3 Ways to Supercharge Your Memory and Master New Japanese Words, Kanji, Grammar & Beyond

3 Ways to Supercharge Your Memory and Master New Japanese Words, Kanji, Grammar & Beyond

Jun 15, 2023

Have you ever spent hours trying to memorize new Japanese words, kanji, or structures only to find that the information is completely gone the next day? Or even a few hours or minutes later!? Been there, done that! It's an extremely demoralizing feeling, and leads many Japanese learners to conclusions like:

  1. "I have a bad memory."
  2. "I seriously suck at Japanese."
  3. "Japanese is the hardest language in the world."

While these feelings are perfectly understandable, I assure you that these are myths, not facts:

  1. Barring severe cognitive impairment, your memory is not the issue. Your brain is doing exactly what it evolved to do: filter out extraneous information so you can focus on the four essential Fs of survival: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and...ahem...mating.
  2. You don't suck at Japanese. Your method for learning Japanese sucks. If you use the right techniques (which I explain in detail below), the language will stick like Velcro with minimal effort. You still have to show up and put in the time, but every minute will count.
  3. Japanese is just a language. Yes, it has some unique challenges, but so does every other human language. In fact, I would far rather learn Japanese as an adult than English given all of our language's pronunciation quirks and grammatical exceptions.

Forget forgetting. It's time to optimize your Japanese study, rapidly expand your Japanese vocabulary, and build the Japanese fluency and literacy you crave.

1) Use a Spaced Repetition System

In the late 1800s, a German psychologist named Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909) completed a series of personal "N of 1" experiments on memory. He later published his findings in a paper titled Über das Gedächtnis (dubbed Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology in English).

Though his “research” was limited in scope and generalizability given the tiny sample size, his basic findings have since been reproduced in more rigorous scientific studies.

And what was the key takeaway from his research?

New information is forgotten REALLY fast.

This may be the ultimate "duh!" conclusion, but it has important consequences for language learning.

As you can see in Ebbinghaus's "forgetting curve" below, he forgot new information almost immediately, with over half of the target information lost in just the first hour and nearly ¾ within 24 hours!

You have likely experienced the same rate of forgetfulness in your own Japanese studies. I know I certainly did before I changed how I learn.

Fortunately, there is a proven way to prevent such rapid forgetting and encode information in your brain for long-term retention: repetition.

Each time you re-expose your brain to a given piece of information, it resets and remolds the forgetting curve. Each rep tells your brain:

"Hey, this information is important. Don't forget it!"

Unfortunately, repetition alone is not enough.

Consider these two common approaches to language study:

  1. You go through a list of Japanese vocab words over and over, saying them aloud and trying to make them stick. Then you cover the Japanese part and try to quiz yourself from the English translations. Much to your chagrin, you discover that almost all of the words have already disappeared from memory. Ebbinghaus' forgetting curve strikes again!
  2. You try to commit a dozen new kanji to memory by writing them over and over again on a piece of paper. You desperately hope that the rote repetition, visual focus, and muscle memory will make the characters stick. But when you flip the paper over to test yourself, you realize you are grasping at straws, unsure where to start each character or which squiggles go where.

These are perfectly normal and predictable outcomes given these approaches. It turns out that both of these methods are highly ineffective despite their ubiquity in language education. The truth is that:

  1. You need to practice producing information from memory, not simply looking at information again and again or copying a character stroke by stroke while looking at a model.
  2. You need to space out repetitions over longer and longer periods of time. Immediately reviewing the same information stores it in short-term memory, not the long-term encoding we're after in language learning.

Using a spaced repetition system (or "SRS" for short) solves both of these problems:

  1. If you create your flashcards properly (more on this below), the system will ask you to produce the answer from memory. You can then check if you were right or wrong when you flip the digital card over.
  2. The app's algorithm with automatically space out repetitions based on how well you rate your knowledge. Easier cards are pushed back and shown less often, while harder cards are repeated sooner and with higher frequency.

Get the Anki SRS App

Many language apps today integrate some level of spaced repetition, but the most powerful and customizable SRS app is called Anki.

💡 Fun Fact: The word "anki" (暗記) means "memorization" in Japanese.

The app is far from perfect and I keep waiting for a better alternative to come around, but as it stands, it's the best SRS option for Japanese language learning.

