What’s the use of learning a kanji basic meaning and pronunciation?

Okay, so in the beginning you learn very concrete words like 木 or 川 or 魚 (level 1)

Then things get a bit more complicated vocabulary wise when kanji are combined but kinda make sense like 花火, 曜日 or 満月 (level 2)

But when you make progress the kanji you learn more and more have nothing to so with the meaning of the words. Like 嫌味 or 可愛い or 皮肉 (level 3)

My private teacher says there comes a moment in learning kanji were a kanji does not represent a simple meaning (level 1) or even a rebus/word puzzle (level 2). You cannot get away with guessing the meaning of a word because you know the meaning of the kanji. He says there is absolutely no use at all to learn the basic meaning of kanji or its pronunciation(s). Just focus on vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary. This goes for level 3 kanji.

Just like the letter n or the syllable/mora な means nothing, a kanji like 理 on its own means nothing.

Who can elaborate on this? Do you agree? Do you stick to learning kanji basic meanings and on and kun yomi?


Depends on your goals. Your teacher sounds like they’re giving advice from the perspective of efficiency.

I love learning all kinds of things about kanji and don’t care if it’s inefficient or “useless”.

But I also watch a bunch of quiz shows weekly. That’s just the kind of thing I enjoy.

Do what you want to do.




Not correct. It can certainly help with mnemonics if you have some sort of “name” for the kanji in a lot of cases.

Eh, honestly yeah thats the better way to go about it realistically.

Well, the word 理(ことわり) does mean something, but yeah. If you ask me, if we are gonna compare this to english, for example, then kanji are a lot closer to letters than they are to words. Sometimes letters can be words “I, a”, but for the most part they are just pieces of words. Same for kanji. They’re just pieces of words that happen to often tell you what the word will be about.

I’m with leebo that your teacher really is just talking from the efficiency standpoint, and theyre definitely correct. Its just that its a lot more easy for people to go through kanji with a basic meaning at the start that they can use to help them learn more words. Its not useless, its just a tradeoff of efficiency for ease.

But personally, no I don’t learn kanji meanings and readings anymore. And if I knew what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with it in the first place. With that being said, if you want to, then go for it. Its really not a huge deal in the long run so dont stress too much over it, yknow.


I feel like this, like most other hyperbolic statements, is a bit of an overstatement. It’s certainly true that there are many words where knowing the meaning of the kanji isn’t going to help you guess the word, but it’s also true that there are tons of words where knowing the kanji in them will let you guess the meaning of the word. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve seen a word in a sentence and had a good idea of what it meant because I recognized the kanji, but had no idea how to pronounce it.

Focusing on learning words is better especially in a classroom setting where you need to have enough vocabulary to participate in conversations and read example sentences and stuff like that. But I think saying that learning kanji meanings has “absolutely no use at all” is going way too far. Your teacher might underestimate how much his knowledge of kanji helps him in little ways that he doesn’t realize.


Assuming the teacher is japanese…Does anyone actually know how japanese people learn kanji in school? I’m guessing they aren’t taught that 楽 means so and so, but rather than たのしい is written as 楽しい and whatnot.

EDIT: Well, thats a bad example because I guess japanese people probably know らく from a young age too. Maybe 忙しい would be a better example lol


Though I feel like it’s worth mentioning that intentionally srs’ing kanji meanings isn’t the only way to (sort of) learn them. If you learn a bunch of words that use the same kanji, and the kanji usually relates to the meaning of the word, then it’s likely that you’ll get a sense of its meaning automatically after some time (Or even immediately when you learn something like, I don’t know, 軍 - words with just one kanji for which (one of) the kanji meaning(s) & the word meaning are the same).
Even more so if you still check the kanji meanings occasionally while learning words (just without trying to actively memorize them).
It’s a slower process than active memorization, but in my experience it works fine a lot of the time.


for me personally it adds another layer with which i differentiate kanji.
i guess it’s similar to learning stems in english, i don’t think an english learner would go out of their way to specifically learn a list like this
but i think the different writing system might warrant a different approach.


iv tried immersion and vocab mining. The thing is- it’s much easy ( for me) to learn any new vocab when I already know kanji. Especially when you encounter kanji that look very similar. It’s like knowing a letter of 2000+ alphabet which makes it easy to remember.
word - embankment 土手 easy to remember that it’s earth+hand than just 2 unknown symbols.


