Kanji in Context Review (whole series)

Kanji in Context is a series of three books. The books are the joint work of the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies and the Japan Times. The Center is one of the most prestigious Japanese language schools in Japan, and is a partnership between Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, Yale, the University of Chicago, and other famous US universities.

The "reference book" includes all 1945 kanji recommended for learning by the Japanese Ministry of Education, along with most of the JLPT 1kyuu vocabulary. Difficult words (those with unusual readings or those that are compounds including a kanji not yet learned) are marked with a diamond so you know you don't have to learn them yet because you'll be able to pick them up with one of the other kanji later.

Also, though the kanji are grouped by the Ministry of Education lists, they are regrouped based on frequency and similarities. This is huge: it makes learning the kanji much easier, because professional scholars have gone through all 1945 and put them in an order that makes sense for learning them all, not from the standpoint of a native Japanese speaker, but from the standpoint of someone who is learning Japanese as a second language as an adult.

So, for example, kanji with the same radical appear together, and kanji that are "opposites" appear together when possible.

For me, though, the workbooks are where the approach really shines. Each workbook "lesson" reviews ten or so of the kanji from the main textbook. Each lesson is about two pages. In each review, there is about a half page of phrases representing the common uses of the compounds from the textbook. The next page and a half of the lesson is dedicated to a series of example sentences, one for each word you are supposed to learn.

In other words, when you use Kanji in Context, you don't have to learn vocabulary-- you learn sentences instead, and so it's much easier to remember how a word is used because you already have one good example of correct use. Ever find yourself learning a word like "fire" and then trying to remember if it is the word for "start a fire" or "fire an employee"? Since Kanji in Context gives you the context, you don't have that problem with these books.

Also, the workbooks are designed to gradually repeat the kanji learned in previous lessons. Since they were written with the intention that you learn all 1945 kanji, they make sure there are plenty of reminders so you don't forget the ones you started by the time you get to the end.

If you've read my articles on Mnemosyne or SuperMemo, you can see how powerful this approach can be.

When I started using Kanji in Context in February of 2008, I knew how to read about 1000 kanji. By the second week of May, 2008, I had finished both workbooks and learned them all. At the same time, I learned about 2500 vocabulary words-- and more than that, I learned in what contexts to use them. Of course, to do this, I had to work pretty hard-- I studied for about three to four hours a day and took no breaks. I spent about one to two hours entering the kanji into Mnemosyne and another two hours reviewing them. The review took awhile because I always wrote down any cards I missed.

If you're a fan of the Mnemosyne/SuperMemo approach, Kanji in Context is the series for you. All three books are nearly perfectly optimized for input directly into the software.

The biggest downside to Kanji in Context is that the first workbook can be hard to find (or very expensive). Amazon Japan sometimes has it for 2000 yen, and sometimes the price is 5000 yen. If you see it for more than 3000 yen, I would suggest waiting and checking back later, unless you really need to get started right away.

Another potential difficult for those who are still learning the basics of Japanese is that none of the workbook sentences are translated into English. Of course, they were written to be as clear as possible, and most of them deal with US-Japan themes, so the meaning for the most part is obvious, but if you are studying without any help from a native speaker it might occasionally get difficult.


If you want to see some samples of Kanji in Context, I've put the first three chapters online in Mnemosyne format. If you're using Mnemosyne, you can download them from this page and then import them into Mnemosyne.

I made the cards from the first three lessons of the first workbook. The Japanese definitions provided as answers are from the Genius dictionary software on my Mac, not from the Kanji in Context books (all of the words in the workbooks are defined in the reference book in English, but I only use Japanese definitions in my own study materials).

If you're interested in purchasing these titles, they aren't sold in the US/Europe, so you'll have to order them from Japan. Your best is to use Amazon Japan: they deliver fairly quickly at a decent price. If you've never used Amazon Japan before, I've put together a guide.

How to Use Kanji in Context

Here I will describe how I used Kanji in Context. First, I set a goal of doing at least one full lesson a day. If you do it this way, the books take about five months, but I ended up going a little faster since I already knew about 1000 kanji, which made I did two lessons a day until I finished roughly the first 1200 kanji, at which point I could no longer maintain that speed and remember effectively. Each lesson contains about 15-25 kanji and 15-25 example sentences, plus 10-30 phrases and idioms.

So, in order to learn the kanji, I first typed the lesson from the workbook into Mnemosyne. I looked up any kanji I didn't know in the reference volume. I also really appreciated Mac OS X's built in Genuis dictionaries as well, as the reference book does not always sufficiently capture the meaning of the compound with a few English words. If you aren't using Mac OS Leopard, you can of course use any other electronic dictionary instead.

As I entered the sentences into Mnemosyne, I made sure 1) I understood what they meant and 2) I could read every kanji in the sentence (no furigana, except for names). If I couldn't figure out what the sentence meant, I asked a Japanese friend.

Later, when I reviewed these cards in Mnemosyne, I tested for 1) understanding the meaning and 2) being able to read everything. At the beginning, I often would then copy the entire sentence after I answered. Now, I do too many repetitions per day to copy all the sentences, so if I do copying (I don't, always) I do it at the end of the day, in the "final drill" stage-- in other words, I copy only the sentences on the cards where I made a mistake.

Now, after having finished the books, I'm slowly going back and reinforcing/learning to write the kanji. I'm doing this by simply going back through the reference book and taking the first compound and testing myself on that. Since Kanji in Context orders the compounds in the frequency of their use, I figure it's as good to start with the most common word as any other.