+ Download the Anki SRS apps here

💡 Not So Fun Fact: Curious why three of the four platforms are free, while the iOS version costs 25 buckaroos? Here is Anki creator Damien Elmses’ justification:

“Taken alone, AnkiMobile is expensive for an app. However, AnkiMobile is not a standalone app, but part of an ecosystem, and the $17.50 Apple gives me on each sale goes towards the development of that whole ecosystem. For the price, you get not only the app, but a powerful desktop application, a free online synchronization service, and mobile clients for various platforms.”

I have no problem with someone charging money for a useful service (and I did indeed buy the iOS app myself). But I do find it a bit unfair to charge users of only one platform to subsidize development for others. Why do Apple users have to subsidize Android users? I would much prefer a “freemium” model in which the app is free on ALL platforms, but includes paid upgrades for advanced tools and features (which I would gladly pay for to support further app development).

Install the Japanese Support Add-On

Once you have the desktop version of Anki installed, make sure to also install the Japanese Support add-on. The free extension unlocks the following powerful features:

  • Auto-generated furigana (振り仮名) readings for all kanji (useful little hiragana that appear above kanji).
  • Japanese Recognition cards that present a Japanese expression on the front with the reading and meaning on the back.
  • Japanese Recall cards that present the meaning on the front and have the expression and reading on the back.

+ Download the free Japanese Support add-on

Add Custom Fields to Your Anki Flashcards

When you add the Japanese Support add-on, your cards will automatically include the following three fields:

  1. Expression: The Japanese word, phrase, etc. you want to learn.
  2. Reading: The pronunciation of the expression.
  3. Meaning: The translation of the expression.

This is a good start, but I also like to include two additional custom fields to help add nuance and depth to certain flashcards:

  1. Audio: Auto-generated text-to-speech for the expression (see details below).
  2. Example: An example sentence using a word, particle, etc. in context.
  3. Note: Any usage notes, exceptions, or other important reminders.

To add custom fields in Anki:

  1. Access the editing screen in one of two ways: 1) click Decks > click on a deck > click Study Now > click Edit in the lower left corner; or 2) click Browse (or hit B on your keyboard) > select the deck you want on the left > select a card to edit.
  2. Click the Fields... button in the top left corner of the editing pane.
  3. Click Add in the upper-right.
  4. Enter a new field name and click Okay.
  5. To change the order of your fields: click on a field > click Reposition > enter the desired number (1 will display at the top, 2 next down, and so on).
  6. Click Save.

Here is the order that I use on my Japanese Anki flashcards, but use whatever sequence you find most intuitive and user-friendly:

  1. Expression
  2. Reading
  3. Audio
  4. Meaning
  5. Example
  6. Note

Add Audio to Your Anki Flashcards

Adding audio to your Anki flashcards provides valuable listening practice and helps you improve your Japanese pronunciation.

There are a few ways to add audio:

  1. Attach an audio file by clicking the paperclip icon in the editing pane.
  2. Record new audio by clicking the microphone icon in the editing pane.
  3. Auto-generate audio using the HyperTTS Anki add-on from Language Tools.

Once installed, HyperTTS uses text-to-speech technology to automatically generate Japanese audio for the "Expression" part of your flashcards. Installation and set up can be a little tricky, but you can follow step-by-step instructions here.

+ Install the HyperTTS add-on from Language Tools

⚠️ Note: The auto-generated audio will occasionally be incorrect. For example, HyperTTS pronounces the word 生き様 ("attitude to life") as *iki-sama, when it should be iki-zama. But try not to despair at such mistakes and instead see them as chances to master exceptions and logical errors.

Customize the Formatting of Your Anki Flashcards

Out of the box, Anki's card formatting leaves a lot to be desired, especially for a language like Japanese. Fortunately, you can easily edit the order of fields, font sizes, etc. with just a few changes to the code. Here's what to do:

  1. Access the editing screen in one of two ways: 1) click Decks > click on a deck > click Study Now > click Edit in the lower left corner; or 2) click Browse (or hit B on your keyboard) > select the deck you want on the left > select a card to edit.
  2. Click the Cards... button at the top of the editing pane.
  3. Select the Card Type you want to edit from the dropdown menu at the top (e.g. 1: Recognition or 2: Recall).
  4. Select the Front Template or Back Template.
  5. Edit or paste in the code you want for each side of each card type.