That’s how they learn, but kanji dictionaries tend to actually say it “means” たのしい and the other things as well. So if they use a kanji dictionary they would see that kind of thing too.

If a word is pure ateji there’s some value in knowing that too, rather than just saying “it makes no sense”.


My teacher has an amazing knowledge of vocabulary and everyday speech but it not Japanese. That made me sceptic at first but he truly is a very skilled teacher.

We do a lot of reading but came across this discussion when I tried to guess an unknown word.

I agree kanji can help with making mnemonics.

I do catch myself not being able to memorize the basic meaning and pronunciatons of kanji anmore now that I am at level 28. I get and memorize the readings and meanings when learning vocabulary. So I am quite easy with passing kanji (I use tsurukame where you can skip or correct wrong answers)

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So if I’m understanding correctly, the average japanese person just associates kanji with the words they know it in, right?

I feel like your brain naturally does that regardless, so I think some people are a bit scared of the idea of not learning a kanjis meaning without realizing that your brain will naturally assign it one anyways.

For example, I saw 瓦 first in 煉瓦 so I associated it with brick. I saw 礫 first in…礫 so I associated it with a small rock. So then when I come across 瓦礫, the kanji still mean something to me despite never studying an english definition for them which help with remembering the meaning of the word. So yeah, its not like you’ll just be empty handed.


One aspect that I think contributes is that if you’re non-native learner, especially one not in Japan, you’re a lot more likely I think to encounter almost all new vocabulary through reading, and the amount of new words per source is going to be extremely high for a long time. I would imagine that would be a lot less true for Japanese learners having conversations their entire lives and with the long long ramp-up of like, an entire school life (and beyond) in the language.
That might inform the different approaches.

In the context of wading through lots and lots of new vocabulary as an adult who wants to get on with it, it’s definitely helpful to have a guess at a word’s reading and ballpark meaning, since it helps you look it up or infer from context.
It’s true though that you can’t ever (or shouldn’t) really confidently guess the word’s meaning from the kanji alone though, the way beginners sometimes imagine you can. The really useful part is gonna be the reading, as that is frequently guessable in a word.


So, I think it’s ridiculous not to learn kanji meanings. Sure, there are ateji and other things to trip you up, but the vast majority do have some justification in the words they’re used in. And knowing those meanings will help in those cases.

Someone said kanji are more like letters than ideas, but I disagree. It’s much more like learning prefixes and suffixes and root words in English. It gives you a huge jump when encountering new words if you have a basic understanding of the components. For example, mar/mer is a root that relates to the sea (“marine”, “mermaid”, etc) and you can guess some basic things from that. But it won’t help you when you hit “marriage” because that has different etymology.

But not working 100% of the time is a far cry from “absolutely no use at all”.


I never did it the vocabulary only route from the very beginning (if you couldn’t tell by my lv 60 badge), but I’d be interested in seeing how people who learn a meaning with the kanji do in comparison to those who just learn from vocab when it comes to inferring the meaning and readings of new words.

It seems like the people who learn the wanikani way would have an easier time inferring meaning and reading of words they don’t know yet, but I actually haven’t seen that distinction at all in my own personal experience. I’ve got quite a few friends who never did any “kanji study” and are just as good as it as I was when I was doing wanikani.

I think people really underestimate how much their brain will be able to work out on its own. Like if you learn 扮する, when you see 扮装 you’ll still know “ah, thats from that one word where its read as ふん which is probably the onyomi and it means something to do with dressing up as something.”. So realistically, compared to someone who learned 扮 on their own, they aren’t missing anything and if anything, the person who learned 扮 and 扮する separately probably wasted a bit of their time.

