how to learn 2000 kanji in 100 days with Heisig! Because, yes, it can be done.

Yep, I’m still learning the fascinating and complex Nihongo.  Today’s post is the Exit Interview for Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji, because that’s right, I finished it.  I am smokin’.

To repeat, I learned  2047 kanji in about 100 days, the 2000 kanji that Heisig covers in his first book, which are roughly the same 2000+ kanji that are considered the “general use” kanji for basic literacy in Japan.  Go me!  And by “know” I mean that I know their shape and an English keyword. Which is to say I’ve only scratched the surface of kanji knowledge.  But its a good, deep scratch.

Short version. 1) get a copy of Rememering the Kanji.  2) download Anki and put it on a mobile device like an ipod touch 3) download a Heisig deck to your copy of Anki, one with mnemonic stories (find it in the shared decks area of the Anki site) and set it to give you 20 new kanji a day 4) do all the reps that Anki gives you each day, without fail, for the next 100 days.  At the end of 100 days you will know a primary meaning and how to write each of 2000 kanji.  Boom.

Longer version. I used a vanilla Heisig deck, English keyword on the front, Kanji and mnemonic story on the back.  I wrote out the kanji each time and graded pretty strictly at first.  At first I did reps in the evening, but when the number of reps got too high to do them all at once (more than 50 or so, certainly more than 100) I started breaking it up into smaller and smaller chunks.  How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time..

Look, I totally did this, so if I can, you can.

(Along the way I also learned Hiragana and Katakana, the phonetic syllabary, together called the Kana, that go with kanji to make up the Japanese writing system.  They are super easy to learn, just get an ipad app that appeals to you, we used Dr. Moku and Kana LS, and bang it out in a couple of days. No sweat.  But back to kanji….)

So…was it worth it?

On the one hand, completing Heisig feels like I have successfully accomplished some grand task.  But on the other hand, it also feels like doing Heisig just gets me to the starting line.  Seriously.  If you want to read Japanese there is no way around the elephant of kanji in your path.  This method was super efficient for getting them into my head.  Yes, definitely worth it.  But for more detail….


Learning a Japanese word means learning (1) the way it is written (usually a combo of kanji and hiragana), (2) the way it sounds, (3) the way it is written in straight hiragana (related to how it sounds and also how you type the word into a computer), (4) the English meaning.  I’m now starting to learn words (more on that in another post) and knowing what I know about the kanji TOTALLY gives me a leg up.   Facing a new word, I already know how to write the complex shape of the kanji part of the word (no small thing with some of these kanji!) so, that’s part of (1), PLUS I have a sense of the English meaning so, part of (2).  Yay!

More importantly, I already have something in my head to hang the new information on, which is huge.  It is really hard to remember some random thing—but it is much, much easier to attach new information to something you already know.  Believe me, it feels like a freaking miracle when I look at those squiggles and am not starting from scratch.  Definitely worth it for that.

The biggest pro to Heisig, I think, is the way the thing is set up.  You learn a couple of radicals (the smaller bits a complex kanji is built out of) and then you learn all the kanji that can be made with those radicals.  Then you thrown another radical in and you learn all the kanji that new element can give you.  It’s a lot easier to learn twenty kanji that include the “turkey” radical, theme and variation, than to learn a bunch of unrelated squiggles unique to each word.  Patterns are everything and Remembering the Kanji is a genius for patterns.  Learning the radicals like this also make it easy to think up mnemonics—take the kanji for “angry.”  It’s made out of woman, crotch, and heart.  I’m not even kidding.  Betcha don’t have to strain to think of a funny story that includes angry, woman, crotch, and heart!  And suddenly that kanji becomes super easy to remember.

Bottom line: I really think that when learning something so complex, multiple, easy, passes over the information is a much more effective way to learn than one pass where you try to learn everything there is to know about that thing in one go.  Which is how they do it in academic language learning classes (four years of French in college here).  Heisig is meant to be a first pass over the kanji, giving you some of the vital information…which sets you up splendidly for future passes.

