More formal kanji studies

I’ve managed to SRS my way into correctly reading kanji sometimes. However I would like to study them in a more formal sense. That is to say, understanding what the radical is, learning how to write them, etymology, 六書, and so on. The plan here is to make my knowledge a bit less shallow and hopefully boost my kanji comprehension by giving me more information to link together, if that makes sense. I don’t plan on taking 漢検, although this seems like it would draw from the same learning resources.

I guess I’m asking several questions here. For writing, I have a shared anki deck I’m going to work through. Should I be concerning myself with different types of strokes, or anything else I’m not thinking of?

I’m not really sure how to approach the rest of it, or frankly what is more worth my time. Should I just start memorizing radicals with Anki? Should I forgo Kanjipedia for a physical dictionary, look up characters by radical, and let the tediousness engrave kanji facts into my bones?

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If this is your goal, then you need a dictionary or other resource that really focuses on kanji, especially on kanji etymology. For 六書, I have a feeling the most respected (or at least, the oldest) resources are definitely in Chinese (I’m thinking about stuff like 説文解字=せつもんかいじ or the Kangxi Dictionary), but you can also just look for translations of those texts or dictionaries in Japanese that include similar information. You can definitely find explanations for the concepts in 六書 in Japanese dictionaries at any rate.

Focus on stroke order and features that are considered ‘necessary’ for a kanji to be correct. The standards vary between Chinese and Japanese, for example, but honestly, if you just pick one ‘standard’ reference resource to learn from, you should be fine. The main details to look out for are

  1. はね (those little flicks at the ends of strokes that create hooks)
  2. Relative stroke lengths (less important in Japanese than in Chinese in my experience, but still worth looking out for because they matter in some cases, like in 士=し VS 土=ど)
  3. Relative component proportions and stroke protrusions e.g. Simplified Chinese vs Japanese:
    Screenshot 2022-08-30 at 09.32.19VSScreenshot 2022-08-30 at 09.32.41
    Screenshot 2022-08-30 at 09.35.10VSScreenshot 2022-08-30 at 09.35.38

I think these are the main things that trip up kanji learners, including native speakers. Adding or omitting some of these features when they’re essential to a given kanji will mean that kanji will be considered incorrect, and possibly be unrecognisable.

OK, my personal opinion is this: classifying radical knowledge is effectively trivia. Certain classifying radicals are exceedingly common and therefore are almost always considered classifying radicals when they appear in a kanji in a certain position (usually on the left), but for other kanji, you may feel like the classifying radical was chosen at random from among the components available, which isn’t too surprising given that kanji shapes can be really varied and a dictionary ultimately just needs to sort kanji somehow or other. If you want some examples, look up the 部首 (classifying radicals) for 凸、凹 and 弔. The radicals chosen make some sense, but they tell you nothing about the kanji. If you want to learn classifying radicals for all the kanji you know, no problem, and I wish you great success, but I think it’s far more important (and useful) to be able to identify all the common components in the kanji you come across.

As for forgoing Kanjipedia… I don’t think that’s a great idea given what you intend to learn. You should use a resource like Kanjipedia, which includes 部首, 六書 and etymological data, and then perhaps look for other information about kanji that interest you by googling stuff like <漢字>由来 or <漢字>成り立ち. Naturally, most of the origin theories that you’ll see with those search terms will be of Japanese origin, and some of them will differ from other major origin theories from other sources, like Chinese ones, but I think it’s fine to learn either sort as long as the explanations you find satisfy you. Looking things up by radical in a physical dictionary will, I believe, far more likely frustrate you over time and just waste a lot of your time. (I did it as a child, and no, it didn’t teach me what the classifying radical for each kanji was; I just noticed the most common ones and learnt to make guesses, which is something you can learn simply by visually inspecting kanji and comparing them with the set of components you already know.)

If you find Anki helpful for you, you might want to try learning the Japanese names of various common radicals and reviewing them using the Anki SRS. Learning the naming system for different radical types based on their shapes and positions will likely also help you. (I haven’t learnt the Japanese system, but I had something similar for Chinese and it’s been a sort of foundation for my understanding all my life.) This might be a good place to start:
https://kanjialive.com/214-traditional-kanji-radicals/

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Thank you for your detailed response.

