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My second post on this topic concerns a subject of some controversy in learning Chinese/Japanese- James Heisig’s “Remembering The Kanji” system. Heisig developed a method of attaching  a unique English “keyword” to each character, as a way of rapidly memorising and familiarising oneself with the 2000 general use kanji, or “Chinese characters”, used in the Japanese writing system. This method doesn’t teach you the pronunciation of the characters (Japanese characters have multiple pronunciations), but it does teach you to recognise all of the characters which is a huge building block towards proficiency. It also teaches you to write the characters accurately, although this is less useful in today’s digital world.

There’s more than enough websites out there for and against Heisig’s method, but I’ve decided- eventually, and after some debate- to give it a go. I’m aiming to “learn” 100 kanji a week, using the Heising book and Reviewing The Kanji, a website that supplements this study method.

The main approach in this method involves breaking down each kanji into it’s component parts, and using the imaginative memory to create a memorable story for each kanji. Let’s look at some examples…


The most basic kanji are almost direct pictographic representations of their meaning. These kanji mean, respectively, fire, mountain and tree. Not much is needed to remember their English meaning.

A step up are kanji composed of several “primitives”, as Heisig terms them. This kanji includes “sun/day”, on the left, “earth” at the top, and “stick” at the bottom. “Earth” and “stick” go together to form “temple”, so a story can then be made about the “sun/day” and the “temple”- with the ultimate meaning being “time” (it sounds complicated because it is to the unitiated, and because I’m probably not describing it well).


From there its just a matter of adding more and more “primitives” (known traditionally as radicals, but Heisig’s primitives are subtely different) to form complex kanji. One of the big advantages of Heisig’s method is that it allows you to deconstruct complex characters like these, remembering each component in the story you make to remember the ultimate meaning, then reproduce them accurately.

One thing Heisig fails to teach is any Japanese pronunciation. This might make the whole process of “learning” an artificial keyword look like a waste of time, but even after just 200 characters I’m sure that it’s not- just the fact that you learn to deconstruct and understand the make-up of kanji means that when it comes to learning the various meanings, your in a far better position that when you started.