Kanji are considered by many people to be the hardest part of learning Japanese—and that’s whether you’re learning it as a second language or as a native!
Even people who were born with Japanese as their mother tongue struggle with this.
Why? What makes it so hard, and if even Japanese people have a hard time, what does it mean to be fluent in kanji?
Well, let’s find out, shall we?
How Many Kanji Do You Need to Know to Be Fluent
First things first: Speaking Fluency
A Robust Knowledge of Kanji: The Basics
What Is in a Kanji?
How Many Kanji are there?
A Robust Knowledge of Kanji: The Kana
A Robust Knowledge of Kanji: Stroke Order
A Robust Knowledge of Kanji: Onyomi & Kunyomi
A Robust Knowledge of Kanji: Compound Words
What Does it Mean to Know a Kanji?
How Can You Learn the Kanji
How Many Kanji to be Fluent: My Final Answer
How many kanji do you need to know to be fluent?
You need to know 1,000 kanji to understand about 95% of written Japanese. To meet the government’s literacy standards and achieve over 99% comprehension, 2,136 joyo kanji are required. Note that many kanji have multiple readings, making recognition only the first step in reaching fluency.
First things first: Speaking fluency
If all you want to do is learn how to speak Japanese, strictly speaking you don’t need kanji.
You can learn to speak any language without having ever seen a single stroke of their writing system, and it’s the same with Japanese.
Heck, Japanese people are functionally fluent by the time they officially start to learn their first kanji, so why should it be any different for you?
That’s one way of looking at it. Is it physically possible? Yes. Is it a good idea? Not in my view, it’s not. For one, if you want to polish your Japanese, all the books at an intermediate or higher level will assume you know kanji.
If you want to do anything in Japanese that isn’t strictly speaking and listening, you’re pretty much out of luck (with the possible exception of books meant for toddlers).
There’s no way to “sound out” a word, or guess its meaning from clues, like you can with English or other similar writing system based languages.
However, once you’ve got, say, 500 kanji under your belt, you can start to sound things out (yup, there’s a small phonetic component there) and guess meanings.
Plus, knowing kanji will help you see the connection between words.
I picked a random set of phonemes: HO-U-KO-U. There are, at a quick glance, at least ten different words that are pronounced “houkou.”
The easiest way to start peeling those apart and feeling the difference between them will be with a robust knowledge of kanji.
A robust knowledge of kanji: The basics
So, what actually are kanji anyway? They’re just one of the four writing systems used in Japanese. J
Japanese uses romaji (which, if you’re reading this, congrats! You know it already!), hiragana and katakana (collectively known as “kana” and numbering less than a hundred), and finally kanji.
Kanji are basically Chinese characters, and they number in the thousands.
They typically carry a general meaning (or two, or three, or…), multiple ways of being read, a specific “stroke order,” and many ways of being combined with other characters.
Each of these details comprises one part of “knowing” a kanji.
Let’s look at the character 月 for a quick example. This character means “moon” or “month.”
It can be pronounced つき,げつ, or がつ (tsuki, getsu, gatsu) depending on how it is being used in a word. To write it, you first draw the leftmost vertical line. Then the top and right in one continuous motion. Then the last two interior horizontal lines.
Then you get to learn the words it’s used in. 月曜, 満月, 月給, etc. (Monday, full moon, monthly salary).
Oh, and just to mess with you, when kanji are used in names, they often have completely different ways of being read than what you’re used to. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
What’s in a kanji?
Some kanji are straight up pictographs. 月, 日, 人, 目, 山, 川, 皿, 雨, 火. With a little imagination, you can see their origins as moon, sun, person, eye, mountain, river, plate, rain, and fire.
Some kanji represent ideas, like 一, 二, and 三 meaning one, two, and—surprise—three, respectively.
But things don’t stay so simple for long. These larger characters can be compressed into “radicals”—little graphemes that are then combined to make a larger kanji.
To illustrate this, let’s take a look at the kanji for tree, 木. A bit of imagination will make that one stand out starkly as the image of a tree.
Well, we can put two together to get 林, the kanji for a small grove, or forest. Cram three “tree radicals” into that same space and you get 森, or woods.
Each of those kanji use the “radical” of a tree to build a more complex meaning.
As you might expect, it’s not always so simple.
To illustrate things further, I’m going to pull a fantastic example from a fantastic kanji resource, Andrew Scott Conning’s “The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course.”
Kanji will often be broken up with radicals that indicate meaning, and a radical that indicates sound.
For example, 舟 and 白, boat and white, respectively, can be combined into 舶, meaning large ship.
The left radical is the boat, which seems obvious enough. The right radical is white, which can be pronounced “haku.” Well, 舶 can also be pronounced “haku.”
As the kanji get more complicated, more and more radicals get combined in different ways. But, there’s just over 200 radicals, so if you think of kanji in those terms, suddenly it’s less daunting.
