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Heisig rules

Firstly, relax. Once you have a strategy for learning kanji, they're not that hard despite what people tell you.

There's a positive deluge of books on kanji. Personally I recommend James. W. Heisig's “Remembering the Kanji". (See here for a thorough review.)

Why Heisig? The main reason is that he lays out a very methodical strategy for learning the kanji that works because it makes you think (i.e., involves considerable depth of processing).

Heisig's first book concentrates on learning the meaning and writing of approximately 2200 commonly used kanji, while the second focuses on learning the pronunciation. His third is for the guns who want to learn the meaning, writing and reading of a further 1000 or so kanji.

Heisig's basic premise is that kanji are made up of a finite number of elements (which include but are not limited to radicals). He advocates making mental images for each of these elements, then putting them together for visual stories which you associate with the meaning of the word.

It's dumb that Heisig doesn't tell you how to pronounce any of the characters in his first book.

No it ain't. It's genius.

What Heisig advocates is getting you to create one image for each of the kanji. It's the creation of a unique image for each kanji that helps you keep them separate in your head. It also later gives you a hook onto which you can hang other relevant information like the pronunciation and other meanings.

Initially learning the meaning and writing of each kanji means you make more sense of the Japanese that you read, even if you can't pronounce it straightaway. Sure, you may not be able to say each word, but that comes later with - and I say this from experience - much less effort.

How does Heisig's method work?

Take the kanji for Buddha 仏. It comprises two main elements, the largely vertical bit on the left (the radical "ninben") and the bit on the right (which looks like the katakana mu ム). Heisig introduces the left element as “person” and the right as “elbow”.

Your task is to link together "person", "elbow" and "Buddha" as an image in your head.

This is how I remembered it (on a train to Yamadera back in good ol' 1995). Each time I see the "person" element I think of Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman. So in my head, I imagine Catwoman giving the Great Buddha of Kamakura a massive whack with her elbow, thus toppling it over. Voilà! I've remembered the writing and meaning of the kanji.

Heisig uses big words I don't understand.

Personally I've always liked the way Heisig writes, but it might be a bit hard going for some people, especially if you're not a native English speaker.

The words he uses are good words to learn by the way (hint hint), but if you're finding it a bit of a slog, you may prefer Michael Rowley's "Kanji Pict-O-Graphix". Rowley does the hard work of coming up with the images for you. However, this also means less depth of processing on your part which, I would argue, translates to less effective recall over the long term.

I recommend Heisig over Rowley because (a) I think you remember the kanji better when you make up the visual mnemonics yourself and (b) Heisig covers more kanji.