How do the Japanese learn kanji/vocab?

Hello, all!

And welcome to my first community post! Just hit level two and got the minor shock of suddenly having more than one sitting’s worth of lessons. …

But I’ve been curious about the seeming complexity of kanji. I’ve read the articles on tofugu and whatnot, so I get why there’s multiple readings. Even so, having a symbol, so to speak, represent multiple characters of hiragana seems odd. Do the Japanese go through a similar memorization method to learn kanji, or is there somehow another way to know how a symbol is pronounced? Maybe it doesn’t seem so complex as your first language.

I’m not sure of a good analogy for our English-learning days, but welcome any ideas.

Thanks for reading

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It’s like learning to spell in English. You arrive at school knowing many words, and very little sense of reading or writing. Same with Japanese.

They learn kana. Then they learn some new kanji every year.


If you think about, our reading and writing system in English is pretty crazy too.
For example, why is “LISTEN” spelled with “T” when there is no pronunciation of the “T” sound what so ever.
There is a ton of other words like that too.


(Just a little bit of a spacer to stop the top of the next ruby chunk being cut off…)

Just to add to what @Leebo said, you may be interested in reading about the きょういくかん, which make up the basic elementary school curriculum. They include 1,006 kanji spread over six years of school, and are a subset of the 2,136 “standard use” kanji (じょうようかん) which I believe you get the rest of in high school. It feels like a lot, even before combining them into vocabulary items, but I guess I forget how many English words I know.


In middle school they learn something like 900 of the kanji that are in the jouyou set after the 1006 learned in elementary school*. It’s up to different middle school curricula to decide exactly which kanji they teach, so it’s not the same everywhere. They also learn some new readings for kanji they had already learned in elementary school. Then in high school they round things out with the missing ones, as well as even more sets of additional readings.

If you’re ever curious about which readings are taught at which levels, you can look at something like this site.

There, in the 上 entry, everything in pink is part of the jouyou set’s education. Black readings are not considered mandatory to learn, and are marked with 外. One’s marked with a 中 are learned in middle school. One’s marked with 高 are learned in high school.

*Soon 20 kanji will shift from middle school to elementary school, bringing the kyouiku set to 1026. These will make it so all kanji used in prefecture names are learned in elementary school.


It’s not my first time trying to learn a new language, but it is my first time on my own. Spanish was somewhat forced upon me throughout school, and it stuck with me decently enough. I passed the college foreign language requirement by scoring higher on the Spanish SAT II than my own English SAT a few years prior lol. I can still read with mediocre understanding but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to speak it (way too fast).

WIth Spanish, though, the alphabet was so close to what I was already familiar with, tons of vocab were cognates or even spelled exactly like their English counterparts. I guess what’s really throwing me off logistically here is that instead of the alphabet I know, to me it’s like a language made purely of symbols.

It’s really interesting to ponder because what are the letters I’m typing now if not just foreign symbols to someone else? I guess the best analogy I can think of for my original question here are numbers. We just “know” that a “7” is a “seven.” It’s a symbol/picture representation for a pronounciation all its own. It’s just that with kanji, their symbolic words seem to cover everything, not just numbers.

One reason I’m doing this is to maybe be an exchange teacher for English in Japan. So I appreciate those links for the school curriculum. It’ll really help if I can fully understand how they already learn their own language.

(Domestic goal would be to be a localization editor for video games. One can dream, right?)


It’s not really different than the notion of something like ‘water’ being represented in English by the words /affixes water, hydro, hydra, and aqua.


They usually already know how a word sounds before they learn how it is written. So if you see a :slight_smile: you don’t have to phonetically read “smiley face”, you see the smiley face and that’s that, you know what it means and how it should sound (if you happen to want to read it phonetically) and you know how to use it in context. Kanji are like ancient emojis.


An important thing to remember, is that they are not ‘learning a language’ when they are ‘learning kanji’. They are just learning how to write the words they already know (of course they will be learning new words as well, through different subjects). At first they will be writing and reading a lot kana only stuff. And they gradually learn to add more kanji into their writing and reading.


They learn through lots of practice! Countless worksheets of kanji, kanji drill books, something called 文字のけいこ (moji no keiko) where there are lines from their reading textbooks and they have to write them out, first reading the kanji and writing the hiragana, then reading the hiragana and writing out the kanji. Then there are journals to write out every week, calligraphy practice and reading out loud every night from their textbooks. At the end of each term, there are repeated kanji tests that must get at least 90% on. Then the summer/winter break homework that involves variations of the above so that isn’t forgotten.


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