If you’re serious about learning Japanese, then thoroughly learning Kanji is one of the most valuable steps you can take towards fluency. We’re in a golden age for Japanese language learning.
If you’ve taken even a glance at the internet’s discussion on the topic, you’ve probably been bombarded by an array of mystifying acronyms like RTK, WK, KKLC, SRS, and more.*
I’ve had experience with all of these learning tools and in today’s review, I’ll be covering what you can expect from one of the best kanji learning tools available right now: WaniKani.
(*Remembering the Kanji, WaniKani, Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course, and Spaced Repetition System respectively)
New WaniKani, New Day
WaniKani recently went through a semi-major overhaul, so now’s the perfect time to look at the program with fresh eyes.
I’ve been with the ol’ Crabigator (as WK’s fans lovingly refer to it) since near the beginning, back when it was in beta.
WaniKani first launched in mid-2012 and I joined a little less than a year later, back when my interest in Japanese was starting to gain speed.
In that time I’ve seen it go from a small, cult following to something that’s considered a major player in the Japanese learning community.
WaniKani is a product of the minds behind Tofugu, a Japanese culture and learning blog. Tofugu was a college project that eventually became a business and took over the Japanese language learning world.
When I first became aware of them, they were a small group in small offices. They’ve now blossomed into a full team with a slick workspace.
Their blog at Tofugu.com is one that anyone interested in Japan or Japanese should have bookmarked. These guys don’t screw around, and never have.
When you get a new post from them, you can be sure that it’s detailed, well researched, original as heck, and probably going to take you the better part of the afternoon to read. Oh, and worth every minute.
They took that passion and put it into a digital textbook project called Textfugu and, later, WaniKani. They brought the same sort of obsessive focus on entertaining, high-quality online education that drove their blog to niche stardom to their kanji learning program WaniKani.
And they’ve improve it ever since with that same sense of awesomeness in mind.
What on earth does “WaniKani” even mean?
“Wani” means crocodile and “Kani” means crab. Got it?
No, no, that doesn’t clear things up at all.
Well, the mascot of the website is a giant half-crab, half-crocodile kaiju (monster, like Godzilla) and he features in lots of art around the website.
What on earth this has to do with learning kanji, I haven’t a clue, and the website isn’t much help. Oh well!
What does WaniKani teach?
WaniKani teaches a lot. If you’re strapping in for the ride, get ready for a long (but enjoyable) road. At optimal speed, the full course takes just over a year. From my time reading people’s experience on the message boards, it seems most regular users finish in roughly two years.
In that time you’ll conquer over 2,000 kanji and over 6,000 vocabulary words. That’s enough to be functionally literate in Japanese.
Ah, but which kanji? Good question.
You may have heard of the Joyo kanji. These are the kanji that are considered “regular use.” These must be learned by the end of middle school and are the only kanji allowed to be used in official documents.
The list has grown over the years, having started at 1,945 in the 80s and rising to its current number of 2,136.
So, does WaniKani teach you all of these?
Close, but not quite. That’s on purpose.
The reason given is that there’s lots of extremely rare kanji that appear in the Joyo list, and many common ones that don’t. So, WaniKani (for now—they may add more later) ditches the rare Joyo characters in favor of teaching more useful non-Joyo ones. A pretty good plan.
What about the vocab?
This is a kanji learning program, first and foremost. That means the vocab serves the kanji, not the other way around.
For those new to kanji, let me give a brief explanation. In Japanese, kanji are those complicated characters you see in writing. They’re not from Japan originally—they come from China. When they arrived roughly a millennium and a half ago, they were mapped onto already-existing Japanese words.
What does that mean? Well, let’s take the character for “water” 水 for example. In Japanese, the word is mizu. In Chinese it’s different, though it sounds something like sui. So, the character 水 can be read as either mizu or sui depending on the context.
That’s a simple example. Several kanji have many, many different readings, owing to a whole host of historical origins.
This makes learning how to read Japanese exceptionally difficult compared to most other languages in the world (even compared to Chinese itself which, while having more characters, at least only has one way or reading each one!).
WaniKani works to train your memory past this problem. For each kanji, you’ll learn several vocabulary words. These vocabulary words will give you access to multiple ways of reading the same kanji.
For example, using 水, you’ll learn thirty-four different vocabulary words with that character. One word is 水中, which means underwater and is read sui-chuu. Another is 水着, which means swimsuit and is read mizu-gi.
All these words are tied together, carefully reinforcing each other as you work through the course and learn more words. For example, 中 is read chuu in the word for “underwater” but can also become jyuu or naka in other words.
So, 水中 trains you on two characters at once, each reinforcing the other.
