Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Japanese characters can usually be read in at least two ways. There is the "ON" reading of the character and the "KUN" reading of a character. Many different characters share the same ON reading, but very few share the same KUN reading. Therefore you can easily group together characters based on their ON reading, but not based on the KUN reading.

The only problem is that many characters with the same ON reading have very little to do with one another. They bear no resemblance strong enough that they could easily be grouped together and remembered. This is what KanjiTown is for.

Basically, KanjiTown is a catchy way to say "Group characters based on ON reading, then think of a unique location to correspond with each group." Locations can be real (Your high-school math room) or imagined (A dungeon in The Legend of Zelda). Recently I googled KanjiTown to find someone that took the same method but instead of using locations used different MOVIES for different kanji groups. What a good idea! If you are a gamer, I imagine you could have different GAMES correspond to different kanji groups. Or if you are a literature nut, different BOOKS could be used for the different groups.

I found that using this method of grouping kanji was my other "secret weapon" for Japanese fluency (Supermemo being the first one). When I saw a kanji, the ON reading seemed to "jump" out in my mind. Not only did I recall the reading and meaning quickly, but reading Japanese felt like reading quotes from my favorite movies and TV shows ("Oh, I remember when such-and-such character did such-and-such-action, that was awesome!). Also when I hear a word I don't know, it is surprisingly easy to correctly guess what the word is based on the hints provided by the pronunciation. The more you do this, the better you get at guessing.

Because of Supermemo and KanjiTown, Japanese no longer requires a significant amount of time to study (Aside from review in Supermemo). I spend a minimal amount of time every week finding Japanese words I don't know and putting them into Supermemo (I'm trying to learn slang words, internet terms ("2828" is ツンデレ, for example) and onomatopoeic words to spice things up). Nearly all of the terms are learned and retained with very little effort (Thanks Supermemo!). If learning Japanese is an MMORPG, now I am in the "endgame" phase now.

Please don't get the impression that I'm bragging. This is simply the result of the methodical application of useful tools. I am convinced that if others used the same tools (With effort, of course), the same result could be achieved.

The reason I post this is because I've struggled to put together a similarly useful system for recalling the pronunciation of Chinese characters. Based on how well the Japanese system has worked, I knew that a Chinese system was possible, but I wasn't sure how to do it. To make a long story short, I recently "cracked" the mnemonic "code" to make such a system work for Chinese, but before I went "gung-ho" into remembering Chinese I wanted to do a thorough check to make sure all of the Japanese kanji were properly "archived" in Supermemo (Both the meaning and the pronunciation of the character). Before I started another big project I wanted to make sure the first one was done.

Tonight I finally finished this project, and I can say with confidence that all of the kanji I studied are in the hands of Supermemo, never to be forgotten (Or at least 90% of them).

Next post: How to beat the crap out of Chinese vocabulary acquisition.

(Just to clarify, KanjiTown is purely for vocabulary purposes. Grammar is a separate beast. )


  1. Thanks for this, It's brilliant. I would love to see a concrete example of this because I'm a little foggy on exactly how this is applied.

  2. Certainly. So first we find one group of kanji with the same ON yomi. There are many dictionary sites that can look up kanji by their ON yomi. Here is one sample site: http://kanjialive.uchicago.edu/beta/
    Once you find a dictionary, type in the ON yomi for a kanji. Let's use KAKU as an example. First type KAKU in the appropriate lookup field, then click "search." Now we have a list of all of the kanji pronounced KAKU. These are the kanji we want to group together.

    Next we need to think of a location easy to associate with the pronunciation KAKU. I chose "desert" because "kaku" resembles the word "cactus," which are found in the desert. It is completely up to you as to what location you use for each ON yomi. Or you could even use a movie/game/book. The point is you have one common and broad element that connects all of the kanji together. For me, this was a desert.

    Any kanji that is pronounced KAKU is somehow incorporated into the environment. For example, "leather" is pronounced KAKU, so perhaps there is a giant LEATHER factory located in the middle of the desert. "Remember" is also pronounced KAKU, so maybe in order to get into the factory you have a REMEMBER a special password.
    The important thing to keep in mind is this: The stories should all be connected with one another in some way. The more stories connect together, the more stable your memories of them will be (So you could have the stories be about the workers in the leather factory, the problems they face, etc.).

    The movie idea sounds very nice, because you are working with something that already has an established plot to follow, all you simply do is tack on kanji to certain parts of the story.

    Anyways, hopefully this is enough to demonstrate how KanjiTown (Or MovieTown, GameTown, etc.) works. It might seem like a hassle, but once you get the kanji "placed," you will be able to recall Japanese words frighteningly quick. Add Supermemo (Or any SRS you prefer) to the mix and you become a Japanese language tank, taking down (Almost) any vocabulary word in your path (As long as it uses the ON yomi, which is a great number of words).

  3. Thanks for describing your method. However, I'm curious if you make once card per town or do you have multiple cards per town or story?

  4. Yeah, here is how each card I have is structured:

    Q: KanjiTown 覚
    A: カク Cactus Land (REMEMBER the password to get inside of the factory)

    When I see the character I need to recall the location it is in. The better I know the location the quicker I can recall the pronunciation; also remembering words be much easier.

  5. Hey, that's a nice way of remembering character readings! It wouldn't have to be just one theme though would it - you could have associations for films and locations and games, and so on. Maybe I can do that in Cantonese too...

  6. A modified version seems to be working for Chinese (Mandarin), but I would like to wait a bit longer before making an entry about it. I would like to make sure that it works when recalling words before I say "Hey, it works!" I am pretty sure that it works fine, but it usually takes a couple of weeks before I really see the results of a Supermemo "experiment." Once I know, I'll post the results.

  7. I started making cards using the "Kanjitown" method yesterday, it really does take a lot of work, but learning ON readings from just coming across words over and over has taken years and I still don't know them all so I am willing to put in the work for a few months to make some interesting stories for all these cards.

    Seeing your progress with this method has inspired me and I hope it will take me to the next level in my Japanese.

  8. Great to hear. Yes, it is hard work, but it pays off manyfold when you can instantly remember the ON reading for any kanji you remember. I hope everything goes well with your studies :)