Saturday, December 30, 2017

Jouyou Kanji 常用漢字

Fun fact: there are over 50000 kanji characters! Literally over 9000!!!!11

Oh, that wasn't fun? You are learning Japanese? Okay, then, a better fun fact, then: you only need to know about 2000 kanji to read most Japanese stuff!

Alright, 2000 isn't very fun either, but it's better, okay?

Anyway, the jouyou kanji 常用漢字, also romanized as jōyō kanji, is a set of 2000-something kanji officially classified as "normal use," jouyou 常用. The purpose of this classification is to standardize the language. People learn these 2000 kanji in school and then most stuff should be written with these 2000 kanji. This way most kanji written in Japanese are kanji most people know to read.

Without the jouyou kanji, stuff would get written with weird kanji not everybody knows about, so it'd make language itself useless.

Learning Kanji in School

The jouyou kanji are taught in schools in Japan, obviously, Asians aren't born knowing kanji, algebra and medicine. Everyone has to start somewhere, and all natives of the whole world have to study their own language in school.

So, in the first six years of school, in primary school, in the shougakkou 小学校, a Japanese student would learn about 1000 kanji. These would be called the kyouiku kanji 教育漢字, and kyouiku 教育 means "schooling."

Then, in the six years of secondary school, in the chuugakkou 中学校 and koukou 高校, a Japanese student would learn another 1000 kanji.

(technically, those 1000 kanji are all taught in chuugakkou, but it seems the average middle school student isn't expected to memorize all of them by graduation, the remaining, harder kanji being only tested in high school.)

With this, someone who graduates the high-school equivalent in Japan should have been taught the 2000 kanji that are commonly used around Japan. To have a better idea:
  • First year primary school:
    80 kanji.
  • Second year primary school:
    +160 kanji, total: 240.
  • Third year primary school:
    +200 kanji, total: 440.
  • Fourth year primary school:
    +200 kanji, total: 640.
  • Fifth year primary school:
    +185 kanji, total: 825.
  • Sixth year primary school:
    +181 kanji, total: 1006.
  • kanji kentei san-kyuu 漢字検定3級
    The number of kanji you're expected to know for passing the official exam for certification of kanji proficiency, level 3, which is about the level to be expected from someone graduating middle school:
    1608 kanji.
  • kanji kentei ni-kyuu 漢字検定2級
    The kanken level 2 is about the level expected from someone graduating high school.
    1945 kanji.
  • Source: 学校で習う漢字の数は? -, accessed 2019-01-16.

Also if you to a college, university, etc. you'll probably get to learn a couple of extra kanji related to your specialization.

How Many Kanji Should You Learn Per Month?

Now I want to make an observation.

Most beginners, when they realize they have to learn kanji, get the wild idea that they have to learn dozens or hundreds of kanji per month or something, and that that's normal.

That's absolutely not normal. That's bananas. Absolutely bananas.

Crunching your brains and squeezing those neurons trying to fit in an inordinate amount of kanji in a short time by using a spaced repetition software such as anki or memrise is probably the most difficult way to do it and the easiest way to feel burned out

I mean, let's do some math, shall we?

There are 2000, or, precisely, 2136 jouyou kanji. These jouyou kanji are learned through twelve, yes, tweelve years of school. And, unless I'm very wrong about this, a year has 12 months.

Learning 2136 kanji in 12 years is learning 178 kanji per year. Learning 178 kanji in a year is learning 14.8333333 kanji per month, or learning 3.41369863 kanji every seven days.

So the rate by which a native would learn kanji is: one week, learn 3 kanji, the other week, learn 4 kanji. Repeat 312 times.

That would be normal. Three, miserable, kanji. A WEEK! That's what normal looks like!

But, of course, unless you plan on taking your sweet time getting to high-school level of Japanese in 12 long years, you want to be faster than that.

It's just that, when people wonder: how do Japanese even manage to learn all this stuff? That answer ought to be: they aren't trying to learn Japanese in a year or two or three, they're just learning to read and write in 12 years.

What Does It Mean To Learn Kanji?

Another extremely important note: learning kanji doesn't mean learning kanji.

A single kanji may have a dozen of obscure readings and meanings that aren't considered normal at all, therefore it would make no sense to teach such stuff if you plan on teaching the normal everyday usage.