Here is the exact code I use for the "Back Template" of my Japanese flashcards:


<hr id=answer>

<div class=jp> {{furigana:Reading}} </div>

{{tts ja_JP hypertts_preset=Back_realtime_3 voices=HyperTTS:Expression}}






<div style="font-size: 24px;">{{Example}}</div>


<div style="font-size: 18px;">{{Note}}</div>

⚠️ Note: The above code includes the custom fields "Example" and "Note" (see Add Custom Fields to Your Anki Flashcards above) and autogenerated audio from the HyperTTS add-on (see Add Audio to Your Anki Flashcards).

I know code like this can look a bit intimidating for the uninitiated, but the good news is that all you have to do is copy and paste it.

Create your Anki flashcards from fun, interesting content

Though you can download premade Japanese Anki decks created by other users, I highly recommend creating your own flashcards based on words, phrases, etc. you encounter as you read and listen to authentic content.

💡 Pro Tip: Use the Language Reactor Chrome extension to easily export words and phrases to Anki you encounter while watching videos on Netflix or YouTube.

+ Install the Language Reactor extension for Chrome

Create context with example sentences

Avoid creating cards with just a single word or character on the front and the reading or translation on the back. Instead, use complete phrases or sentences to show how a given word, particle, character, or structure is used. This is especially important for Japanese verbs and grammatical particles which are best learned in context, not isolation.

Let's say you want master the notoriously tricky Japanese particles wa (は) and ga (が). Reading grammar explanations can help a little, but you won't develop an intuitive grasp of when and how to use these particles until you see them over and over in context. To speed up that process, you could create a flashcard like this in Anki:


Write out a sentence about something you like in English:

I like anime.


Include the Japanese translation in whichever version fits your level (roumaji, kana, or kanji):

Watashi-wa anime-ga suki des(u).



This simple card reveals some important aspects about Japanese that you can recycle in numerous situations:

  • When expressing your likes, you mark yourself, watashi (私), with wa (は), and you mark the thing that you like, in this case anime (アニメ), with ga (が).
  • You follow suki (好き), which means "to one's liking" or "being fond of" with des (です). In informal situations, you can use da (だ) instead.

💡 Pro Tip: When it is clear from context, you can leave out the watashi-wa (私は) part. Japanese is a so-called "pro drop" language in which the agent or subject is often dropped when not explicitly necessary.

Leverage Anki's "cloze deletion" feature

“Cloze deletion tests” are assessments that test your knowledge and active recall by requiring you to fill in missing information. Essentially, they are “fill in the blank” questions. Before flipping the card to reveal the missing information, you first try to fill in the blank in your head. This approach offers many advantages over traditional flashcards:

  • You can create cards completely in Japanese and not have to include translations.
  • The cards provide valuable reading practice and greater exposure to the language.
  • They focus on active production instead of passive recognition.

Anki has a special Cloze note type that allows you to easily remove and test yourself on one word, character, or particle.

For example, you could create a cloze version of the same flashcard we saw above to test yourself on what particle is used with suki (好き). The front of the card would show:

アニメ___ 好きです。

You then fill in the blank and flip the card to check your answer:


+ Learn more about cloze deletion in Anki.

Add photos and images to your Anki flashcards

As the cliché goes, "A picture is worth a thousand words." This is especially true in language learning. Adding images to your Anki flashcards:

  1. Creates a direct, visceral connection to meaning.
  2. Provides a rich visual context to improve your memory.
  3. Overcomes the many limitations and problems of translation.

Here are a few good places to find photos, images, graphics, icons, etc. to use on your Anki flashcards:

Speak or write out your answers

Instead of just passively consuming your SRS flashcards, try to actively produce your answers in speech or writing before flipping the card to check. You can do this out loud, manually with a piece of scratch paper, or using one of the following two Anki features:

  1. Type your answer: With a few changes to your card templates, you can display a text field that lets you type in your answer. Watch this tutorial on YouTube for step-by-step instructions on how to enable “type your answer.”
  2. Use AnkiDroid's whiteboard feature: Android users can write out Japanese kana or kanji by hand and then compare their answer. Learn more about AnkiDroid’s whiteboard feature in the AnkiDroid User Manual.

Grade yourself honestly but quickly

A lot of learners get hung up on how to rate themselves. Some worry that they are giving themselves an overly generous score when they don’t yet perfectly know the material. Others feel they are being too harsh on themselves when they were close but not perfect. Either of these extremes wastes time and blocks your path to Japanese fluency.

