Yes, you can “learn kanji”

“Don’t learn kanji, learn words!”

“you can’t ‘learn’ kanji lol”

Hang around in any Japanese-learning community for long enough and you’re guaranteed to see something along these lines. It’s advice that’s inspired by a long history of bad methods, and it’s given sincerely by people who genuinely want to help. It’s also something I happen to strongly disagree with.

Let me explain. I don’t think that the people who say these things, or the motivation behind it, are wrong. But I do think that “learn words, not kanji” is good advice, explained poorly, and that “you can’t learn kanji” is predicated on a bad definition of what it means to learn. I’ve tried to argue my case a number of times, and it never seems to go as well as I would like. This article is my attempt to put my thoughts in order.

If you don’t want to read the whole thing, you can skip down to the summary at the end. However, I would really appreciate if you did read the whole thing, especially if you think you disagree. This is a topic I feel strongly about, and I feel like the very premise itself is fundamentally misunderstood. I’ve put a lot of care into trying to present my case in a way that will make sense, even to people who might completely disagree at first.

I would like to implore anyone reading further to read with an open mind. Be cognizant of the fact that everyone thinks in a different way, and that none of us are wrong — until we try to force our own thought process on another person who is incompatible with it. I’m only writing this article because I’m constantly told my way of learning kanji is invalid by people who don’t seem to even understand it in the first place.

With that out of the way, let’s get into it.

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Japanese output reflection

Yesterday my sister and I met up with a friend of mine and his family at a park in Japan. He’s originally from the US but has lived in Japan for several years now and is (from my perspective anyway) totally fluent. His wife (Aさん) can speak some English, and their nearly two year-old daughter knows an impressive amount of words in both languages (though she hasn’t quite figured out when to use them all).

Throughout the day I had a lot of opportunities to talk to Aさん about various topics, making this by far the most time I’ve spent speaking Japanese in a single “session”, and essentially (aside from my very brief “first conversation” in Kyoto in 2019) was the first time I’ve had any meaningful interaction in a face-to-face context. There’s a unique feeling that comes with looking somebody in the eye as you speak and while I definitely still struggled from time to time it was rewarding to feel like “I’m really communicating with another person here”.

As always I made a lot of mistakes, some of which I noticed immediately and some of which I totally missed until they were pointed out. Here are a few of the ones I remember:

  • When trying to say “when you went overseas, what was your favorite country?” I said 海外に行ったら、[…], when the obvious choice should have been 行ったとき. Fortunately my meaning came through and Aさん was able to correct me/confirm what I had meant to say.
  • At one point I was trying to describe my hometown and was struggling to remember the word, so I said something like 小さい頃住んでいたとこ (Aさん said 地元? which was the word I had been looking for). I also tried to describe it as 小さくなくて1I should have said 小さくないけど 、人が少なくい and she came back with 田舎. In retrospect, my hometown was definitely 田舎, but for some reason I had only ever thought of that word as meaning rural Japan.
  • At one point I was describing the general weather where I lived, and I gave the number in Celsius. When Aさん followed up to confirm that America uses “F”, I clarified using the phrase 郷に行けば郷に従え and felt pretty pleased that I had been able to pull it out of my memory in time. I realized after the fact that it should have been 入れば, but once again the meaning came through which is the main thing I guess.
  • On two occasions, describing my plans for the trip, I made two separate mistakes. The first was to say “16 days” instead of “until the 16th”, and the second (when I was trying to clarify, later) was to say 16月 — making up entirely new months! Fortunately this is the kind of mistake where it’s completely obvious what you meant to say and while it was kind of a funny moment it didn’t cause any confusion.

One last little story: at one point I noticed that the little girl had strawberries on her socks and I asked her いちご好き? Her response was いちごしない! which got a laugh out of me and her parents alike. Her father says she probably wanted to say いちごはない (since there weren’t any strawberries at the moment). Apparently this is a common thing among Japanese children; they’ll use する to replace all kinds of verbs, not just those where it would actually work.

I had a really nice time and while I definitely struggled to come up with words from time to time, I did feel like I was pretty functional overall. Looking forward to the next opportunity.

Breaking into reading Japanese

At the very beginning, reading can seem like an impossible challenge. No matter how many words you memorize up front, you’re essentially guaranteed to see something unfamiliar within moments of trying to read your first book. Looking up every new word and grammar point will grind you to a halt, but trying to maintain momentum can leave you feeling totally lost.

How do you strike a balance? How early can you realistically start reading without it feeling like a complete struggle?

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Thoughts about Wanikani

Wanikani has been with me since the very first month of my Japanese-learning journey, and I was a big fan for a long time. Over the years my opinion of it has gradually changed, and at this point I feel like I can’t recommend it in good conscience without some heavy disclaimers. I don’t think it’s a bad platform by any means, and there’s a lot to like — I finished the whole course and I’m quite certain it helped me avoid some common pain points — I just feel like if I’m going to say “wanikani worked for me, it’s pretty good”, it’s only right that I be able to point to a list of criticisms to temper that recommendation.

