Leaning Kanji With the Rorschach Inkblot Technique


Hi, I’m hoping to get some reactions/feedback from my fellow kanji learners about some improvements I think could be made to the WaniKani system. I graduated from WaniKani late last year, and currently have 8,865 burned items, so I am very familiar with the WaniKani process. For the most part I love it. The spaced repetitions, the frequency of reviews, the ‘flashcarding,’ etc. are all great. My problems with Wani were the mnemonics—first too wordy and second no radical mnemonics to teach how to write kanji. Once, while studying something in the level-20s, I thought of a kanji that I had already burned and could read with ease (前 mae or zen (front)) and wondered if I could draw it without cheating. I could not. That’s when I started ignoring all of Wani’s word-based mnemonics and created my own system based on pareidolia (interpreting meaning from images, the Rorschach inkblots being the most famous example) and it’s worked great for me; I can now read and write (with fast recall) all 2,000 kanjis and radicals. I did this just as a personal exercise to help me learn, but it worked so well that now I’m wondering if it could work for other students too. Below are a few examples—what do you think? Would this type of picture-to-picture learning alternative be helpful to you? Are there other things you think could be added to make it even better? Let me and Wani know if it looks like something that you’d be interested in seeing more of, and maybe they can incorporate them to help us kanji students learn faster.


I’m not sure that method scales up well to larger or more complex kanji. What would 憂 or 鬱 look like?


The reason for this is not so much WaniKani’s word-based mnemonics and more because it’s intended to teach recognition rather than recall. If you want to learn how to write it by hand, you pretty much need to, well, write it by hand.


Indeed! And for kanji that have abstract meaning it is very difficult to find a helpful image regardless of how the kanji looks.


I’m definitely interested! :slight_smile:

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Isn’t this the idea behind RTK?

And if you’re gonna focus on writing, shouldn’t there be some sort of stroke order guide?


RTK doesn’t teach meaning, right?

It teaches meaning and writing, not reading

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Hi Naphthalene, I truly hope you’re doing well and feeling okay. Of all the hundreds of complicated kanji to choose from you picked the two that both mean grief, depression, melancholy and sorry. As I stated before, this pareidolia-based mnemonic technique is what I used to learn kanji. It is not a full-blown application yet. I do have a ‘storyline’ for each kanji and that storyline contains a memory aid for primary sound, meaning, and all radical parts, but I don’t necessarily have an accompanying hardcopy illustration. Most of them are, as of yet, only in my mind’s eye. It is a slow process to convert my mental visualization into a digital one. So far I have converted less than 10%.

My storyline for 鬱 is ‘a depressed bigfoot’s [utsu] kicking a can between two trees while toting an American flag.’ Can you see the can surrounded by two trees on top and the American flag under it? Can you use the end part of bigfoot’s [utsu] to help remember the sound? My current mental picture is a sad-looking bigfoot carrying a flag and kicking a can like a soccer ball into the woods. It’s a simple enough picture but not yet drawn.

**meaning ** – ( drawing radicals) – primary sound in [quotes]

depressed – ( cantwo trees –American flag ) – a depressed bigfoot’s [utsu] kicking a can

My storyline for 憂 is ‘when a kind and gentle man is missing from your life, you [yū] feel great grief and melancholy. Before learning this you must learn 優 which means kind and gentle. Then you make the man missing (by dropping the man radical on the left) causing you grief. There is a somewhat different order to learning kanji using this method.

grief , melancholy – ( man is missingkind, gentle ) – you [yū] feel great grief and melancholy

Anyway several people are concerned about how this system scales up complexity-wise and how it covers abstract meanings. Here are a few more examples of complex (Zen) and abstract (mutual) kanji for which I do have current illustrations. I think they are much easier to learn this way than reading the wordy mnemonics given by Wani. Please compare for yourself and let me know what you think.

To me it looks just like alternative mnemonics for wk. And saying that ネ radical is a thunder God’s scepter is just as random as some WK radical names. Nothing about the shape of the radical tells me it’s some kind of a scepter.

But ok, let’s say I just memorized it and can recall it when I see it. Same with the witchdoctor.

How do I go from god thunderbolt scepter and a witch-doctor to Zen? There’s no connection between those two things and Zen. The image doesn’t help either. It looks like a tribesman.