As a way into reading Japanese, I think it’s terrific.


With Heisig, you get a unique keyword for each kanji…which causes problems towards the end (say, over 1500 kanji in) because the kanji are not actually that narrow in meaning.  So as you’re doing your reps, you get dinged for giving the kanji for, say, tears, when it was supposed to be crying, or you put down the kanji for method when it was supposed to be system or technique.  You know your answer isn’t exactly wrong, because it’s artificial to say the kanji are strictly linked to that English keyword. It can be frustrating to get a card ‘wrong’ when you were just thinking of a slightly different keyword.

I solved this by just writing down both kanji that came to mind and grading the card correct if one of them was, in fact, the target.

An aside: getting a card “wrong” isn’t bad or shameful or whatever other schoolish wounding we might carry.  What it does mean in an SRS is how soon that card is going to come back to be reviewed.  If you grade a card flat out wrong, you’re going to see it again in ten minutes.  A little wrong and maybe you see it again in a day or two or a week.  Since you grade yourself, you decide when you think you need to see that card again.  If you know it but got the wrong keyword, maybe you mark it only partially wrong, and it comes around again soon, but not too soon.  Essentially, the harder you grade, the more reps you’re going to do.  More on that in a bit.

Another con (maybe, I’m not sure if this is a con exactly) is that I know the kanji English-to-Japanese much, much better at this point than I know the Japanese-to-English.  In (English) conversation, I constantly am thinking I know the kanji for that as words fly by, and I can picture the kanji.  But, conversely, when looking at Japanese text, I constantly am thinking I know I know that one but I can’t think of what it means!  Which is very frustrating.  I suppose I could reverse my cards and start going Kanji-to-English, but I haven’t yet.  We’ll see.

But the worst con…

The Hard Part to the Heisig/Anki Combo

Learning the kanji is blindingly easy for the most part.  Use the crowd sourced mnemonics at the Remembering the Kanji website (there are pre-made Anki decks with these already in there) and 20 a day is no problem.  They slide right into your brain.

The hard part is 1) doing your reps every single day (because they pile up to overwhelming burn-out sized proportions if you miss a single day) and 2) towards the end when you start getting a ton of reps a day even if you reliably clear your plate each night.  The hard part is sticking with it.  I got bored towards the end, I’m not going to lie.

And it got up to about 300 reps a day towards the end, which sucked and nearly burnt me out.  The only thing that kept me going that last week was the fact that I’d have 500+ reps due the next day if I skipped!  Impossible!  I was dragging that last couple of weeks.  But yeah, it seemed like my whole life had become Anki and kanji, which I do not want.

Solution: having a clear end in sight (and not far away) made that doable (for me and for my family, haha).  I like a project with a clearly delineated end goal!  I can suck it up if I know exactly when the suckage is going to stop.

But I hit the magic “end” a couple a weeks ago—just in time, too, or I was in danger of quitting—and I haven’t been adding more new kanji, just doing reps on the ones I already have, which reduces the daily rep count considerably.

Plus, I’ve also started grading more easily, which, as I mentioned, reduces reps.  Maybe I got it right but missed a stroke, or got the components right but the order wrong, I won’t mark it completely wrong now.  It’s gotten down to 150-200 reps a day, much more doable, maybe an hour, hour and 15 min, divided up throughout the day in ten or fifteen minute chunks. I’d like to get down to 100 a day, a number that now feels like a breeze to accomplish.  I guess I leveled up because when I started 100 seemed insurmountable and now it is my target easy number.  Basically, the better I know my cards, the less frequently they come around, maybe once every few months…total daily rep numbers come down.  Relief.

Of course, I still grade something wrong if I really missed it.  I don’t want to forget them, now that I know them!

A couple of random tips:

*Use a nice pen to write the kanji out.  Plus, I got a little tablet with sections of bright colors to write them in, and as I moved through I got a little boost by saying, oh, I’ve moved through the yellow, I’m into the green now!  By the time I get to the orange, I’ll be done!  Stupid, but it helped.  Kind of like the colored belts the kids get in Aikido.

