Context.

It’s the reason I’m so bad at retelling funny stories. (Seriously–you just had to be there.)

But when it comes to language learning, while it’s important to have guidance, the context in which you learn new information has a major impact on your ability to recall that information later.

Let’s take flash cards, a common learning aid, for example. Beginners will find it simple and effective to put a word like「図書館・としょかん」 on a flash card, slap “library” on the back, and call it a day.

Again, simple and effective–especially if you’re just cramming for a test.

But eventually, you’re going to start coming across onomatopoeic words like ガラガラ and ヒリヒリ. After a while, words like this start to pile up, and keeping track of what they all mean without relying on context will quickly become a truly special kind of torture, and indeed, an exercise in futility.

Or, for another example, take「診る・みる」. Yeah, you can just give it a 1:1 translation and say “to examine (medically)”, but it’s far more effective to pair it with something that makes sense in context. Instead of having 「診る」 on a card by itself, try 「脈 / 患者を診る」on the front, while highlighting–as I have done here–the main word to be focused on.

See? Now you’ve exposed yourself to a couple of ways in which 診る can be used, and you’re more likely to be able to use it in a sentence (i.e., a real situation — context!) later.

Pretty neat, huh?

 

Kanji in Context – Overview

This is where the star of today’s show, Kanji in Context, comes in.

It’s a series of three books–one reference book, two workbooks–originally created in 1994 by the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies, which itself was established by Stanford University in 1961. The Center is one of the most prestigious Japanese language schools in Japan and is currently administered by a consortium of 15 American universities which have strong graduate programs in Japanese Studies, including Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, Yale, and a number of others (including my alma mater, Indiana University — yay).

Anyway, the original edition set out to cover all 1,945 常用 (jōyō or “everyday use”) kanji, as well as a couple of others like 誰 and 賄. However, as a new revision of the list was released in 2010, Kanji in Context was updated in 2013 to meet the new standards–now 2,136 kanji–along with nearly 10,000 vocabulary terms that incorporate those characters. Indeed, mastering Kanji in Context is one of the best ways to prepare to pass the current N1-level proficiency test.

Just for good measure, let me say that again: Buy the newer, revised edition of Kanji in Context, not the old one. Otherwise, you won’t be covering the current jōyō list of 2,136 kanji. Here’s a visual reference:

 

Revised Edition (get this one)

 

Old Edition

 

The series is written with four key points in mind, as found in the introduction:

  1. The text is specifically designed for intermediate and advanced learners, with clearly stated objectives
  2. Kanji can be learned in a systematic fashion
  3. Focus of study is not on kanji only, but also on kanji-based vocabulary
  4. Kanji can be easily acquired by repeated exposure

 

To expand each point:

  1. The book doesn’t focus on things like stroke order or radicals (although you can look up the stroke order in the reference book’s entries for each kanji). Indeed, starting this text at the intermediate level or higher will probably allow you to appreciate its contents more as it’s not really beginner-friendly. You will have to read and interpret the contexts in which they appear without being able to rely on any direct English translations, which may prove difficult for a beginner (but it’s a great way to kick off your training wheels). Here’s an example from lesson 2: 「アメリカの景気が日本や東南アジアの国々の景気を左右する。」 Here, the focus is on the two words 「東南・とうなん」(southeast) and「左右・さゆう」(here, to influence or control), but for someone (especially a self-learner) who has only just begun to learn these kanji, it’s perhaps inefficient to be trying to learn these more advanced readings (and meanings) alongside the simpler, more common ones. But once you know that 「左」means “left” and「右」means “right,”  the meaning of「左右」makes more sense.
  2. The book’s authors understand that the number of kanji needed by learners rises sharply at the intermediate and advanced level. They present kanji in a systematic way based on frequency and similarities found in the form, sound, and meaning of characters. Other methods often result in exercises in learning individual characters, which makes it difficult to understand that kanji belong to a system, thus slowing down the acquisition process. Kanji in Context, however, teaches kanji in an order that makes sense from the standpoint of an adult learning Japanese as a second language–not as a native Japanese speaker.
  3. The books go beyond the mere study of kanji to include the acquisition of vocabulary as one of its objectives. The main book contains an abundant collection of essential vocabulary words, all of which have been selected with the different stages of learning in mind. The usage of the vocabulary in the main book can be learned in context through the example sentences and related words found in the workbooks.
  4. The book repeats target vocabulary to a certain extent instead of presenting an item once and then never again. Gaining an understanding of basic words and the system of everyday use kanji, and then at the next stage expanding vocabulary while reviewing the basic words, you’ll be able to make orderly progress through the books, with each stage building on the previous one.