To get good at kanji, you mostly need to learn about 200 radicals and then understand how to combine them. That hardly seems as bad as learning 2,000+ kanji from scratch, right?
How many kanji are there?
Another tough question.
Virtually every adult in Japan can recognize over 2,000 kanji. A university educated person will recognize around 3,000, and an exceptionally well-educated, well-read person, with a techincal expertise might know up to 5,000.
If you want to pass the holy grail of kanji examinations, the kanji kentei you’ll need to be intimately familiar with 6,355 kanji.
If you want to read classical Japanese, that basically means reading classical Chinese, and I’m sure that bumps the number up even higher.
If you want the most comprehensive possible answer, you’ll have to turn to the Dai Kan-Wa Jiten, aka the “Great Japanese-Chinese Dictionary,” with a brain-melting 50,000 unique characters, making up 530,000 compound words.
But simply recognizing a kanji won’t get you very far.
A robust knowledge of kanji: The kana
You’re not getting anywhere in Japanese without the kana. And seeing as the kana are a derivative of kanji, it’s particularly useful to give them a moment of our time here.
Technically, the kana are a form of syllabary, meaning that each character represents one immutable syllable of sound. Buuuuut for the sake of simplicity, you can just think of them as an alphabet (don’t tell anyone I told you that, or the internet will skin me alive!).
The kana are broken down into two seperate but very related forms, hiragana and katakana.
These are mirror images of each other, like lower and upper case letters are. There’s a one-to-one relationship between the characters — 46 hiragana and 46 katakana. The sound “Ah” is あ in hiragana and ア in katakana.
Katakana are, typically, used to write foreign words and names, as well as to provide emphasis, similar to italics. Hiragana are for everything else.
They can replace kanji entirely, writing out the word as pure sound, or form words in their own right, or function as grammatical units all by themselves.
Kana also appear above or beside kanji as tiny “furigana,” and are there to show you how to read the kanji.
Kana are super simple, and many are the same between hiragana and katakana (for example へ and ヘ).
Without kana, you can’t even read a book for toddlers, and beyond that all the kanji you learn will be relatively useless, so jump on these first, and jump on them fast.
A robust knowledge of kanji: Stroke Order
Let’s say you want to look up a kanji in a dictionary. How do you do it? Well, one way is by the number of strokes. How do you know the number of strokes? By knowing the stroke order.
Besides that, if you want your kanji to look decent when written, you’ll need to know this.
Stroke order is one of the foundational aspects of kanji and while not knowing it won’t completely cripple your reading ability, it’s still not a good idea not to be at least passingly familiar with it.
Luckily, stroke order comes with some shortcuts that will get you a huge percentage of the way there. First, strokes are generally done in a specific order.
Top to bottom and left to right, with a bunch more rules-of-thumb out there to guide you.
So far, so good. Also, each radical is usually going to be written the same way in every kanji it appears in.
So, in reality, you only need to know in the neighborhood of 200 stroke orders to be able to write most kanji.
A quick googling of this subject will lead you to tons of great resources on getting this right.
A robust knowledge of kanji: Onyomi & Kunyomi
So, let’s say you know how to recognize a kanji (“Oo, that one means fire!”) and you even know how to write it. How do you say it?
Well, I don’t have a simple answer for you. No one does.
Did you think you were going to learn 2,136 discrete units of kanji and be done? Nah. Not even close. Strap in, because you’ll be learning multiples of that number.
At this point, if you want to go and study something simple, like Mandarin Chinese, I’ll understand. At least in Mandarin you learn one hanzi and one reading. Done. Beautiful.
In Japanese, kanji readings are broken up into onyomi and kunyomi. And there’s multiples of each. Merciful are the handful of kanji with just one or two readings.
But what exactly are onyomi and kunyomi? Well, these are the Chinese and Japanese readings, respectively.
See, kanji didn’t originate in Japan. They were brought over from China a little less than two thousand years ago. Of course, Japan already had a language, so they just mapped the word they already had onto the related kanji.
For example, the kanji for “water” is 水. Japanese people called water “mizu” so they started to pronounce the character 水 as “mizu.”
But, there was also a lot of writing and communicating done in Chinese as well, so 水 started to also carry the Chinese pronunciation as well, “sui.”
In this case, “mizu” is the kunyomi and “sui” is the onyomi. Now, this gets complicated for a couple of reasons. One is that some kanji carry multiple related meanings, so when using the kanji in one definitional sense, you use one reading, versus another.
Another complication is, in my opinion, even more interesting (if no less frustrating). As Chinese words joined the Japanese lexicon, they came over from different regions of China, with different dialects.
They also came over at different times, sometimes separated by centuries. As the different pronunciations arrived in Japan, they simply got appended to the list of possible readings.
This is especially interesting because Japanese has acted like a sort of time capsule for researchers of classical Chinese phonetics. Pretty neat!
When do you use onyomi and when do you use kunyomi? Kunyomi is typically used when the word has kana attached to it to make a word. Onyomi is for when the character stands alone or with other kanji.