I have been browsing bookstores and libraries lately, and there seem to be a number of speciality kanji dictionaries that go into etymology, certainly beyond what Kanjipedia offers. 白川静 seems to have several books on the topic (字通 is a bit of a tome). Since I’m not eschewing Kanjipedia, perhaps a book that focuses on these aspects could be helpful, rather than a regular Kanji dictionary.

Excellent, these are the sorts of pitfalls I was worried about falling into. Do you have any favorite references for this topic, potentially online?

This is important to hear because I don’t want to waste on radicals if they aren’t helpful, particularly because I suspect that learning to write characters is going to be a large undertaking already. Memorizing a few hundred radical terms though isn’t as big of a deal.

Again, my ultimate goal here is really just to get my comprehension up. That is not to say that I don’t like to learn these things, but I really do mix up similar looking Kanji too often, as well as forget rare Kanji. I feel like memorizing information with SRS is not getting me to a high enough accuracy. If I can remember how to write them, or if I can remember the origin story behind the character, I will retain information better perhaps.

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Have you looked into Kanji books for Japanese kids? I have a few for elementary school students, they have little drawings and explanations on how the character evolved (I think, my Japanese isn’t good enough to read all of that yet, I just enjoy the pictures for now). Like this series.

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Yes, perhaps. I don’t really have anything in mind, unfortunately. Using the keywords 語源 or 漢字の成り立ち・由来 might get you something though.

Not really. Most of these things are things I learnt in school, and in essence, what I did was learn how to write each kanji ‘properly’. That’s why I said studying ‘standard’ kanji should help. However, so, I tried doing a little searching, and I feel like these sorts of articles might be want you’d want to look out for?

If not, while this may feel a little silly, you can try looking for kanji writing courses for Japanese schoolchildren. Here’s one for primary-schoolers that I think looks pretty good:

If the 1026 primary school kanji are too easy/familiar for you, then try looking for what they have to learn in 中学校 and 高校 with something like「中学校・高校漢字ペン文字」. Here’s another book I found:

You might also want to check out the other books by the same author in the ‘Frequently Bought Together’ section:


The point of all this is essentially that any calligraphy course or site that teaches writing will include some instructions on how to write things properly (e.g. ‘for this stroke, start here, move vertically downwards, then stop for a bit before moving to the right’), and that’s what will allow you to know what’s necessary and what isn’t. Also, if you know how certain kanji features are produced in writing, you’ll also know what you should or shouldn’t do. I think looking at calligraphy sites or YouTube channels may also be helpful. I know that having beautiful handwriting isn’t your primary goal, but having instructions on how to write kanji will likely give you a better idea.

Let me just be clear: I think it’s useful to know what the most common radicals are, where they appear in kanji, and what they mean. Many of these common radicals are used for classification. However, what I feel is ‘trivia’ and not useful is being able to look at a random complex kanji (say… ) and go, ‘The classifying radical under which I’ll find this in the dictionary is [radical].’ Having such an intuition can be helpful because it tells you what sort of main meaning category the kanji might fit into, but overall, it’s not that useful. (I mean, you don’t need to know 金 is the classifying radical of to guess that it might be related to gold or metal in general, right?) Plus, you really can get a feel for this stuff over time. It’s not something worth memorising for most kanji.

I certainly use the origin stories behind kanji (or make one up) to help me along. I find that writing also helps me, at the very least by encouraging me to remember where all the bits go.

I don’t think these go into a lot of detail, but they look good, yes! These are a possible resource as well. :slightly_smiling_face:

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I actually had not thought of that. I will give those a look. I admittedly have avoided material intended for children since I was first recommended to read children’s books when I was level 0 and found it unpleasant.

I actually do have an interest in learning calligraphy, so I am not opposed to having nice handwriting being an outcome here. I figure once I understand the basics, I should be able to tell what strokes to use by the stroke order diagram.

I found this book in the store today. It seems to group together similar looking Kanji and explain the etymology and meanings, which may prove useful. In any case, I will hunt around and also use the internet as you mentioned, as I’m sure this information is readily available there.


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I’ll add one English-language recommendation here: Henshall’s “A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters.”

Doesn’t focus on writing at all, but gives lots of really interesting tidbits on etymology.

Here is a picture of one of the pages so you can get an idea:

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