Obviously its a lot more apparent when it comes to kanji like 扮 that are only used in a couple words and especially stuff like 齎す, but I think this idea extends to common kanji a lot more than people might initially think.




I hope you weren’t referring to my comment lol

The thing with kanji meanings is that they are based on which vocab they’re used in, not the other way around. When you look up meanings in a kanji dictionary, that’s what the meanings there will be based on.

You can definitely learn vocab without learning the kanji meaning first, and by doing so, your brain will associate some meaning to the kanji from the vocab that you learn. Many people learn them like that.

That said, we’re on Wanikani and the system makes us learn a kanji meaning in order to progress and then uses those meanings in mnemonics, this is the system. It doesn’t mean it’s the only system, or even the best one out there, but it works great for a great number of people.

I personally like Wanikani’s system, and it’s served me a lot, but for learning new kanji and vocab outside of Wanikani I definitely do what your teacher says, I just memorize vocab as it is, without caring too much about the kanji meanings.


Honestly, although I do like the mnemonics thing and dividing kanji into radicals, I never liked the “English labeling” kanji approach, either for RTK first and Wanikani later. (And I guess that’s the main reason I never finished Wanikaki)
In that sense, I guess one could say I sorta agree with your teacher, because I also wouldn’t, for example, SRS cards for Kanji’s “meaning” and tend to find it awkward to say the least.

That being said, I do think that, as others have stated, “there is absolutely no use at all to learn the basic meaning of kanji or its pronunciation(s)” and “You cannot get away with guessing the meaning of a word because you know the meaning of the kanji” are enormous overstatements. Yes, there are uses for kanji knowledge and yes, there are cases where you can guess the meaning and/or the reading of a word by looking at the kanji (not even that uncommon, come on), so I wouldn’t completely disregard it.

As for what I do when I study: I always bother checking the meaning and the reading of new kanji when they are introduced (also write them down a couple times, but that’s because I care about handwriting), but I only add to SRS things I consider objective questions (such as the reading or writing of actual words in sentences). I don’t ever make meaning or reading cards for kanji alone, because I just consider these will stick over time while studying the rest. But not making the cards doesn’t mean I don’t think these are important (or that I’m not trying to memorize them, what I definitely am). It only means I find it too “abstract” or “imprecise” to be worth SRS.

On a different topic, since some people asked, Japanese textbooks DO list meanings for kanji, even if kids are not going to be actually quizzed on those later on. It’s considered part of the learning process while not being the final goal itself.
While those are often just the kunyomi reading of the kanji (or what would be a dictionary entry for that word), secondary meanings and meanings for kanji that cannot be used alone also appear.

An example from the 漢検 book series.


Probably was. I was being lazy and writing that while distracted, so didn’t do proper attribution. Sorry if that wasn’t what you meant.

I interpreted this a bit differently and actually didn’t think it was an overstatement.

I interpreted “getting away with” as meaning using it as a viable substitute. At the end of the day, when you are familiar with the kanji in a word you can absolutely make an educated guess. But thats all it is. A guess. Sometimes youll be right. Sometimes youll be wrong. Either way you won’t know whether your guess is right or not. You can see if it makes sense with the context, but thats just adding another layer of guessing. To beginner and even intermediate learners who see new words everywhere, taking all those guesses is no substitute for actually knowing the word and doesn’t really amount to anything I would consider true reading ability.

Well, yeah I meant to draw the comparisons to words like I said. I think pretty much everyone would be on board the idea of certain kanji acting like prefixes in some cases, but specifically talking about words and letters I think kanji are closer to letters. Besides, some letters can be prefixes themselves.

Point is, they’re not all words and you can’t “learn” kanji like people seem to think at the beginning of their studies.


Although the obvious fact it’s written “meaning” in the original quote, for some reason I had more of pronunciation in mind when writing that lol
For meaning guessing, I totally agree it’s mostly useful for students who are on an advanced level (and thus can most likely understand the text even without the given word), but not of much help for beginner or intermediate learners.

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