Sharing our strategies: kanji and kokugo studies

To the parent who needs an introduction to kanji learning, read “Introduction to Kanji” by Flavors of Japan which also suggests two great kanji resources – the Wikipedia Kanji Joyo List and a useful elementary school Kanji web learning programme WebKanji. You can also buy a comprehensive Kanji Joyo Wall Poster from White Rabbits Press.

Below are many suggestions and tips on homeschooling in Japanese studies or kokugo from our e-community at

“IT” BB Juku is online and covers the basics in Japanese. We found it very helpful when the kids took long absentences from school. It costs about 4,000yen a month, you have access to little mini lectures, about 5 to 10 mins long. Even my 5 year will sit and watch the 1st grade video. It’s all in Japanese, so some of you might need some help. – J.

Since we’re pretty much completely OPOL (one person one language = I speak English and my husband speaks Japanese to our son), I translate the Japanese books from the library and read them (sometimes with pretty rough on-the-spot translations!) in English; my husband reads the same books as is, in Japanese. We’ve also started theme-based weeks, where every week has an English letter and a Japanese letter theme and we try to hit different subjects that start with that letter. For example, “A” week we “studied” ants, the abacus, made applesauce, and then my husband and Daichi made an “amadoi” (rain gutter), and painted pictures of “ame” (rain). To add to our A’s, we watched the sunrise “asahi”, picked up aluminum cans “akikan”, and went on a field trip to the recycling center. We were surprised when we sketched out our “curriculum” what fun activities we could come up with just by a little vocabulary enrichment! 🙂 We came across the same challenge … that there are tons of materials in English directed at homeschoolers, but not so many for Japanese. What we’ve decided for now is that we’ll do unit studies in English and Japanese (like our theme weeks now), using library books/bought books/Internet/etc. As for kanji, there are lots of resources out there (workbooks/flashcards/software). Looking at the school texts, it seems that there isn’t much in them and what’s in there can be covered simply by extensive reading on one’s own. – J.

Kaiseisha has a series of 6 small, cheap paperbacks (around 700 yen each)called “Tonaete Oboeru Kanji no Hon” (“Learn Kanji by Chanting”) by Atsushi Shimomura, one book for each grade. The first edition came out in 1978, the latest in 2000. Each page has one character, given with readings and common compounds (but no explanation of meaning of compounds), and some mysterious little illustrations. That part is much the same as any other book, but there is also a picture showing the origins and development of the character, and a stroke-order chart with a little phrase for chanting as you practice, to make the characters easier to remember. I don’t know of any other easily available books that give the pictorial origins of the characters in such detail. The books are so small that my kids grab them and leave the heavy kanji dictionary on the shelf.
My kids read those books for background, but for quick reference they always turn to another small, easy to use paperback from Obunsha: “Shougaku Kanji: 1006-ji no Tadashii Kakikata”, (Elementary School Kanji: How to Write 1006 Kanji Correctly) 630 yen. First published 1988, the edition I have is 1999.
This little gem has characters arranged 4 to a page, with readings for the character and common compounds, and a handwritten character on a grid, with notes on points to watch when writing it. As school can be very strict on exactly how the characters are written, this book is used almost daily in our house.

Two beautifully illustrated picture books:
Tsutomo Murakami “Asobou Asobou A.I.U.E.O” (1985), and “Kotoba no Ehon: Kanji” (1996), both from Akane Shobou.
He also has books on numbers, alphabet, and picture dictionaries for hiragana and katakana. The first book introduces each hiragana, showing stroke order, with an illustration and a sentence or two which uses the character repeatedly. The second book introduces the kanji in a similar style, using all the common readings of the character within a sentence or two. It does NOT go into origin of characters.

Some of the kana/kanji pre-school workbooks available are beautifully produced, but check for an age-appropriate one — they range from introducing hiragana along with pencil control skills for 2 year olds, to a quick review along with other language skills, for kids about to enter elementary school.

For elementary school age I like the Kumon “Kanji Shuuchuu Gakushuu” (Intensive Kanji Study) series of workbooks — they group the characters according to type/radical, and review characters of the same type learned in earlier grades, and the amount of actual practice required is noto verwhelming.

…but actually, my boys learned kana mostly by playing with some flat wooden tiles (picture on one side, kana character on the other side).