*Kanji reps are the ultimate activity for when you are waiting in line, waiting for the kettle, waiting for the kids, walking the dog, any random few minutes where you normally just spin your wheels.  Chunks of ten or twenty kanji just take a few minutes.  Don’t try to do them all at once.  Knock those puppies out one chunk at a time.

*You can’t do just one.  If you even open up Anki to do ONE, you will probably do a dozen or more without even noticing.  So open it up frequently.

*Get an ipod/iphone/ipad, some mobile handy device that runs Anki that lets you easily take your kanji reps with you into yourlife.  Anki has a notepad feature you can turn on to let you sketch out kanji with your fingertip on the screen for when you are away from your nice pen and colorful paper.  Keep your ipod in your pocket and whip it out whenever you’ve got a spare few minutes.  Sitting down at a computer to do 150 reps sucks your brain out through your ears and leaves you zombified and burnt out.  Don’t do it.  Don’t make yourself hate Japanese.  Short bursts, frequently.

*Reward with chocolate as necessary.

An Alternate, Probably Smarter, Method

Sophie has been learning kanji, too.  She’s got about 300 in her deck and adds 5 a day.  She does 20 or 30 reps a night to help her relax before she goes to bed. In her pottery class she has been painting kanji into the glazes for her bowls.  For example she made me a pretty little sake cup with the kanji for sake painted inside.  So, that’s another way to do it.  No goal, no push, just meandering around because it’s fun.  She’s probably way smarter than me about this.

Either way, learning Japanese is like climbing Mt. Everest.  A big project accomplished a little at a time.  Next up, learning words.  And sentences.  I’ll talk about that in another post….

6 thoughts on “how to learn 2000 kanji in 100 days with Heisig! Because, yes, it can be done.

  1. Shannon

    Congratulations Maya! That is amazing. I am way impressed. Makes me think I might have a chance to learn something other than English. Or maybe not; I don’t have follow through I am afraid. 😛

    I wonder if their is something like it for German? My kids have just moved to Germany for three years.

    1. maya Post author

      Hi Shannon! Thanks! As for German, at this point, I think learning anything that uses the plain old familiar alphabet would be a walk in the park, haha! I’d use Anki for German vocab and sentences in a heartbeat. I bet there are already some decks made.

  2. grimmly

    Congratulations, thats quite something.I only got as far as 900 or so using Heisig and that was when I was living in Japan. Got frustrated with being able to read but not pronounce them. Going to print this out and see about having another crack at it before we go back. Loved the breaking the kanji down into its different elements ( although many made up in Heisig of course) and looking at how they would react together, kind of like metaphors sometimes and happening within the kanji themselves as we’ll asthe compounds, tied in with some of the work I was doing on Heidegger at the time and how he would go back to Greek roots of words and play with them and with the German too…..really should get back into this was fun. Thank you.

    1. maya Post author

      Hi Grimmly! Oh that’s cool you were doing Heisig, too! That’s interesting about the Heidegger, although I quickly gave up trying to see some reason, etymological or otherwise, for the different primatives in kanji (when they weren’t Heisig’s made up ones, I mean). They often seem totally random.

      If you do get back into it (aren’t you thinking of moving back to Japan?), I highly recommend getting Anki on your ipad as a delivery device. Super effective. And yes, it is frustrating to not be learning the pronounciation, but I can see how that simplification makes it easier to get in your head as a first layer of information. I’m learning words now, which are pronouciation and often hiragana and I *finally* feel like I’m actually learning Japanese.

      Hey, you might also look at which uses mnemonics that include the readings (pronunciation). I’m pretty sure there is an anki deck for kanjidamage, too, that someone has made, look in the shared deck part of the anki site under Japanese. I found kanjidamage too much to take in at first, but you already know a bunch of kanji, it might be perfect for you! It’s a fun site.

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