 

The 2,136 kanji appearing in the books have been divided into seven levels corresponding to the following stages of learning:

LevelNo. of KanjiStage
1250These are elementary kanji that a learner who has completed a beginning course is expected to have already studied.
2100 (subtotal: 350)These are kanji that an intermediate learner is expected to have already studied.
3850 (subtotal: 1,200)These are kanji that are generally taught in an intermediate course.
4220 (subtotal: 1,420)These are kanji that may be covered in certain intermediate courses but are not necessarily common to such courses, or kanji that are generally taught in advanced courses.
5412 (subtotal: 1,832)These are kanji that may be covered in certain advanced courses but are not necessarily common to such courses.
6110 (subtotal: 1,942)These are special kanji which appear only in the vocabulary or terminology of particular fields.
7194 (subtotal: 2,136)These are kanji that were added to the list of Jōyō Kanji when the Ministry of Education revised the list in 2010. Note, however, that in Kanji in Context the character 誰 is presented in Level 1, and the character 賂 is presented in Level 4.

According to a study by the National Language Research Institute, the 500 most often used kanji represent roughly 80% of the kanji found in newspapers, and 94% of newspaper kanji can be covered by 1,000 characters. According to the authors’ reasoning, if you have learned the 1,200 characters in Levels 1-3, you’ll have knowledge of around 95% of the kanji that are used in newspapers today. Tack on Level 4 for good measure, and you should be well-prepared to pass the N2 level of the current JLPT.

The book goes into a lot more detail about how/why information is presented in the text, how to look up unknown kanji/vocab in the indexes (with flow charts and everything!), more statistics, etc., but I’ll let you discover all of that goodness on your own.

 

What’s Inside

The reference book is beefy and wonderful, but the heart of the content is what’s found in the workbooks–this is where the series truly shines.

There are 156 lessons found throughout both workbooks. Each lesson focuses on about 10-15 kanji (about 10-30 for Levels 1 and 2), providing a variety of approaches to help you master the usage of the target vocab and expand your overall understanding of kanji-based vocabulary. It does this by splitting each lesson into three major sections (I’ve included some examples for clarity).

 

Section I: Double compounds 「和平交渉」, idiomatic expressions「平和を守る」, and sentence patterns that use the vocabulary「議論が平行線をたどる」.

Section II: Related vocabulary and other related words「管理職・平社員」, contrasting expressions「収入・支出」、「ビールを冷やす・ビールが冷える」(the last being an example of transitivity/intransitivity).

Section III: Example sentences using the vocabulary「慌てて家を出ると、必ず何か忘れ物をしてしまう。」.

 

Another thing I like about the book is that it will let you know (via special markings) when it’s OK to not worry about studying certain words or characters yet, as you’re guaranteed to pick them up later on. It also marks historical terms with (歴) and specialized terms with (特).

The first volume of the workbook covers Levels 1-3 (kanji numbers 1-1200), and the second volume covers Levels 4-7 (kanji numbers 1201-2136).

 

How to Use Kanji in Context

Of course, what would a comprehensive review be without a little how-to?

The book assumes you’ve “mastered” (in their words) the 300-500 kanji normally taught in a typical beginning course. Seeing as how the Genki series introduces a little over 300 kanji total, it’s safe to say that you could begin Kanji in Context after completing book 2. However, you will probably want to take it slow, as jumping straight into KiC after Genki might prove to be a daunting task (there are no shiny pictures, and Mary and Takeshi are both sadly absent).

With that said, even if you’re a veteran learner, I suggest starting from the beginning of the series. Although you’ll probably already be familiar with a lot of the content found in Levels 1 and 2, it’s important to note that the material presented at these levels is not confined to elementary vocabulary words, and as I mentioned earlier, the series will continue to build on what you’ve learned in previous lessons. Starting from the beginning will serve as a nice refresher and you’ll be up to speed on what you need to know before digging in to the advanced stuff later.

The authors suggest that you go through the series three times. The first time, you focus on learning the basics (denoted by “key words” printed in red along with other specially marked items). Doing this alone will net you about 3,700 vocabulary words that are considered to be of high importance.

