3-Minute Kanji Overview

In case you forgot, kanji are the (often) complicated-looking characters in Japanese that represent both meanings and sounds:

Though students learn hiragana and katakana first, these are not the “first” characters in the Japanese language. In a super-simplified version of history, it would be fair to say that hiragana were actually based off the kanji.

In a detailed, Wikipedia version of history, though, we’d say: “Hiragana developed from man'yōgana, Chinese characters used for their pronunciations, a practice that started in the 5th century.”

So hiragana used to be “Man Yoga Chinese.” I think I’ve seen that before, actually. A traumatizing memory.

But I dither and digress.

Mostly because I’m tired of talking about kanji. And I’m tired of talking about it because everyone complains about it all the time.

I’m not saying that people’s complaints are unjustified. I mean, you really do have to learn 2,000+ kanji characters in order to read Japanese. Just look at all of them:

(Note: The following tsunami of Japanese characters is taken from Wikipedia.)

Now, while looking at that, you were probably plotting ways to kill me. But before you do, hold on just one second, please!

Yeah, that was probably the most intimidating bunch of squiggly lines you've ever seen. But it only took a few seconds to scroll past all of them.

When I was still a beginner at Japanese, I complained about learning kanji all the time. I made excuses about how I couldn’t learn them, and I felt sorry for myself because I really did believe that they were out of my reach.

Japanese people often ask me, “Was it hard to learn Japanese?”

And, speaking quite honestly, I say, “Yeah, it was really hard.”

Nine out of ten times, they respond to this by saying, “Kanji, right?” Or something to that effect. And I will always tell them the same thing—something that I 100% believe to be true:

“No, learning kanji was simple.”

Not easy. But simple. I mean, it’s just a list of things. And they fit into a single book. Yeah, it took me about 3 months to learn all of those (well, just the meanings), and it was a nightmarish hairball of self-inflicted study torture. But it worked.

Nowadays, I wish that there was a simple 2,000-something list for the more elusive aspects of this alluring and beautiful language. If someone could give me a simple list of 2,000 phrases—even 10,000 phrases—that would give me the ability to form sentences on par with a native speaker of Japanese, I would be stoked. Because it’s all right there. In front of me.

A list is easy, because I can just go through and check every item (i.e. kanji) off the list one at a time. I talk about exactly how to do this in my Hacking Japanese Supercourse. And I also write about it at length on my website. So I’m not going to get into it here. (This book isn’t about study methods; it’s about transporting new Japanese into our brains.)

Just please, please, please believe me when I tell you that you can learn all of the kanji. Even now, when I look at that ten-page list of characters, my brain goes into panic mode. This is impossible, I think. Run, Niko, you coward. Run for your life!

But then I take a somewhat closer look, and I realize that, Holy sh#@! I know 99.9% of these characters. How did that happen? And when?

The answer is... uh, I don’t know. ^_^.

I just kept my head down, swimming in this language that fascinates me. And eventually the pieces all fell together.

Speaking of the pieces all falling together, let’s look at...

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