Kanji is one of those subjects that classroom Japanese students and Japanese self-study advocates alike struggle with. Believe me, I know first hand that studying kanji can be a rather sharp pain in the butt.
Why is learning/studying kanji so damn hard? Well, for starters there are just so frickin’ many of them: they say to be proficient at reading newspapers, magazines, etc. you need upwards of 1500 characters!
Just hearing that is enough to dissuade the Japanese dabbler, or even a well-intentioned beginner, from ever truly learning kanji or causing them to quit somewhere along the way.
Another issue is that reading kanji can be flat out confusing!
There are multiple readings for each symbol (on-yomi and kun-yomi). There are times when I’ve even seen native Japanese people struggle with how a symbol is read. If a Japanese person is stumbling over characters, what hope does a non-native have?!?
Well, there is still hope. I just think kanji is one of those things where you have to get a plan of how you want to do it, and just enjoy learning them as you go. I’m nowhere near perfect with mine, but I’m picking up more and more every single day.
One book that was really effective in helping me get a bit of self-study kanji clarity was the hot pink, “Nihongo Challenge Kanji N4-5” book by Ask Publishing.
First let’s examine some of the things that make this book really useful. Here are Seven Good things about the Nihongo Challenge N4-5 Textbook:
In my opinion, this is the number one benefit of this book. Showing the original pictorial idea behind each of the kanji symbols helps you understand why the kanji are the way they are.
These pictures take a rather complex, sometimes dry (let’s be honest), subject and turns it into something fun and memorable, something that you look forward to doing every day.
Even though I’m a huge fan of constant writing and repetition when it comes to kanji, learning through pictures and repetition sure as hell beats sitting down and just looking at bland strokes and just writing them over and over.
The pictures are also helpful because they can be a great way to start delving in the meanings of kanji radicals, common symbols that certain groups of kanji share.
Yes, there are wonderful kanji apps on the market today, but what better way to truly get a handle on your kanji than by breaking out a pencil and writing them?
This book gives you a chance to practice writing each kanji six times during the initial lesson, and more during the practice sections at the end of each unit.
Quizzes force you to show what you know. Even if you’re studying by yourself, please don’t underestimate the value of a good quiz. The quizzes every three lessons can really be a great method to ensure that you’re regularly getting the opportunity to see just how much you remember.
In addition to having the mini quizzes, there are longer そうごうれんしゅう tests. There are two in the book. One that covers units 1-11 and the second covering units 1-20. I really like that these tests don’t solely rely on multiple choice questions. There are more complex questions that incorporate tables, diagrams, and light reading.
This textbook follows a simple format:
*Initial tutorial & exercise (usually basic hiragana/kanji matching) –*Practice using Nihongo Challenge-style pictures
*Practice 1: 読み方 (Yomikata – How to Read)
*Practice 2: Fill in the Blanks
*Every 3 Lessons Quiz Every 10-11 Lesssons Cumulative Exam
In addition to having this straightforward format, keep in mind that each lesson covers ten kanji, which is “bite-sized” lesson that doesn’t overwhelm you.
One of the most useful things about this book is that it takes the beginning-level kanji student and exposes them to how kanji work. For example, there is a unit that goes into how certain parts of kanji are positioned. Here’s an example:
This book has kanji that will not only help to get ready for the JLPT, but it has kanji that are useful in a variety of different everyday situations: from numbers to signs, professions to body parts, family to food, common adjectives to common verbs, and more.
I’m not a big fan of just learning random info just because. When you can apply/connect what you’re learning to something in the world around you, it becomes so much more powerful. That’s why I like much of the content that this book covers.
It’s equally important to look at why a Japanese textbook might not be so good. There isn’t a whole lot of bad to mention with the Nihongo Challenge N4-N5 kanji book, but here are a few things:
Wait, aren’t pictures one of the benefits of this Nihongo Challenge textbook, too? Yes, they are. BUT…sometimes the drawings that accompany the kanji you’re learning don’t look anything like the actual written symbols. More often than not, the pictures are okay, but in those instances when you’re really trying to remember or reproduce a kanji symbol it can be irritating when the pic in your mind isn’t doing anything to jog your memory for the way the kanji is written or the way it’s read.
I know this sounds like I’m nitpicking, but that bright pink sleeve announces to the entire world that you’re studying beginning Japanese. Of course there’s nothing wrong with studying beginning Japanese (everybody had to start somewhere), but it draws all kinds of attention to yourself: “HEY EVERYBODY! LOOK! I’M A BEGINNER!!”
If you buy this book, try unsheathing it on the train, in all of its pink glory, and see how many eyes cut in your direction. If you’re trying to be low key about your studying while using this book, you can forget about it, or you may wanna just lose the sleeve. On the bright side, though, I don’t think I’ve ever misplaced this book…EVER!
Although I think the book accomplishes what it’s intended to, the actual amount of stroke order practice you get is quite limited. It will take a lot more practice than you’re getting here to actually paste these symbols to your memory. But hey, limited practice beats no practice at all, which some of later, Nihongo So-Matome Kanji books are guilty of. But we’ll save that discussion for another time.
Often when you purchase Japanese books, you may end up studying them for a while, and eventually put them away to collect dust somewhere in your house. I think having a method to using these books can be very important. Here are the ten steps I followed to through this book cover to cover:
1. Go through the basic intro: The exercises at the beginning of each unit are a rather light, fun, and helpful way to start learning the ten kanji for the lesson.
2. Scan through each kanji and its basic meaning: The second part of the unit shows meanings, readings, and pictures.
3. Take a second look at each kanji’s picture and why it is the way it is.
4. Practice writing each kanji in the spaces provided.
5. Practice writing at least the gray highlighted compounds/words: Seeing the kanji in word form is very important in order to be able to read it later. Ideally you would write each and every listed word. But at the very least, write the highlighted words (the ones the book says are useful).
6. Do Practice Exercise One (simple readings and simple sentences)
7. Do Practice Exercise Two (Fill in the blank)
8. Review on your own and do the 3-Lesson Review Quiz
9. Do the そうごうれんしゅう (Sougou Renshuu or Cumulative Practice)
10. Rinse, Repeat, Review
JAPAN GUY TIP: I highly recommend trying these quizzes without referring back to the earlier lessons. This forces you to tap your memory and get a true sense of where your weaknesses are. It can be so easy just to go back, especially if you’re doing self-study. But if you can fight that urge, it can make a marked difference in what you get out of this textbook.
This is one of the better books available for true blue beginners who want to learn kanji. If you’ve never studied or just studied a little, this book can be an interesting way to learn that doesn’t insult your intelligence. This is a great textbook for the visual learner.
If you’re a strong intermediate or an advanced level student, unless you just wanna go back for kicks, I don’t think this is the best book for you. I also don’t recommend this book for those who don’t like to study with pictures.
All major Japanese bookstores carry the Nihongo Challenge textbook if you browse the study guides section. I’m not sure whether or not the book is sold in U.S. bookstores, though.
You can CLICK HERE to go to the Amazon order page.
Have you ever tried the Nihongo Challenge Textbook Series? If so, did you like it? Why or Why not? Got another kanji book you love? Tell us about it?
Textbooks aren’t your thing? Another possible option is Japanesepod101.
Donald Ash is an Atlanta, Georgia-born, American expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last eleven years. While in that time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator of thejapanguy.com blog. Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.