The first exposure to the mass of characters that one must know to learn Japanese can be
overwhelming. However, by using certain mental approaches, one can lighten the load of mastering
hiragana, katakana, and kanji. A key method is to try to make associations with the mass of lines and
squiggles that constitute many of these characters, and then to link these associations to the true
meaning or reading.

Japanese Language Linkages

The important thing is to let your imagination do the work. If the first sight of a particular symbol
immediately leads you to associate it with some item, action, or state, then there is no reason that the
same association won’t occur the next time you see it, and the next, and the next. Unfortunately, this
association may not necessarily have anything to do with how to read the character or its meaning. This
is where you have to construct a link or explanation so that your instantaneous association with the
character can actually help you to read Japanese text.

Hiragana and Katakana Memory Triggers

In the cases of hiragana and katakana, there are many associations that one can make to help in
remembering how the symbols should be read. For example, for hiragana, く (the letter ‘ku’) can be
imagined as the picture of a bird’s beak (and birds make the sound ‘coo’); わ (the letter ‘wa’) can be
viewed as a wave (the first two letters of which are ‘wa’), and so on. The key is for the associations to
be natural and automatic for you
. In the case of katakana, examples could include ル (the letter ‘ru’),
which looks like two rude people turned away from each other, ム (the letter ‘mu’), which looks like the
halter on a cow… that goes ‘moo’; and ヨ (the letter ‘yo’), which could resemble a three-finger greeting
accompanying the word “yo” in English.
Although many of these associations may seem facile or obscure, they are simply a means of attributing
some sound or meaning to what would otherwise be just a symbol with little to distinguish it from many
other similar characters in the Japanese alphabets.

Kanji Memory Triggers

The benefits that can be obtained from the approach mentioned above are multiplied for the much
larger kanji alphabet. In this case, characters have inherent meanings and can have more than one
reading, so there are many more possibilities, and much greater need, for associations to be made. In
some cases, the meaning can be guessed directly from the character: 一, 二, 三 (1, 2, 3), 山 (mountain),
川 (river). The next stage of difficulty is characters with an appearance with some similarity to the
meaning, such as 雨 (rain; one can imagine raindrops in the character), 食 (to eat; person using
chopsticks), 田 (paddy field; as seen from above), and 品 (goods; boxes piled up).

Of course, for more complex characters or their uses, more complex association stories may need to
be constructed. So, for example, the symbols for some of the days of the week could be remembered
by thinking that Friday is often payday (金; money) or Saturday is when you watch or play some earthy
sport like soccer or baseball (土; soil/earth). In addition, as you learn more characters, you will come
across pairs or groups of characters that show a strong resemblance to each other, such as 待 (to wait),
持 (to hold), and 特 (special). Here it may be useful to mentally group these together, so that when you
come across one within a text, you can quickly exclude the other similar possibilities by focusing in on
the small differences. The key is to keep your imagination open and to always look for connections
and associations
.

[Readers should note that an alternative or complementary approach using the radicals in kanji can also
be used to build up inferences about the meaning of characters, as described elsewhere.]