WaniKani is deliberately structured to make sure you’re always ready for the next bit of info as well. So, you won’t see words with characters you don’t know before you’re ready.
For example, 水 is a level two word and 着 is a level fourteen word. Therefore, 水着 won’t show up until level fourteen or later.
Does that still sound hard? Well, there’s another thing they do to help.
Kanji don’t exist in a vacuum. The vast majority of kanji are dependent on constituent parts known as radicals. Let’s take 話 as an example. This kanji has two parts that are relatively easy to see.
There’s the left and the right. Once you know that the left says “say” and the right says “tongue” it’s not too hard to create a connection in your head that 話 means “talk” or “speak” or “story”.
A word like 島 will have you first learn two radicals. One is 山. Look at it.
Can you picture what it means? It means “mountain”. 鳥 is “bird”. Now, picture a bird sitting atop a mountain island, far out at sea. Now you have 島. That’s a very slapdash example of how radicals work.
WaniKani doesn’t make you invent any of that on your own, though.
Each radical has been prepared for you with a keyword (like “mountain,” “bird,” “say,” or “tongue”) as well as a detailed, entertaining mnemonic to help it stick in your brain.
So, if you didn’t see a mountain in 山 right away, WaniKani will help you get there.
And if you don’t like the keyword or mnemonic (perhaps you have one already from an alternate source), you can add your own.
The reality of kanji, aka Chinese characters, is that even crazy-looking words like 藍 are just pieces put together. That one happens to have five radicals stuck together.
Once you know those five pieces—just like knowing a word with five letters—you can start to really see the shape of the character.
So, what’s the road to mastery look like?
There’re 60 levels. Each level will start you off with learning some radicals. That prepares you for the kanji that come after.
Once you learn the radicals to a sufficient level, you unlock the kanji for that level. Once you learn the kanji to a sufficient level, you unlock the vocabulary words.
Radicals support kanji which, in turn, support vocab. And level one supports level two which supports level three, and so on.
It’s a straight, narrow ladder that takes you directly to the top.
You might be wondering now what “learn to a sufficient level” means. Well, that’s where we get to take a look at something called SRS.
SRS stands for “spaced repetition system.” The idea is that you see something and then, just when you’re about to forget it, you get tested on it again.
In theory, testing yourself just at the moment of forgetfulness will strengthen your memory of the item over time. After each successful exposure, you want to increase the time until the next exposure.
WaniKani takes you through five “stages.” These are: Apprentice, Guru, Master, Enlightened, Burned.
Apprentice is broken up into four intervals and Guru is broken up into two. If we include the Learning stage, this gives a grand total of ten SRS levels.
So, let’s take an example. You learn a word and it gets moved to Apprentice 1. It will show up four hours later. If you get it right again it moves up to Apprentice 2 and you won’t see it for eight hours.
Assuming you keep getting it right, the intervals increase—1 day, 2 days, 4 days, 2 weeks, 1 month, 4 months.
If, after four months, you get it right, the item becomes “Burned” and you will no longer see it again—it is assumed you know it completely.
Anything else about the learning aspect?
Just a couple more loose ends.
When reviewing the items you’ll be tested in three ways. For radicals, you will be tested on their English keyword. For kanji, you will be asked to provide a reading, usually requesting one specific type.
For vocabulary, you will have to type out the Japanese word in full.
I cannot stress enough how good this is. It forces you to really engage with the material and show that you truly know the topic.
In case it wasn’t clear, every single step along the way builds on the previous. Each item—radical, kanji, and vocab—has a mnemonic attached to it and many of the mnemonics are interwoven together.
What else do you like?
Well, the really nice thing about WaniKani is that they’ve opened it up for developers to play with. Basically, there’s a crap-load of plugins made for WaniKani that have been crafted by the dedicated denizens of the Crabigator (an affectionate term for WaniKani).
Do you wish WaniKani had a “whoopsie” button? Someone made one. Do you wish you could just get your radicals out of the way first instead of having them mixed in with the other items? Someone made a reordering program.
Want to learn the opposite direction—i.e. be shown the English and have to type the Kanji? Someone made an entire WaniKani clone just for that.
Almost anything you want to improve the already great experience is probably available. And it’s all listed in the other really great thing I like…
The Community Center. The Community Center is just the forums for WaniKani, but it’s something special. Even before moderation was widely present, the boards there have always been exceptionally helpful and encouraging.
If you have any experience with the Japanese learning community at large, you may have found it to be a trifle—prickly. To say the least. Very little of that exists here.
The Community Center is filled with lively discussion, from talks about the nitty-gritty of the language, to goofing-off, to cultural aspects of Japan, to helping each other.
