The Alligator and the Crab

I’m pretty sure I’ve bored all the youngsters already with my old man stories of living in Japan when I was a kid, but it’s relevant to this post because although I did learn to speak informal, childlike Japanese, I never really learned very many kanji. The practical effect of this failure is that my Japanese reading skills have been extremely limited since very few things are in hiragana or katakana only.

I’ve mentioned various resources for studying, learning, or remembering Japanese in the past, but one of my favorite current ones is WaniKani. For $10/mo (or less if you get one of the lifetime subscription deals they offer on occasion), you can study kanji from a basic level up to around 2,000 kanji and 6,000 vocabulary words that use those kanji. WaniKani’s real winning strategy is the spaced repetition system it uses combined with the clever and funny mnemonic devices the writers have come up with to impale the radicals and kanji into your brain.1

WaniKani isn’t really intended to teach you how to speak Japanese per se, but it does present a great deal of vocabulary. Unlike the English language, Chinese characters have pictogram origins, and even now convey meaning based on how they look even if it’s not quite that simple anymore. The kanji themselves impart information even without the auditory component, and it’s interesting learning that aspect of words that I already knew in spoken form.

As it happens, WaniKani’s approach is effective. Prior to signing up for the service, I was using several apps to try to memorize kanji using a rather haphazard approach. I did learn some, but retention was poor and the going was slow. You can learn kanji on your own, but it’s far better to adopt a structured system, and the one employed by WaniKani works because of the clever word play to spark your memory and the spacing of the rate at which individual items are repeated for practice. You’ll find yourself remembering kanji more quickly than you might expect.

By the way, speaking of learning Japanese, I’d be remiss not to mention that my friend Jeff Ruberg and I have a brand new podcast all about it called Don’t Nihongo It Alone. It’s a monthly conversation about resources and techniques we’re using to upgrade or refresh our Japanese skills, and we have exactly one episode out there for your listening pleasure so far. You can also tweet your admiration to us on Twitter at NihongoPod.

I didn’t really set out to write an advertisement, but as it turns out, I’ve managed to plug not one, but two websites in one post. I’d say sorry, but you know… Not really that sorry.

By the way, for those wondering, Wani means alligator, and Kani means crab, hence the title of this post. It’ll all make sense once you visit their website.


  1. It’s not as painful as it sounds.