I’ll also be laying out the strategy and schedule I used to get through the second half of the course quickly and efficiently while also working full time.

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Calibre read next plugin

After becoming increasingly frustrated with the multi-column-search plugin, I’ve taken the script from my calibre “read next” query and turned it into a tiny plugin of its own. It adds a button to the toolbar which will mark all books with the “readnext” label when clicked, bypassing the need to open up MCS, load an existing query from the difficult-to-read menu, execute the query, and finally close the window again.

The plugin package can be downloaded here.

My rating system

Whenever I read something (novels, manga, etc; really anything that I track in Calibre), I always rank it on a five-star scale to indicate that I’m done with it. I know some people like to use half-stars or even hundred-point scales and I’ve always found that to be too granular for something which is ultimately not really all that objective or scientific.

The main purpose of this scale is to help me a way to help me decide whether to continue a series, recommend it to friends, etc. I’m posting it here so I can link to it in other posts where it might be relevant.

Without further ado…

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How I fixed my listening comprehension

I used to have a really hard time understanding spoken Japanese, despite being (at the time) fairly comfortable with reading. I remember thinking I could improve by watching anime with Japanese subtitles, but if there was any benefit it must have been pretty minimal, and I realized eventually that I was just giving myself more practice reading, but when I tried watching without any subtitles at all, I just got frustrated and confused.

Fortunately I happened to hear about Subs2SRS around that time, which is a really cool tool that turns videos into flashcards by reading subtitle files. I didn’t exactly want to add a whole new SRS routine into my study routine, so I came up with a low-impact method that helped me out a lot in just a short amount of time.

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Thinking about the old internet

I used to be a huge fan of Spiderman when I was a kid. The Sam Raimi movie was my first introduction to the character, as well as one of my first exposures to what comic books could be (the DVD release came with a digital copy of Spider Man Blue #1 and Black Cat #1, both of which were quite a shock to the system). My family never got the newspaper, but when we would visit my grandparents I would always have a drawer full of comic pages waiting for me (my grandma, bless her heart, would collect them and set them aside) and I would spend hours cutting out the Spiderman strips and pasting them into a handmade paper album. Maybe it was just a combination of my general attraction to comic books and the fact that Spiderman was the only example that was remotely accessible, but the mythos had its hooks in deep for quite some time.

I had a favorite website around this time. I can’t remember for the life of me how I found it in the first place, but I still remember the url offhand — “”, aka “Eric’s Spiderman Homepage“, as preserved by the miraculous Internet Archive. It wasn’t even a dedicated site — the actual homepage appears to be some kind of ecommerce site or consultancy business — just a subdomain that some guy decided to devote to writing about his interests.

I think about Eric’s site from time to time but it really came back to me recently thanks to Wordle. It’s currently somewhat of a sensation, which is in no small part due to the clever way in which it displays your result when you solve a puzzle, which starts off inscrutable and quickly strikes home once you play it for the first time.

Something I found fascinating about Wordle is that it in less than a year since its launch, it had managed to become a daily routine for a huge number of people worldwide. Less than a week after I personally found it, @wordlestats was reporting 80k players, and two months later that number is over 300k. In an internet which has become so commodified and platform-driven, it’s amazing to see a subdomain on some random guy’s homepage become so huge.

Of course, as I write this, the link above will instead redirect to the New York Times, who purchased Wordle for a “low-seven-figure sum” and no doubt plan to monetize it or at the very least leverage it to attract a new audience to their other word games. The creator says it’s a perfect fit, and I have to say: props to him for getting his payout. But I feel a bit disappointed that this is the way things have gone. Wordle was a small independent website that managed to permeate the zeitgeist for a few months before being gobbled up by a big company and consolidated. The fact that the thousands-long word list had to be audited to remove potentially offensive words is just the icing on the cake.

There’s a lot of buzz these days about how “decentralization is the future”, which is one of those statements where I agree with all the words but not what people mean when they say it. This kind of line is always tied up with the push for Web 3, which is of course in reference to the distributed redundancy features built into blockchain applications. There might be some use case for a massively redundant database (blockchain or otherwise), but just because something is widely distributed around the world doesn’t make the internet more open or more interesting. In fact, the distributed nature of Blockchain is, is for my money, the single least interesting and desirable type of decentralization.

I’m certainly no hardline social media zealot (I spend a lot of time on Discord and stay somewhat active on Twitter), but the universal move towards centralized platforms doesn’t strike me as such a great thing. I’d like to see more Wordles and Eric’s Spiderman Homepages out there. I have a few blogs and webcomics I check daily and I wish that list was longer. Keeping a blog is a lot of fun, even if nobody reads it. It’s nice to be in charge of when your website theme changes and it’s empowering to know that you retain full ownership of everything you post.

The old internet was weird and interesting. I wish it would come back for real this time.