Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course Review: Is It A Waste of Time?

By Donald Ash | Japanese Kanji

Kodansha Kanji Learner's Course Review

Today we'll take an in-depth look at a a kanji-learning textbook in this Kodansha Kanji Learner's Course Review.  For those who want to skip the review and grab this book now, click here to go to Amazon .  
For everyone else, let's review...

Do you remember when you started studying Japanese?  There was a time when you thought, “This is fun!” 

You started learning those basic phrases and actually started remembering them! You even got that hiragana stuff down without even breaking a 汗 (あせ-sweat). 

You started wondering what all the “learn Japanese” fuss was about. THIS is one of the hardest languages to learn?
PSSH, whatever.

And then it hit you...KANJI.  You dove in, the same way you did with hiragana & katakana. "SURELY it couldn’t be as hard as everyone is making it out to be, can it?"

Just a few short days later, you got that swift, sobering kick in the pants.   Not only is kanji as hard as everyone made it out to be…it may be even harder for you because you don’t have a formal teacher...

It’s right here when people decide to a) give up, or b) figure out some framework to get structured and stay consistent. 
There are so many kanji (over 2000 if you want to be able to read almost anything). There are so many that look alike.
There are so many ways to read each one.  It's overwhelming!

I’d like to share with you. It’s called THE KODANSHA KANJI LEARNER’S COURSE. And if you’ve been struggling to get those kanji to stick, it may be just the book for you:


Please note that this post does contain affiliate links.  I do get commission when you purchase from links on this page.
Even though I'm happy to be a Kodansha Kanji Course user, Kodansha will receive the same thorough breakdown
(good and bad) that all other books & courses do in the Japan Guy Reviews.

A Kodansha Kanji Learner's Course Review | Recommended Japanese Levels: Upper Beginner - Advanced


This is where Kodansha "shines bright like a diamond!"

The kanji course is set up in a way that's simple & logical for even the newest of newbie kanji students.

Grouping like symbols together, clearly showing stroke order, and keeping explanations only as long as they need to be, helps reduce kanji overwhelm .

You get a clearer understanding of a complex subject from page one.


Highly Effective.

While won't say that you're going to be able to instantly know how to read as soon as you crack open the book, you WILL have moments you come across kanji that you couldn't remember, but now you can because of the course.

In my opinion, this system is more effective in helping wiht character recall (which IS important!) than it is with kanji reading.


The Kodansha Kanji Learner's Course is pretty reasonably priced.  But I would say that I slightly under-delivers on the "course aspect of the book.  

As a result I think a slightly lower price would be justified, but only slightly.

All things considered, it's one of those essentials to have in your Japanese learning library...a solid buy. 


Don't panic!

Kodansha has the same weakness that most textbooks in it's class does...there's nowhere for the self-studier to go for assistance.

When you're studying that gets to be as complex as kanji, I think this is vital.

Is the book still crazy useful.  YOU BET! But this review looks at the great stuff as well as the shortcomings. 


"The Kodansha Kanji Learner's Course: A Step-by-Step Guide to Mastering 2300 Characters" is a book by author, Andrew Conning.  This course attempts to systematically show English learners how to make sense of one of the biggest challenges a Japanese learner will face, learning to read kanji. 

The Kanji Learner's Course covers 2300 kanji symbols.  In addition to the 2136 "regular use" JOYO kanji, this book includes an additional 164 kanji that are useful, but not designated in this official list. The reasoning behind this is that if you know all 2300 of these, I mean genuinely know them, you will have the ability to read just about any Japanese newspaper, magazine, etc. that you can get your hands on.

The core principle of the system is to use mnemonics to make the kanji stick. 
Does it work? Keep reading to find out!


What makes the Kodansha Kanji Leaner's Course worth its salt? Why is it a better purchase than some of the other kanji books out there today?

  • 1. Simple Yet Memorable Kanji Explanations
  • 2. Comprehensive Kanji
  • 3. Very Useful Indices and Appendices
  • 4. Related Kanji Are Grouped Together
  • 5. Non-Stuffy Instruction
  • 6. Confusing Character Cross-Reference


Simple Yet Memorable Kanji Explanations

This was the number one reason I decided to purchase this book. I initially didn’t buy the book to be honest. I like visiting Japanese bookstores with a rather chunky foreign books section. This keeps me from going stir crazy.