Even when I’ve taken long breaks from studying with the Crabigator, I’ve often returned to the Community boards to join discussions.
So, what’s the bad stuff?
Of course, it’s not perfect. So, I’ll outline here a few problems that some people come up against, and two that I personally have.
First up, you have to know kana. If you don’t know the Japanese syllabary (the alphabet-like system of writing) you’re going to be totally lost. It also helps to have a passing understand of how kanji work in general (though the brief explanation I provided above gets you about 70% of the way there).
Second, many people don’t like the fact that you can’t control the speed at which you learn. If you’ve got a stack of flashcards, you can blitz through them to your heart’s content. But WaniKani doesn’t allow that.
They’re not interested in being a cram-session for you. WaniKani is about mastery of the material. So, particularly in the early lessons when the material is easier and more sparse, people get frustrated that they can’t speed up ahead.
This can also be annoying for learners who may have already mastered many kanji and would like to jump ahead. That said, within a few levels you’ll be perfectly inundated with material to study, so don’t worry too much.
Next, there’s no grammar taught. They passively provide example sentences for the vocab, but that’s the total extent of exposure to broader Japanese context you’ll get in this course. But, that’s not the point of WaniKani, so coming there looking for it is like searching for a steak at a vegan restaurant.
My personal problems are two-fold. One is that I don’t like the way that the readings of kanji are tested. It’s too inflexible and, I feel, occasionally trains me to see a kanji with a reading that isn’t helpful.
For example, the character 人 has three common readings: hito, nin, jin. When testing the kanji, WaniKani will want you to type out either nin or jin.
The experience of this is seeing the character 人 alone on the screen and forcing myself to type either nin or jin. However, when you see the character 人 by itself in the wild, it’s always read as hito.
This… gets a little confusing for me. And worse, I think, instructs bad habits.
WaniKani explains that it wants to test you on the most common readings. And that’s fine.
But, just like I’m able to change my potential answers for radicals and vocab (e.g. 例えば is given as “for example,” but you could modify it to also accept “as an example”), I’d like to be able to do the same for kanji.
Instead, I’m forced to train my brain to see a 人 by itself and read “nin.” Not ideal in my opinion, and one reason I’ve stepped away.
That said, these are fairly rare and not anything to scare you off from trying it yourself.
Another potentially negative issue is that you can’t add anything.
What the creators have put in there is it. Sure, people have created add-ons that mimic the experience for add-ons, but it’s not quite the same. I wish this was integratable.
Oh well. It’s a minor issue.
If you would like to brush up on your Japanese skills in general, I also recommend you having a look at our Rocket Languages Japanese Review. This is yet another software that can help you get your Japanese to the next level and they do offer a free trial.
Price-Performance Ratio: The lifetime membership is $299. Unlike a typical textbook, WaniKani is regularly updated, powerfully pedagogical, and takes you much further than almost any book would.
You can also go for a yearly subscription for $89 or monthly for $9, but keep in mind that you’ll likely spend at least 2 years just getting to the final level—not including mastering everything.
Difficulty: It takes you from 一 to 寡婦 and it does it by tiny increments. It’s not easy, but it’s perhaps the easiest way to do something this difficult. 5/5
Usability: WaniKani is, first and foremost, exceptionally usable. It’s colorful, gamified, and direct. 5/5
Fun Factor: It’s basically just really, really, really good flashcards. But, it’s got some funny stuff going on to dull the monotony and a great community backing it up. 3/5
Completeness: This is hard to assess. Especially at my level. From what I’ve read, it’s not a complete course, but an excellent addition to your overall Japanese journey. 4/5[wp_review]
WaniKani vs. RTK?
“Remembering the Kanji”, aka RTK, is the godfather of Kanji memorization for Japanese learners. Many swear by it. Unlike WaniKani, it doesn’t hold your hand on mnemonics and it requires you to develop your own study regimen. For those that need more structure in their studies, WaniKani is the way to go.
WaniKani’s API allows developers to monkey around with things and create their own tools to share with the community. It’s one of the coolest and most useful parts of WaniKani.
What is Tofugu?
Tofugu is the blog run by the creators of WaniKani. Tofugu came first and is ground zero for all of their Japanese education resources. A must-read.
What is Textfugu?
Textfugu is the introductory textbook created by the Tofugu team way back at the start of the decade. It’s a good intro to Japanese, but not much more.
What is EtoEto?
EtoEto is planned to be the successor to Textfugu which will ultimately be far more comprehensive, taking you from newb to upper intermediate. However, it’s currently still in a locked beta and is has been going through some growing pains over the last few… er, years. Anyone waiting on EtoEto—stop.
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.