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Where to begin?

As a budding Japanese language student who has just mastered Hiragana and Katakana, with their eyes now firmly set on the Mt Fuji sized task of learning Kanji, where do you go to take your first steps? In a time when online apps, websites, and digital resources have seemingly begun to dominate language learning, physical books may not be the first option. However, books such as Kanji From Zero — the subject of today’s article — may in fact be the best option. 

Kanji From Zero, which is part of the wider ‘From Zero’ collection, aims to specifically answer our budding Japanese students’ opening question. It’s a resource aimed at those with next to no kanji exposure with the intention of laying a solid foundation of knowledge.

But the big question is: how useful is this Japanese resource in achieving that goal? Find out in this Kanji From Zero review. 

Kanji done right

Of the 2,136 kanji recommended to learn by the Japanese government, Kanji From Zero will teach you the very first 240. In the grand scheme of things this may not sound like a lot, although, a better measurement may be accomplished by studying the requirements for the JLPT, in which the N2 grade (the second highest) that starts to open doors in Japan requires the knowledge of 1026 kanji. 

Suddenly you’re almost a quarter of the way there.

However, numbers aren’t everything when starting out. More importantly Kanji From Zero helps you start out the right way. 

Before you even get to officially learning your first kanji, the book lays out some of the absolute core principles and basic requirements of kanji usage, and does so in a very concise and understandable manner. What are kanji? Why are they necessary? How to read them? What are the benefits? It’s all about preparing you before you start, as well as preparing you for when you finish the book and must eventually learn independently; a good understanding at the start will be a great benefit down the line.  

In fact, it continues to explain and build upon this knowledge with other tips, insights, and even unusual Japanese expressions throughout the course of the book. Some are more useful than others and may come off as a bit confusing to absolute beginners, but at the very least they also highlight cultural differences in speech and language that few other resources venture into.

extract from Kanji From Zero workbook
An example of some of the additional insights you will find throughout the book

Lesson structure and material

Much of Kanji From Zero’s primary content is separated into manageable lessons, where each lesson contains six (occasionally seven) kanji to focus upon, totaling 39 lessons in total. And, much like the book’s introductory guide, its concise and beginner-friendly nature continues in the way that it presents each kanji to the reader. 

You won’t find long and unnecessary explanations for each, just the bits that you need to know, primarily:

  • An image with stroke order
  • An English meaning
  • Both くんよみ and おんよみ meanings (Japanese reading and Chinese reading)
  • Stroke count

And a couple of nice additional touches such as:

  • Space to practise writing
  • Some associated words

All these are squared-off in a neat and tidy (very dictionary-esque) unit that in all honesty makes me wish I could learn all 2,136 kanji this way. Sure it would be about a 3500 page behemoth you couldn’t pick up but at least you’d know you were in safe hands. 

Once you are familiarised with each new kanji, alongside the aforementioned tips and insights, you will encounter a number of exercises and simple tests that help solidify meanings and readings in a very non-strenuous manner. For some this may be a welcome addition, but to others, including myself, they are so basic that it hardly seems worth the effort. 

Despite this, Kanji From Zero also features a ‘super review’ which appears every few chapters and offers a bit more of a cognitive workout. It contains three sets of questions that require you to decipher the best kanji from all those you’ve seen so far. This also makes you dig a little deeper in terms of testing your ability to remember what you’ve learnt and is a better test of your progress.

Impressions and verdict

Moving beyond the actual contents of the book, there are a few other points worth mentioning as well as some I want to reiterate upon. 

Remember that budding Japanese student in my introduction looking to take their first steps into kanji? Well, it really feels like the writers of Kanji From Zero have that same image in mind and have delivered a resource that is entirely focused on that goal — and it does it exceptionally well. The presentation and the wording all feels specifically tailored to an absolute kanji beginner in a way which feels like it’s been run through hundreds of focus groups down to perfection. In truth there is very little that can be argued with or ways in which you think things should have been done differently or improved aside from perhaps the in-chapter exercise that I don’t particularly feel has much benefit. 

This focus however does come with an assumption.

It is assumed that you have a complete understanding of Hiragana and Katakana as well as knowledge of some basic vocabulary. This isn’t Japanese From Zero after all (which is an entirely different book). So you may need to consider holding off if you literally haven’t touched upon Japanese before. 

Getting to the core of the matter; if you are considering buying this book you must be considering studying kanji . So the big question is: is Kanji From Zero a useful Japanese resource? Should you buy it? 

I can wholeheartedly say without question, yes. 


Find Kanji From Zero, as well as other From Zero books on Amazon.