How many kanji do you need to know?

There are a number of official lists of kanji. I’m not an expert by any means, I’m just going by information gleamed off the net.

  • 教育漢字(kyouiku kanji): The 1oo6 characters students must learn by grade 6. Essentially, knowing these characters is a good start, but you’re far from finished.
  • 当用漢字(touyou kanji): A list of 1850 characters published first in 1946 approved for use in public documents and the media. Many characters that were in use until then were simplified; for example, 學 became 学.
  • 常用漢字(jouyou kanji): Last updated in 1981 and the successor of touyou kanji, 1945 characters that basically you ought to know as a literate adult. Used in legal and public documents, newspapers, magazines and broadcast media.
  • 新聞漢字表(shimbun kanji hyou): A standard agreed upon among newspapers based on jouyou kanji, but removing some characters and adding others. The link is to a Japanese Wikipedia article, but the explanation and outline that appears there is possibly under copyright and could be deleted from the site in the future.
  • 人名用漢字(jin meiyou kanji): Characters approved for use in people’s names. As of 2004, when the government had a heck of a time trying to update the list, there are 983 extra characters than can be used in addition to what’s already in the jouyou kanji list, or that are variants of jouyou characters, and most of them are really, really hard to read. The only way I’ll ever learn them is if I get a chip implanted in my brain someday.

Incidentally, mainland China also simplified their characters sometime after WWII but for obvious reasons they didn’t give a rat’s ass about how Japan went about doing the same thing, so in many cases the two countries simplified the same characters but in different ways.

Summing up, if you’re pretty smart, my guess is that you know around 3,000 characters or more. Multiply that number by a few factors to approximate how many readings you’d need to know for all those characters.

As for me, when reading a novel in Japanese I have to look up an average of five characters per page, and I can get through around 15 pages in 2-3 hours when I’m reading to learn. It’s tedious, frustrating, labor intensive, tiring, and makes me feel learning disabled, which is why I avoided serious studying for far too many years.

Rich Pav

Richard has been living in Japan since 1990 with his wife and two teenage sons, Tony and Andy.

8 thoughts to “How many kanji do you need to know?”

  1. Out of curiosity, what is the literacy level like in Japan when compared to the western world. I’d almost assume that the large amount of Kanji to learn could result in an illiteracy problem.

  2. The literacy rate is reported to be 99% (same as US & Canada), but I think it would depend on the definition of literacy used. For example, would you say someone’s literate if they know only the kyouiku kanji or a high enough percentage of the jouyou kanji to be able to read a newspaper? Since the most standard definition of literacy rate is the percentage of the population 15 or over who can read or write, I’m assuming Japan goes by the kyouiku kanji, but I haven’t found any info to back up that assumption. For all I know, you could be considered literate if you simply can read and write in hiragana and katakana.

    The Japanese Wikipedia article on literacy rates claims that the USA is only 60%. I wonder who pulled that number out of his ass, but I wouldn’t doubt if a lot of people in Japan believe it.

  3. If literacy rate in USA is defined by being able to read English, that 60% is probably not as ridiculous as it seems. If the definition includes English and Spanish, then I would guess it probably would be closer to 99% than 60%. The inability to read English does not appear to be creating massive problems, as more and more of the instructions, signs, ATM machines, and even telephone messages are available in both English and Spanish. The bigger problem is workers are more and more unable to speak English. So when the crew comes to install the dishwasher, fix the roof, etc, unless you have a command of the Spanish language, you could have a problem.

    The company where I used to work also had a plant in Toronto, and the workers were from many, many countries. Many could not speak English or French, but anyone I interacted with assured me that the difference in languages did not create a massive problem. The bigger problem was trying to integrate the workforce, as it was difficult to get workers from, example, Korea to work beside those from Japan, etc.

  4. I’m thirteen and i know the first 80 of the kyoiku kanji, plus a few other ones here and there i picked up, i plan to learn as amny as i can.

  5. “large amount of Kanji to learn could result in an illiteracy problem.”
    You’re abosolutely wrong. Lots of Hong Kong people who are over 40 years old didn’t even go to elementary school, but they read tradition Chinese newspaper, not even simplified.

  6. Typo

    “large amount of Kanji to learn could result in an illiteracy problem.”
    You’re absolutely wrong. Lots of Hong Kong people who are over 40 years old didn’t go to elementary school, because government didn’t provide free education during colonial era. Yet, they can read and understand traditional Chinese characters newspaper, not even simplified. You are so wrong about Chinese characters.

  7. I don’t think they count illegal immigrants or foreigners likewise Japan. So I think it’s 99%. Notice in the japanese wiki, Japan has the highest literacy rate but US doesn’t even have detailed stats. I cannot read japanese but just looking at the writing pattern seems weird. Also notice the picture they inserted…very different info. Well, now I know the Japanese wiki is biased.

  8. Wow, thank you. This was actually mighty helpful. I’ll probably reference this more than once, this is being bookmarked.
    And about the last bit, I have feeling a little learning impaired by the separate readings and when to differentiate them for compound kanji readings. 🙁
    Sometimes these lists just RACK MY BRAIN MAN!

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