Japanese seems to have one of the most complex and clunky writing systems around. But it’s how it is, and it’s not so much that it’s difficult as it’s different to what gaijin are used to.
A big deal is made that English has only got 26 letters to learn… but it’s not quite true. You need to learn different forms; capitals and lowercase and cursive. Just knowing the letters doesn’t mean you can read anything and when you can it doesn’t automatically mean you’ll know how to pronouce a word or it’s meaning. You need to learn how to spell and you don’t read words letter by letter so much as by its entire shape. It might be just as difficult to become literate in English as it is in Japanese.
It’s an odd feeling to be surrounded by written material and not even be able to begin to read it or recognise the symbols. Which is pretty much how I found myself when I first went to Japan.
To be literate in Japanese you first have to be able to read hiragana and katagana, 92 symbols, 46 each in each system, representing all the sounds of Japanese. THEN there’s 1945 Jouyou Kanji (常用漢字). The slight good news being that Japanese only learn to read all these. You are expected to be able to write “only” 1000 of these, the Gakushuu Kanji (学習漢字). However it is claimed that you can get by with knowledge of 500 kanji. It could be worse; Chinese uses 4000 characters and once there were 47,000 known kanji !
Learning kana is relativly easy and can probably be mastered in a couple of months. I recommend this book and trying to learn 5 characters a day.
Kanji however can take years to master. The problem is where to begin.
I found myself following 3 strategies. First I set out to learn the kanji needed for the JLPT test. (80 kanji at grade 4 and another 165 at grade 3). Then whenever I was writing Japanese for homework I tried to use kanji. Using the kanji I had learned and copying any kanji I could from a dictionary. Eventually I started to be able to recognise these extra kanji and sometimes even write them. Lastly I collected kanji while reading especially ones that I could use or were similar to ones I already knew.
Learning takes a long time. For each kanji there are severals things to learn. It’s meaning, it’s Japanese reading (or readings) 訓読み（くんよみ）, it’s Chinese readings 音読み（おんよみ）, how it is written and it’s components.
I first learned the principal meaning of a kanji. Then I tended to learn it’s kunyomi, which is the Japanese reading usually used when a kanji is written on it’s own. Then I learnt the onyomi used when a kanji is used in compounds of two or more kanji. And I start to learn these compounds. By this time I’d probably learned to write it and identfy it’s radical and how it’s components may indicate it’s meaning or onyomi.
The best way to learn to read a kanji is to learn to write it. Physically writing the kanji makes new conections in your brain I think, more so than by just seeing it on a flashcard. Therefore I write it repeatedly while saying the reading I associate most with it.
There are benefits of learning kanji. There is a satisfaction in being able to master them in and of itself. You have something extra to attach vocabulary to in your mind. The relativly meaningless sounds start to gain meaning when you can attach them to a symbol that has a concrete meaning. For instance. jitensha on it’s own you either know it’s a bike or you don’t but when you can attach it to it’s kanji 自転車 自 じ self 転 てん turn 車 しゃ vehicle, it gains more meanings and you can start to reuse it’s components in other words such as unten suru (to drive) 運転する or chuusyajou (carpark) 駐車場 or jibun (oneself) 自分.