Is memorizing kanji readings in isolation is a waste of time?

There are so many different ways to study Japanese and learn the many kanji one needs to know to become fluent. When it comes to learning Kanji, some seem to prefer learning the “On” readings of just the single kanji while others would rather learn a vocab word that the kanji is in, thereby learning the “Kun” reading. So is memorizing kanji readings in isolation a waste of time? What are the community thoughts around this?

You’re level 7, so I think you’re familiar with the fact that both onyomi and kunyomi readings show up in words, and no one can really escape one or the other entirely.

I would say that studying the kanji in true isolation would be unhelpful if your goal is to be able to read. WK isn’t doing that of course, they’re teaching vocab words to go along with the kanji, while reinforcing existing readings and teaching new ones. To be fair, the vocabulary itself isn’t in context, but the idea is that you can use WK to get a foundation in kanji, which then makes trying to read real Japanese more pleasant.


I’ve been introducing lots of words using multiple Kanji readings using KameSame, a program similar to WaniKani’s sister program, KaniWani. I just prefer KameSame, because it encompasses a lot more study resources. In KameSame, you can introduce pretty much any existing Japanese word or phrase into your SRS, while also testing your recollection of WaniKani vocab/kanji. I have used it for WaniKani, Genki, and additional words that aren’t included within WaniKani.

(oops, meant to reply to op)

Absolutely not, but you need to supplement it with studying vocabulary simultaneously. I can open up any news article on NHK right now and come across many “vocabulary words” I’ve never seen before, but because I know the readings for each character, I can easily figure out the reading for the word the majority of the time and also type it out if needed (e.g., looking up the definition). The process of learning the readings for individual kanji on WaniKani made me a much better reader than when I was studying only vocabulary with various Anki decks.


I personally find that learning the kanji readings in isolation enables me to sometimes correctly guess the reading of unlearned words that I find in the wild.
Also learning the individual kanji first makes me feel more familiarized and prepared to learn the subsequent vocab lessons.
So for those two reasons I find it worthwhile.


You can guess whether it’s Kun or On, but that’s about it. If a word has more than one On’yomi, and all you know is the two readings, you have absolutely no way of guessing which one is the right one.

Yet if you know 20 words with that Kanji and 19 of them use one of the On’yomi and only one uses the other one, you have a much better guess, but that is not isolation.


What I meant was I do like learning the Kanji in isolation first, then some vocab after. Didn’t mean that I would only want to learn Kanji in isolation and that’s it. But yes, thanks for pointing that out!

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Personally, if you ask me if X is a waste of time, I’m going to get philosophical very quickly! Whether you’re spending time or wasting time is purely a matter of perspective isn’t it?

You could take the economics approach, and say time is a finite resource, so are you using what you have effectively? Well, you mention “becoming fluent” as an aim, the definition of that is a whole other topic, but “fluent” tends to be related to being a competent speaker. If your aim is to be able to speak Japanese, well WK is not going to get you very far, and you should make sure you use some time for speaking practice too. If WK is so much fun that it takes up all your study time, then you should think about changing you habits, and find a teacher or conversation partner.

Kanji is important for studying any of the four skill (reading, writing, speaking, listening) in Japanese, but WK is particularly useful for reading. So if you’re not doing WK purely for the enjoyment and sometimes wondering “why am I doing this”, well, it’s to be able to read, but even so, it won’t be sufficient on its own.

If reading skill is like basketball, then WaniKani could be like shooting hoops. It’s the essential part of the game, it’s what you start with and without being good at it you’ll never score a point, but you need to do a lot more than that to play the game properly. WaniKani will give you the essential foundation for reading Japanese. Without it you won’t get past being able to read more than the simples things.Kanji is just such an essential part of every aspect of Japanese, there is really no way around it for any serious learners
(there’s just so damn many kanji that everyone starts having doubts at some stage, trust me, I remember friend’s questions, “what are you doing there? oh cool, looks interesting! how many are there? what??? and how many do you know so far? uh huh…”.)
There’s a lot more to reading Japanese than just kanji however, so at some stage you need to start actually reading stuff to get good at it, just like you would get good at basketball by playing basketball.

