There is one thing I want you all to remember after stumbling upon this page, so I’ll add it right at the beginning: not all kanji are created equal.
Index of articles
This was originally intended to be a single article but the more I wrote, the more I realized I had more to write about, and it eventually turned into its own mini-series of articles. Feel free to skip ahead if you’re curious about a specific topic, but I recommend reading these pages in order starting from this one for a more comprehensive experience.
Okay, with that out of the way, let’s talk kanji. A common misunderstanding among Japanese learners and a very big pet peeve of mine is to consider all kanji a single large group of similar symbols. It would be nice if we could just look at a kanji and make up a story in our head as to why this kanji looks like that, and then attribute some meaning to it. However, unfortunately, that is not how it works for the vast majority of them.
It doesn’t help that some kanji learning methods like Remembering The Kanji, Wanikani, or KanjiDamage (to name a few) try to give you mnemonics to better remember and recognize the shapes, and then people roll with it thinking that’s all there is to it. While I have nothing against using mnemonic tricks to remember kanji, it is very important to be aware that such methods are just memorization tricks. There’s no actual basis that is grounded in reality for such mnemonics to exist. It’s better to not think of it as a one-solution-fits-all situation because there is no single mental model that will encompass all kanji types uniformly.
On the other hand, by learning to recognize some simple kanji categories, we unlock the ability to apply a more appropriate study method to each of them as we see fit. Mental flexibility is the key to language acquisition, after all.
If you want a quick summary of what I’m going to be writing about, and prefer to have a video format, I recommend watching this video which does a decent job at summing up the contents of this page. However I will go into more details here so I recommend you keep reading nonetheless.
A quick note on radicals
As you probably already know, all kanji have one “main” component called a radical (部首). There are 214 of them and they help us classify kanji in some sort of order to more easily look them up in a paper dictionary. Contrary to expectations, radicals are not going to be the main focus of this article so I won’t go in too many details about them and how they work, but if you are interested I recommend giving this page a quick read. Be aware that a lot of kanji learning resources out there like making up their own radicals or “components”. As useful as they might be for you to remember them, they are completely useless when it comes to actually talking about kanji in a formal manner, so it’s better not to confuse the two. They are very different.
Four Types of Kanji
In the 2nd century AD, a Chinese scholar by the name of Xu Shen compiled a dictionary of Chinese characters and divided them in 6 categories he called 六書 (reading in Japanese for simplification purposes and because I don’t know Chinese).
For utilitarian reasons, we can completely ignore two of those categories as they are a bit questionable, and focus instead on the remaining four. For all intents and purposes, all kanji can be divided into the following four types depending on their structural composition:
- Non-decomposable types (分解できない)
- Decomposable types (分解できる)
As the name implies, decomposable kanji are kanji that can be separated into multiple components. Non-decomposable ones on the other hand are individual units that cannot be further separated.
Let’s start by looking at non-decomposable ones because they are simpler and there’s fewer of them, then move on to the more complex ones later.