The Universal Mnemonic: Read 90% of Kanji with a simple trick

WK teaches you kanji through mnemonics, radicals and stories, but it never teaches you about the four types of kanji. I tried to search the forums and some people are aware of this, but I’ve never seen an explicit guide on this.

Reading and discovering this has changed the way I learn new kanji:

The 4 Types:

1. Pictographs 象形文字

  • kanji that look like something
  • 日 (literally looks like the sun)

2. Indicators 指事文字

  • kanji that represent something it looks like
  • 二 (represents the concept of two things)

3. Combographs 会意文字

  • two kanji together make new meaning
  • 口 (mouth)+鳥 (bird) = 鳴 (chirp)

4. Semantic and Sound borrowers 形声文字

  • half the kanji is meaning hint, half the kanji is reading hint
  • 日 (sun meaning) + 青 (blue reading せい) = 晴 (clear sky, onyomi = せい)

Feel free to read the article if you want to know more, but in this post I want to highlight specifically the last one.

90% of Kanji are 形声文字 (semanic + sound)

This is to say that 90% of kanji’s reading and meaning can be guessed

This becomes increasingly more useful the more radicals/kanji you know and me on the edge of 30 it is starting to blow my mind how applicable it is.

I dare you to look through the kanji you just learned and post if you found at least one this trick helps with. This simple bit of knowledge is helping me remember kanji more on top of mnemonics that WK provides.

Share what you think.


That’s really useful, thanks for sharing.

I’d considered them in the context of pictographs and indicators, but not as combographs or SaSBs.


This is why this userscript is so useful:

Helps to point out when you are doing your lessons when something matches what is mentioned above. That way you can start building up this recognition and can usually start to guess greater than chance at readings and potential shades of meanings of unknown kanji.


I’m still on Level 13 and I’ve already run into cases where phonetic indicators have been useful (mainly, 仲 and 球).

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Cure Dolly has an Anki deck related to this. I haven’t used it, but I think the deck intends to put mnemonics to the sound element of these kanji, to make it easier to attach the pronunciation to the kanji portion in one’s memory.

It does require signing up for her newsletter to get the download link for the desk (but you can unsubscribe after, or use a throwaway address). I’m lazy, so I never went past the e-mail address requirement barriar to look into the deck.

I would just caution that just because a kanji’s origin was as a phono-semantic compound doesn’t mean you’ll be able to guess it on first sight (not at a rate of 90% anyway). Many kanji have been altered or simplified, or the phonetic correlation that existed in ancient Chinese was lost over time, or some other reason.

But yes, many can be guessed.


I got that beat. I just watched this YouTube video:

Learn Kanji in 45 minutes - How to Read and Write Japanese

So, now, I figure I’m pretty much done with kanji.


I’m not saying it’s a shortcut or a catch all, but a valuable resource to either supplement Wk’s mnemonics or you can even just remember the hints to learn readings faster.


I noticed that early on. It’s very cool. Too lazy to switch to Japanese keyboard but recently I learned busy (bou) which has the death (bou) character in it. Def checking out that userscript.

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We’ve all been doing it wrong this entire time!


But I wanted to learn paticles and kanji in 42 minutes!


It takes a lifetime to learn paticles, everyone knows that.


Well, you could do that, but then you’d miss out on their kana, so… no.


My favorite article on this topic:


you’d miss out on their kana

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Wk is a scam, deleting account.


I thought this was a conclusion most students of Japanese kanji make after awhile. It’s pretty cool but I’d say it’s the worst kept secret.


This script is really really useful. You can sometimes guess the connections, but really, this should not be a userscript, but a feature.

But is it a weird trick? Because those are the only ones I’m interested in.


Actually useful, but I will add that people who want to look into pictographs, indicators, and semantic borrowing, look into the actual development of the kanji (etymology).

A lot of the meanings (compared to what WK calls them at least) are completely different to what you’re taught.

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