Now, 10 years after I bought them, I can hear the boys using them upstairs to build a town as part of their ongoing saga of Jenri the Hamster Mage and the Moon Mice, so the 300 yen I spent on them at the local recycle bazaar was well spent! I intended to teach them to read English first, but it was as
if a “reading” button had been switched on — they taught themselves to read Japanese as fast as I taught them to read English.

Found a book the other day that DOES deal with origins of kanji. “Kanji Ehon” from Toda Design, by Toda somebodyorother. It’s preschool level, with big, bold colorful designs.

Out of curiosity, has anybody tried any of the popular Japanese educational CDs such as the “Landsell” series? We’ve only used the “Kanji-Navi”. – H.

Dd still gets “kokugo” at school twice a week, but really needs to practice at home. I can’t teach her, this is something she has to do on her own so we bought a couple of books today. As I look at them now I’m wondering if I just wasted the money, we have her textbooks from school afterall. I find them hard to follow though. One kanji book is (loosely translated) 100 days of kanji worksheets. Learn a years worth of kanji in 100 days. The other is “Wakaru Wakaru Tesuto” for Japanese reading. It has kanji
and reading comprehension tests for the “kokugo” text she uses at school. Very drill and skill, but hey, she does need the basics. I wonder if there is anything better out there. – J.

DS loves reading and being read to, so we visit the library every 2 weeks and stock up on books. He picks a few that he’s able to read and I’ll pick some more challenging ones (for both of us) with nice pictures. At night, we take turns reading sections (pages, if they’re not too long/otherwise, paragraphs).

I also ordered a CD from Amazon that helps with the different readings of kanji and for the price, I think it’s not too bad. It’s got a calendar that gives you a smiley face if you’ve completed your daily practice and you can do bonus exercises for surprise marks on your record sheet. I thought DS wasn’t really into charting (stickers/stars, etc.), but he gets real excited when he does it perfectly and gets a new mark. What else? DH will put up surprise kanji every now and then on the sliding doors to the living room, and DS has to say the “password” for the doors to open.

Where he needs practice is stroke order … DS seems to enjoy memorizing/writing kanji but just looking and copying. He’s so happy and proud to show us his new kanji that we don’t want to burst his bubble by pointing out the real stroke order. What we’ve been doing is waiting til a little while later and we write it first so he can see the order.

We also put up KUMON charts (you can buy them at a bookstore) and DS refers to them regularly.

He’s fairly balanced in Japanese and English at this point … that’s one thing I love about homeschooling is I can focus on what he needs when he needs it. We need to step up his English reading because I wrote a menu this morning and after a few long words he wanted me to rewrite it in Japanese because it’s so much easier. After he got to “worms” on the menu, it got a bit more interesting! 🙂


Japanese…we are going the easy way…we have friend that will work with him twice a week for 2 hours. That isn’t enough time so she will set homework for extra practice. We are fortunate we both speak the language though my reading skills are being challenged now that he is in 4th grade. They do need extra practice even when they are in school full time. There just doesn’t seem to be enough time during the full school day to get enough done, for some reason.
Third grade also is a very big jump in the number of kanji expected to learn. Here’s what we do with our kids.

They read their textbook to us several times a week along with other Japanese stories. They like reading to their little brother so that helps. Then they have a workbook like the one you bought. The type that match the textbook are the easiest to follow and seem to cover the material well enough. We also are having them make their own kanji dictionary just because our middle daughter doesn’t get kanji.
I found a blank sample in the back of her dictionary. She practices the kanji about 6 times, writes the meaning, the stroke number, the two ways to read it, words the kanji is used in and a sentence. The other thing we do is any kanji or words she misses in the workbook she writes a row of in her notebook. This is a lot of work at times and usually she just does one a day.

Another idea would be Kumon. They will go at your pace.
They do kanji and reading comprehension. Some kids like it and some kids find it boring. It doesn’t do anything for creative thinking, but it does teach reading and writing. Here is a free website  that has kanji and math practice. I use it if we need a bit more drill. – J.


This bilingual thing sure can create stress. My son (10) didn’t really start reading Japanese novels unti l3rd rade. Up until then he read a lot of manga, Doraemon, Konan … which my husband thought was a great way to get him to read. He felt we should buy him anything he wanted to read, if it had decent content and was in Japanese. The manga really helped him gain some confidence in reading. Once he was more confident he really got hooked on the Japanese translations of The Magic Treehouse books and a series called Dragon Slayer (a boy that goes to knight school about Magic Treehouse level.) Here is a link  to Dragon Slayer. Some bookstores don’t have them. 


