Heisig's Remembering the Kanji Review

Remembering the Kanji is fairly popular on Internet message boards, so I thought I would review it here because I think it leads a lot of people in the wrong direction in studying Japanese.

Heisig attempts to teach the kanji in a wholly logical fashion by memorizing the kanji along with a single meaning (no readings). Once you finish learning the meaning and how to write about 2000 kanji, you can move to the second book and learn the readings.

In this whole time, you learn no Japanese-- you don't learn any vocabulary, no grammar, just the meanings and the writings. Worse, some of the meanings are not official meanings of the kanji (in other words, Heisig just made up the meaning)-- and worse still, Heisig doesn't note which meanings are real and which he just made up. He also uses confusing terminology-- for example, he calls the kanji components "primitives," most of which are what are usually called radicals. In other words, when you learn with Heisig, you learn the Heisig terms, not the ones that are taught by nearly every other Japanese textbook (although exactly which kanji are radicals is a matter for dispute, most beginner and intermediate textbooks have nearly the same approach).

Heisig's book does have an interesting introduction, and his idea of using "stories" as mnemonics can help you learn to write some of the kanji. But, it's not a very intuitive way to start studying the Japanese language.

When I started using the Heisig method, I had studied Japanese for two years and kne about 400 kanji.

Long story short: I made it to about 600 kanji (only 200 more than I knew in the first place) before I started confusing kanji with each other. Now, my writing ability improved dramatically (before I could only write about 200 of the 400, and after I could write most of them), but my writing ability probably would have improved had I just practiced writing for the time I spent doing RtK as well.

While it seems like a reasonable idea, there are many flaws with Heisig's approach. But the biggest problem is his initial assumption: that if you learn the meanings of all the kanji and how to write them, you will pick up Japanese faster like the Chinese do.

Unfortunately, in practice this doesn't work for a few reasons. One, the ability of Chinese students to guess the meaning of kanji does come from their experience with kanji, but if you think you can pick up in three months the abilities of a literate Chinese speaker (who hasn't just memorized random stories, but knows thousands of words and has years of experience guessing context), you're way too confident in yourself.

Second, Chinese speakers are just as easily lost on the Japanese readings of kanji as everyone else-- and since Heisig doesn't teach those until his second book, you're going to be doing three to six months of work with basically no progress in being able to communicate in Japanese.

Yes, you do learn the kanji. Yes, you need to use a logical system. But Heisig's extreme system completely strips the kanji of their context, and will probably be a waste of time. You don't need to learn all of the kanji right away to speak Japanese. Learn the basics first, and then get a book like Kanji in Context. You'll be much happier, and then you can not only learn all the kanji, but pass the 1kyuu, too.

I have never heard of a Japanese language teacher at the college level that recommended Heisig's approach.

That said, while I don't recommend buying the book, or taking it very seriously, there are some interesting ideas in the introduction and the first few stories, and those you can download free from the publisher's webpage (the link for the download is near the bottom).

Of course, if Reviewing the Kanji worked for you, I'd be interesting in hearing about it-- how much Japanese you knew when you started, how much time it took you, what your level of Japanese ability is now, etc. Please share your story in the forums.