Along with the spoken lessons that I have discussed in detail in the above section, you really need to get your reading and writing skills up to speed and that is going to require kanji. For Genki 1 and II, each lesson has a corresponding Reading and Writing lesson. It is very easy to follow. First, hiragana and katakana are introduced and you really want to knock out both in a week’s time using constant practice with flashcards during any spare free time. Next up is Kanji. One thing I learned from Kansai Gaidai during my reading and writing classes is to pay attention to the stroke order. You don’t want to draw the character. Find a quality kanji dictionary that has little numbers next to the strokes and memorize the right order. Also, pay close attention to the little checks you need to include such as when you are writing down and the line ends with an upstroke. I forgot about this during one class and the whole kanji was marked wrong with a red circle where the check point should be.
The first baby step is to memorize the writing of the character by writing the kanji character 20 times or more. It is up to you how long it takes to put the kanji into your memory. Just some friendly advice, don’t practice writing Japanese on notebook paper. Find an art supply or stationary store and buy graphic paper or use Sakubun paper that Japanese students use for essay writing. For Sakubun writing you want to start at the first box all the way to the right and write down from right to left. You get can Sakubun paper for free by going online to JOSHU Japanese Online Self-Help Utility and downloading. Also Jbox and other online stores have practice notebooks available. Follow up your kanji writing practice with flashcards and make sure that you don’t just study the kun’yomi (Japanese Reading) and on’yomi (Sino-Japanese) readings but learn the kanji combinations. Make sure to add these combinations of kanji and hiragana and multiple kanji on your flashcards. Now all this work is meaningless unless you study that kanji you have just learned in context. You really need to work through the reading sections to see how to apply and read kanji in a sentence. It is not enough to just write out one kanji a hundred times and spend all Saturday afternoon going over flashcards. Do the reading and answer the questions that follow to see if you are getting it. Otherwise you will forget what you have just tried to learn.
A very useful supplement to Kanji learning is to take up Shodo (Japanese calligraphy.) A beginner’s set is easily affordable. Then find a Japanese teacher or friends to help you get started. One of the problems is that Japanese people are so used to texting and typing online that handwriting skills suffer. Shodo is a great way to develop good handwriting.
Useful Kanji Books
I was having a hard time memorizing kanji and nothing I was doing seemed to work. Certain kanji started to look similar and I couldn’t tell them apart until I headed to Umeda Station and went inside Books Kinokuniya and bought the very useful A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters by Kenneth G. Henshall. This book uses simple and sometimes funny mnemonics to help you remember. The best part of the book is that it follows the way Japanese schoolchildren learn because it begins with First Grade through Sixth Grade and beyond. By the time you have finished working through A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters, you will have mastered all the Jouyou kanji needed to be able to read a newspaper and a book. As determined by the Japanese Ministry of Education this will be about 1,945. Although in 2010, the Japanese Ministry of Education changed that number to 2,136. It takes the average Japanese person about 12-years to do this. I just read an excellent article by Amy Chavez where she talks about learning the Jouyou kanji in 3-years through constant effort and using most of her free time engaged in kanji study.
Next, you want a good kanji dictionary such as The Learners Japanese Kanji Dictionary by Mark Spahn and Wolfgang Hadamitzky. Another excellent one is The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary by Jack Halpern. I would look for a dictionary that includes as many kanji combinations as possible because this will aid in reading. What you are looking for in a kanji dictionary is the one that works for you. You want to be able to pick up the dictionary and quickly look up a kanji without feeling bogged down and getting frustrated.
Japanese high school students hate this next dictionary and I am only including it here for the crazy extreme hardcore advanced students. Every high school student naturally takes Japanese and at that level the classics are studied such as The Tale of Genji, The Tale of Heike, the early SF Taketori Monogatari, as well as earlier histories of Japan such as the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters,) and the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan.) To read any of these in the original text and not a modern interpretation, you will need a dictionary of Classical Japanese called a Kogo Jiten. This is vital for any historical text analysis. It can be tricky to use and few are going to want to tackle it but it does open the door to the ancient world and you will need it to make sense of early Japanese.
As much as I love to endorse A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters, it doesn’t contain stroke order. That is why I supplement it with Wolfgang Hadamitzky and Mark Spahn’s Kanji & Kana: A Handbook of the Japanese Writing System that has easy to follow stroke order for each kanji. Just look for the number and write the line, following the direction. Plus, Kanji and Kana has an additional 284 Jinmei-you Kanji that isn’t in A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters. That brings the kanji total to 2,284. You do need both books because you want stroke order, more kanji, and the other book for mnemonics.