The Problem with “Visual Memory”

Does this sound familiar?

  • You stare at a given kanji (漢字・かんじ, “Chinese character”) for a few minutes, trying to will the strokes into memory.
  • You write the kanji out a few dozen times, hoping the muscle memory and repetition will help it stick in your head.
  • You move on to the next kanji, and repeat the same process.
  • You flip the page over and try to write the first kanji again without looking at the model. What the heck! Where did it go!?

At this point, most learners then blame themselves, assuming they simply “have a bad memory” or “aren’t studying hard enough.” The truth is that the problem lies not with your memory or motivation but with your method. Unless you have a photographic memory, this “visual memory” approach is simply not an effective way to learn highly complex information like kanji.

In his book Remembering the Kanji, James Heisig argues that trying to memorize kanji through visual memory is equivalent to trying to remember the shifting patterns of a kaleidoscope. I couldn’t agree more!

“Picture yourself holding a kaleidoscope up to the light as still as possible, trying to fix in memory the particular pattern that the play of light and mirrors and colored stones has created. Chances are you have such an untrained memory for such things that it will take some time; but let us suppose that you succeed after ten or fifteen minutes. You close your eyes, trace the pattern in your head, and then check your image against the original pattern until you are sure you have it remembered. Then someone passes by and jars your elbow. The pattern is lost, and in its place a new jumble appears. Immediately your memory begins to scramble. You set the kaleidoscope aside, sit down, and try to draw what you had just memorized, but to no avail. There is simply nothing left in memory to grab hold of. The kanji are like that. One can sit at one’s desk and drill a half dozen characters for an hour or two, only to discover on the morrow that when something similar is seen, the former memory is erased or hopelessly confused by the new information.”

New information only tends to stick when it’s interesting, relevant, and tied to previous experience. And guess what? On their own, random kanji strokes are uninteresting, irrelevant, and unrelated to previous experience. After just a few minutes (or even seconds!), visual memory will almost always disappear form our heads, requiring even more tedious repetition.

So how should we learn then? The answer is “imaginative memory.”

Why “Imaginative Memory” Works Better

Fortunately, there is a much better way to learn kanji: imaginative memory.

This approach uses wild stories and creative mnemonics that create much “stickier” memories than the tried and not-so-true visual approach. Instead of trying to remember a complex group of random strokes, you simply have to recall a story (something the human brain is extremely good at). The more wild the story, the easier it is to remember the kanji.

As Heisig puts it:

“The aim is to shock the mind’s eye, to disgust it, to enchant it, to tease it, or to entertain it in any way possible so as to brand it with an image intimately associated with the key word. That image, in turn, inasmuch as it is composed of primitive meanings, will dictate precisely how the kanji is to be penned—stroke for stroke, jot for jot.”

Heisig’s imaginative memory approach uses two basic components to create vivid, easily remembered narratives:

  • Primitive Elements: Heisig breaks kanji down into a finite set of repeated “chunks” he calls “primitive elements.” These are then used as an “imaginative alphabet” to form vivid, wild, crazy stories.
  • Key words: Each kanji is assigned a single key word that points to the character’s most common or basic meaning. Specific primitive elements are combined into stories that easily trigger a specific key word.

So let’s say for example that you are learning the kanji 旨. Heisig gives it the key word “delicious” and defines it’s primitive elements as “spoon” (匕) and “day” (日). It’s pretty easy to then throw these two elements together into a story that leads to the idea of “delicious.” In RTK, Heisig shares the following story, but he encourages you to create your own imaginative memory stories once you get the hang of it:

“Something is so downright delicious that one spends the entire day with a spoon in hand gobbling it up.”

Instead of having to remember six separate strokes (the way you would if using visual memory), you just have to recall a simple story that naturally leads you to the kanji’s strokes.

Learning the 2,136 “common use kanji” (常用漢字・じょうようかんじ, jouyou kanji) you need to be considered literate in Japanese will of course take you time and effort, but using the imaginative memory approach will make the process much more fun and efficient.

Recommended Tools


Apps & Sites

  • Kanji Koohii: A free website that works hand-in-hand with Remembering the Kanji. Includes community created mnemonics, spaced repetition flashcards, and a built-in smart dictionary that only shows kanji you’ve already learned.
  • Kanji Damage: “Where you can learn kanji using Yo Mama jokes.”
  • Remembering the Kanji app for iOS: The official companion app to all three of the RTK books. Review kanji, look up primitive elements or key words, add custom imaginative memory stories, create custom study lists, and more.

Want more recommended tools and resources for learning Japanese anywhere in the world? Want to spend your time actually learning Japanese instead of waisting precious time searching for materials? Check out my detailed language learning guide, Master Japanese: The Beginner's Step-by-Step Guide to Learning Nihongo the Fun WayThe guide tells you exactly what to use, how to use it, and why. In addition to the step-by-step guide (available in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats), you get 9 interviews with language experts, 10 worksheets and cheatsheets, and free lifetime updates.

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