So the jouyou kanji is specifically about 4388 readings of those 2136 kanji, of which 2352 are on'yomi and 2036 are kun'yomi.

These readings were chosen not because they are merely associated with kanji that shows up a lot, but because they're found in common words. So if you're trying to learn kanji, it'd make more sense for you to learn words instead, get used to the readings of the kanji in the common words, and then just naturally recall how to read the kanji based on words you already know with those kanji.

In sum: trying to learn the kanji one by one, reading by reading, meaning by meaning is an extremely awkward, boring, inefficient, and backwards way to do it. Some people may manage, but I wouldn't recommend.

It's better to just pick a manga with furigana and start enjoying the ride ASAP than wasting months trying to amass enough kanji trivia to read a whole phrase.

Jouyou vs. Your Milleage

Also note that the jouyou kanji is determined based on the basic-ness of words in Real Life™: Japan DLC. This means that, despite them being called literally "normal use" or "common use" or "everyday use," you might go a long time without seeing even the jouyou'est of the kanji being used.

Learning Japanese isn't that hard if you're planning on just reading manga in Japanese and not going to Japan eat an authentic sushi and get disillusioned in a way or another. But that also means the Japanese you encounter on manga, in anime, on the internet, is different than the Japanese lived by natives and taught to natives.

So, for example, ame 雨 means "rain," and kusa 草 means "grass," and they sound like some pretty basic words even a first-grader would know. And they would know, because these kanji are taught in first grade.

But then you go read an average trashy harem manga, filled with fanservice, the chances of you encountering the kanji for the words "rain" and "grass" are pretty much zero. I mean, what are you even reading that's talking about grass and rain? Is it one of those countryside slice-of-life?

So even though they're extremely basic kanji, that doesn't mean you'll encounter them soon, or ever.

This is another reason why you should learn kanji by learning the words instead: you'll learn the kanji of the words you read most first.

For example, if you read a lot of action manga, you'll learn to read kougeki 攻撃, "attack," much quicker than if you followed the jouyou kanji order.

If you tried to learn kanji in the same order as they're taught in school, geki 撃 is taught in middle-school, so you would need to learn the first 1000 kanji taught in elementary school before you could one of the most common words in action manga, and that doesn't make any sense.


Another effect of the jouyou kanji is in how words are written in Japanese. That's because the jouyou kanji acts as a guideline of which kanji should be used, so publications generally prefer to use them instead of more obscure kanji.

This might sound like it means nothing at first, but, for example, the word kaiten 廻転, "rotation," would be written with that kanji... except that kanji isn't a jouyou kanji. So the word is normally written as kaiten 回転 instead, because that one is a jouyou kanji.

Also note that the Japanese government has made changes to the jouyou kanji in the past that effectively changed how some words are written. So it's not a permanently fixed thing.


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  1. I am in that category of trying to learn dozens if not more kanji a month. Never worked out for me. I would get so burned out that after learning the first 100 or so, I would just stop. And when I stop, I would forget and then when the mood strikes me again, relearn the same 100 kanji all over again. Although since I was somewhat familiar with it, relearning is generally quicker, but in no way like a simple refresher. Twelve years is a long time though... I should of stayed persistent in my studies when I was younger. I'd be a professor teaching in Japan by now. ^_^

    1. It also makes me wonder when they are only learning three kanji a week, how much of that kanji are they actually learning? All of it's variables and variations that go along with it? If that was true, then they would be learning many more kanji every week then, I would assume, since one kanji rolls into another quite frequently.

    2. As far as I know they learn only basic most common meanings and readings. And seems for me, learning more then 1 or 2 kanji a day is bad idea for kids, though it could work with middle- or highschool pupils.

  2. It doesn't change your point, but Japanese kids are taught the ~2,000 jouyou kanji in 9 years (6 years of elementary school plus 3 years of middle school), not 12.

    1. You're right. Oddly, it seems kanji kentei 3 (~1600 kanji) is middle school level, while kanji kentei 2 (~1900) is high school level. So by middle school they teach all 2000, but test only 1600 of them?

      I'm guessing maybe the average middle school student isn't actually expected to have learned all 2000 by graduation.