Question: What do boiling water and learning kanji have in common?

Answer: Just as you only need a certain temperature to boil water, you only need to know a finite number of high-frequency kanji to read blogs, manga, books, magazines, newspapers, etc.

This is the minimum effective dose (MED), a powerful tool to save you lots of time and effort in your Japanese language learning journey. Tim Ferriss defines it as follows in his book The 4-Hour Body:

“…the smallest dose that will produce a desired outcome. To boil water, the MED is 212° F (100° C) at standard air pressure. Boiled is boiled. Higher temperatures will not make it ‘more boiled.’ Higher temperatures just consume more resources that could be used for something else more productive.”

The same is true for learning kanji. You don’t have to learn every single Chinese character in existence to read Japanese. You just have to learn the most common characters. Though there are approximately 50,000 Chinese characters listed in the The Great Han–Japanese Dictionary (大漢和辞典・だいかんわじてん), the Japanese Ministry of Education limits the number of “common use characters” (常用漢字, じょうようかんじ, jouyou kanji) to only 2,136. Sure, this is still a lot to learn, but it’s a heck of a lot less than 50,000! And you can cut your time down even further using the following tips.

Use Imaginative—Not Visual—Memory

Relying on visual memory and rote study techniques is a recipe for boredom and failure. Instead, make your kanji study more fun and effective using the “imaginative memory” approach detailed in Remembering the Kanji by James Heisig. You can learn more about the technique here.

Focus on the Highest-Frequency Kanji First

While you need to learn all 2,136 jouyou kanji to be fully literate, you can cut down your initial workload by employing the 80-20 Rule and focusing first on the highest-frequency characters.

Consider, for example, the following kanji usage statistics for Japanese Wikipedia:

  • 50% of Japanese Wikipedia is written with just 200 kanji.
  • 75% of Japanese Wikipedia is written with just 500 kanji.

There are many kanji frequency lists available online, but most are based on newspapers, meaning that the rankings tend to be skewed toward specialized vocabulary used in business, finance, geography, crime reporting, etc.

To create a less biased frequency list, a Reviewing the Kanji forum member named Shang decided to use the whole of Japanese Wikipedia as the text corpus. That’s some serious data to crunch! Fortunately, Shang was kind enough to compile and share the data in this nifty Google Doc that includes KANJIDIC reference numbers, as well as Remembering the Kanji frame numbers and keywords. You rock Shang!

But Realize that “Most Common” Doesn’t Always Mean “Most Useful”

Though it makes sense to focus on the highest-frequency words and characters in the beginning, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t also spend time on vocabulary outside of these lists that fits your personal interests and unique learning needs. The guiding light throughout your Japanese journey should be interest.

No matter how frequent a given set of words or characters are, they won’t stick if you’re studying them in isolation or using materials that bore you to tears. Frequency lists are a useful reference point, but the actual learning should come from:

  • Audio, video, and text content you love.
  • Materials you will be willing to repeat again and again.

Want more recommended tools and resources for learning Japanese anywhere in the world? Want to spend your time actually learning Japanese instead of wasting precious time searching for materials? Check out my detailed language learning guide, Master Japanese: How to Learn Japanese Anywhere in the WorldThe book shows you:

  • How to acquire Japanese anywhere in the world.
  • How to learn by doing instead of studying.
  • How to optimize your memory to make Japanese words and structures stick.
  • How to overcome your fears, build discipline, and stay motivated.
  • How to choose resources that fit your unique interests, goals, and learning style.

The Master Japanese bundle includes the book in 3 formats (PDF, EPUB, and Kindle formats), 3 bonus guides (How Japanese Works, Conquer Kana, and Conquer Kanji), 8 expert interviews, and 12 worksheets and cheat sheets.

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