Disclaimer: This post is not meant to argue why anyone should use Heisig’s method. It is meant to be a resource for people who. . .
- want to know more about it.
- are considering or have already decided to use it.
- want incite on a solidified routine in their RTK studies.
Intro to Remembering the Kanji
You can skip this part if you’re already familiar with the book.
The purpose of Heisig’s learning method
While kanji is one of the most challenging aspects of learning Japanese, it’s no wonder that learners devise unique and unorthodox methods for permanently confining this massive slew of characters into their brains. Dr. James Heisig’s book Remembering the Kanji (RTK for short) stands as a well-known and unconventional way to do just that. Of course, there’s many many ways to go about the learning kanji (WaniKani and KanjiDamage to name a few others), and Heisig’s method is no be-all, end-all solution to grasp the army of Chinese hieroglyphics the Japanese ever so foolishly adopted (I think Korean has it right with Hangul, and I SO, SO, SO wish the Japanese writing system was just as easy).
Needless to say, in my own personal experience, Heisig’s method has saved me a world of trouble, and I couldn’t be more happy to have discovered it. The goal of the book is to drastically minimize the time frame it takes to learn all the jōyō kanji 常用漢字 by learning only the meaning and writing (individual parts and stroke order) of each character at first. His second book Remembering the Kanji 2 focuses on teaching you all of the readings. However, I would not recommend using the second book. Why is this? Well, reading kanji in sentences with context information has helped me learn the readings a lot more easily than when I briefly attempted to use RTK 2.
How long does this it take to complete RTK?
Depending on how fast you would like to go, you must choose a regular number of kanji per day to study. I started at 5/day and got frustrated with how slow it felt, so I doubled up and started doing 10/day. At 10 characters per day, you could finish the book in less than a year (220 days if you never miss one, but let’s be realistic, you’ll miss a few). Although Heisig mentions that his book can be completed in around 3–6 months (all 2200 characters), I admit that I don’t find that ideal. Most people don’t have three hours a day to put toward this. And if you’re studying Japanese, you should not focus solely on this. Grammar, vocabulary, and speaking are just as important as kanji. In my opinion, anywhere from 1–2 years is an excellent time frame for finishing the book.
And in retrospect, that’s a fraction of what it would take using the traditional kanji learning system of Japan’s grade schools—repetition. Yes, that’s write (I’m so punny). They slave away with pen and pencil, day after day, drawing every stroke of these bastards until the characters have been burned into their humble little craniums. Japanese kids write kanji all throughout elementary and junior high school in order to learn them. It takes them about nine years to learn the jōyō kanji! But you see, it’s okay for children to learn that way because their growing brains absorb language like a sponge does water. Heisig just gives us an opportunity to take advantage of our maturity and learn in a way more suited to the developed brain.
If you learn the meaning and writing of 2200 characters in 1–2 years by completing RTK, that gives you 7–8 more years to learn the readings before you would be learning at the same rate as native Japanese kids. I don’t think a single determined soul who studies regularly would take any more than 3 years to learn the readings for 2200 kanji, even if there are multiple readings for many of them. For example, if you complete RTK in 1½ years and learn the readings over the course of 2½ years, it will have taken you, the foreigner, around 4 years to learn what native Japanese kids are learning in 9 years. That is less than half of the time!
How does this book make learning kanji easier?
The Heisig method works by taking the smaller pieces of a kanji and using them to create a story that will help you remember the meaning (keyword) of the kanji.
An example of how this works:
This primitive means “computer.”
And this primitive means “flames.”
Together, these primitives form the kanji given the keyword “black.” In order to remember that, we use the story found in the book:
"Like most things electrical, a computer, too, can overheat. Just imagine flames pouring out of it and charring the keyboard, the monitor, and your desk a sooty black color."
The complete kanji meaning "black."
After getting through the book, expanding your Japanese vocabulary will become a breezy walk in the park. Your brain will start to associate the characters with the readings you learn, finally completing the circle of kanji knowledge. Also, you will quite often be able to figure out the meaning of new words using the meanings of the individual kanji you learned doing RTK.
