A big part of learning Japanese is being able to get your head around Japanese Kanji. These are the written symbols or pictures that show the meaning of things in Japan!
What are Japanese kanji? (漢字)
Put simply: kanji are Japanese words.
This means that when you’re trying to use the hotel’s washing machines for the first time… work the TV remote… order food from a menu… or even know which toilet flush to use (yes really) – understanding some kanji makes all this possible!
Your journey to learning Japanese means you need to commit some kanji to memory. This will help you understand these kinds of everyday things and give you confidence to survive in Japan! Challenge. Accepted. 😉
Wait: so is the Japanese alphabet kanji?
People often ask: ‘what’s the Japanese alphabet?’ But we’re going to stop you right there… because ‘alphabet’ isn’t really the right word.
Japanese language has three sets of written characters: hiragana, katakana and kanji. The first two (hiragana and katakana) both contain 46 syllabic characters: meaning they produce a sound when spoken. (If you're just starting with Hiragana, here are 2 recommended lessons for learning Hiragana and useful phrases at the same time. Hiragana for greetings. Hiragana for conversation fillers.) Japanese kanji, on the other hand, describe the meaning of things.
For example: 米 = rice
These combine nicely with hiragana characters to give meaning to spoken sentences in Japanese. Still with us? Awesome.
玄米って美味しい！= brown rice is tasty! (‘genmai tte oishii!’)
See the kanji (in red) which donates the meaning, and hiragana (in black) which donates the sounds!
So to answer the question ‘is the Japanese alphabet kanji?’ The answer, my friends, is NO! As this would be the largest alphabet of all time!
How to learn Japanese Kanji?
Most people freak out when they see kanji…
The Japanese kanji for death is (死)
How many Japanese kanji are there? (We hear you ask). There are approximately 2,000 kanji for everyday use!
But before you spill your coffee or reach for something even stronger… take a deep breath. You DON’T need to learn all Japanese kanji to survive in Japan. Staring at a HUGE Japanese kanji list or Japanese kanji dictionary until your head explodes and you regret ever trying to learn Japanese in the first place is not a good use of your time. So before we go any further… Let's break this down and teach you how to learn Japanese kanji in a fun and achievable way!
Heads up: You can learn more about Japan’s writing systems and pick up some super useful words and phrases in our Learn Basic Japanese to Survive guide.
Step 1: Learn 5 basic Japanese kanji
Unleash your inner child and reach for those colouring pencils. Seriously! Drawing your own pictures to show the kanji’s meaning is a great way to commit them to memory by association!
休 rest; not working (also used for closed stores)
Getting creative like this means that when you see a kanji, your drawings effectively become your own Japanese kanji translator! 😎
You know what’s even cooler… some kanji even help visualise pictures for you!
E.g. 雨 = rain water
Step 2: Learn 100 Japanese kanji
Reckon you can learn 5 of these a day? Even 10? EASY! You got this. 😃
That means you can learn at least 100 kanji in 20 days. That’s under 3 weeks! Look at the kanji, cover the translation & your drawing (same thing! 😉) – and repeat repeat repeat! This will help you survive and navigate your way around Japan with some knowledge of what things mean.
Plus, when you reach this 100 kanji milestone… you’ll feel like this:
Step 3: Learn 1500 to 2000 Japanese kanji
WOAAHHH that’s a big jump. Yep. This might seem like mission impossible at first. But when you have a clever shortcut for learning kanji quick (*like the one we just told you* 👀) – you’ll be amazed how fast you can build that collection of learnt kanji.
Of course – whether this step is necessary for you or not depends on your motivations for learning Japanese. If you want to travel around easily and order a few cheeky Asahi’s on a Friday night? Forget 2000. But if your dream is to live and work in Japan and integrate seamlessly into the culture… then learning up to 2000 kanji is something you’re going to want to build up towards. Step by step. In fact: learn 10 a day and you can learn 1500 in 5 months! We believe in you.
Some English to Japanese Kanji?
We know what you’re thinking. Translate some Japanese kanji to English already! Well… okay.
Here are some basic Japanese kanji symbols and other common Japanese kanji to get your eyes (and mind!) used to the sight of kanji. Time to get started on those illustrations!
Let’s start with the days of the week in Japanese kanji:
月曜日 = Monday
火曜日 = Tuesday
水曜日 = Wednesday
木曜日 = Thursday
金曜日 = Friday
土曜日 = Saturday
日曜日 = Sunday
And some Japanese numbers kanji:
一 = 1
二 = 2
三 = 3
四 = 4
五 = 5
Here are some more. Why not stick your favourites on your bedroom wall?
愛 = love in Japanese Kanji
|竜 = dragon in Japanese Kanji||火 = fire in Japanese Kanji|
家 = family in Japanese Kanji
|希 = hope in Japanese Kanji||汚 = dirty in Japanese Kanji|
|水 = water in Japanese Kanji||力 = power in Japanese Kanji||心 = heart in Japanese Kanji|
侍 = samurai in Japanese Kanji
|女 = woman in Japanese Kanji||運 = luck in Japanese Kanji|
美 = beautiful in Japanese Kanji
|勇 = courage in Japanese Kanji||痛 = pain in Japanese Kanji|
|神 = god in Japanese Kanji||日 = sun in Japanese Kanji||夢 = dream in Japanese Kanji|
信 = faith in Japanese Kanji
Other useful sayings to know. Note: they’re a mix of kanji (in red) and hiragana!
また来週！= see you next week! (mata raishū)
楽しみだね = I'm so excited! (tanoshimi dane)
昼ご飯、食べた？= have you eaten lunch? (hirugohan tabeta?)
アニメ、好き？= do you like anime? = (anime suki?)
愛してる = I love you in Japanese kanji (+ hiragana)
(see kanji in red)
Bit of a romantic? Read our blog on How to say I love you in Japanese.
Cool Japanese kanji characters
To finish. Here are some cool Japanese kanji tattoos to get you in the kanji mood! After you conquer kanji… perhaps you’ll get your own name in Japanese kanji font 👀🖋
道 = 'path'
花鳥風月 = 'the beauty of nature' (literal translation: flower-bird-wind-moon)
And for a funny tattoo fail…
痛風 means ‘gout’. We wouldn’t recommend this, personally. But hey... it’s your body!
The Japanese kanji for strength is 努力… which means it’s now time to summon yours and learn Japanese fast by nailing these Japanese kanji words!
We’re here to make learning a language easy for you. That’s why we have 2 Japanese courses to help you learn Japanese.
Kit yourself out with the basics of the Japanese scripts – the symbols and characters that make up the written language – and how to read them.
Learn the essentials of listening and speaking: Introduce yourself, start conversations, learn key survival phrases as well as how to order your favourite ramen. Plus much more.
Feeling inspired? There’s no time like the present...