New ideas about literacy learning

Adopting a Japanese Method to Learn Chinese Characters

Have you ever travelled to Japan, walking on the street, looking at various store banners? Did you feel a sense of familiarity? Was it surprising to you that you could read some characters on the banner and guess the meanings of them? At that moment, were you confused about where you were and your new language skills?

In Japan, Chinese characters are used in everyday life. Children are required to learn them. In the Japanese writing system, there are kana and kanji. The kana system is used for native Japanese words, grammar, and foreign words, while kanji represent the adoption of Chinese characters. Elementary school children are required to learn about 1,006 kanji characters before they graduate (MEXT Japan, 2009). Similar to children in Hong Kong, it is not an easy task for Japanese children to learn so many kanji, and, thus, teachers adopt different ways to help children to improve learning.


Various effective strategies have been introduced, including learning through radicals, learning by the meaning, and memorizing through stroke order (Shimizu & Green, 2002). Some teachers adopt the method of making a connection between characters and daily life events. Teachers using this means of teaching ask students to think of one event that relates to the character to help them to memorize the word. Some textbooks also demonstrate this method by showing colorful pictures related to the characters (Medhurst, 2016). An extension of the method of making this connection is to break the character into smaller parts and to give each part an elaboration to make a story for that character. For instance, the character “鮪” is “yūmei na sakana” (有名な魚 = famous fish) since there is “有” component in the name “名” of the fish “魚”. Another example is the character “鬱” which means depressed or gloomy. By breaking the character into several elements, “鬱” can be explained as “Lincoln drank three cups of American coffee” (リンカーンはアメリカンコーヒーを三杯飲んだ = Rinkān wa Amerikan kōhī o sanbai nonda). Detailed explanation as the picture (Medhurst, 2015; Mori & Nagy, 1999). Breaking the character into various components gives the character a lively elaboration and perhaps makes learning more interesting!

Character method

This context strategy (making connection between character and prior knowledge) is used by educators to teach kanji and by teachers who are more aware of cultural traditions associated with kanji. Those who emphasize the usefulness of kanji also tend to adopt this method. By integrating the context strategy and repetition practice, students’ knowledge of kanji improves (Shimizu & Green, 2002). Due to the similarity of kanji and Chinese characters, the context strategy may also be helpful for Hong Kong students, especially when learning complex Chinese characters such as “鬱”. Thus, it may be a good try to adopt the context learning strategy as one important tool for learning.



Japan, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. (2009, March). 学習指導要領「生きる力」. Retrieved February 27, 2019, from

Medhurst, R. (2015, July 19). Making It Memorable: Japanese Mnemonics for Dates and Kanji. Retrieved February 27, 2019, from

Medhurst, R. (2016, June 13). How Japanese Children Learn Kanji. Retrieved February 27, 2019, from

Mori, Y., & Nagy, W. (1999). Integration of information from context and word elements in interpreting novel kanji compounds. Reading Research Quarterly, 34(1), 80-101.

Shimizu, H., & Green, K. (2002). Japanese Language Educators’ Strategies for and Attitudes toward Teaching Kanji. Modern Language Journal, 86(2), 227-241.


This article was written by our guest blogger Miss. Merrisa Lin. Miss. Lin is currently an intern in the Life Span Development Laboratory of The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Our Guest Blogger

Miss. Merrisa Lin

Research & Social Media Intern, Life Span Development Laboratory

Department of Psychology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong