Remembering new words can be difficult. Remembering new words in an entirely different language, can be an even greater challenge. Not to mention that Japanese is notorious for being a language that takes time to learn for English speakers. (Especially as the alphabet and cultural approach to the language is so different.)

There is, however, a trick to remembering vocabulary, grammar, and kanji long-term without putting too much time in. (In other words, without having to drill vocabulary by writing it down twenty times on a piece of paper.) This trick is actually one you’ve probably already come across before…


How to Remember Japanese Vocabulary (and more)

Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji is probably one of the most famous books among Japanese learners. If you’re not aware of it though, this book does what it says on the tin; it helps you remember kanji. (Note, however, that it helps you remember kanji’s meaning, but not the kanji readings or vocabulary that uses that kanji. Which can be useful its own way.)

Heisig’s argument is that by learning the meaning of kanji first, you gain the same base knowledge that Chinese natives have before they learn Japanese. This, theoretically, makes learning Japanese easier.

The practice of learning the kanji’s meaning before anything else can work for some people, but not for everyone. However, the most interesting thing about Heisig’s approach is the storytelling.

Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji teaches you kanji meaning and how to write them through stories.

Which is the trick to how to remember Japanese long-term.


Tell Yourself Stories (AKA Mnemonics)

Mnemonics are memory devices, learning techniques to help you remember things.

When I was very young I struggled to remember the spelling for “because” so my mum taught me “big elephants can’t always use small elevators.” I still remember the short poem and spelling to this day!

When I went to Greece I wanted to learn how to say “thank you” in Greek. A woman at the hotel told me it was “efharistó,” but I couldn’t remember such a strange new word! Then she told me to remember “a ferret’s toe,” and I’ve remembered it ever since.

These stories don’t have to have long narratives, but plays on sounds, ideas, and meanings, which helped me remember words and spellings.

The above examples are stories that other people taught me, but you can teach yourself these mnemonics too!


How to Make Up Your Own Stories (Mnemonics) Quickly and Effectively

Heisig’s book is great because all the stories are laid out for you. However, not every textbook teaches you mnemonic stories like this. You will have to make up your own.

Quick side-note: There’s also the issue that Heisig’s stories don’t work for everyone. Even if a book teaches you a mnemonic, it might not work for you. For example, I’m British and so any story related to baseball went completely over my head, and I had to make up my own!

So, how do you make up your own stories? It’s surprisingly easy and there are a few different methods you can use. The trick (as always) is to find methods and stories that work best for you and the word you’re trying to remember at that time.


1. Starting from Scratch – Play With Sounds

When you come across a word for the first time that you’re struggling to remember try saying it aloud first and see what you can do with the sounds.

Let’s take あお “ao” (“blue”) for example. When used as a noun it’s just “ao” (あお) but when used as an adjective it becomes “aoi” (あおい). A good way to remember these is to think of them as “OW” and “OWWIE”.

–Nothing complicated, just a single word association.

But if the single word association isn’t enough you could imagine something like; “a big blue toe that you just stumped on a table”, for example.


Another example is “nounyuu” (のうにゅう・納入) which means “supply (goods)” and “payment (of fees)”. From playing around with the sounds I came up with “no new SUPPLIES or PAYMENTS” to help me remember.

How to Remember Japanese Vocabulary Mnemonic


2. Building on your Japanese Knowledge

Once you’ve learned basic Japanese you can begin to use that knowledge to remember other similar sounding words. (Not just remember them but remember how they’re distinct.)

After struggling to learn “mabuta” (まぶた) (meaning “eyelids”) I came up with the mnemonic; MA pig (BUTA) has eyelids!

(This was made better because I imagined a funny American accent with it…)

How to Remember Japanese Vocabulary Mnemonic Silver Spoon

Or once you’ve learned a number of kanji you can use those to remember vocabulary.

Such as 目 (meaning “eye”) which has the readings “me” (め) and “moku” (もく) depending on the word. But it can be difficult to remember the readings for kanji, which is why I like studying the kanji-based vocabulary with the kanji.

So taking the above 目 you can study;

  • 目印 “mejirushi” (じるし) which means “mark/sign”
  • 目立つ “medatsu” (だつ) which means “to stand out”
  • 目的 “mokuteki” (もくてき) which means “target/goal”
  • 目標 “mokuhyou” (もくひょう) which means “objective”

Learning these can increase your vocabulary and help you remember the different readings for kanji. If you prefer to learning through visual aids, then this method of remembering the kanji and vocabulary can been a great tool.


3. Building to/from Other Languages

If Japanese (or whatever language you’re learning) is not your second language, you can use other languages to supplement your mnemonics. (Or you can use Japanese to supplement a mnemonic for another language!)

This is one reason learning Korean after Japanese (or Japanese after Korean) is great, because Japanese and Korean grammar and vocabulary are so similar.


Don’t Forget to Recap!

Mnemonics are great for retaining long-term information better, however, it is still important to go over what you’ve studied!

Short repetitive exposure at various intervals is a large part of learning something new. Which is why so many people use spaced repetition apps such as Anki and Memrise/Decks.

(Note: You can no longer create new SRS vocabulary decks on Memrise. Use Decks for creating your own custom course and for learning from other users’.)


Quick and Easy – Tell Yourself Stories

To summarize, an easy way to remember vocabulary long-term is to tell yourself stories. These stories can be based on sounds, images, or words you already know. Studying kanji through vocabulary can be also a great way to remember the various kanji readings and vocabulary. Other languages you know can also be great for telling yourself stories or remembering vocabulary through similar words.

It’s important to review what you’ve studied and go over the stories you’ve told yourself if you’re struggling to remember the term. Just 5-10 minutes a day reviewing can make a huge difference.


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