Learning the Kana with the Heisig Method

Remembering the Kana

Hiragana and Katakana

At some point on their journey most of the students of the Japanese language realize that it is not enough to only speak Japanese. In order to feel home in the language, being able to read is crucial as well.

I came to this point between 2014 and 2015. I wanted to take my first step and learn the kana.
Kana are the two syllable based Japanese writing systems, the hiragana and the katakana. Both of them consist of 46 basic characters each. The katakana are used for writing foreign loan words, names, etc. and have a very angular appearance. Hiragana on the other hand have a more curved and smooth look and are usually used to write Japanese words for which no kanji exist. As an example, here is the word kana written in katakana: カナ and in hiragana: かな. Some of the hiragana’s characters look similar to the katakana’s, but there is only one character that looks exactly the same (ヘ, he.)

In theory hiragana are enough to write any Japanese sentence. However these usually consist out of up to four different writing systems: The hiragana, the katakana, the kanji and romaji. The latter is the Japanese name for our western alphabet. Kanji are adopted Chinese characters, of which about 2,136 are necessary in order to be able to read a Japanese newspaper.

Given this rather large obstacle between me and being able to read and write Japanese, I was looking for a method that did not rely on the old fashioned way of forcing the characters into my head by repeating them over and over again. I wanted to learn in a smart way and use stories and images. I wanted to use mnemonics.

Remembering the Kana

With that in mind I went on my journey. I started building some images on my own, which worked pretty well. However I sometimes struggled to find something fitting, which caused some holes. After a while I decided to see if there was anything available already that could fit my needs and after some research I discovered James Heisig’s Remembering the Kana, which looked like it could meet my expectations. I ordered the book on January 1st 2015 and had it in my hands a couple of days later.

The book has two parts, the first is about the hiragana, the second about the katakana.

My German version of Learning the Kana
My German version of Remembering the Kana

It can be read from either side and has a shared middle part. The kana are ordered by the Japanese alphabet, so that you are able to find them conveniently.

When reading the book, the interesting part begins, and quickly the concept’s two secrets to learning the kana are revealed:

  1. Every character has a story that is describing it. I found that ideally these stories are either built in a way that you can associate them with the kana easily or that they are so far away from your way of thinking that you are asking yourself “What did this guy think when writing this story?!”, so that you can easily remember the conflict the kana’s story caused. No images are contained in the book, since they could emphasize the story on the one hand but would harm the reader’s power of imagination on the other.
  2. The order in which the kana are learned is not those of the alphabet, but those in which it is most easy to learn the kana. The stories and images used for the characters build up on each other, so that they can be re-used. This means that one is jumping between the pages most of the times (for example the book starts on page 46 with the character ん, followed by page two and the character い.)

The book provides an easy access to the kana and was just right for me. I finished both parts in about 5:30h and was able to recall most of the kana. It saved me a tremendous amount of time!

There are however many discussions regarding Heisig’s method of learning going on, especially when it comes to learning the kanji. Despite the fact that Remembering the Kana‘s concept differs a bit from Remembering the Kanji‘s, I think it is a good idea to try this book and see whether the basic ideas of the concept suit you.

Tips for learning the Kana

Katakana in Tokyo
Katakana in Tokyo.

The book provides an easy and fast access to the kana. You will quickly be able to recognize them. However, you will not be able to read fluently. Just as when you learned to read English, you will need to practice reading again and again and again in order to get the experience that is needed to grasp the different words at talking speed.

Many beginner books offer the romaji reading of kana words. Don’t take this path! It is a trap that will make you have much more struggle learning to read fluently than you should have. After some time you will realize that Japanese written in romaji is more distracting than it is helpful.

When in a Japan you will most likely see katakana the most and also understand them the easiest, because many of the advertisements use foreign loan words. An example: On the image on the left you can see the words エアコン (eakon -> aircondition) and テレビ (telebi -> television) on a skyscraper ad. Once you speak the words out loud you will most likely understand their meanings.

After some time your reading will get more fluent and therefore some of the book’s images will vanish because you don’t rely on them anymore. Some others however will stay with you for much longer and you will recall them, thinking back to how easy it was when you learned the kana.

If possible, buy the book in your native language. While I do have a solid understanding of the English language, it is much easier for me to not take the extra step of translating the different pronunciations, non-fitting images and words I don’t know into German.


Hiragana and Katakana can be learned and remembered fast and convenient when using the right method. For me Remembering the Kana was a perfect fit and many people share my experience. If you are struggling learning the kana or have the feeling that your method is not as effective as it could be, maybe the book is a good fit for you too.

Please feel invited to share your own experiences in the comments.

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