Is Wanikani worth the effort for learning Kanji? A re-evaluation


Learning Japanese is a time-intensive task and you often have to re-evaluate where you want to focus on. Do you want to improve your conversational skills, build a good vocab foundation or work on your reading skills and Kanji knowledge? I’ve written about WaniKani in more than a few instances and use it since 2012. It’s even part of my Japanese self-study guide. But lately, I began to question the website and its way of teaching Kanji.

Everything began with WaniKani’s introduction of new radicals. For those who don’t know: A Kanji is made up of several (or just one) little symbols. You think about a fitting image for each radical and make a story for yourself that you can easily relate to. The further you go the more complex the Kanji you’re learning and the stories as well.

The OG: Remembering the Kanji by James Heisig

The whole idea of that radical approach isn’t new and was first introduced by James Heisig’s fantastic book “Remembering the Kanji”.

The one I actually started with myself. Just that book and my Anki deck. WaniKani is doing everything for you. The radical names, the stories, and because everybody has such a different background I never really liked most of their radical names. And that’s where the convenience of WaniKani becomes a problem.

I don’t like their radical names. You can always change the stories about each Kanji and just write them as a little note under each card but you can’t change the radical names. And even writing your own stories in the note section is not really convenient because it’s just barely visible when doing your reviews.

And it’s not intended to be used like this as well. It may work for many but it didn’t really work for me because the stories just became more and more abstruse the further I came.

Now on to the second problem: The time it takes to finish WaniKani. As I previously wrote you have to be wary about how you spend your study time. You can’t do everything at once and of course, you want to see some results. If you don’t have the feeling of making real progress you’ll quickly lose interest and will probably quit.

Good things take time and it’s always better to study slowly and consistently instead of just rushing through the content. But WaniKani is taking hours over hours to teach you words that you probably won’t use. And when you actually encounter them in the wild you’ll probably have more than a few instances where you can remember the basic meaning you learned but it just doesn’t make any sense in that sentence.

My problems with WaniKani

WaniKani is full of Japanese vocab consisting of the newly taught Kanji. A good idea so that you can instantly practice what you just learned.

But how useful is learning vocabulary out of context? Not very much in my opinion. Yes, WaniKani has some sample sentences in the notes but I would really prefer to learn whole sentences instead. Or maybe an idea: Be presented with a whole sentence and you just have to input (that’s how WK works) the underlined word.

The vocab you learn is not always the most useful. Its main purpose is to improve your Kanji reading so that you can instantly use that newly learned Kanji and put your reading skills to the test. And while you’re at it you can learn the different readings as well. But never forget that this is all part of your study time. Which is limited.

So maybe do the Heisig approach where you just learn a meaning for each Kanji so that you can safely recognize it and in a second step when you’re studying vocab you learn the readings automatically.

After spending a good amount of time with WaniKani I have a few problems with it:

  • You need lots of time because you’re learning lots of Kanji and even more vocab of dubious practicality (which is more or less intended, I know).
  • The second quarrel is with their whole system: It works for many, yes, but I still think that making your own radicals and stories is the way to go. Because of triceratops, grain, and yeah geoduck.
  • And the third one is about time commitment again: I feel their SRS intervals are too intense. Something like 4h, 8h 23h, 47h. Answering the same item correctly four times in a row until you hit a two-day space.

Tofugu is a great website and taking the idea behind Remembering the Kanji and wrapping it up into a neat little pre-made package for the Internet generation was a great idea. But for someone who has to be time-efficient, it’s not the best choice.

There is just way too much filler around your core incentive. Which is to learn the Kanji. I’m not working with a computer and my workdays don’t allow me to check WaniKani in between. I need something which allows me to just study for 20 minutes in the morning with a coffee next to me and maybe dedicate a few minutes in the evening as well. But that has to be enough.

What I’ll do after graduating in the summer

I’ll start with Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji again. That book I bought 7 years ago and a new Anki deck. I want to start fresh, from the ground up. With my own mnemonics and stories. Maybe I’ll use it alongside The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course which is another great way to learn the Kanji and is offering example sentences as well (which really is a must). More about all that in the summer when I’ll start again from scratch but I know for sure that WaniKani is just not perfect for me.

I want a simple approach where I’m making all the cards myself Just checking the deck each morning and then being finished with it. No silly vocab but real-world immersion afterward. With manga here and there, Japanese magazines, Japanese podcasts, and Twitter accounts.

What’s your approach to learning Kanji? I know not everybody is using WaniKani and I’d love to get some tips. Maybe there are even some great pre-made Anki decks that you can then customize to your liking. 

