Many students of Japanese balk at the idea of having to learn the 2,136 standarized Joyo Kanji commonly used in modern Japanese. And this isn’t without good reason. Kanji are a unique feature of Japanese that, while obviously having their origin in Chinese, are a completely different beast with multiple readings and often times even different meanings from their Mandarin counterparts. On top of all that, lots of students have no idea how to properly begin to learn Kanji because they don’t understand exactly how they fit in to written Japanese.
Seeing a market amongst the confusion, Wanikani provides a service that puts all the work into explaining to beginner-level students what kanji are, how they’re used, how they’re constructed, and how to memorize them. I found their app invaluable when I first started breaking into kanji in 2014 and signed up shortly after completing their free trial lessons. I logged in today after several years of absence and was pleasantly surprised to find that not much had changed besides some minor UI updates. If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it, as the saying goes.
Wanikani is a property of Tofugu, a Japanese blogging mecca for all things culture, language and travel. You’ll often find their articles on the first or second page of any search query relating to Japan. If you aren’t a regular reader of Tofugu already, their guides to memorizing Hiragana, Katakana and introductory Japanese are very well thought out. Even as a relatively advanced speaker I’m a big fan of their series on counter words. (Another interesting quirk of the language) Along with Wanikani, along with Textfugu (an online Japanese textbook), Tofugu seems to be setting out to be a one-stop shop for teaching Japanese online. I should mention that this post is in no way affiliated with Tofugu, everything I write here is my own personal experience.
Wanikani divides it’s lessons into (as of writing) 60 levels over which teach on average 30-40 kanji per level. If you go through through their program at their recommended pace, You’ll reach the coveted level 60 after about two and a half years. That’s truly impressive considering many students put off learning kanji for years before they hit a wall and realize they can’t read anything worthwhile because they refused to touch any kanji.
Users of Anki, Memrise or any SRS app will be familiar with Wanikani’s process. A character will be introduced to you with a silly little story to help you remember it’s meaning and components (referred to as radicals, FYI), and then quiz you on the character about 20 minutes later, than again after a few hours, than a day, then a few days, etc, etc. It repeats this process not only with the kanji themselves, but also vocabulary and the radicals. (the radicals become invaluable for discerning similar kanji as you progress to more complex characters) When you’ve correctly answered at least 90% of the kanji for a given level for about 10 days (provided you keep up with the reviews) you level up and get to learn more kanji.
“Well that seems so simple I may as well do it myself for free.” You may respond. An you certainly could. But the amount of time you would sink into identifying the characters, writing cards and example sentences for them, and coming up with mnemonics will frankly cost you much more than the $8 a month Wanikani will cost you. The Wanikani forums are also a great place to interact with other students and ask questions from more advanced learners.
I used Wanikani religiously in my first two years studying Japanese. It truly made learning the characters painless and even a lot of fun for me as a teenager. Adult learners may occasionally find the absurd or raunchy mnemonics a bit obnoxious, but it is all the better to help you remember it properly. It is also worth mentioning that Wanikani will teach you a LOT of vocabulary. You will have been introduced to over 5,000 words by the time you reach level 50. However, some of this vocabulary is not necessarily useful or even understood by native speakers. I have a traumatic memory of trying to use words like “里心” to the absolute bewilderment of anyone who I tried to talk to. That would be my one major criticism of the program. There’s nothing wrong with learning a little extra vocabulary, but there’s no need to force beginner-level students to learn such obscure vocabulary just because they happen to feature simple kanji.
It is also worth mentioning that you will have to teach yourself Hiragana and Katakana, the two syllabaries of Japanese that represent all the sounds of the language. Learning Hiragana and Katakana is an easy task that can be done with all sorts of free services. Even Duolingo offers an introductory Japanese course. (However I wouldn’t use it for any lessons beyond the foundations which teach you Hiragana/Katakana)
All in all I give wanikani a 9/10. If I hadn’t used it as a beginner there’s no way I would’ve been able to figure out the kanji before I graduated high school.