Getting back to your worry that this might be a “waste of time”, is it because you’re not enjoying it or because you think it’s not effective at getting you to where you want to be? If it’s fun and interesting, then the philosopher in me wants to say it’s probably not wasted time. If you’re thinking it’s fun but distracting you from your goals, then think ecnomically, and maybe allocate some time to different type of study.


I am merely in the midst of level 3, but one thing I am confused by is why learning readings is important at all for reading comprehension.

If one’s goal is to read printed matter, learning radicals, kanji, and vocab words ought to be sufficient; I’m not sure I understand why that person would need to know how to say the words out loud.

I understand that WK isn’t just about learning to read, but as its focus is on reading, the requirement to be able to read the Japanese words and make their native sounds seems a layer on top of reading itself.

Am I missing something? Is there a reason why someone who wants only to read printed matter needs to know the sounds the words make? I studied Latin, and I was able to read. I kinda have an idea what Latin sounded like, but speaking and listening comprehension were not a part of those classes. :slight_smile:

They are not just “how the words are pronounced,” though, they are the words themselves. You knew the spelling of Latin words when you read Latin, right? That’s what a reading is, it’s the word’s spelling in a sense as well. Words don’t have to be written in kanji, and in some cases they are very unlikely to be written in kanji even if kanji is possible. Here we learn the kanji and the words, so whether a word is written in kanji or not you still know it. If you hear it spoken you know it. Not learning the readings would mean you actually don’t know the words.

That’s not to say that you can’t just look at word that is written in kanji, understand the meaning and not know its spelling, and still be able to grasp the sentence. It’s a unique feature of Japanese in that sense. But you’d still be gambling that you understood it if you don’t actually confirm it.

On top of that, words can have identical kanji ways of being written, but differ in meaning and reading based on context. With just a surface level understanding of the kanji, you wouldn’t be aware of those situations. For instance ほう and かた are two different words that can both be written 方. If you just look at the kanji and try to interpret the meaning from the kanji alone and not the full context, you’d probably get confused.


Well question one, what do you do it any given word is not written in Kanji?

Also, Latin isn’t really an appropriate comparison here for a number of reasons.

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Thanks for your answer. I wasn’t really thinking about that. Which is pretty stupid because I just changed Neko Atsume to Japanese. They spell a lot of things in kana, and I read them out loud to figure out what they mean. So of course I need to know what vocabulary words sound like, otherwise I’m just making sounds that would mean nothing to me. :slight_smile:

I wasn’t saying I didn’t want to learn the readings; I was having a mental block as to why they were necessary.

You need to make sure that the voice in your head when you read is just as understandable to others as it is to you. There are plenty of native speakers alive today unlike latin.


At the end of the day, under your specific situation there, regardless of whether or not it’s a good idea, it’s not incorrect. Certainly sometimes people in English will read a word but never hear it said and think it is pronounced significantly differently than they had it in their head.

Edit: This is a Response to OP:

I think you misunderstand. On-yomi is used more in vocab, because most of our vocab are mixed on two kanji to make a word. Kun’yomi is usually when it’s alone of with hiragana attached.

Both readings are totally necessary to learn.

On wanikani, I’m study in school, with a private tutor and one my own. I can say with out a doubt that wanikani has improved my reading capabilities by five million percent. It’s not a waste of time for me.

I recently went back over all the kanji I was supposed to know (up to level 41), although in reality even burned kanji I had forgotten, plus then memorised the remaining 19 levels. It took me about six weeks or so. I am trying to keep them in my mind by testing myself on fifteen levels per day (today is 46-60), although in reality I don’t always manage it. With this process I know most of the kanji but still to varying degrees - some I never get wrong, some I occasionally get wrong and one or two I’ve not got right despite going over them so many times! I’m sure that will change over the next few months as some that were in the never right category have moved to the sometimes correct.

Personally I have found this very useful with my reading - I am trying to read stuff without furigana to make me concentrate on the kanji. Even if I don’t know the pronunciation, as I only know one pronunciation, I can often guess the meaning of the word and looking it up is also easier because putting in a pronunciation brings up kanji in my dictionary (the alternative is drawing it).

I have found it works for me but everyone is different.

Part of my problem with WK is that I only have enough bandwidth for so much Japanese learning every day. So spending time on WK detracts from time I could spend doing grammar or reading or watching anime with Japanese subs (I have almost unlimited capacity for anime with English subs :slight_smile: )


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