Simple vs complex kanji

i am enjoying the wanikani program to learn kanji
but i am finding that because the levels are based on simplicity of number of strokes/shape , that we are learning quite complex " vocabulary " rather than more common words
For example, the kanji for " intentionally " and for " admiration "

So I find it really hard to tackle basic Japanese reading as so many kanji are still unknown

I believe japanese children learn the other way round … complex kanji because the represent common vocabulary


By level 30, you’ll know most very common words (80% of the top 1000 most frequently used ones, and 98% of the top 500). And tbh, there’s a fun thing with kanji, that the more complex it is, the less likely it is, that actual Japanese people will use it.


You essentially arrived at one of the tradeoffs of wanikani on your own.


I believe japanese children learn the other way round … complex kanji because the represent common vocabulary

Hm, looking at the order in which Kanji are taught in schools, my impression is that the Kanji in level 1 are both simple and commonly used. But from level 2 onwards, many less common Kanji appear before more common Kanji. For example, 汽 (used for things like steam trains) and 弓 (bow, as in the weapon) are in level 2, whereas 閉 (to close a door) and 欲 (to want sth.) are in level 6. So it doesn’t seem to be ordered by how common the vocabulary is.

it is indeed an aspect of WK that it goes from simple to complex kanji, rather than from common to less common.

WK should always be supplemented by other learning tools. when it comes to reading, i found that doing common vocabulary (for example by jlpt level on kamesame) greatly improved my reading.

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In the WK FAQs you can find the official reasoning behind the kanji order.

Japanese children learn kanji in order of both usefulness and how simple the meaning of the kanji is, not how simple the structure is. This makes sense because Japanese kids are just that: kids. Even if the structure of a kanji is more complicated (that is, more strokes), they are more likely to learn it if the kanji’s meaning is simple and common.

WaniKani assumes you’re an adult, or at least not an elementary school student. So, we go the other way: more simply structured kanji, even if the meaning is too difficult for a kindergartener to understand. This way we can teach you more complicated kanji (in structure) using your knowledge of simpler kanji. And, you’re not overwhelmed by something with 13 strokes right from the start.

By doing this, you do miss out on some super common kanji right in the beginning. But, a couple months in you’ll know all these common kanji, plus a couple hundred more. It doesn’t take long to see our focus on the long-term pay off.


Wankani on its on isn’t sufficient, and I don’t think anyone, including the designers expect it to be used in isolation. From that starting point everyone uses it differently!

The way I use it is to give me permission not to sweat the kanji that come up elsewhere and focus on other things. That means that if I am reading something on Satori reader or NHK Easy and come across a kanji I don’t know I will look at the kanji to see if there are any familiar radicals or similar, but if not I just focus on the sound of the word. Even doing this some will be learnt through repetition and exposure, but I trust wanikani to get me to the rest eventually!

I am actually at a golden spot with my kanji learning, I often come across a new word, but recognise one of the kanji, which helps me remember the overall meaning. I also get introduced kanji or vocab in wanikani, and already know it! Both of these are great feelings, which I wouldn’t get if every resource plugged through kanji in the same order.

How do i find kamesame?

you can also add your WK API token to Kamesame is you want it to use it for reverse WK, but that’s not what i use it for

Eh, wanikani does loosely follow the kyoiku kanji list. I’m at about 500 characters learned, and I have covered over 90 percent of grade 1-3 kanji and almost half of grade 4 now.

I suppose the remaining grade 2 kanji, except 汽, could be taught much earlier, especially 書. If you’re not solely relying on wanikani, I feel that you’d have already encountered the characters though.

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Should we teach children the alphabet in historical ABC order, order of usage frequency, or in order of complexity?

I’m kidding, of course, but in the end, I don’t believe the ordering would have made a huge difference to me as far as reading ability goes. I couldn’t read much of anything (without significant pain and a lot of assistance) until level 35 or so, regardless.

I still need a LOT of help and will continue to need it after level 60.

@Vanilla ’s major theme in his epic video resonates strongly with me: it’s domain vocabulary that matters most. Reading will be difficult until you effortlessly recognize far, far more vocabulary words than WK teaches.