  • Go with your gut. Don’t fall into the trap of spending your valuable time deciding what you know instead of actually expanding what you know.
  • Don’t be afraid to delete cards. If you come across cards that are boring, annoying, or too easy, simply delete them from your deck.
  • Don’t overthink it. If you find yourself wanting to delete a card but are unsure if you should, just delete it and move on. You won’t miss it.

As Khatzumoto from All Japanese All the Time puts it:

“When your SRS deck starts to become more of a chore than a game, bad cards are most likely your problem.”

2) Use Memory-Boosting Mnemonics

"Mnemonics" are memory aids that help you encode and recall information with greater ease.

There are many types of mnemonics, including:

  • phrase mnemonics
  • story mnemonics
  • phonetic mnemonics
  • memory palaces / method of loci

These techniques may seem silly or extraneous at first, but they are extremely effective if used correctly. Far from being childish, mnemonics leverage our big adult brains, our extensive life experience, and our natural gift for association.

If you need more convincing, consider the fact that such mnemonics are used by memory experts like:

💡 Fun Fact 1: The Japanese word for "mnemonics" is kiokujutsu (記憶術), which literally means "the art of memorizing."

💡 Fun Fact 2: The word “mnemonic” is derived from the Ancient Greek word μνημονικός (mnēmonikos), which means “of memory.” That word, in turn, is derived from Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory. But don’t worry; you can harness the memory-enhancing power of mnemonics without having to worship any ancient Greek deities!

💡 Fun Fact 3: In Dutch, the word for mnemonics is ezelsbruggetje, which literally translates to “donkey bridge.” Donkeys don’t like water and won’t walk through even shallow streams. The only way to get the stubborn animal across is by building a bridge. In the same way, new information will often stubbornly refuse to “cross” the river from exposure to long-term memory without a little help. So think of mnemonics as little memory bridges that safely guide slippery information over Forgetful River.

Use phrase mnemonics to remember words in order

Phrase mnemonics create a silly, memorable sentence from the first letter of each word you’re trying to remember in a list.

For example, you could use the following phrase to remember the order of the planets (including Pluto before it got demoted):

"My very educated mother just served us nine pizzas."

This sentence would then trigger you to recall the list of planets in the correct order:

  1. Mercury
  2. Venus
  3. Earth
  4. Mars
  5. Jupiter
  6. Saturn
  7. Uranus
  8. Neptune
  9. Pluto

Or for a Japanese-specific example, here's a phrase mnemonic to remember the order of the last five era names in Japan:

My teacher says he rocks!

Which then triggers:

  1. Meiji (明治): 1868–1912
  2. Taishou (大正): 1912–1926
  3. Shouwa (大正): 1926–1989
  4. Heisei (平成): 1989–2019
  5. Reiwa (れいわ, 令和): 2019–present

Use name mnemonics to remember related vocabulary

Name mnemonics are similar to phrase mnemonics, but in this case are used to create an acronym instead of a phrase or sentence. For example, you can use the acronym "H.O.M.E.S." to more easily remember the five Great Lakes:

  1. Huron
  2. Ontario
  3. Michigan
  4. Erie
  5. Superior

In Japanese, you could use the name mnemonic “S.K.U.N.K.” to help you remember some common Japanese feeling adjectives:

  1. sabishii (寂しい, “lonely”)
  2. kanashii (悲しい, “sad”)
  3. ureshii (嬉しい, “happy”)
  4. natsukashii (懐かしい, “nostalgic”)
  5. kowai (怖い, “scary”)

Use phonetic mnemonics to remember numbers, words, etc.

With phonetic mnemonics, you use similar sounding words or puns to help jog your memory.

For example, to remember how to count to five, you could say to yourself:

  1. One of my legs is itchy (ichi, 一)…
  2. In fact, my two knees (ni, 二) are itchy, too…
  3. From three bad sun (san, 三) burns in a row…
  4. She (shi, 四) gave me four bottles of sunscreen…
  5. But had to go (go, 五) to the store five times to buy more.

Use story mnemonics to remember kanji

The human brain is hardwired to remember stories. “Story mnemonics” leverage this fact by organizing target information into a narrative format for easier encoding and recall.

Consider the following example from Tony Buzan’s book Master Your Memory which uses a story mnemonic to remember the planets in the right order instead of a phrase mnemonic like above:

“Picture the hot SUN burning away.

Suddenly it spits out a giant thermometer full of MERCURY.

