Mnemonics, really?


So here is my story.

Five years ago, I attempted to learn Japanese kanji meanings with Heisig. After two years of hard work (like two hours of work a day) I managed to “learn” about 1800 kanji meanings. What I mean by “learn” here is, when presented with a kanji, I was able, after like 30 seconds, to recall the correct meaning. Those 30 seconds were spent correctly identifying the radicals and recalling their meanings, recalling the memonics, and figuring out the meaning of the kanji from there.

But what did I really learn ? I didn’t learn kanji. I learned 1800 convoluted tricks. A japanese text has a great number of kanji. I cannot imagine spending 30 secondes on each of them to recall the meaning (let alone the readings and the meanings of words if those where learned with mnemonics, too).

Truly learning something means instantaneous recall. I’ve been told memonics eventually fade but for me, even after two years of work, they never did.

What do you think about this ? Did I do something wrong ? Am I misguided about the usefulness of mnemonics ?

Thank you for your opinions.

PS : I have an extremely bad memory.


Idk if my conclusion is true because I never used Heisig, but you probably were not able to recall without going through the entire mnemonic because there was no reading attached to it?

Like maybe since it’s only dedicated to learning the meaning of the kanji, you didn’t have any reading to go with it and hence had to depend only on the stories for the meaning?

Maybe I’m wrong but that’s what I could come up with. The kanji in wanikani have mnemonics to eventually remember the reading. So that’s probably the difference.

I’ve seen people say Heisig helped them but it’s all depending on the individual so maybe this way didn’t work for you.



I personally think you probably did something wrong, but I can’t say exactly what beyond ‘not making the connection between meaning and kanji as immediate, obvious and intuitive as possible’. That’s what I aim for. I’m not going to claim I’m a memory expert, but I remember things fairly well provided I want to (I use a lot of vivid imagery), and I’m a native English and Chinese speaker, so I’ve been doing this with kanji for a long time.

Could you perhaps provide an example of a Heisig mnemonic that you still have in your head, along with the kanji for which you’re using it? Feel free to pick a complicated one/one that you struggle to recall quickly. I’ll give you my opinion on what’s wrong or how you could approach it differently.

I’d say that this is also a possibility, if only because having a reading might provide you with a more concise trigger for meaning than an entire mnemonic, and you can use readings to strengthen your memory of meanings. However, as long as you have no meaning keyword overlaps in Heisig, you’d essentially be ‘reading’ each kanji as its meaning, so I doubt that’s the main issue here.

If you want to take a look, I have a thread where I create mnemonics, primarily for other people, but also for a few new words with complex kanji that other people have made me aware of. It’s here:

I aim to use emotions and vivid sensory imagery as much as possible (though I’m aware that not everyone can visualise or imagine things) in order to reduce thinking time and make meanings and readings intuitive. The only reason my mnemonics are so long is that I’m trying to describe exactly what I see and feel in my head so others can (hopefully) experience them too.

PS: I don’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable or like I’m singling you out, but is French your native language, or is English also one of your native languages? (It’s nothing to do with your English, which is perfect: it’s just that I noticed ‘secondes’, which was surely due to autocorrect or a typo, your name and your punctuation for the colon after ‘PS’. I speak French and I’m currently living in France, so I couldn’t help but see all that.) The reason I’m asking is… well, could it be that you’re working with something that’s not in your native language? That of course depends on how comfortable you are with English, and it’s probably not the problem if you’re very used to English, which seems to be the case, but it’s just a thought. I speak French fluently, but I’m probably just a tiny bit slower in French than in English, and it probably wouldn’t help if I was trying to remember something convoluted in French (like when I take notes in French literature class and the teacher doesn’t repeat herself :laughing:).

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That’s odd. I defo hardy remember any mnemonic after the guru stage. They only become relevant when I struggle to remember, but once items move up the SRS stages, the mnemonic becomes irrelevant. I either remember the kanji or vocab or I don’t.

I have no opinions on Heisig (which I don’t know anything about), but maybe the problem was not also using a SRS along with the mnemonics (like on WK), to get a more intense exposure to the items? :eyes:

What type of mnemonic is less important than the SRS I find.


In my opinion, there is no teaching method that will resonate with everyone. If that is your experience with mnemonics, than that’s the fact of the matter for your particular situation.

My experience with WK mnemonics was different. I came in as a complete kanji scrub that didn’t even understand what something like kun’yomi or on’yomi was supposed to mean (yes, even after reading an explanation about it). I ended up leaning heavily into the mnemonics, and those kanji all stuck very, very well.

Getting further into WK, I started paying less attention to radicals and tried less hard to internalise the mnemonics. Those kanji did not stick nearly as well.

Out of curiosity: how much reading did / do you do? Because regular usage of a kanji absolutely made the mnemonic drop for me, and moved it up to instant recognition.

I often find kanji in the wild easier to recognise than when I’m doing SRS reviews. In combination with context, a lot of potential visually similar kanji stop being an option for what a word may be. Some kanji can have me hemming and hawing during a review about what the hell it may be, but when I encounter it while reading, I read it correctly without even having to stop and think about it.

So in my personal experience: mnemonics were exceedingly useful, and I absolutely moved on to instant recognition - provided I put in the time and effort of exposing myself to it again and again through reading and other usage.

I also know that some gave every radical the user synonym “x,” and ignored all the mnemonics and still feel like they could learn kanji and vocab. The first three levels of WK are free, so you can get at least some insight into whether your feel like the method is worth the money for your personally.

Here’s hoping you can find a method that works well for you! Best of luck!


It is true that I was practising with Heisig only. I didn’t supplement it with any other source of learning material. Wanikani teaches the readings and vocabulary too, so maybe I’ll be able to put this knowledge into practice with real Japanese and It will help.