I wanted to improve my kanji, so I browsed through some of the book titles that captured my attention. “The Kodanasha Kanji Learner’s Course. Hmm…” I flipped through it about three times to see if it was worth purchasing and thought to myself “Meh.”

But the next day a really weird thing happened when I stumbled across the kanji 昔 (mukashi) which I didn’t know before picking up that book. The course explains the character mukashi as two “OLD” friends holding hands in the sunshine. This mnemonic makes this symbol super easy to remember!

I’m not even talking about an exhausting study session here, these symbols were were cemented in my brain after a quick scan of several pages of the mnemonics in this book. I figured if I picked up kanji without really trying, maybe this book was worth purchasing. So, I bought it the next day.

Here are a couple of other memorable mnemonics that I came across so far in this course:

Kodansha Kanji Learner's Course Review: Mnemonics
Kodansha Kanji Learner's Course Review: Mnemonics 2

This is a great one, because it shows that the author, Conning, is willing to get creative (even bloody) to help you remember these symbols. Yep, the whole bloody heart thing makes the meaning of the 'FEARFUL' kanji VERY easy to remember.


Comprehensive Kanji

Again, this book gives you a method to learn, know and understand 2300 Kanji. The sheer number of kanji that this book tries to break down in bite-sized, learnable bits, is pretty freakin’ impressive. If you’re learning kanji…why not go big? Why not learn as many as you can?


Useful Indices & Appendices

There are some very useful snippets at the end of this book:

  • Stroke Direction and Stroke Order Appendix
    A great tool for beginners, this section becomes especially useful when you don’t have a flippin’ idea of how to read a kanji character that you’re looking at.
  • Table of Grapheme Meanings Appendix
    This will be essential while doing this course. This course builds on graphemes (individual graphic units) which sometimes don’t have the same meaning as the radicals you’ll encounter.
  • Radical Index
    For example, there is a radical index for which can be incredibly useful when trying to get the gist of a a kanji symbol. Radicals are the root symbols of each character. Every kanji has a radical or is a radical. Radicals are how kanji are grouped and classified and how they can be better understood. From some students radicals become their foundation.
  • Stroke Count Index
    This is quite useful for locating kanji when you don’t know any of the readings.
  • Understanding Kanji Compounds Index
    I truly learned something new by taking a look at this appendix. You actually get a better understanding of the types of kanji compounds you will come across. For example the kanji
    読書 (どくしょ/reading a book) is an example of a “Verb-Object” kanji, while 左右 (さゆう/left-right)
    is an example of a kanji with “Opposite or Complementary Meanings.” Umm…USEFUL!


Related Kanji Are Grouped Together

A rather interesting feature of this book is that they teach similiar kanji in groups so that you can distinguish the differences between symbols that closely resemble one another or distinguish between ones that have similar components. For example these six characters are grouped together:

  • (ジョウ、セイ、なさ(け))- EMOTION, feeling
  • (セイ、ショウ、きよ(い)、きよ(まる), きよ(める))- CLEAR, pure
  • (セイ、は(れる)、は(れ)、ば(れ)、は(らす)- CLEAR SKY
  • (セイ、ショウ- REFINED; precise, meticulous
  • (セイ、シン、こ(う)、う(ける))- REQUEST
  • (セイ、ジョウ、シず、しず(か)、しず(まる)、しず(める))- QUIET, still

Each of the symbols above have the character ((あお)-Blue) in common.


Non-Stuffy Instruction

I don’t know about you guys, but stuffy books don’t really cut for me when I’m doing self-study. What do I mean by "stuffy?" I mean books that try to sound "smart," or books that are unnecessarily verbose (or complex) for no good god--mn reason!

Now if there’s a teacher who can make a rather starchy book clear to me, THAT'S a completely different story.  But these book reviews have a special soft spot for the self-studying, Japanese student who's trying to figure this stuff out on their own (because that's exactly what I was when I started, too).

*Note: Yes, The introduction of the book is pretty darn stuffy, but after that, it lightens up into a simple, easy-to-use resource.


Confusing Character Cross-Reference

I like that Mr. Conning (author) has kanji knowledge to guide you when there are symbols people often confuse. In the notes on how to remember character meanings, there is sometimes a cross-reference to show characters that look like the kanji you’re studying.