A word of advice for those who have decided to take the journey
If you’re making a sincere effort to learn the language, I believe RTK maximizes the efficiency of learning to read and write Japanese. BUT PLEASE DO NOT LET THIS BE THE ONLY THING YOU DO TO STUDY JAPANESE. This book is meant to supplement learning Japanese as a whole and make learning kanji easier. Don’t put off the other parts of the language and only focus on RTK. If you do, you will put a halt to learning any practical Japanese.
How to Study Remembering the Kanji
My Surefire Routine
What you will need:
- The book (duh). — Pretty easy to find on Amazon and other book sites. I prefer to have a printed copy over a digital one, but anything will work.
- A notebook and writing utensil. — This will be used for writing down the kanji and their stories and doing reviews.
- A computer and internet connection. — I would hope this isn’t an issue since you’re currently reading this online.
- Anki — Anki is a 100% free SRS software developed by one heavenly saint of a man named Damien Elmes. Download it here. It’s basically a virtual flashcard system that remembers the cards that you don’t and helps you review them in perfect timing before your brain would forget them. Don’t quote me on this, but I think he originally created it for learning Japanese seeing that 暗記 [anki] is the Japanese word for memorization.
- Recommended: A kanji koohii account. — Again, 100% free. I highly recommend this. It will save you copious amounts of time.
Setting up Anki
- Download and install it onto your computer and create an AnkiWeb account. Installation instructions are right under the download button.
- Go to the Anki website and download one of the RTK decks.
- Under the deck options, make sure to set the number of new cards per day to the number of new kanji you choose to learn every day. For the number of reviews, the more the merrier. I do about 30/day, but if I had the time, I would definitely do more. If you need help configuring Anki, consult the manual found here.*
- Also, if you have an iPhone or Android phone, there is an Anki mobile app. The iPhone app is ~$20-$25, but I wholly support that. Damien works his ass off to give us such a priceless tool. The least we could do is return the favor by donating to him or buying his mobile app. The Android equivalent is totally free because it was developed by another guy (props to that guy, you’re awesome) and does not support Damien. With the mobile app, you can sync your AnkiWeb account and do your reviews on-the-go.
How to Study
- I highly recommend reading the intro pages as they will prime you even better than I can on how the book works. Also, for a full description of how the RTK method system works, see pages 101-103 in the book.
- Read through the story in the book and write the kanji down in your notebook, listing the primitives next to it.
This is what a character study looks like.
NOW, this might seem weird at first, but as you write them out, tell the kanji character’s story to yourself aloud while you write them and create a mental image of the story. The goal is to use your photographic memory to recall the mental images you create because that is the power this book helps us tap into. It is the basis of the book’s method and the way we remember the kanji! Do this until you’ve completed your desired number of kanji for the day.
3. Go into Anki and do your review for the day. Each day, Anki will introduce new kanji for you (you can specify this in Anki in the deck’s options) and keep track of the ones you need to review. I take a loose piece of paper out of my notebook and draw each kanji out as I review them. Then, if I fail to get it right, I re-read the character’s story, write the kanji out again 2–3 times, and tell the story to myself aloud as I write it.
4. Optional step that will maximize results: This step is for you who make it to Lesson #20. Heisig only makes stories for the first chunk of kanji in the book (about ¼ of them) to help you get the hang of how the system works. After that, you are expected to create your own stories and mental images. BUT, if you find it’s difficult like I did, you can utilize kanji.koohii.com, a website used to aid the RTK-user community in their kanji studies. On the site, people post the kanji character stories they’ve created so that other people can use them too. Users can then rate the most helpful stories that are posted so that new people on the site don’t have to go searching to find best ones. You can even save the stories you like on your account. After finding a good story on koohii, I then go into my Anki deck and add the story to the corresponding kanji flashcard. The stories on koohii have saved me countless hours of mental strain.
5. Repeat these steps everyday until you finish the book.
Well folks, that’s it! I hope this helps you RTK kanji learners out there who’ve decided to use Heisig’s book. Although there are other guides out there (including the confusing one in the book), I just wanted to share my personal take on it and hopefully help some people out with this plain-and-simple guide. The closest thing I’ve found to easily guiding the use of this book is a video by Chris Broad, a hilarious British J-vlogger living in Japan. His video on RTK can be found below.