Wanikani is just not useful enough, but could be

I’ve been living in Japan for four years now and I’ve been using wanikani for almost a year. The app is fantastic, I love the method and it’s exactly the type of system I want to shore up my kanji ability, which is far behind my speaking/listening. However, I think there are serious issues with the way and in particular the order in which kanji are taught, and it’s gotten so bad that I won’t be continuing my subscription next month. Yes, I will email the staff directly, but also wanted to share this with the community in case there are others in my situation.

Basically I can’t figure out who wanikani is specifically designed for. It’s definitely not people wanting to learn real-world Japanese effectively. I’d say 60% of the kanji/vocab in the first 10 levels is not useful in daily life, and I don’t see a reason why the kanji have to be presented that way (because they don’t).

Here’s some examples. I was thrilled to start seeing kanji I didn’t already know around level 4/5, like 里 (home town, level 5). While I was reviewing the associated vocab 里心 (homesickness) my native Japanese girlfriend was looking over my shoulder and said “you can forget that one, we don’t use it”.

I had already known that 里 wasn’t what Japanese people use for “hometown”, that word is 実家 (じっか), though I have yet to see that kanji in wanikani. Why? Is there a reason? “Hometown” is a useful word to know, yet a virtually unusable version of it is taught in level 5.

In level 3 you learn 友人 (friend). Super useful word to know, unfortunately the word for “friend” is 友達 (ともだち). Still haven’t seen that one either despite being something you’ll learn within a week of being in Japan. Of course I realize 友人 does mean friend, only it’s a very formal way of expressing it. You’ll see 友達 20 times before you see 友人 once. Why is that in level 3?

This is extra frustrating when you consider that actually super useful, very important kanji/vocab like 食べる (to eat) are taught after these essentially useless (to a beginner) kanji. I’m level 11 - yes I realize I’m going slow - and I just “learned” 飲む (to drink) and 起きる (to wake up), phrases I’ve been using on a weekly if not daily basis since I got to Japan.

Another one my girlfriend told me I might as well forget - 自決 (suicide). The word Japanese people use is 自殺 (じさつ). There were many, many others she said were not worth memorizing. I’m all for learning the formal, more esoteric versions of kanji by the way, but they should not be taught before the primary, real-life ones. I still haven’t seen 好き (like), as in "I like ____ (anything), also a week 1 fresh off the boat word.

Despite these misgivings I pressed on with wanikani because again, the app is wonderful and it takes relatively little effort to learn some kanji. And don’t get me wrong, there are useful kanji in there that I can now recognize. But it could be soooo much better just by reordering the kanji.

I’ve burned 1276 items so far, which in theory means I have them memorized and know them on a deep level. Absolutely untrue. 60% of them I have never seen once in daily life since learning them at apprentice level, so if I don’t see them again I will eventually forget. I only knew them within the app and barring some miracle it’s going to remain that way.

Anyhow, the thing that finally spurred this post is that for the past six months I’ve continued using wanikani without that voice over my shoulder telling me that various words weren’t useful (my girlfriend and I broke up). But the other day I was going over reviews while with some Japanese friends, the first time I was doing reviews in the company of Japanese people since my ex-girlfriend. Immediately one looked over and said “I’ve never used that kanji before”. It was 算定する (to calculate). Japanese people use 計算する (計算). Can you imagine how demoralizing it is to know that you’re learning things you will likely never use? When you could be learning useful vocabulary instead?

I really just don’t understand how the creators, who I have plenty of respect for, can go through the time and effort to create this great piece of tech, a fantastic system and app and then populate it in a… I don’t know, arbitrary way? I do not know what they’re basing their kanji ordering on. Was this order created by Koichi and co? I doubt it, I have to assume Koichi is fluent in Japanese, but if so then he of all people would know which kanji are most useful for leaning the language.

My best guess is that the kanji taught are geared towards people wanting to take standardized tests like the JLPT, which are good to show on a resume but do not equate well with actual Japanese ability. Maybe people taking those tests will benefit the most from wanikani, but unfortunately I don’t despite being perhaps the ideal target audience. At the end of the day while ultimately beneficial it’s not worth the cost knowing that 60% of what I study is going down the drain. It’s so frustrating because it’s so close to being perfect!

How to fix this? How about have different kanji orders available. Upon signing up you can chose things like “my goal is to take the JLPT” or “my goal is to live and function in Japan” or “my goal is to read manga”. Just reorder the kanji and you have my business back. Seems like relatively little work (compared to building the app) for a huge reward in more subscribers.

Or hell, open up the app to community customization, I’m sure there are others like me dying to learn Japanese effectively.


This isn’t a site for learning vocabulary to use. It’s for learning how to read kanji.

Maybe there’s a disconnect in how it’s marketed.

Those Japanese people who will tell you they don’t use those words know what the words mean. Why? Because they learned them too at some point. So they get used somewhere, in literature, perhaps, or just more formal contexts.

If you want vocab to toss into your conversations, there are other resources.


Well, its meant to teach you kanji. Keep that in mind. I don’t doubt some of the words are not all too common, but its all to learn the kanji. Vocab are kanji reinforcers.