Learning 2000 or so characters is just the start of a journey. Reading will be difficult even after you “learn” all 2000.

The order I learn these 2000 characters doesn’t seem to matter as far as reading ability, but I have absolutely no doubt that the ordering positively affected my learning/memorization efficiency.

I doubt it’s always intentional, but countless times characters introduced in later levels were easy to understand and memorize because of what I’d learned previously. Equally often, characters I thought I knew became much harder to recognize due to confusion with characters introduced later. It’s astonishing how often these confused characters come up in reviews together.

WK puts a LOT of effort into what they teach and what order they teach it. They are constantly revising these decisions (see 又 for example). It’s not solely based on stroke order.

WK orders items the way they do for pedagogical reasons (as they should, imho). Nothing is ever perfect but weekly updates at least allow us to approach it.


I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said. Just going with OP’s post and showing that wanikani’s ordering doesn’t differ much from Japan schoolchildren’s ordering. Relevant, 議 is an undoubtedly complex kanji, yet it is the 25th most common character, a grade 4 kanji, and level 20 wanikani kanji. Obviously a first grader learning kanji, or a foreigner, shouldn’t be subjected to that early, lol


According to what? I find that pretty hard to believe (unless you only look at newspapers). At least Kanji usage frequency lists it at 337 which aggregates some different sources. Although it only uses old Aozora Bunko books, which I don’t really think are representative anymore (most are written before the kanji reform).

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So yes, the newspaper frequency number.

I appreciate the compliment, but you actually kinda flipped the point I tried to make in that video.

You’re absolutely correct that knocking out vocab in a specific area or series is something that matters the most. You wanna focus on one thing at a time to give yourself a foothold.

The thing is, though, you don’t need far more vocab than wanikani teaches to read something without difficulty. That’s why I recommend tackling a specific series first.

Lets look at some numbers to understand what I mean. The series doesn’t matter and I’ll gladly do it with any other series people are curious about, but let’s take youjitsu. It’s one of the most popular light novels out there, it’s middle of the road difficulty, and there was someone on here not so long ago learning japanese soley for the purpose of reading that series.

The entire 1st year part of the series:

14 books
~20000 unique words.

Wanikani covers:
3789 of those words.

Right off the bat, you should notice that 2700 words you learn on wanikani don’t even show up in a single one of the fourteen books.

Let’s get more specific and look at the first book:

Vol 1:
6389 unique words
1517 kanji

Covered by wanikani
1919 words
1335 kanji (it looks like?)

And see, here’s the thing, those 1919 words covered by wanikani aren’t going to be the most common and useful ones in that books.

With 6000 words you could almost read the entire first book without a single unknown word. With the most common 6000 words, you would know about 93% of words across all 14 books of that series.

So let’s do some thinking about what that means for the latter:

The 14 books have:

746818 total words.
19846 unique words
86919 sentences
~8.6 words per sentence

Those 6000 words will cover:

~695,000 words.

You can expect to come across an unknown word once every 14 words or so with that. That’s not even once per sentence.

That’s the starting point for reading that series. That’s basically as hard as it’s going to get for you. You then have the next 14 books to learn with that as your foothold. And again, that’s taking the most 6000 common words across all 14 books. Your starting point is even easier the more you narrow it down.

My point is, 6000 words isn’t shit at the end of the day when it comes to being a high level reader. This series alone sits at 20k. However, 6000 words can be a very significant starting point if you learn the right 6000.. What’s the right 6000? The 6000 that you’re going to use the most. And the only way to figure out what those 6000 are is by knowing what you want to read and getting it from there. A one size fits all program is not only gonna be unable to teach you the most common words you’ll come across, but it will teach you plenty you won’t be coming across at all.


1Q84 (3 books):
18480 unique words
Words from wanikani: 3899 (40% of the words you learned on wanikani won’t show up)

Mushoku tensei (25 books):
29148 unique words (holy shit)
Words on wanikani: 4571 (30% of the words you learn on wanikani won’t show up)

Harry Potter 1:
7997 unique words
Words on wanikani: 2184 (66% of words you learn on wanikani won’t show up)


It almost sounds like what you’re saying is, no matter how much prep work you do in mastering vocabulary, unless you tailor your study toward a specific series or genre, there’s going to be too much gap to get much out of the reading, BUT once you have slogged through the first volume/book, you’ve laid the tracks to traverse the rest of the series?

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Yeaaaah basically. I don’t actually recommend you pre learn all of those 6000 words and think that most of them you should get while you’re reading, so you’re gonna have a harder time. The point is, in terms of how much you’re actually learning, it’ll be a lot less for essentially greater benefit.

I mentioned the “breaking the surface” moment in my video. Learning the right 6000 words will put you there or right before that level. Learning just the 6000 words on wanikani will put you at “haha good luck” level when it comes to reading any of those books I listed.

People overhype the value of “learning kanji” and underhype the value of learning words you’ll actually use. “Learning” 2000+ kanji and 6000 words suddenly seems a lot less “efficient” when someone with a 2000 word 1000 kanji background can beat you in comprehension reading the same series.


It sounds like we’re actually saying much the same thing, I just wasn’t clear.

My point was that I think one needs to know a LOT more vocabulary than WK teaches for reading to become easier. WK will teach you to “sound out” some words you’ve not seen before, and you might be able to intuit the meaning of some of the others, but really you’ll want to be familiar with most of the words you come across.

The closer you can get to a working vocabulary in the tens of thousands of words the easier reading will become. That doesn’t mean immediately attacking somebody’s anki deck of 20+ K unrelated but by some measure “common” words, though. Which words to learn in what order is a hard question (best solved by just diving into the content you’re interested in — “mining” as you go, I suppose).

Word frequency varies tremendously by domain. Sports manga use different words than coding blogs or fashion magazines.[1] IMO, it’s never too early to start building the vocabulary required for the domains that interest you (along with some of the most universally common words).

Obviously there are words that are pretty universal across all domains, and many aren’t taught by WK, but I’m not sure that’s really a problem. I value learning several (far from all) of the more common readings for characters and getting enough exposure to guess the meaning of new 熟語(じゅくご) I’ve not seen before. I’m not sure I’d be willing to trade that for more common words.[2]

In other words, I’d argue that WK teaches you basic kanji and related vocabulary to provide the basis to learn to read Japanese. WK on its own won’t get you terribly close to “comfortable literacy” (to steal your fantastic phrase).

  1. The content I’m most interested in (Japanese carpentry) has quite a bit of very specific vocabulary (専門用語(せんもんようご)) that isn’t in anyone’s “most common” lists. It’s been fun learning so many new, unusual words (that even vary significantly between kantou/kansai). ↩︎

  2. Note that I started with a reasonably large spoken vocabulary, though, I might feel differently otherwise. ↩︎


Ah in the sense that wanikanis 6500 alone aren’t nearly enough, absolutely. See the stats I provided haha. You’re probably not gonna even get to use half of them in a single book and it’s no guarantee that even if they do show up, it will be fore more than a singular time.

On the other hand…the number 6500 is definitely enough for comfortable working through of a book. Even 3000 is if it’s the right 3000. For example:

If you don’t learn the words that appear only once in youjitsu 1, youll need 3000 words. Those 3000 words will cover 95% of all words in the book. In my experience, that’s comfortable for working through the book with a dictionary with the aim to learn. Unassisted and just reading on the your own, yeah it’s not gonna be comfortable at all. But specifically in terms of being not difficult with a dictionary and effort, I think it’s enough.

EDIT: it was unintentional, but reading this back I guess yeah I mean “working” through the book is doable which is definitely different from what I mean when I say comfortable literacy or comfortable reading.


This is kind of how I see it though. Building up the basic vocab, mostly based on frequency (general frequency and frequency of the target subject/genre), and then laboring/powering through the first volume/book. Because each book in a genre or series share so much vocab with other books in the same genre/series, just getting through the first volume arms you to the teeth to deal with subsequent entries. Basically the difficulty is very front-loaded and only gets easier.