Similar problem with mutual. “mutual” doesn’t relate to the Wooden Eye itself, so I’d need to recall it’s a friend’s eye. And then I need to remember there’s some 3rd party, only after that I can recall that it’s our our mutual friend. But I probably wouldn’t remember.

WK has plenty of similarly unhelpful mnemonics though, so it’s pretty much up to personal preference.


Haha no worries. I just typed 憂鬱 to get 鬱. I almost erased the 憂, but then remembered it was one of the reasons I bought a paid subscription on WK.

Otherwise, like @d-hermit, I don’t really see the difference with WK’s approach in the method you described. Is the point that there’s an actual illustration as well?


I have no issue with the mnemonics. I actually like those drawings quite a lot, and I think they’d work quite well as alternative mnemonics. I just feel they’re not the solution to “can’t reproduce the kanji from memory” issue you say you created them for, @Batty - you’re not creating a method to learn how to write them, just a different way to learn how to read them.

Fun fact, 礻 is a variant of 示 (and means “altar”), while the very similar 衤, which WaniKani treats as identical, is a variant of 衣 (and means "clothes).


another case where I would have liked to know this sooner… idk why WaniKani doesn’t at least mention in passing the actual etymology of radicals because it legitimately helps with memorization a lot more since both of those are common semantic components


I think the argument for not being able to write the kanji really isn’t a downfall of wanikani or anything about mnemonics in general, and its just a product of the fact that you’re not training recall at all as others have pointed out.

As for what I think about it, I’m kinda on the eh side of it I guess. From a early learners perspective, I think its neat, but its really only applicable to stuff where you can clearly see some kind of image. I don’t know how much that 見 picture would be memorable to someone who didn’t come up with it. It seems memorable to you maybe since you came up with it, but someone else might think of a person with two legs every time they see that kanji, for example, and recalling the eye in the mirror thing may be much harder.

As for me personally, I think its not really useable. Let me take the last 5 kanji I had to “learn” to illustrate:

I would argue that none of these are really viable to learn with your method because I either have no real reason to learn the meaning for them in the first place, they don’t look anything like what they describe, or both. Mnemonics would still work if I wanted to use them though (which I don’t). So I guess my answer is no, it wouldn’t be helpful to me.


Willing to try anything.

Hi Vanilla, this open forum is the first I’ve ever visited let alone the first I’ve ever posted to. I am quite a bit older than your typical Japanese student and am not ‘hip’ to new-fangled things like open forums. Anyway there are lots of questions about this process that I would like to address but I will try to limit myself to only one response per day. If that is considered too much for this type of forum, please let me know.

I am purposefully trying to avoid making my illustrations look too much like the kanji they’re associated with. Illustrations that somewhat look like the kanji they represent are called ‘pict.o.graphixs.’ The problem is not only does the student have to be somewhat artistic to redraw them but there are so many complicated kanjis (like the ones you listed above) where pict.o.graphixs are plain impossible to make. I can recognize a Van Gogh out of any museum but I surely can’t replicate it—and I’m a decent enough artist. This learning process, which I call Hyakkan’e, focuses on listing the parts (radicals) of the kanji in the storyline rather than dropping their image in the illustration. Hyakkan’e is a psychological approach (pareidoliac) to learning, not an artistic one. Let me explain.
When I see the first card in the Rorschach collection I instantly, without thought or hesitation, see two baby piglets climbing up opposite sides of a bird feeder to talk to the two little birdies swimming in the water.

The point of this is how fast we can produce elaborate storylines just by looking at a vague, random ink smudge on a piece of paper. The Rorschach blots are a study of ‘pareidolia,’ the perception of random objects and shapes as meaningful things to the observer.

We all see shapes in the clouds and in the tile of our bathrooms. I am often visited by Abraham Lincoln
sporting a man bun when I shower. I don’t see all of him, just his deep-set eyes and regal nose, and of course, a bushy squirrel tail sticking out the back of his head. But that’s enough. With just seeing a ‘few things’ every impression I have of Abe is available to me—his beard, his height, his hat, his history, his accomplishments, his need for a good barber and his storyline as I know it. These are all there instantly for the taking.