I wouldn’t call them a Japanese classic, but they did encourage my son to read. Once he got through those he started reading World History comics and now is into Narnia in Japanese. He also like Kagakuru Plus which is a weekly science magazine. It was a slow process for him, but now he is an avid reader.


I use Tangorin a lot.  It has a handy page that lists links to:

I like this link too – makes me think : )
Man’yoshu Best 100万葉集ベスト100

Man’yoshu (“Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”) is the earliest extant collection of Japanese poetry. Most of its 4,516 numbered waka (or “Japanese poems”) in 20 volumes were written in the 7th and 8th centuries. For a brief description of the Man’yoshu, see

For IPAD:  Centrewave Kanji Drill (arranged by curriculum) and Yubi Drill apps for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade are very useful. Nice, not having to cut down a forest for kids to practice.

I don’t think Kanamoji is worth 600 yen — L.


My daughter (8) is just starting to read, but she has more trouble with kanji. I found I needed to go over her textbook and do a bit more kanji practice at home before her report card showed she understood kanji. Reading does seem to be the best way to learn kanji. Perhaps that is why my kanji is so bad!! More here: Kanji Clinic’s ; Reviewing the Kanji; Remembering Kanji; Kanji Gym; Kanji Wiki; Japanese Language Study Materials; Kanji Curiosity; Hanzi Smatter: ; Hiraganamegane

Self-study sites welcome you to the world of kanji
Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2007 Japan Times


When I first suggested in this column using Internet resources for learning kanji in 2001, a Yahoo search yielded 12,700 hits for “kanji learning.” That number has now reached a staggering 1.4 million. New, sophisticated online kanji self-study resources are increasingly enabling foreign kanji learners to take charge of their own learning at home.

Belgian Web designer Fabrice Denis has created the Web site Reviewing the Kanji, an online community for devotees of James Heisig’s controversial best-selling kanji learning textbook “Remembering the Kanji.” Why controversial? Well, Heisig advocates a divide-and-conquer approach, and he recommends learning the shapes and meanings of all 1,942 joyo (general usage) kanji before tackling their myriad pronunciations. (To learn more, view the first 125 pages of his textbook gratis online. “Reviewing the Kanji” offers a virtual flashcard program.)

The program remembers your errors and creates personalized reviews of the flashcards based on how many times you have got them wrong. You can also cut and paste any Japanese text onto the site and all the kanji you’ve added flashcards for will appear in a different color.

Users can also record their mnemonic-based stories using Heisig’s keywords, electing to make each one public or private; see stories others have shared; vote on which offerings are the most helpful; and participate in the site’s active forum. Recent themes include Japanese reactions to the Heisig Method and encouragement of middle-age learners embarking on serious study of kanji.

Heisig fans will also want to check out Kanji Gym, designed by German Vittorio Verlag and Heisig himself. Their free software application for reviewing characters lets you review any lesson from “Remembering the Kanji” and repeat the characters that gave you trouble. It can be used on both PCs and Macs and on hand-held devices running Palm OS. You can draw a character on a scratchpad and compare it to the correct answer, save any notes that you have typed in to help you remember individual kanji and view animated stroke orders. Kanji Gym operates in English, Spanish, German and French.

Kanji learners not using the Heisig system will find help at Purdue University’s Kanji Wiki, where they can share hints and stories for remembering kanji. Kanji Wiki can also accept graphic files of visual mnemonics.

If studying for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), which is held in December, is starting to give you the yawns, visit Charles Kelley’s Online Japanese Language Study Materials site. Kelly’s flash quizzes, including one on kanji compounds frequently used in newspapers (and in JLPT questions), are a blast.

Kanji lover Eve Kushner provides an informative and entertaining take on the intriguing logic of kanji compounds in her weekly blog, Kanji Curiosity.

For some kanji comic relief, Hanzi Smatter, a blog dedicated to exposing the misuse of Chinese characters in Western culture, including meaning-challenged kanji tattoos, is highly recommended.
In the early days of my Japanese study, “reading for pleasure” meant either suffering the boredom of children’s picture books or struggling — with constant looking up in paper dictionaries — through the adult books I yearned to read instead. Today, two decades later, any kanji learner with access to a computer can easily develop a daily habit of reading Japanese using Todd Ruddick’s indispensable site. Simply enter the URL for any Web site — or cut and paste any text — and the reading (in hiragana) and meanings for every kanji in the text will pop up in on your screen as you move your cursor over them. An equally amazing tool is Hiraganamegane, which returns your desired Japanese URL in printable form with furigana (kana syllables written beside all kanji to indicate pronunciation).
Do yourself a favor and place some of these sites in your Web browser’s favorites list today. Thanks to the wonders of cyberspace, kanji learners have never had it so good.