I would say it’s a very personal matter. I’ve never in my life relied on real story mnemonics, involving characters, scenes, etc. I usually created simple memory tricks from A to B to remember study material during school and later uni. Also, I never liked them, because they feel cumbersome for the purpose they serve. Once you get exposed to more Japanese words, you will be able to figure out the meaning of kanji by seeing how they’re used in context.

I do have a similar problem as you - once I start relying on mnemonics, I keep on relying on them, because my brain is convinced it’s easier that way than eventually remembering the reading for instant recall. That’s not how they’re supposed to work, though. They’re only an entry solution to get your memory going until you finally remember that meaning and reading.

WaniKani mnemonics are apparently pretty good at this, but it’s also for you to decide :slight_smile: . Give it a go and see what happens.


In the long run, even with a SRS like WK, you need exposure to native materials. Only if you use the knowledge will it become more deeply internalized and made intuitive at the end. So, maybe jump off the deep end and just pick up any type of Japanese media and type of genre that you’re into and go for it. :slight_smile:


People’s brains work differently, so I wouldn’t beat yourself up that you’re doing something wrong just because a particular way of learning doesn’t work for you.

I have a random suggestion though, based on no grounds whatsoever :woman_shrugging: Maybe try a speed round? Only give yourself 2 seconds and write down the first meaning or reading that springs to mind. Just on gut, without thinking at all. Make yourself write down something - anything! Then you can go through the mnemonics as normal and see whether you were anywhere near close.

Might not work at all, I’d just be curious as to whether it helps you shortcut to recall without mnemonics. Sometimes I can look at a kanji or vocab for minutes and not have the slightest clue, so just put down anything to get it wrong and move on. Quite often my subconscious will then provide the right answer as I think I’m putting nonsense. So it’s there, it’s just recall that’s the problem.

Bluntly, the problem is, you learned kanji for two years, but never started learning Japanese. It’s not the mnemonics fault; they eventually fade away as you use what you learn. I’m not surprised at all they didn’t stick.


I too had this problem and it’s been related to the fact that I was actually a faster learner than the mnemonics would allow. I would be setting myself up memorising the story, but this was useless because if I just associated the kanji with the sound straight off, I would always remember it. Some people can do that and don’t require a story. If that’s the case for you then just relax and enjoy, and don’t put the artificial barrier of mnemonics between you and learning the kanji.

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PS - you don’t have an extremely bad memory. You learnt 1800 meanings of what are to most people, convoluted, indistinguishable squiggles. That’s bloody amazing. I reckon you have an extremely good memory.
If you want to have a go at WK you might find that the SRS makes you recall them faster. Because it quickly gets rid of the ones you know, and keeps annoying you with the ones you forget, until your brain gets them right to spite itself. And with repeated exposure to them from the real world too… that’s how memories get useful in our heads. from being connected to each other.


Two years of work? If you only ever spent these two years only working then of course you won’t feel like you absorbed kanji naturally. Only after reading a lot you’ll see actual results. Mnemonics/WK help here, when you start to read. They’re the shortcut. You’ll have to read lots to actually transform the gains to something concrete.


I can only speak from my own experience, but for me the mnemonics do fade. This eventually will go a step further where your brain will start recognising whole words rather than individual kanji. But the most important catalyst for this is reading . A lot. Often. Every day if you can.

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Yes, you can’t recognize kanji instantly, but you can recognize them. Instant recognition would come from reading a lot. And yes, at first it would mean spending 30 seconds per kanji. It might seem like a waste of time, but if you keep doing it, you would notice that for many kanji this time would get shorter and shorter, until you get to full recognition.
In other words, I think you did nothing wrong, its just that now you need to do more reading.

Anyway, best of luck to you!

What are you talking about? Your way of learning and recalling kanji was incredibly inefficient if you spent 30 second on each kanji. You don’t think about the mnemonics about every kanji once you see them, you only use the mnemonics if you can’t recall the kanji. But once you’ve seen it with SRS a couple of times you don’t think about the mnemonics you just know what the kanji means instantly. 80% of the kanji I get through my reviews are not something I even think about, I just see them and instantly know what they mean.

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The problem is that mnemonics just act as an initial crutch in learning characters.
I’m currently learning mandarin through 1 program ( simultaneously with Japanese) and in that one method, they heavily utilize sophisticated mnemonics where you create movies scenes with radicals in order to remember meaning and tone.

One common question that people always ask- should I always remember mnemonics or scenes.- If you can instantly recognize the character no. And the way you get used to recalling characters unconsciously is by seeing them in context a lot= reading. Mnemonics only help with that intital start in reading and recalling character, if you never practice reading and just study kanji/hanzi out of context- eventually you will forget them.

Don’t worry.

At the end of Japanese high school you know about 1800 Kanjis, as a native.

Do you still remember the meaning of the Kanjis after five years? You did not clarify that.

Anyway, eg it took me about five years of learning Japanese and living in Japan, married to a Japanese to be able to speak, not fluently, but to be able to say something like 行きたくなかたら行かなくてもいいよ。The whole sentence structure and rhythm is just so alien to a German native, like a tongue- twister.

Everything you have learned is somewhere in your brain and at some point the connections work better and you are able to use that information you have stored.

For some strange reason, often before there is a step up it feels like everything gets worse but it doesn’t. This feeling of having forgotten everything is somehow always happening before a step up, and in my impression, also watching my kids grow up, mastering a new skill is in no way linear, but always goes in the same pattern:

Learning a lot, a period where nothing seems to improve, frustration, a crisis where everything seems to be forgotten and a sudden step up.


Strange thing is, I remember most of the Kanjis really quickly without mnemonics, but I cannot write them. In order to be able to write, I need mnemonics, and it works really well so far.