An Introduction To Leaning Japanese with Mnemonics Maybe you'll finally remember a thing or two

    One of the best tools for learning Japanese to come up in recent history has been mnemonics. Using mnemonics can help you learn vocabulary and kanji faster, have more fun with studying, lose weight, and pay off your student debt (only some of these things are true).

    It’s been more or less accepted in the field of educational psychology for decades that mnemonics help people learn a second language. Using mnemonics, you can learn vocabulary more quickly than through normal means.

    But aside from all of the academic talk, learning with mnemonics usually feels a lot better too. Nobody likes memorizing things by rote, repeating them over and over and over until they finally stick. Using mnemonics is a process that makes a lot more sense and can actually be fun.

    What Are Mnemonics?

    Mnemonics are a different way of remembering things. It’s any kind of technique or trick you can use to better learn and remember something. You use something that you already know or can learn easily and connect it with something you don’t.

    A mnemonic could be a word, a memory, a story, a picture, an acronym, a song, a dance, or anything else you can imagine. The important thing is that mnemonic is distinct, memorable, and strongly associated with whatever you’re trying to remember.

    Confused? It’s a little complicated at first, but let me give an example to break it down a little bit.

    A Colorful Mnemonic Example

    Schools use mnemonics all the time to teach things like days of the week, the mathematical order of operations, or US states. If that doesn’t seem familiar, then try this technique that a lot of science teachers use.

    There are seven basic colors in the rainbow, and they are:

    • Red
    • Orange
    • Yellow
    • Green
    • Blue
    • Indigo
    • Violet

    Lots of teachers turn this initially meaningless series of letters (ROYGBIV) into a name: “Roy G. Biv.”

    Illustration of a man on a llama against a rainbow-colored background
    Your pal Roy G. Biv

    It might seem ridiculous at first, but for most people it’s a lot easier to remember the name of this made-up person than it is to remember the proper order of the colors of the rainbow. Once you have that name memorized, it’s easy to work backwards and figure out why his name is Roy G. Biv and what that all means.

    Using Roy G. Biv as a mnemonic might seem gimmicky and silly, but over a decade after I first learned about it in school, I’m still able to easily remember the name and what it stands for. That’s the power of mnemonics.

    Types of Mnemonics and Techniques

    Aside from constructing colorful, fictional characters, mnemonics are used all the time to help people learn Japanese. There are a lot of different types of mnemonics and technicques used in learning Japanese, covering everything from kanji to days of the week. Here are some of the more common and/or effective mnemonics used in teaching and learning Japanese:

    Keyword Mnemonics

    Keyword mnemonics are probably the most common mnemonic used to learn Japanese. Here’s how a keyword mnemonic works: you have a word you want to learn. You take something similar to that word you want to learn, and make a link between the two using vivid, memorable imagery. Take this example from our learn hiragana page:

    ひ overlaid on a male face
    From our ebook Hiragana42

    There are lots of things you can do to make keyword mnemonics more vivid and memorable: adding in different senses (i.e. smell, taste) into the mnemonic, or overdramaticizing or exaggerating the mnemonic (like imagining the “ひ” nose as a massive, pimply, covered in warts, etc.), for example. There’s a lot that falls under the keyword mnemonics umbrella.

    Pictographs

    One of the most basic types of mnemonics used for learning Japanese is pictographs, or imagining a picture in Japanese characters. It makes a lot of sense, considering that early kanji were more or less pictographs.

    The most common examples are kanji like 月 and 日, which mean moon and sun respectively. It’s easy to imagine 月 as a crescent moon and 日 as a sun.

    It can be very effective early on in learning Japanese, but pictographs get hard once characters get complicated.

    Songs

    Several of my Japanese teachers have used songs in their lesson plans, usually to teach series or patterns of words. For instance, when I was young I learned the order of the kana (あ、か、さ、etc.) through a song. In high school, my Japanese teacher taught us the days of the week in Japanese using the familiar song Frère Jacques, and another song for days of the month.

    Movement

    For learning directional or physical words, moving your body while learning certain words can be very helpful. Many Japanese teachers teach their students different directions (右、左、前、後ろ、上、下) while encouraging students to point in the directions while saying them. You might touch your hands while learning the Japanese word for hands (手)—stuff like that.

    Japanese Learning Resources That Use Mnemonics

    Nowadays, lots of different books, websites, and apps use mnemonics to teach Japanese. The most famous example is James Heisig’s book Remembering the Kanji, which pioneered using mnemonics to learn kanji.

    Page from Heisig’s describing 明
    Source: Remembering the Kanji

    Since Remembering the Kanji was released in the 70s, there have been a lot of resources that have built on that initial concept. Other traditional textbooks, like Henshall’s _A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters have also used mnemonics to teach kanji.

    More modern resources use menmonics a lot too. Tofugu uses them to teach hiragana and to teach kanji on WaniKani and in lessons in [TextFugu](//www.textfugu.com/ "TextFugu Online Japanese Textbook For Self-Teaching Japanese").
    Besides all of the shameless self-promotion, other sites like [Kanji Damage](//kanjidamage.com/ "Learn Kanji Using Radicals KANJIDAMAGE") and Memrise also use mnemonics to teach kanji. Dr. Moku uses mnemonics to teach hiragana and katakana, and I’m sure I’m missing many other resources that incorporate mnemonics.
    Explanation of the readings for 了
    Source: Kanji Damage

    You don’t even necessarily need a textbook or a website to teach you mnemonics. Sometimes, the most memorable mnemonics are the ones that you create yourself. This can be especially helpful if you’re having trouble with a particular vocabulary word, phrase or kanji.

    No one technique or resource will be able to teach you Japanese in its entirety, but if you’re serious about studying Japanese, then you should definitely have mnemonic resources in your arsenal. Take a look at any of the resources I mentioned above or at our list of Japanese resources and find which ones work for you the best.