Then this just might be the book to do it. There are a lot of positives to this book. It's worth trying.


Let's take a look at three of the major shortcomings of the Kodansha Kanji Learner's Course:

  • 1. Some Kanji Explanations Don't Stick
  • 2. No Units or Sections
  • 3. No Area to Practice Writing Kanji


Confusing Character Cross-Reference

With so many kanji to cover, it’s nigh impossible for the author to create mnemonics that stick for for every single kanji. Admittedly, some of the kanji mnemonics aren’t as crystal clear as you might think. I have looked at some of them and thought to myself “Well that didn’t help me at all.”

Despite the vast majority of the explanations being super useful, there are some kanji mnemonic snippets that won’t give you that instant recall. Be prepared for that.

For example, here was one of the weaker explanations I came across:

The explanation for this kanji was a bit more complicated, BUT if you actually take your time to power through the description, and do what it says. It makes a whole lot more sense. But, still more time-consuming that it needs to be, in my opinion.


No Units Or Sections

While this book covers a truckload of kanji and shows some useful ways of grouping different kanji together, there are no units or real sections! There is an intro, a HUGE block of kanji content and then the appendices. It’s honestly a lot more like a reference book than an actual course.  Luckily the author does include a
"Step-by-Step" method to using the Kodansha Kanji Learner's Course.


No Area To Practice Writing Kanji

Writing is such a big part of kanji learning for me. One of the drawbacks of this book is that there is no place for you to practice writing the book. But I consider this a minor issue? Why? Because each kanji clearly shows the stroke order. So really all you need is a scratch piece of paper or a notebook and, VOILA!
Instant practice.


If after the full, pros & cons, Kodansha Kanji Learner's Course Review, you feel like it's still right for you, Try It!


  • The Japanese student who doesn’t have a teacher for whatever reason (scheduling, money, or just lazy arseness (i.e.-me)).
  • Those of you you enjoy simplicity.

    The Kanji Learner’s Course gets right into it: here are the characters, here’s what they mean, and here’s how you read them.
  • Open-Minded Students
    Some times it takes little bit of creativity to grasp or understand some of the creative mnemonics that com up throughout the book.
  • LEVEL: Upper beginner to advanced-level Japanese students


  • Students who learn kanji better via rote memorization and structured drill, I think there are better book options out there for you.

    Don’t feel bad about it, either!  If this isn’t the book for you, but for the love of Konoha (Naruto reference) please find a book that suits you. There will be a lot more reviews to come if you need help.
  • Students who lack discipline.

    Sorry, DISCIPLINE NOT INCLUDED!  Because one of the shortcomings of The Kodansha Kanji Learner's Course is structure, you probably need better than average discipline to realize it's full value.
  • LEVEL: Brand newbie Japanese students 


The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s course is designed for you to follow the kanji in sequence. I generally do the following eight things to not only get the meaning but to get the kanji to stay in my head:

  • STEP 1. Look at the character, CAREFULLY (differences may be more minor than you think)
  • STEP 2. Read the basic meaning
  • STEP 3. Read the note on how to easily remember the kanji’s meaning
  • STEP 4. Scribble down the character five-ten times (maybe more if it’s one that’s hard to remember)
  • STEP 5. Read the compounds
  • STEP 6. Write the compounds with circled superscripts  (*The circled compounds (words) are common readings)
  • STEP 7. Review every 10-15 characters
  • STEP 8. Rinse/Repeat

I generally like to have a notepad nearby when I use this book because there are not places to actually write the kanji in the book as I mentioned in the “bad” section (it’s not a bad a idea to write in your page margins, though). Writing is one of the most useful ways to acquire the kanji that you’re studying. It’s almost like kanji muscle memory.

Step number 6 is HUGE!! I have found that writing the kanji compounds has been one of the most useful steps in actually being able to read the kanji I come across.

I have never really found memorizing on-yomi (Japanese readings) and kun-yomi (Chinese readings) in isolation very effective. Hopefully that tip will reach someone out there who’s struggling.

As an intro to Japanese Genki One would beat or provide serious competition for even the best beginner textbooks on market today. It’s a solid course that delivers.


