You are here

Kanjis, Heisig method

(Log In to use chat/chatrooms, send private messages, contact penpals )

The key points of Heisig's method described in Remembering the Kanji vol. I.

What it teaches you

The first book teaches the writing and one meaning of the kanjs. It also teaches you Heisig's way to learn kanjis, ie his method.
The meanings taught in the book do not always correspond precisely to those you will find in the dictionary.

Note that the first book does not teach:
- pronunciation
- ethymology
- the radicals (explicitly)
- grammatical usage
- how kanji combine to form compounds

Types of learners

The method can be used by students of any level, both beginners and advanced students. 
Ideal for self learning (but it looses effectiveness if used along with other methods to learn kanjis.)

Principles, key ideas

The method is based on the idea that the meaning and writing of the kanji can be learned on their own, independently of any other aspect of the language and that learning them on their own makes the learning more effective. 

After having learned the writing and one meaning the student can concentrate on learning additional meanings and the pronunciation.
He seems to recommend the approach he himlself had in learning the kanji: learn all the most common kanjis (2042) up front rather than learning them incrementally  in parallel to grammar, vocabulary Etc.

Mnemonic technique based on kanji's structure

Heisig observes that the Sino-Japanese writing system is very logical and modular and that its logic and modularity are not exploited by the traditional learning. He exploits it in his method by identifying the basic (graphic) elements that are used to build the kanjis and uses them as the basis for its mnemonic approach; a kanji is learned deriving its meaning from the meaning of its graphical building blocks (primitives).

Imaginative memory

According to Heisig  kanjis are forgotten because the ways they are normally memorized (visually, by sound ...) do not allow a strong connection with the kanji.
For Heisig  imaginative memory provides better connection and so better results.
By imaginative memory Heisig means the faculty to recall images created just in the mind, with visual experience from real life behind them.

Primitives VS radicals

“Primitives” may sound similar to radicals but they are not the same thing, several radical are used as primitives but there are primitives that are not radicals.
The primitives are presented in orderly fashion and the learning of kanjis proceeds bottom up.

Learning order

Kanjis are not learned in order of frequency or according to the “levels” used in japanese schools or in the JLPT, they are learned in the order best suited to memory.
Heisig hower observes that “the best order for learning the kanji is by no means the best order for remembering them. They need to be recalled when and where they are met, not in the sequence in which they are presented here

Learning and Reviewing

The process of learning a kanji with Heisig's method consists of 3 stesps:
- Recognizing the primitives in the kanji
- use the primitives to imagine a story related to the meaning
- the story will help you remember the kanji

When reviewing Heisig thinks that the most valuable review is to go from the meaning to the kanji.

Relationship with ... "conventional wisdom"

Etymology is not considered important for learning purposes:
"etymological studies to be most helpful after one has learned the general-use kanji. Before that, they only add to one’s memory problems".

Heisig does not believe that writing a kanji many times is "per se" useful:
"There is really no need to write the kanji more than once, unless you have trouble with"

Relationship with other learning approaches

The Heisig method is not very compatible with normal study.
Heisig thinks that it is hard to imagine a less efficient way of learning the reading and writing of the kanji than to study them simultaneously and observers that this is the method that textbooks and courses follow. He plainly states that the Japanese teacher using the traditional/usual method is "an impediment" to learning to associate the meanings of the kanji with their written form.

Heisig is in favour of flashcards and in his book gives practical instructions about building your own. Such instructions predate flashcard software. Probably today Heisig would recommend  flashcard software. Most students using Heisig's method use flashcard software for review, as a result several decks of flashcards based on the Heisig method are available on the internet, for free.

Effort / workload

Heisig writes in his book that in a month he learned 1900 kanjis when he invented the method and that he thought he would not forget them and states that if one can study full-time entire course could be completed in four to six weeks.
Regarding more normal study situation he writes that 20 or 25 characters per day would not be excessive to study in a couple of hours. With 2042 kanjis this means about 100 days.


Learning a language requires a massive investment of time and effort, selecting a method that is right or wrong for your situation can make a huge difference. This is even more true when it comes to Japanese and Kanjis. It seems useful to list all the features of the method that may be problematic for some students. 

  • Not usable along with other study methods
    We already mentioned it, Heisig is crystal clear on this point.
  • Massive scope
    Though it is not "commanded" explicitly using the method in its purest form means that you learn 2042 kanjis up front, before starting learning the language.
  • What you learn is not directly usable
    We are talking about the first volume, where you learn the writing and one meaning of the kanji (the keyword). Knowing the keyword of the kanjis that you see in an unknown word will not give any real clue about the meaning of the word. When you finish learning the first volumen you have partially learned 2042 kanjis but you are not able to read Japanese. Obviously all your learning will bring very good returns later on, but right now you cannot really read.
    (Also note that the keyword sometimes does not correspond precisely to the main meanings of the kanjis you find in dictionaries
  • You need a good "imaginative memory" and the right life&study conditions
    - Do you have an excellent imaginative memory? I don't.
    - Do you have the ability to easily invent nice stories that remain in your memory?  I don't. For me given the kerywords "big" and "ship" inventing a story that leads to the meaning "beautiful" is difficult. I can invent the dull story "a big ship for some people is beautiful", but this story does not activate in my mind the vivid mental pictures that should grant good persistence to the memorization.
    - Do you have a quite and relaxed life that allows you to be imaginative? Even if I had a good imaginative memory and ability to invent marvelous stories I would need a quite time and place to make them work. Unfortuately I have a busy life, a computer nerd always on the run and always with work worries in my mind. Very difficult to get the relaxation and time needed to be creative
  • The order of learning does not correspond to frequency of the Kanj
    Kanjis are learned in the order that is best suited to the mnemonic mechanism of the method. Such order does not correspond to any other order.
  • The method is indirect
    You don't learn the kanji, you invent and learn a story will lead you to the kanji
  • Not easy to study a subset of  kanjis
    The method is rather an "all or nothing" proposition. Learn all 2042 kanjis, not less. If you want to learn only some kanjis you go out of the flow of the method. You can do it, you look for the Kanji in Heisig's book, see the primitives and kanji used as primtives, and create a story, but this is laborious  and awkward and probablly much less effective than following the normal flow
  • Inventing stories is more difficult than it seems
    I thought immediately that for me inventing stories would be very difficult, when I started doing it I realized it was more difficult than I thought. For instance: sometimes to put togther a story with a minimal sense I would introduce other words besides the keywords, and then those words became "stronger" in my memory than the keywords and I would not remember that they did not correspond to a primitive.
    Maybe it's my fault, but inventing stories for me is an extremely boring and depressing task.

To Heisig or not to Heisig, that is the question

Maybe I am a bit too negative but in my view one should adopt this method only if one is sure to have imaginative memory, a quite and relaxed lifestyle with plenty time to study without external pressure and if one can put up with learning 2042 kanjis before actually starting learning the language. Obviously one can learn in parallel spoken Japanese Etc. but Heisig's original idea is that first of all you get rid of learning the kanjis.