I’ve asked others what they see in that same inkblot. One said, ‘a mean, ugly coyote getting ready to gobble me up.’ Another said, ‘two hummingbirds gathering nectar from the same large flower.’ Of course, there are no right or wrong answers. There are innumerable impressions that can be gleaned from the same ink smudge. That’s what Hyakkan’e means, ‘a picture of many impressions.’

Though my natural pareidolia response contained pigs, it was not difficult at all for me to see my friends’ coyote and hummingbirds. Those two images and their associated storylines have become my ‘derived’ pareidolia responses. Now, they are just as quick-to-retrieve and spontaneous to me as my own piggies impression.

Until you learn them, kanji and radicals are just random, squiggly line without objective meaning, much like the Rorschach inkblots. So, if we can make meaning out of a meaningless ink smudge, we should definitely try to see if it can be done with squiggly kanji lines.

Hyakkan’e provides a ‘derived pareidolia’ illustration and storyline for each kanji and radical. With that you get the big-three: 1) its meaning, 2) its primary sound and 3) all the radical hints needed for drawing it. Hyakkan’e is an easy-to-retrieve mnemonic bonanza. It’s real value is in its picture-to-picture (kanji-to-illustration) quality. Things stay on the same side of the brain which facilitates much quicker recall. It might take a few lengthy looks at the kanji and illustrations before the pareidolia becomes ‘derived’ for you but eventually you’ll be able to see kanji/illustration and recall the mnemonic-based storyline in mere seconds. You’ll be able to flip through a hundred+ kanjis in four or five minutes for review. That can’t be done if you have to read paragraphs of words. The review process before ‘testing’ is lightning fast.

So when you say, ‘they don’t look anything like what they describe,’ to me that’s more than okay, it’s good. I’m trying to teach radicals, not drawing.

Thanks for your honest response. I hope my response was also clear.

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If I am understanding correctly, you are suggesting this might be useful in the sense that you provide examples of what the kanji/radicals look like and then other people will see the same thing right?

I think its neat that it worked for you, but I just feel like its not personally applicable to a majority of kanji I come across. 拮 just doesn’t look like anything to me. It looks like扌士 and 口. I think that this idea can be applied to some kanji, but everytime I see something like this they just use convenient kanji like 人 火 山 口 etc.

I think using it for the radicals isn’t a bad idea at all since those are usually simpler and you can see some sort of image a lot easier…but isn’t this basically exactly what wanikani already does? I feel like for all the radicals that aren’t already their own individual kanji, they just call it what it “looks like”.

Overall, I still don’t really see the point, but I’m not sure I fully understand. If you would, could you give me an example of how this would work with 悖? And if you would like to do a more complicated kanji, maybe 攪 or 釁?


That looks absolutely awesome, and it would personally help me a great deal. I have a visual memory, meaning that those kinds of pictures (associated with the text) would allow me to better memorize all those crazy kanji.

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Hi Vanilla,

It is interesting that none of the four kanji you asked about (拮, 攪, 釁, 悖) are in WaniKani. This new mnemonic system was for me to better learn WaniKani words, so I have not yet addressed these four kanji. That said, however, with the first kanji (拮) I instantly saw two hands (or just hands plural) on the left and a grave plot on the right. No thought about it–it just popped in my head—once you master the radicals you just see things. I’ve used two meanings for the radical 扌in the past—‘hands’ and on occasion ‘nail bat’ which is WK’s creation. I’ve also used two meanings for the right side – ‘samurai’s mouth’ and ‘grave plot’ or just ‘grave.’

Off the top of my head my storyline for this would be something like “the forecast said rain was imminent so the workers jumped off their cots [KATSU], put gloves on their hands and started digging graves before the ground got wet.” I can probably tighten it up a little after giving it time to simmer in my head. Anyway a ‘cute’ picture of two workers digging graves (maybe with an open tent and a visible cot inside it in the background). Hands and grave would be my drawing mnemonics; cots [KATSU] is my sound hint and ‘rain was imminent’ for the kanji’s meaning. Just an example that even hard kanji can also be made easy if the radicals are listed in the storyline.

Ah yes, sorry, I should clarify that when I mean me personally I mean for my purposes. I finished wk years ago so all the kanji I need to familiarize myself with would be off site (not that I would be able to remember which kanji were on here anyways).

But hmm, after reading through that a couple times, it really just seems like something I couldn’t use. It feels like to remember that it would take 10x the amount of time. I just don’t see it, I guess.

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