See what other people are saying about the Kodansha Course on Amazon


Back when I purchased this book at my local book store, it cost me $34.00, but that was a while back and undoubtedly prices have changed. You can check it out on Amazon to see for yourself.  This book delivers far more value than it costs.


The jury is still out on this one. I gonna have to reserve judgement for now.  Despite having just done a full, in depth, Kodansha Kanji Learner's Course Review, I have to fully go through one other WILDLY popular kanji course (like Heisig's Remembering the Kanji) and compare.  After going through both, I will update this section with my honest answer. 


Keep in mind that kanji is only aspect of learning Japanese. While I think having functional understanding of kanji does reflect, to some degree, your knowledge of the Japanese language, being able to speak and understand do, too.


Kanji Learner's Course Review Donald Ash

Click the image to get the KKLC on Amazon

All in all I thought that the Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course was EXTREMELY well thought out.

It reads far more like a reference book than an actual course, so the title may be a bit misleading to some. However, this does not take away from how useful this book is!

I don’t think book is structured to suit true beginners. But I do HIGHLY RECOMMEND IT for intermediate and advanced students who are struggling to remember kanji.  If I had to grade this book like the A-F grades we used to get in school. I’d give it a solid 



As of 2017, I still have my (now dogeared) copy of The Kodansha Kanji Learner's Course. It's even more useful for me today, than the day I bought it.  If any of you are purchasing for the first time, and you've got questions...I'll do the best I can to help with what knowledge I have. Let me know in the comments.

Japanese Textbooks ain't your thing? You many want to try JapanesePod101.


About the Author

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.

  • Xaromir says:

    How come you don’t use something like WaniKani? It’s rather good. Reminds me that I should go back to learning. Motivation is a bitch.

    • Starbitrator says:

      I’ve tried wani kani and everything else, and Conning’s book is by far the best. Use its Memrise course for automated study. In a year or two everyone will be using Conning’s system.

  • thejapanguy says:

    Good question, Xaromir. I know that WaniKani is a great application and support it 100%.
    I actually interviewed Kouichi about WaniKani a bit this interview: http://www.thejapanguy.com/the-man-who-successfully-created-a-crabigator/

    Right now, I’m open to all kinds of learning tools and applications, as long as that core goal of actually improving my Japanese all-around happens. The only reason I’m not using WaniKani at the moment is because I have other materials that I’m trying focus on.

    • Starbitrator says:

      I’ve tried wani kani and everything else, and Conning’s book is by far the best. Use its Memrise or Anki courses for SRS (Anki is much better if you know how to use it).

      This is the best Anki course:

      This is the best Memrise course:

      Pretty soon everyone will be using Conning’s system.

  • V says:

    Hi, Im trying to read the genki review but it keeps redirecting me back to the homepage. Can that link be fixed? Thanks

  • Florian says:

    Thanks for the review. Just placed my order. 🙂

  • Hi,
    I am just beginning to learn Japanese. Would you recommend this book over the “Remembering the Kanji” series by James Heisig ?

    • Adam Katz says:

      The Kodansha book is infinitely better than Remembering the Kanji.

    • Hard call on that one, CV. I know there are people out there who swear by Heisig’s “Remembering the Kanji.” I didn’t like it personally, BUT I bought the Kindle version (which apparently not very many people were fond of). I “browsed through” both books at my local bookstore for about and hour, and Kodansha just felt better to me. But it may be a different call for you.

  • jomteon says:

    I spent an embarassingly long time in the learning-about-learning Japanese phase, and I’m pretty sure I looked through 90% of all the available resources on learning kanji and this is, without a doubt, the best one I’ve come across yet. The mnemonics he provides are, for me, a perfect balance of incorporating historical meaning, readability, interest, and wise choices on when he needs to “Westernize” his explanations. I appreciate that the book doesn’t talk talk down to the reader and provides engaging and memorable information in a very compact space. I use it in conjunction with WaniKani, actually 🙂

  • Well, it’s a wonderful thing that you have created some information that helps other people about that kind of book and what will be the things that they can earn from it as a benefit. It will going to be a good thing for them especially if they are still students or having a work that needs to have the skills that this books is capable of giving them.

    • Thank you so much for that. I sincerely appreciate the feedback. I know there are aspects of learning Japanese that can be a struggle. Heck I definitely still have ones of my own that I’m creatively trying to deal with.

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