Kanji Clinic’s previous articles can be found here.

I recently got Canon’s Wordtank V80 (electronic Japanese/Chinese/English dictionary) and when you tap on a kanji the dictionary models the stroke order and then you can test yourself. Clever and DS has really taken to it, asking me to pick out some new kanji for him to practice! No correction necessary, so no frustration.- J.

My 9 years old daughter has begun to show enthusiasm in reading just recently. She is terribly bad at kanji lessons and sometimes she is not able to write one of the easiest characters yet. However, she
can read or at least recognize the meaning of most of kanji in her readings, and that is making her reading increasingly enjoyable.

Kids love to read manga and that can be a part of reading exercises as long as parents pay enough attention to the contents. There are lots of “gakusyu-manga“, and my daughter loves them as well.

One of the unique and important features of Japanese books for juvenile is “furigana”- small hiragana captions above difficult kanji. Furigana can largely extend the extent of readings, and I encouraged my daughter to begin with books with furigana.

Regarding literature classics, I really don’t know what the classics are. Some biographical writings such as of Hideyo Noguchi may fall into this category. But it really depends on ones preference.

As for my daughter, she loves animals and likes to read stories about dogs and cats, such as “a guide dog Quill“. Even Japanese adults have great difficulties in recalling kanji writing due to the excessive use of computers nowadays. (MS-IME converts hiragana to kanji almost automatically..)- Tell-me English

Since my son is a very visual-kinaesthetic learner, I started with tworeadaloud (for aged 4-8 years) books Long is a Dragon and Hu is a Tiger by Peggy Goldstein. The books start with a little story of how the pictographs in China began, and then go into a series of Chinese characters, their origin, their meaning and how the strokes are formed. These books are a good way to “hook” the kids’ interest. However, the drawback is you would have to know the Japanese equivalent pronunciation (which is easy if you have one of those Kanji charts they sell at all bookstores for pre-school-elementary kids). Then I got one of the many karuta cards that they sell in the bookstores. Ours is called Youchien Kanji Karuta ISBN4-8118-0518-6 at 2000 yen. I just picked the one with the prettiest and most uncluttered visuals.

My son loves karuta playing, so for us that was the best way to go. Last time I looked Kumon had just come out with a beautiful new preschool Kanji flashcard series, as well as Kanji big book. For our next phase, we intend to go with an elementary school workbook series as well as an adult Kanji learning book that has huge pictograms drawn four to a page. – AK

More resources:

Kanji Study

Learning Materials for Hiragana:

Various Hiragana games for memorization.
Hiragana Voice Blog:
Learn Hiragana for free with MP3 sound files.

Hiragana Shop:
Browse recommended Hiragana learning materials.
Learning Materials for Katakana

Katakana Voice Blog:
Learn Katakana for free with MP3 sound files.

Coming soon! Various Katakana games for memorization.

Katakana Shop:
Browse recommended Katakana learning materials.

I also forgot to say that we have used correspondence courses. They helped me gain some confidence and the kids had to report to someone else not me. Though our third child is about to start first grade and we are just using skill books from the bookstore for all three kids. It is cheaper and seems to work better to work at our own pace. I hope it works for you, too. I also found a free website that has kanji reading and writing practice. It seems simple and it free. It has a sample “make your own dictionary page” but is a bit more complex than the one we use.


For kanji writing practice, you can generate your own writing paper with incompetech’s Free Online GENKYOUSHI (J. CHARACTER) PAPER PDF GENERATOR. You can set the paper size and grid size to whatever you want. — C.D.

2 thoughts on “Sharing our strategies: kanji and kokugo studies”

  1. Kudos to you for all the hard work!! Very interesting reading about the kids progress, what seems to work well and what doesn’t work at all. I guess living in Japan makes it easier for them to learn Japanese, isn’t it?

    I’m not a kid anymore, but was looking for some study material for myself and still found your post really helpful! Thank you^^
    The post isn’t really recent, but I was wondering if you might know any books that cover punctuation and other basic writing elements without falling on hard grammar or kokugo books which seem more advanced? (At least the one I saw which is for highschool students)
    Thank you again!

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