Why mnemonics are a good way to study?


I’m finally getting started with Kanji and right now i’m in the process of finding the right way for me to learn.

Can someone explain why mnemonics is a good way to learn? i mean, isn’t it a bit of a double work?
you learn a hint word/story that is not the meaning of the kanji at all, just for it to remind you of the actually meaning/reading?

I really love WaniKani aesthetics, it’s really orgenized and the colors are pleasant to my eyes (something that can really help me study), I’m just not sure if i should use mnemonics or just learn it raw, i mean obviously mnemonics proven to work i’m just confused why would you want to learn hint words to get to the real ones?

I hope i was clear enough, thanks in advance !

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Tofugu (who make WaniKani) actually wrote an article about this:

If you scroll down to “RADICALS + MNEMONICS = EASY KANJI MEMORIZATION” you’ll see that they talk a bit about why mnemonics are helpful.


I’m guessing you’re asking because you’re seeing things like 一 called “ground” in the mnemonics as a radical when it means “one” as a kanji.

Maybe that seems silly at that scale, but that’s not the way that kanji stay. How many kanji do you know?

You could try to learn something like 鬱 or 蟹 or 響 without mnemonics, and if you are only learning them in small numbers, maybe not using mnemonics would be faster.

But when you are trying to learn 2000+ kanji, some of which look very similar to each other, having that framework to break them into parts and tell yourself a story is very useful. Our brains are well suited for remembering stories. They are not as well suited to memorizing series of strokes that seem arbitrarily slapped together when you are just starting to learn them.


yes ! it’s the ground one that threw me off and a few others, and as for my kanji knowledge, i know none, i only start just now.

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ok, thanks for the link gonna check it out.


Some of the radicals are given names that are more conducive to making stories out of them. Having “one” something in a story really doesn’t help you establish context most of the time. “Ground” is a setting where something can occur and provide a foothold for a story.

So it’s “double work” for learning the kanji for “one” but you likely weren’t going to struggle with that kanji.


my fear with this method is recognizing kanji and mistaking them for the hint word instead of the actuall word. but i’ll give it a shot and see how it plays out because i haven’t even started yet !

thanks for explaining : )

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The vast majority of times when a shape that is a kanji is also used as a radical, the name of the radical is the meaning of the kanji. A couple early on in level 1, like 一 (ground / one), 十 (cross / ten), and 八 (fins / eight) might stand out (and notice they are all number kanji), but the ones where the name and kanji meaning match are much more plentiful.

Lots of other radicals with “inventive” names are never used as kanji by themselves.

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People are naturally good at remembering stories, not dry facts. That’s why kids often sing their poems, when they have to learn it by heart. Or connect dates with some funny situation, like I bought 15 eggs, but Mike bought 20 and I was so jealous that he bought more eggs. That could be used to remember the date 1520 and something with eggs. That’s a silly example, but it’s the basis of how it all works.

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Not related to mnemonics specifically, but Wanikani also serves another purpose in learning Kanji quickly which is it’s SRS system. This system enables you to focus more on the Kanji that you are bad at than the ones that you already know, massively reducing study time.

Mnemonics are like a bridge to your passive memory. Once you recall the story you have connected to the item you’ll remember which word is the one you were looking for.

I don’t see how singing changes the story of a poem. Besides, “often”? I’ve never heard of anyone trying to learn a poem by heart by singing it…

Mnemonics work though. I just think your example doesn’t fit here.

Perhaps it was more of a reference to people using rhythms and tunes to help them memorise things. I think many people enunciate poems in a special way when memorising them. I agree that the link to mnemonics isn’t clear though.

I’ve never used the WK system (I started Chinese as a toddler, so I don’t see the need), but my impression is that only components that can’t stand alone are likely to get ‘fake’ names, whereas many common radicals have a special meaning of their own that will almost definitely be used as a name. (I did see an exception on that Tofugu link though: I was taught that 申 and 电 were original symbols for lightning, which makes 電 a completely logical kanji – electricity is the lightning that comes down from the rain. No need for ‘holding an umbrella in the rain while standing out in a field’. However, given that the lower half of the kanji is Screenshot 2020-10-06 at 16.19.11 – which I didn’t know at all since I’m used to the simplified form of 電, which is 电 –, I guess WK’s decision is defensible.)

Anyhow, you can always make up mnemonics of your own and replace the WK mnemonics if they don’t help you. You don’t have to use mnemonics: as a native Chinese speaker (or at least, the closest one can get to being one while living in a territory where Chinese is an official language and a common lingua franca, but not the main everyday language), I can tell you that the sorts of phrases WK provides as mnemonics are more likely to appear in kanj-guessing riddles among Chinese people. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same sort of game exists in Japan. One of the first kanji I learnt – after the absolute basics like numbers from 1 to 10, the sun and the moon – was . I don’t know how exactly my brain did it, but I (and the other students) accepted that it meant nose, and that was that. We were six years old. The first thing I did as I headed home was to start writing it in my mind. I don’t think it would have stuck otherwise. I have a feeling I saw the bridge of the nose in the first ノ right at the top of 自, which made the meaning stick. I also told myself there were three components, and that the thing at the bottom was like a platform with two legs. As far as I can remember, it was very rare for us to be taught using mnemonics: at the most, we would be taught to deduce the meaning of kanji from their components, which unfortunately isn’t always possible without etymological knowledge. Otherwise, we (or I, anyhow) just accepted kanji as they were given to us, using meaningful radicals like 火 or 土 to help us what sort of meanings they might carry: links to fire (火) might suggest heat, light, warmth, passion or ferocity; links to the earth (土) might suggest solidity, clay, the ground, walls and other things made of earth… and so on. I think native speakers learn kanji through a combination of acceptance, rote memorisation and practice, knowing semantic class (category of meaning) thanks to radicals and other components, and lateral thinking. These things might mean kanji are anchored more deeply in our memories, and that kanji seem like a more logical system to us. However, that doesn’t mean that the traditional ‘native’ approach is the fastest or best way to learn kanji. Both systems are available to you, and there’s no need to stick to one. Mix and match, and do whatever works for you.