EDIT: Leebo I swear to god

EDIT2: I would just like to point out on my screen it showed leebo replying when I hit enter. It showed my post directly under the OP and then LEEBO’S LOADED IN BETWEEN MINE AND THE OP. Literally discourse rubbing it in my face.

I do agree that they should maybe have a disclaimer that the vocab is more used to increase kanji retention rate than actually boost your comprehension rate. For that, they would be teaching A LOT more vocab for the lower levels.

It may be an issue if you learn some words before others where that first word taught you the reading used. Say a vocab word teaches you that 書 can be read as か, but you skip over that word because its not as common as some others. Then they would have to change the mnemonic for the other words. Same goes for the radicals that are previously learned kanji. I think it may be more work than you think.


I just gave up on my answer… you both answered first… why try at all… sniff sniff


I read the post and saw that Leebo and Vanilla were typing at the same time.



Where would one go to learn “real” vocab then, as my biggest problem right now is comprehension, which would probably be helped by not talking like a dictionary.


It’s both, no? I agree that there is a marketing disconnect. Yes, Japanese people know the meanings of formal words. You need to know those to be fluent. I don’t see why they are taught before commonly-used words. Wanikani users aren’t native. The 80/20 rule should apply.


Grab one of the non-wk core 10k sheets and put those words into houhou.


I don’t know what any of that means, ha ha. I know there are other resources, I’m just talking about my issues with wanikani. (sorry just noticed that was directed at Chop)

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Well WK promises to teach you the kanji efficiently. This is why 了 is one of the first kanji taught, despite being n1. It doesn’t prioritize common stuff, but you still can. WK doesn’t have to (and it shouldn’t) be your only form of study.


No, I wouldn’t say it’s both, equally anyway. WK does not teach how to use vocabulary. In any way. It gives you one or a couple English meanings, and usually doesn’t tell you what register the word is. One example sentence isn’t enough to say the word usage is being taught.

You can use the words taught here as a step toward learning how to use them, if you want, but you need to crack open your dictionary, and your thesaurus, and read example sentences, and ask Japanese people before you use something.

What WK does do, is when you see the word on a standardized test, you won’t hesitate. When I took N1 in July last year, all 6 words that were asked about I learned how to read here. Obviously, that also transfers over to reading in general, but many people here care about how well they recognize stuff when it’s been evaluated.


I agree it’s probably more work than I think but that raises the question - why was it done this way in the first place? I’m genuinely curious what they were going for. I’m trying to learn Japanese, specifically kanji, and the system doesn’t seem to be designed with me in mind. So who it designed for?


As explicitly stated in the FAQs, the ordering is based on simplicity of the character:

“The ordering of items in WaniKani was created specifically for adults who speak English. Not for kids that already speak Japanese. Here’s the difference: Japanese schoolchildren learn kanji in an order based on how simple the meaning of a kanji is. So a kanji that has fifteen strokes but has a simple meaning will come before a kanji that has two strokes but has a difficult meaning. As an English speaking adult (or close to it), you already understand the meanings of difficult words and concepts. But, the difference between a kanji with twenty strokes and two strokes is huge for you! WaniKani teaches you simple kanji (in terms of structure) first and builds off that knowledge to grow your ability to learn more complicated kanji. In the long term, you are able to learn all the kanji you need to be literate much more quickly and with less friction.”


How so? You have to learn all the kanji on this site sooner or later. It starts off easy and simple and slowly builds a foundation of radicals. As you get better at learning kanji, it teaches you more difficult ones. All this while reinforcing it with vocabulary. How is that not designed to teach you kanji?


You want to learn kanji, but you’re saying the vocab is not good enough? Why does it matter to you either way?


Thanks Rowena, I didn’t see that. But using that reasoning doesn’t result in learning the most useful kanji.

Again, you need to learn all the kanji on this site sooner or later. Name a single kanji up until my level and I guarantee you I have seen it. If you have a problem with the order not being most common -> most uncommon, that would potentially sacrifice the ease of learning. It would cause you to have to learn the kanji for 瞬間 just because its a common word pretty early on. Same for 様子. Imagine trying to learn that at level 5.


I think I didn’t explain myself clearly. I’m trying to learn Japanese. I can speak fairly well. My kanji sucks in comparison. Wanikani teaches kanji ineffectively - that’s the gist of my post. It also teaches loads of vocabulary equally ineffectively. There are other issues I could mention, I’m specifically talking about the kanji ordering, and thus the vocabulary ordering (because that’s based on what kanji you have learned). A lot of it is wasted time and effort for me personally and for other in my situation.

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How should the order be then, in your opinion?

Hey, that’s great for you. I live in Japan and I haven’t seen loads of kanji I was taught by wanikani. I don’t know what your situation is but you’re luckier than me?

I disagree that changing the order would sacrifice the ease of learning - again, for me and others in my situation.

I don’t know either of those words you mentioned, ha ha. But if something is common I would have no problem learning them despite the difficulty, because even the simplest kanji becomes impossible to memorize if you never see it.