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Remembering The Kana: “The” Book To Learning The Japanese Kana

Remembering the Kana

Learning to read and write Japanese is by far the most difficult part of learning the language. There are a lot of characters and they have no resemblance to the English alphabet at all. It takes hour after hour of writing them down again and again to remember them, and soon as you stop them for a while you forget them. This was the method I used to learn Hiragana and Katakana, the two simple alphabets in Japanese. Surely there must be a better way. There is, thanks to James Heisig’s book Remembering the Kana.

James Heisig first came to Japan without any experience or study in the Japanese language. He enrolled at a language school in Kamakura, but ended up studying on his own because the Japanese course had already started. After he had been studying for about a month, his teachers recommended that he should start learning the Japanese characters as soon as possible. Since he wasn’t taking a class and wasn’t influenced by the traditional class method of learning (writing them again and again) class, Heisig designed his own system. He then managed to learn almost 2,000 kanji in one month. Eventually he wrote his process into a book called Remembering the Kanji and then applied the same process for the kana.

Instead of trying to remember each kana visually and through repetition, Heisig assigns basic elements to the kana and then creates imaginative stories that make writing and remembering them easy. In Remembering the Kana he has also added the pronunciation into the story so you not only learn how to write it, but also  how to read it.

The layout of the book is very unique. Similar to the roman alphabet, the Japanese alphabet also has a set order. The characters in the book are listed in the traditional Japanese order making them easy to look up. However,  Heisig’s system has you learn them in the order that’s easiest to remember. So there are directions on each page on where to find the next character to study. It seemed a little weird at first going from page 9 to 62, but makes perfect sense to allow you to learn the characters quickly and still arrange them in the normal order.

Heisig’s claim is that each syllabary can be learned and remembered in 3 hours each. While this is quite fast, I don’t think it is unrealistic at all. Remembering the Kana really does make it much easier to learn the kana. I think this is a great book for anyone who is looking to learn the Japanese syllabaries without spending weeks or months to do it.

I will be reviewing Remembering the Kanji in the near future once I have had a chance to completely go through the two books, but so far it seems very promising. If you would like to give it a try, you can find the links below.

Rememebring the Kanji 1

Remembering the Kanji: Vol 1 (Writing the Kanji)

Remembering the Kanji 2
Remembering the Kanji: Vol 2 (Reading the Kanji)

Remembering the Kanji 3

Remembering the Kanji: Vol 3 (Advanced and less often used Kanji)

The Danger of Pride When Learning Japanese

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When it comes to learning Japanese, pride is the enemy. The more pride you have the slower your progress learning Japanese will be. The main reason for this is that pride limits your ability to learn new Japanese material and ask lots of questions. It usually gets worse the higher your level of Japanese goes. The higher someone’s level gets the more expectations the student puts on their Japanese and become embarrassed if they don’t know something. There are two simple steps you can take to keep yourself asking lots of questions and constantly learning.

Think of yourself as a beginner

If you always think of yourself as a beginner then it is easy to ask lots of questions. You also won’t worry about making mistakes (something that is a natural part of learning Japanese). If people feel you are eager to learn they will also be more likely to correct your errors, helping you improve even quicker.

Don’t give yourself any expectations

The second step is to keep expectations out of your language learning, especially expectations that you should know certain words. I have been studying Japanese for quite a few years and still come across new “basic” words all the time. Realising it’s okay to not know these words makes it easy for me to ask what they mean and how to use them.

The Best Language Learners

The best Japanese speakers I know work really hard to learn Japanese, and they love to study and to practice speaking. However, they also consider themselves novices in the language. While they have the confidence to speak, they are not afraid to ask questions and learn something new. In fact, they love finding new words and phrases they didn’t know. Don’t let your pride slow down your progress.

How To Address Someone in Japanese


The Japanese language has a number of ways to show the relationship between speakers. There are are diffierent words used in different situations depending on whether the person you are speaking to is considered to be inferior, equal, or superior. While this may sound a bit harsh, it is used as a way to show respect to another person.  The most basic way to show the relationship between speakers is with the Japanese suffixes used after someone’s name.

