Using mnemonics and tricks is a great way to learn Japanese faster. You may learn these from a friend or a teacher or you may come up with your own but there are all kinds of tricks to help you along the way. This can make the painful process of learning Kanji go much quicker. The whole purpose of this article is to help you enjoy learning Japanese. With these tricks it shouldn’t be that hard to learn your first 100 kanji in a week. If you push yourself I think it’s do-able in about 3 days. Some of these tricks are strange, some are a stretch, but these are a few of the ideas I used to help me learn characters quickly and effectively. Some of these characters have multiple pronunciations so make sure to stick to the pronunciation that fits the context (mostly stand alone words) and worry about other pronunciations later. (Note: make sure you are writing down the pronunciation with these characters). Once you learn many simple Kanji, you realize that the more complicated ones are made up of the more simple ones. This will give you a good base.

The Tips!

1. 右 migi、左 hidari- (left and right) – Write them on your hands! This may feel ridiculous but it works. You may want to write it on your palm so no one thinks your memory is THAT bad.

2. 北 kita、南 minami、東 higashi、西 nishi (North, South, East, West)/ 上 ue、下 shita, 中 naka (up and down, middle) – Make a compass on your notes. Keep doing it and it will stick.

3. 一、二、三 etc. – count to 10 everywhere, these numbers stick really quickly. You might as well learn 100, 1000 and 10000 while your at it. Write dates or make lists.

4. 鼻 hana,舌 shita、耳 mimi、口 kuchi、目 me (nose, tongue ears, mouth, eyes / 唇 kuchibiru, 髪の毛 kaminoke – Draw a face using kanji for corresponding parts. This will look ridiculous but if you enjoy yourself it’s more likely to stick in your head. Be creative. You can draw a tongue inside a mouth or just use the one you are having a hard time remembering. Write the pronunciation on the bottom of the paper and test yourself.

5. 手 te 、足 ashi、胸 mune、お腹 onaka, 顔 kao, 膝 hiza, 腕 ude, 首お尻 oshiri (hand, foot/leg, chest, stomach, face, knee, arm, butt) – Same as the above. Some of these are hard and if you can only work in the basics for now that’s fine. Studying Japanese has never been more ridiculous.

You’ve already learned more than 30 characters!
6. 木、林、 森 - If those aren’t easy to understand I don’t know what is. Tree, Woods, Forrest. The more trees, the more trees.

7. 日曜日 nichiyoubi、月曜日 getsuyoubi 、火曜日 kayoubi、水 sui、木 moku、金 kin、土 do (day, sun, moon, water, wood, metal, dirt)– A great way to learn 7+1 kanji are to write the day of the week. These correspond to different elements but these characters also come up in planet names similar to English days of the week. Keep in mind that 日 means both day and sun and that 月 means both month and moon. This may be confusing but it makes sense.

8. 青 ao, 赤 aka、黄色 kiiro、黒 kuro、白shiro 緑 midori 紫 murasaki – (Blue, Red, Yellow, Black, White, Green, Purple) – Learn colors in color! Draw these in the corresponding color or make some kind of art project of your own with this. Come up with something crazy like a paint by character.

9.大きい、小さい、暑い、寒い、嬉しい、悲しい、Learn things in pairs or in categories– big and small、hot and cold, happy and sad. I find that you recall these things quicker when you put them in pairs and group them in categories like emotions or physical characteristics.

10. 中国 chuugoku、日本 nihon, 韓国 kankoku (China, Japan, Korea) – Make a map of Asia! Many other countries have characters that were once used but now they are almost exclusively written in Katakana. China is the center country. Japan is the origin of the sun.

11. 東京、長崎、京都、広島、横浜、福島、大阪、沖縄, 新宿、渋谷、原宿、秋葉原 (Tokyo, Nagasaki, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Yokohama, Osaka) – Make a map of Japan. Some of these characters are very common (島 – island, 大 - big, 広 -wide、長 – long, 秋 – autumn、新 – new) and some are not but come up in some place and people names (福 for example). These will help you get used to some alternate pronunciations that will show up in compound words rather than stand alone words. Sadly quite a few Japanese places are famous for natural disasters.(Note:Some of the romanizations miss and extra o or u sound. Tokyo is actually Toukyou and Osaka is actually Oosaka for example)

12. 寿司、刺身、お好み焼き、お茶、酒、焼肉、焼き鳥、丼 (Sushi, Sashimi, Okonomiyaki, Ocha, Sake, Yakiniku, Yakitori, donburi)- Learn the food you love! These stick quick! Some are more useful than others. Sushi, Sashimi, and fish names are often written in Hiragana but you will come across them in Kanji from time to time. Some characters like Udon and Soba are so uncommon that you may never feel the need to learn them. You may have fun learning fish names because they all have a common radical (鮭、鮪、鯵、鱸、etc). These will come up at SOME sushi restaurants but not many.

13. 侍、漫画、津波、布団、相撲, 空手、着物、忍者 (Samurai, Manga, Tsunami, Futon, Sumou, Karate, Ninja, Ninja) – We have quite a few words and concepts in English that come from Japanese. You will remember these characters quickly because you already understand the concepts. Make sure you don’t pronounce them in with an English accent. If you say Futon in English people may not understand you (in this case the concept is a little different as well).

14. –  鈴木一郎、夏目漱石、村上春樹、渡辺謙、宮崎、浜崎 (Suzuki Ichiro, Natsume Souseki, Murakami Haruki, Watanabe Ken, Miyazaki, Hamasaki) – Names are a part of the language too. Some of these characters will come up a lot in words, some will come up a lot in names and some will barely come up at all. Learning author names will help you browse around in a book store and singers names in a CD store. Try to learn the characters of the people you know though. There are a few Japanese names that are very very common and will come up almost too much and it pays to know them. 田中、加藤、山本、高橋 (Tanaka, Katou, Yamamoto, Takahashi) to name a few. Learn your friends names. This stuff tends to stick easy despite often being very difficult.

15. 上海、北京、香港 (shanhai, pekin, honkon) – These are atypical pronunciation because they are more directly based off Chinese or Cantonese pronunciation but it will be useful to know how to read these as Chinese cities are often mentioned. They will also help you memorize the meanings of the characters (North Capital is Beijing, Above the Ocean is Shanghai).

If You’re In Japan

16. Practice words you see on the street.

17. Learn the characters of the subway lines and some stops. This will help you get around as well.

18. Study the menu. If you ask for the menu and the waiter sees you studying it like a textbook, he may even start a conversation with you. Maybe. If he’s an old guy at a local place, I’d bet on it.

Some of these may work for you, some may not. Think of your own! Come up with as many as you can.