The advice I have for you in the mnemonics department is that sometimes, especially when a kanji has a lot of components, you may find that learning the mnemonic is more work than learning the kanji, because it might feel contrived (i.e. ‘Who made all this up? How am I going to remember this whole story?’). There are ways to memorise these things, like by associating pictures in sequence and imagining the story, but if that doesn’t appeal to you, here are other things you can try:

  1. Try learning the stroke order. Perhaps it’s just because I’m used to it, but I often find it’s easier to stare at the kanji and write it out a few times while looking for defining shapes, saying the reading and thinking about the meaning over and over again. Then again, I grew up on Simplified Chinese, which doesn’t have too many monstrous kanji, so I can’t say for certain that this will work for everyone. Writing out the kanji may help you notice key components though, which might give you inspiration for a more meaningful mnemonic e.g. is the kanji for ‘cocoon’. Writing it out might have you identify two ‘compartments’ along with ‘grass’ (艹), ‘silk’ (糹) and a ‘bug’ (虫). So… IDK, ‘a cocoon is something attached to grass, with the compartments made of silk and containing a bug’. The advantage (or disadvantage, depending on your preferences) is that knowing how to write a kanji can turn these memories into mechanical muscle memory: ‘Oh, I need to write the kanji for “cocoon”! OK, first there’s 艹, then the compartments, then 糹and 虫 inside. All done!’ You don’t need to think about what they mean because you already know they’re there since you know how to write the kanji, and so that whole mass of strokes automatically means ‘cocoon’ for you.

  2. Try simplifying mnemonics if you find them too difficult or long, possibly by making them more vivid and using fewer words. Also, if possible, try to find a way to memorise meanings and readings together. WK tends to separate them, which is understandable since so many kanji can have the same reading, and a single kanji can have three or four readings, but I think that will make it harder for you to recall the right word (or rather, sound) when you want to express a particular meaning. Plus, why should meaning and reading both be associated with the kanji, using the kanji as the focal point, when the kanji is the hardest and more unfamiliar thing? I’m pretty sure it’s easier to memorise a meaning or a sequence of five syllables than a kanji, so it might actually be better to do things the other way around: associate meaning and sound closely and then try to keep the kanji in the mix. Also, don’t be afraid to make things up, even if they don’t make sense according to the dictionary or history, because random, intuitive ideas may end up sticking better than a mnemonic someone else gave you. Take for example:
    WK’s version
    Meaning: ‘Taking out your thread, you sew together the public’s hearts to make them whole again.’
    Reading: Once their hearts are whole, the public’s soul (そう) becomes one!

The idea of ‘public’ is pretty helpful, so it’s a good thing the Japanese simplification put 公 in there. (It’s not in the traditional version.) After all, this kanji tends to be associated with ideas like ‘overall’, ‘total’ or ‘general’. However, if all you want is a quick way to remember the overall shape along with the meaning thanks to a vocabulary word…

My version
総理 (そうり) means ‘prime minister’, but literally means ‘overall (総) manager/administrator/handler (理 – a kanji associated with principles, order, logic and dealing with things)’. Imagine a prime minister in ancient China (I would love to say ‘Japan’, but I can’t find as many images of traditional Japanese facial hair) : he’s old and probably quite rich, wearing fine, silken (糹) robes. The right half of the kanji is his face: he has bushy eye brows (八), a nose (ム), a moustache around his lips (心 – imagine that the two dots on the left and right are the tips of his moustache), and a beard. As he speaks to other officials, he strokes his beard and nods in agreement: 「そう、そう。」 (Side note: don’t mind the lack of keigo that might have been appropriate here…)

(If you’re wondering what my mental image looks like… look at this guy:
Bonus: elaborate facial hair on a Japanese officer from before WWII:

Hope that gives you an idea.)

That was a pretty long illustration, but I hope my point is clear: use whatever works and be creative. In spite of how long my explanation was, in reality, I just thought, ‘Hey, the right side of 総 looks like a face!’ It can be that simple, and all you need is a flash of inspiration. Add lights, sounds, colour, action… – and even taste! – to your mnemonics, and don’t be afraid to go ‘hey, this kanji looks like something!’. Using components to understand complex kanji is an important skill, but some kanji are better absorbed intuitively than broken down, if you can manage it.


I can just saw from personal experience, mnemonics work so well. I tried learning kanji the “old fashioned” way initially through rote memorization and took so much time for a very small amount of payoff. Wanikani is much more efficient in my experience.

I had an instant flashback to Hannah Montana: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMV8y2b4whI

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i think when you are a beginner, it can be really helpful for telling kanji apart and recognizing them. however i agree that at a certain point they can become superfluous and like you said, more work than just, say, learning the words a kanji is in and remembering how it looks through repeated encounters in japanese text.

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