The thermometer is so hot it explodes, but the liquid metal quickly forms into the shape of the goddess VENUS.

To cool down, she covers herself in a pile of EARTH.

But she accidentally digs in the wrong yard: an angry, red-faced man comes marching over to yell at her, and throws a MARS bar at her.

JUPITER, the king of the gods, sees this from above and comes down to protect the goddess.

He doesn’t have very good fashion sense though, and is wearing a tacky T-shirt with the letters S, U, and N (which stand for SATURN, URANUS and NEPTUNE).”

Story-based mnemonics are useful for a wide range of language learning needs, but they really shine for Chinese characters.

For example, let’s say you want to memorize the character 枯, which means “wither.”

The first thing we need to do is break the character into its basic building blocks:

  • On the left we have 木, which means “tree”
  • On the right we have 古, means “old”

Now all we have to do is weave these elements into a mental story that combines the concepts of "old" and "tree" to give us "wither."

“When a tree gets old, it begins to wither.”

Instead of trying to rely on visual or muscle memory (neither of which work very well), you just have to remember a simple story (which our brains do with ease). The actors and scenes in your little mental narrative then tell you which strokes to write.

💡 Pro Tip: To make story mnemonics work, it's crucial that you make them as vivid and visceral as possible. Don't just say the story in your head. See the old tree starting to wither. Touch its rough bark. Smell its leaves. Put one of the withered leaves in your mouth, chew it up, and taste the bitter compounds.

This is the exact method used in James Heisig's classic book Remembering the Kanji 1: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters (or "RTK" for short). After struggling to learn kanji during university with traditional rote learning, RTK really saved my keister! There are some more modern online alternatives out there now such as Tofugu's WaniKani, but I still highly recommend Heisig's book.

💡 Pro Tip: Make sure to get the updated 6th edition of Remembering the Kanji, which includes 196 new characters which were added to the standard list of "general-use characters" (常用漢字) in 2010.

Use Memory Palaces

“The greatest is space, for it holds all things.” ―Thales of Miletus

A "memory palace" is a visualization technique that attaches bits of information you want to remember to specific locations in familiar spatial environments. For example:

  • Rooms in your childhood home
  • Parts of your current living room
  • Shelves in the refrigerator and freezer

Also known as the "method of loci," this ancient technique was used by the Greeks and Romans to commit lengthy poems and speeches to memory. And it can be used by we moderns too to master foreign languages.

In essence, the method involves mentally placing certain items, words, phrases, etc. in each location. When it comes time to retrieve the information, you simply walk through the space and "see" what is there.

For more on using memory palaces in language learning, check out:

💡 Pro Tip: Mnemonics and flash cards needn't be mutually exclusive. I recommend jotting down any mnemonics you create for specific words, phrases, characters, etc. on the back of your Anki flashcards in the "Note" field.

3) Flood your brain with interesting, understandable input

Spaced repetition and mnemonics are powerful ways to improve your memory, but if you're not careful, they can end up distracting you from the single most important ingredient of Japanese fluency: immersion.

If you get enough exposure and practice, your brain will automatically remember words, phrases, and grammar. No conscious study necessary!

If you think about it, this is precisely how you learned your first language. You didn't make flashcards to remember English words. You didn't rely on mnemonics. Nope, you just lived and breathed the language every waking minute of every single day of your young life.

At first, it was all noise. But bit by bit, you started to make sense of the strange sounds produced by your care givers. And you started to imitate these sounds and words yourself until you could produce them accurately enough to get what you want.

Adults have to go through a similar process, but we can speed it up significantly since we have the advantage of already knowing one or more languages. We don't have to learn what things mean; we just have to learn the arbitrary sounds and symbols that represent these same concepts in Japanese.

And the single best way to do that is to flood your brain with "comprehensible input" (listening and reading content that you can mostly understand).

For absolute beginners, this is going to mean very basic content. But as you learn more Japanese, you can start to integrate "authentic content" (media created for native Japanese speakers, as opposed to learner content).

So yes, make flashcards and come up with mnemonics when helpful, but make sure that the vast majority of your time is spent immersed in Japanese.

Hungry for more Japanese tips and resources?

My book Master Japanese: How to Learn Japanese Anywhere in the World shows you exactly how to learn Japanese using my Anywhere Immersion Method, and includes hundreds of John-tested, John-approved Japanese learning resources.