction.
  • 絶対(に) — the rather common zettai (not at all) is one of those words I picked up from anime watching, but knowing how to write it never hurts!
  • 触る — the sentence contains the conjugated form of 「触る」(to touch) into its negative command form; practice reading the sentence a few times to practice telling others not to touch things—always a useful thing to know!

Sure, I could pick up an entire in novel in Japanese and start looking up characters one-by-one to get through it, but that’s incredibly time consuming. I like to think I have a lot of self-disciple, but that’s just too much. Rather, single sentences like the one found on my Playstation are sure to be more easily memorized. Blogging about it doesn’t hurt either.

This is the same idea that is used when one does shadowing—find real, but manageable Japanese sentences, understand them completely, and practice the heck out of them. When it comes to language learning, I find being a master-of-one rather than jack-of-all trades is much more useful. That is, instead of trying to study too much at once, really get down and study small chunks of language one-by-one.

One need not be in Japan to come across nuggets of Japanese in their daily interactions; you may just need to dig a little deeper, or look under the lid.

Leave a comment

Filed under Japanese, Language, Self-studying, video games

Learning Kanji: Using Shorter Sentences to Study more Efficiently

Alternate Title: The Secret to Learning Kanji: Don’t Learn kanji.


The good news: if you learn these, you'll be on your way to basic reading fluency!

The great thing about the kanji is that there are a lot of them. However, this may or may not in fact be a good thing depending on your point of view. The Dai Kan-Wa jiten apparently contains over 50,000 kanji, although it is generally recognized that the some 2000 Joyo Kanji are what is necessary for basic reading fluency in Japanese. Furthermore, because each kanji can take on more than one reading depending on the word, the task before the Japanese learner seems rather arduous.

But not to fear, right? After all, the most common 1000 kanji covers 93% of what you should expect to read. Except that this statistic—and I’ve heard it from Japanese teachers as well—is rather misleading. First, even if you did understand 93% of the kanji being used in an article, that’s still an unknown kanji to look up every 10 or so words—not exactly reading fluency by any means.

Furthermore, even if you recognize a Kanji, it might be used in a word that contains unknown kanji as well, making the word incomprehensible without decent guessing skills, and making your 1000 kanji knowledge base not as useful as you may have hoped.

So what do we do?

The most common kanji learning methods

There’s no reason to go over these in detail since they’ve been discussed ad nauseum:

1. Study just a few kanji by rote a day—if you studied just 3 kanji a day for two years, you would have studied 2190 kanji, a bit more than the entire joyo kanji list! Problem: sticking to a daily schedule for two entire years is easier said than done, not to mention the necessary need to review what you’ve learned already. Plus, what does “3 kanji” even mean? Just writing the kanji? Writing and all of its readings? Just recognizing it and its rough english meanings? There’s more here than meets the eye.

2. Use RTK (as I discussed briefly before along with AJATT) as a way to internalize kanji meanings to aid in the learning and writing of vocabulary words. Problem: and as I said before, I’m not the biggest fan of RTK. It advocates a piece-wise learning process that is not as useful as it seems. It’s possible to pick up kanji meanings without needing to study them explicitly first through rote-memorization.

3. Play/read/watch X game/manga/anime in Japanese to pick up kanji naturally. Problem: non-textbook style materials are very helpful, but they can lead to input overload when it comes to kanji—more on that below—and so students should exercise discipline when using this route.

All of these are useful ways of learning Kanji, but they each have flaws as well—as any learning method will likely have. Nonetheless, I have one more of my own to propose.

Learn Kanji by Not Learning Kanji

The problem I see with a lot of Kanji learning material is that you go one character at a time, treating the kanji as a sort of separate entity from the rest of your Japanese learning. This may be perfectly effective, but I feel that it’s actually more efficient rather than less to study kanji through the study of vocabulary.

That’s right—don’t study the Kanji; study words.

But why? Isn’t studying words long and tedious? Shouldn’t I learn the alphabet first?

Kanji is not phonetic like English or the Kana; as a result, trying to learn it like an alphabet may actually be inefficient. I’m not going to flat out say it is inefficient, but I think there are better methods.

So how do I go about learning word-by-word?

One thing you may notice about Japanese is that even when a kanji is used in multiple words, these words tend to take on similar meanings. This may not always be the case, but it’s a good general rule. For example, I have a list of JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) words that I can sort by Kanji:

There seems to be a common theme here...

Even if we don’t explicitly study the meaning of 「予」we can get the sense of what meaning we should expect if we see this Kanji in a word. And by studying words, we ultimately assimilate both this meaning and the meaning of a real Japanese word as well—a two for one deal.

However, what I am not suggesting is to simply study lists of words rather than Kanji. Studying words by themselves is ineffective because we won’t know when to use them in real conversations or contexts. Four of the words on the list above have the listed meaning “forecast,” but only one of them would be used in the common construction, “weather forecast,” in Japanese:

  • 「天気予報」= 51,600,000 Google hits.
  • 「天気予想」= 154,000 Google hits
  • 「天気予期」= 123 Google hits
  • 「天気予測」= 108,000 Google hits

Despite the similar meanings, the winner here is pretty clear. We need to study words in context—more specifically, we need to study sentences.

Where do I get sentences to study?

Not all sentences are created equal—some can be too long or too complex, something we want to avoid when studying. Generally, your sentences should contain no more than a handful of unknown words, and you should be able to easily guess at the meaning of the sentence without too much difficulty without those words. That way, you won’t overload yourself.

Grabbing haphazardly from newspapers or tv shows—that while filled with useful Japanese—will likely result in having sentences with too much content for a reasonable human to study at one time: that’s input overload. You can take from a newspaper, book, or tv show if you feel you’re at that level, but keep the sentences very short while still retaining some semblance of context. Taking or transcribing sentences from tv shows in particular may be useful, since you’ll remember the context of when the words were used and thus remember both the meaning and when to use the word more easily.

But for the beginner, the following would probably be more useful:



Taken from the beginner-level shadowing book I mentioned previously.

An easy-to-understand exchange about going to the convenience store to purchase lunch gives the beginner the chance to practice 「弁当」and 「買」while giving some context as to when to use these words as well.

After reviewing the sentence, one should practice writing it by hand—using fill-in-the-blank with the kanji—to review. By going over short sentences, we avoid input overload, study both kanji and words simultaneously without doing too much of either at one time, and study grammar and natural Japanese constructions as well.

In a future post, I’ll go over where to find good sentences to practice, and how to incorporate more fun things like anime into serious study.


Filed under Japan, Japanese, Kanji, Language, Self-studying