Learning Kanji is a long-term battle. Before setting out on this journey, it's good to have a strategy, even if it changes down the line. In this article, I'm going to talk about the method that worked for me.
1. Learn from Kanji Textbooks
After learning hiragana/katakana, an obvious place to start is Kanji textbooks. The most famous of these is the big red 'Basic Kanji Book' but most introductory textbooks are similar.
While I'm not sure working through these books is a good long-term solution for learning Kanji, you do learn a lot of good things by working through the first book. You get taught how to write the kanji, how they tend to fit together and get a feel for how they should look on a page.
After working through the first book though, you realize that this method of learning won't really scale to thousands of Kanji. Most likely you'll know a few of the Kanji in the book really well, and a few not so well at all. Reviewing this patchy knowledge can be quite inefficient.
This is made worse because you know there are hundreds of Kanji still to learn and forget, all the way up to the two thousand or so everyday use Kanji.
2. Work through Remembering the Kanji
While Kanji Textbooks have their value, you won't get to see every Kanji until you work right to the end of the series. You learn the writing and readings of each Kanji well before you move onto the next one.
Remembering the Kanji by Heisig takes a different approach. Instead of learning each Kanji well, you're exposed to all of them with only a vague meaning, in English, associated with each one.
Crucially, Heisig presents a system of radicals that you can use to build nemonics (called 'stories') that help you remember the meaning of a given Kanji. They're quite effective. An accompanying website called Reviewing the Kanji puts all of Heisigs Kanji in a spaced repitition application.
Taken together (the book and the application), working through Heisigs system gives you a really good foundation to build on.
Finishing RTK won't teach you to read Kanji, but it's a good place to start. It's a first pass through all the Kanji. After finishing, you can go on to learn them in context.
3. Sentence/Vocab Repitition
Kanji by itself is of limited use. When you actually need them, they're usually in compound words with other Kanji, their meaning and reading depending entirely on context.
Rather than studying and reviewing individual Kanji, it makes a lot more sense to study words that contain them. This has a number of benefits:
- You increase your vocabulary
- You study two or more Kanji at a time
When you have more than a few hundred words of vocabulary, reviewing sentences starts becoming a more efficient way to study Japanese. By getting exposure to vocabulary and Kanji in context you get a much more intuitive understanding of how to use a particular part of language.
Using SRS software like Anki (and eventually, Japanalicious) is the easiest way to review sentences and probably spend most of your studying time after learning the basics. It is a quick, effective and efficient way to learn Japanese.
Once you have a large enough vocabulary, you can continue by reading actual books. There will always be some words you don't know, but reading actual Japanese books is both the means and end for studying written Japanese.
The most important thing to realize before starting to learn Kanji is that it can be done. Japanese people and people who've never studied the language usually think it's impossible for a Gaijin to do it, but this is demonstrably false. If you put the time in and create a method that you'll stick to, you will one day find yourself reading Japanese without effort.