I was writing this post prior to my trip to Japan, but I finally have time to finish it. As readers might recall, I’ve been using the Heisig Method to learn Japanese kanji (chinese characters), and have learned about 1,250 in 2 years. Since I have 2 kids and work full-time, I guess that’s pretty good progress. However, I noticed that the Heisig Method teaches kanji in a very non-standard order, so you often learn low-frequency kanji before you learn more useful ones. It kind of forces you to learn all 2,000+ “joyo” kanji required for basic literacy, before you can really read/write.
Sooner or later, you have to do this, but if you’re a busy person or just impatient, it’s nice to learn high-frequency, more useful kanji first. Especially if you just came to Japan, or about to arrive.
But which kanji are worth learning first? This is a surprisingly tricky question.
First, there’s the traditional grade-school method, which is pretty good and what my daughter uses. The “grade-school” method means learning kanji the same way that Japanese grade-school students use. This helpful site breaks down the kanji by 1st grade, 2nd grade, etc. My daughter goes to school in the US, but she does distance-learning and is technically in the 2nd grade in Japan so she’s learning 2nd-grade kanji now.1
This is a good strategy overall, but some kanji might be more useful for children like 森 than adults.
So, I did some research and I found that there are lists of frequently-used kanji for newspapers too. This website provides a list of the frequently used kanji in Japanese newspapers, starting with the most common 日 and so on. You can click on them too to learn the readings. If you compare this with the grade-school lists, they’re somewhat different, but do overlap a lot.
But also, there are lists for names too. Certain kanji are used very often for names, and some of these overlap with grade-school and newspaper lists (田 for example is a very good one to learn first), but not always. For example 藤 (fuji) appears in an lot of names, but is otherwise fairly uncommon in Japan.
In other words, there’s no perfect solution about which kanji to learn first. Learning the Heisig Method is definitely worth your time in general because it will help you get beyond the first few hundred kanji to full literacy. However, if you want to dive in and learn to read at least some kanji first, you may want to review the lists above for grade-school students, newspapers and even names. You might start with at least 1st and 2nd grade kanji, then branch out and see what other kanji are useful for newspapers and names. Or do what is most useful for you.
1 – It’s one of her favorite subjects besides math. She’s just like her dad.