I have listed the four most common Japanese suffixes and the situations in which to use them. Like everything it can be confusing at first, but gets easier after practice.

  • さん (san)- San is the most common used Japanese suffix. It shows politeness, and can be used in just about any situation. If you are unsure what suffix to use then stick with san.
  • さま(sama)- Sama is used when speaking to someone who you view as having a much higher position than yourself. It could also be someone who has much more knowledge than yourself. In most cases sama is a bit overkill and you are better off sticking with san.
  • くん (kun)- Kun is generally used to address younger boys, but can also be used to younger men. Kun is more casual than san and only used for males.
  • ちゃん (chan)- Chan is a prefix used in very casual situations, and therefore only used by friends. You should start off addressing someone as  ~san and as you become closer you can start addressing them as ~chan. Chan is quite commonly used to address children and for superiors to address inferiors.

In any case, if you arent sure which word suffix to use stick with san. San shows enough politeness to be used in polite situations, and is still friendly enough to be used if you are unsure where you stand in the relationship.

Imasu and Arimasu

japanese words arimasu

Japanese has two words for “to exist”. Unlike English, which uses different words depending on whether the object is singular or plural, Japanese uses different words depending on whether or not the object is alive . います (imasu) is used when discussing plants and animals (including humans) and あります (arimasu) is used for basically every object that isn’t alive. あります(arimasu) can also hold the meaning of “I have”.


Inu ga imasu.

There is a dog


Kuruma ga arimasu.

There is a car.

It can be confusing when you first  start using these words, but it gets much easier with practice. If you are having trouble remembering which one is which then I suggest that you come up with some kind of relation in your mind. For instance, “I”masu is used for things that are “I”kiteru (the Japanese word for alive or breathing). This should help you from getting them confused.

Breaking Bad Study Habits


When it comes to studying it is easy to be lazy. It’s both easy to skip study sessions and to only study half-heatedly. Obviously both of these are counter-productive to learning Japanese. Since advanced Japanese grammar is based on the basics, you need to study often to keep them fresh in your mind. I have found that the best way to break bad habits is to create good ones.

Creating good study habits

To make sure that you continue with good habits make sure they are as easy to complete as possible. In the case of Japanese, it is important that you study often. If your Japanese study time is competing with TV time or going out with friends, you are a lot less likely to choose studying. Allotting time slots into your schedule for Japanese study will help make sure they don’t get passed up.

Since emergencies can always happen (and they always seem to), you should also create a backup plan. For instance, if you weren’t able to study in the afternoon during your regular study time because of an emergency business meeting, you can study the first thing when you get home. The back up plan makes sure that you don’t forget to study when you are the busiest.

Make Japanese Study Fun

I mentioned in yesterday’s article Learning To Hear Japanese that studying Japanese should be fun. Choose study materials that interests you and dig into topics in Japanese that you find fascinating. If you like tennis then find as many materials about tennis as possible. If you love the topics you are using to study Japanese, it stops feeling like studying. You are much more likely to get started each day if you are looking forward to it.

Give yourself Rewards

We are great at training our kids and pets using positive reinforcement. When a child does something we like we give them sweats or take them to play. For some reason though, we stop doing this once we become adults. Well, it’s time to pick it up again. You will be more likely to study hard if you know you will be rewarded for it. Your reward can be anything from buying something you wanted to a cup of coffee to going somewhere you want to go. The point is that you are getting something you enjoy for studying hard.

There are two keys to making rewards encourage better habits. The first is that you can’t cheat. If you don’t study then don’t give yourself a reward. This also goes if you didn’t complete your full study time. The second is that the rewards should be in proportion to your accomplishments. A reward for keeping your study schedule for a month should be bigger than the reward you give yourself after studying 30 minutes.

New Habits

In the beginning it may be difficult to stay on track. If you get thrown off your schedule then just keep getting back on. After you have managed to stay on track for a while, it will stop seeming difficult and just feel like part of your daily routine. And remember, the best time to start your new schedule is right now.

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