But even that bit of info only gets you so far. There’s a seemingly endless list of exceptions.
Because of multiple readings of kanji, your 2,136 journey to kanji-fluency is actually many times more difficult. But does it stop there? Oh no…
A robust knowledge of kanji: Compound words
Just like knowing the words “lap” and “top” won’t help you learn the word “laptop,” you’re equally screwed with Japanese.
Congrats, you’ve “learned” 2,136 kanji. Now you’ll need to combine them to make compound words, just like we have in English with “laptop,” “fireplace,” or “sunscreen.”
The 2,136 kanji are just the foundation for the rest of Japanese.
Once you can recognize them, you can start combining them. Here’s a tip: don’t bother learning onyomi/kunyomi readings until you can learn them in their vocabulary forms.
It’s not worth the effort. You’ll learn them organically as you traverse the seemingly endless landscape of Japanese vocabulary.
What does it mean to “know” a kanji?
There’s so many different ways to answer this, and the internet hordes will hate you for every single answer you can give. So, with that in mind, let’s take a look.
At the simplest level, if you can look at 月 and know it means “moon, month, lunar, etc,” then you know 月. This is the simplest, most essential part of “knowing” a kanji.
There’s also the part about being able to produce it. If you can write it, even better. But don’t get hung up on this.
Even native Japanese, super smart, PhD’s can’t write down every kanji they recognize. Especially in today’s world with computers dominating communication, people forget kanji more and more all the time.
It’s similar to how you can forget how to spell even simple things in English because of the overuse of spellcheck (don’t ask me how to spell reccommend—er, reccomend—er, recommend on the first try).
A truly robust understanding of kanji would be knowing at least one kunyomi and one onyomi of each kanji (although some have only reading, fyi), preferably within the context of a bit of vocabulary.
If you can get at least one vocab word typed out from memory, you can get that kanji on the page, even if it’s the wrong reading. Writing kanji on a computer uses a sort of auto-complete system.
You type out the way a kanji sounds, and the options for all kanji with that reading show up in a dropdown menu.
So, for example, let’s say I want to write 冷水, but I can’t remember that it’s written “rei-sui.” However, I know the words 冷たい (“tsumetai”) and 水 (“mizu”), so I can just type those and use them. Nifty!
How can you learn the kanji?
There’s lots of ways. You could learn the way Japanese school children do, but that’s super inefficient and it takes them years and years of hard, grueling work. We can do better it turns out.
I did a review a while back about WaniKani, which is a great resource for many people for learning kanji. The premise is simple. Learn some super-simple radicals.
Then learn a bunch of super-simple kanji that use those radicals. Then learn some compound words that use those kanji.
Then rinse and repeat with harder radicals and more complex kanji. Do that over and over for a while and viola!
My personal favorite system comes from a book I mentioned earlier in this post. “The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course” by Andrew Scott Conning.
This is, in my humble opinion, the best resource out there for learning kanji. It introduces kanji to you in the perfect way, balancing simplicity, frequency, and similarity.
That is to say, he starts by showing you frequent, simple kanji, and groups all the kanji that seem similar. So 限, 郎, and 廊 all get taught together right around the 300-kanji mark.
Lots of people take their sweet time learning this stuff. Some people go all out. You can reasonably “learn” all 2,136 kanji in 90 days, if all you want is to be able to recognize them.
And I’d say that’s all you need to do. Become familiar with them so they stop seeming like strange squiggles on the page.
Recognize them and then learn-learn them as you’re exposed to more and more Japanese over time, absorbing the readings with vocab instead of by brute force.
Another great way to learn kanji is by using the flashcard application Anki.
How many kanji to be fluent: My final answer
About two thousand will do the trick. You’ll still be looking new ones up, but you still do that in your native language too, so don’t sweat it. Now get studying!
Frequently Asked Questions about Learning Kanji
How many kanji should I learn a day?
Strictly for learning to simply recognize them, you could go for anywhere between 5 and 30 a day. At 5 a day, you’ll reach your goal in a little over a year. At 30 you’ll get there in under three months. Learning them more in-depth than that will take much, much longer.
What is the easiest way to learn kanji?
Start with the radicals and use them as building blocks to learn the rest. And use mnemonics to speed things up. Small images or stories will help the kanji stick in your brain faster and longer.
How many words do you need to know to be fluent in Japanese?
5,000 will allow you to handle daily life, but you’ll be extremely limited. 10,000 gets you to N1 on the JLPT exam and covers most of your bases with fluency. Still, if you want truly native-like fluency you’ll be looking at around 30,000 words.
How many kanji do Japanese students learn?
The number of kanji all Japanese students need to know are laid out in the “joyo kanji” list put out by the Japanese Ministry of Education and are comprised of 2,136 “regular use kanji.” By the end of junior high, all students should know these.
How do Japanese learn kanji?
Lots of practice and repetition. They learn in class and with workbooks, coming to understand how to write them, reading them, and use them all together.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.