Comments 4
  1. I had a good base to start with. I used iKnow and had studied the Core 6,000 (still reviewing) before I started WaniKani about one year ago. I will have finished all the WaniKani lessons sometime next month. For the first six months or so WaniKani was quite easy and I got the most out of the example sentences. I added new words to iKnow. I was studying iKnow as well as studying writing kanji and preparing for the Kanji Kentei at that time as well. I even used BunPro and KameSame and more but as time went on WaniKani became more time-consuming and I slowly started dropping other aspects of my study. I personally think that WaniKani is a great tool and don’t worry about the obscure vocabulary that much. Once it’s burned on WaniKani, I may never see it again but it will have served its purpose in helping me to read and interpret kanji. I don’t like the “geoduck” either but I have found the ridiculous mnemonics actually work. I don’t use them all but if a word is not sticking I have found them helpful. Actually, one of the reasons I decided to use WaniKani was because of the mnemonics. I was reading Fluent in 3 months by Benny Lewis (must finish this book) and he pushes this as a great way to memorize vocab and I started to use it when studying for the Kanji Kentei and it worked. I didn’t write anything down. Just imagined it and it helped me remember. I don’t read most of the mnemonics on WaniKani and sometimes I just imagine my own. Almost train of thought there. Sorry. Tired and about to do some WaniKani before I go to bed. But to answer the question posed at the beginning of this article. Is Wanikani Worth The Effort For Learning Kanji? I would say yes. But to learn Japanese you need much more.

    1. That book you mentioned “Fluent in 3 months by Benny Lewis” sounds very interesting. Will definitely need to check it out. I went to the first 3k of iKnow myself but found that my Kanji abilities were hindering me a little bit to learn or better recognize new words. So congrats on finishing the whole 6k :) Really well made cards and definitely worth the money. I still sometimes hear the sentences spoken out loud in my head when I encounter a word I previously learned on iKnow :)
      I’m currently going through the JALUP decks and just love the grammar taught in them and their J-J approach later on. I have to say that I like them way better than BunPro but I would need to see their current state for a final opinion :)

      I went through half of Heisig before discovering WaniKani and I definitely know what you mean when you’re saying that the mnemonics just pop into your head. It worked for me the same way for Kanji I already knew the meaning of or was familiar with but to learn a new character from the ground up, I found it difficult with their stories and radicals.

      But hey, I still think that WaniKani is a fantastic site, I just think that I’ll benefit much more from making up my own stories and radical names and maybe there are a lot of people out there who would benefit from this approach as well.

      And thanks a lot for that length answer Alan. Hope you had a good nights sleep :)

  2. I must strongly disagree with the author.

    I’ve used WaniKani for a total of about 6 months. During that time I’ve learned far more kanji (and the readings far better) than I would have if I had just stuck with Genki, various apps I was using to try and remember the kanji and their readings, and I had sent Hesig’s book back right after I started using WaniKani ($50 that were much needed). There is no way I would know the number I do at present or as well if I had just stuck with RTK or another book. WaniKani is a godsend for me because it gives me an SRS and plenty of vocab to remember the readings (along with having to type them out as another small factor to help with memorization).

    The author says that he much prefers his own names for the radicals and mnemonics to remember the kanji and here again, I feel very differently. I cannot imagine for the life of me taking the time to name each radical and figuring out a mnemonic to remember everything by. With perhaps only one exception I can think of thus far out of over 1,000 mnemonics, there is only one that I feel wasn’t helpful. Otherwise, I much prefer a system that gives me the names and mnemonics versus trying to figure out my own (which I would personally find to be very much a chore and would sooner just not even try). I also really like Koichi’s eye for humor and Japanese pop culture references (Maru, Hard Gay, etc.), which often times have given me a laugh and other times have simply helped memorize things that much better.

    Like the author, my time is precious. I have very little of it. A year ago I burned myself out from studying Japanese because I was devoting nearly all of my free time to studying and (like many overeager learners starting out) I was dropping everything I was doing when it was time to review new items in WaniKani. I started over from the beginning and read suggestions on spacing things out and found what works for me. I usually spend less than an hour a day on WaniKani (with days where I get new lessons being longer simply because I am odd and insist on learning new items immediately and in full). (if anyone else is having trouble with WK, I suggest reading this: installing the override and reorder scripts really helped me a lot)

    This past Christmas season I bought a lifetime subscription to WaniKani ($199) because I have found it to truly be a fantastic resource. I simply cannot imagine trying to learn this another way; certainly not from RTK, which has been the go-to for many.

    1. Hey Byte Me, thanks a lot for taking the time to write such an in-depth comment. Wow. Really great to hear that WaniKani is working so well for you. 頑張ってね!It really is a very well done website and if you get along with the radical names and stories – it’s awesome. And I can only agree with you, their input system is pretty great. Unfortunately, like I’ve written above, it didn’t work out so well for me.

      I hope many more will share their experiences with learning the Kanji and which was their way that worked out in the end.

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