The second run-through covers words unmarked by symbols, but these words still incorporate the kanji you’ve already learned. You will, however, study words marked with an asterisk (*). These are typically words that are important to know but somewhat difficult to use. Since you already have a solid foundation of key vocabulary words at this point, however, you should be able to pick up these new words quickly enough.

On the third time around, you’ll focus on the words marked with the symbols ◊, 歴, and 特. This will get you up to 100% coverage of the jōyō kanji list. As you can imagine, this third stage won’t take as long.

Now, as for how to actually study this material, well, that’s up to you. The books don’t actually have any exercises, per se, but rather a ton of examples of kanji appearing in–wait for it–context.

If you’re familiar with any of my content on Kuma Sensei, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of SRS-based programs (SRS stands for “spaced repetition system”). It’s not a silver bullet that will solve all of your language-learning problems, but it’s a great study aid for moving stuff you’ve learned from short-term to long-term memory for more effective retrieval.

Indeed, my strategy with Kanji in Context was to fire up Anki and start cranking out flash cards. On the front of the card, I put the whole “context” in which the item was to be learned (e.g. the compound, expression, or example sentence) and bolded and underlined the item, mimicking the book’s presentation.

 

 

Scan of Kanji in Context

Turn this…

Anki screenshot of Kanji in Context

…into this!

 

On the back of the card goes English translations of the item being studied — not of the whole sentence itself. You don’t want to get into the habit of translating entire sentences in your head as a learner. Rather, it’s better to train your mind as early as possible to start thinking in the target language.

And when I say “item,” I mean every single item.

Is this excessive? Probably. I think I could have skipped some of the items I had already committed to memory prior to picking up KiC. But being the perfectionist that I am, I just couldn’t bring myself to skip any content. The end result after inputting new items at a rate of about one lesson per day (156 lessons / 30 days avg. per month = 5-6 months) was over 5,500 flash cards, hand-typed, many of them full sentences.

Yeesh.

And to be honest with you, I didn’t actually follow the method the authors provide. Rather than going through the book three times, which I’m sure helps with pacing and avoiding flash card burnout, I just went through and created everything in one go. This meant that content started to pile up rather quickly, as I was studying 20 new cards (along with only 50 reviews) per day. My schedule didn’t allow for much more than this, especially considering the time sink hand-typing cards can be.

The reason I mention this is because I don’t want you to burn yourself out using this method. Yes, learners getting tons of input makes Krashen a very happy man, and this method certainly falls in line with popular methods such as the “10,000 sentence” method touted by AJATT-enthusiasts (which I can’t link to here as Google says the site may be infected — you can look it up on your own).

But at the rate I was going, I started to get overwhelmed after a while. You may want to take things a little more slowly depending on your learning goals and personal schedule. After all, learning Japanese is not a race, but a marathon.

 

Kuma Sensei says…

Kanji in Context is a wonderful resource for ambitious learners who want to take their kanji study to the next level. Whether you’re an intermediate learner looking for a way to break into more advanced material, or a veteran learner preparing for the JLPT N1, Kanji in Context will have something for you.

 

You can purchase the books below. At the time of writing this, the books all seem to be cheaper on White Rabbit Japan. Since the books are imported from Japan, the price and availability can fluctuate a bit on Amazon.

 

White Rabbit Japan

Reference Book – Workbook Vol. 1Workbook Vol. 2

 

Amazon

Reference Book – Workbook Vol. 1Workbook Vol. 2

 

Are you a fan of Kanji in Context? Do you have any questions about using the text? Is there something you wish the book did better?

Leave a comment below!

 

If you’re interested in further reading, head over to the extensive study path I’ve designed for Japanese learners. If you’d like to see more reviews, check out my popular post on the Japanese course for Duolingo.

 

As always, thanks for reading.

Posted by Kuma Sensei

Kuma Sensei is a mythical bear who lives in the woods and enjoys talking about learning languages.

9 Comments

  1. If you don’t mind sharing your Anki deck, I’d like a copy. Send the deck privately by email.

    japanese.lonewolf@yahoo.com

    Thanks in advance.

    Reply

  2. Hello Kuma Sensei
    your blog is great, thx for posting it.
    I have copies of the old kanji in Context books and going to purchase the new ones.
    Could you please share your Anki deck you have created?
    It would be great help for me to study from it?
    My email is fynx.gloire@gmail.com

    Thank you

    Reply

    1. Hello fynx,

      Sure, I’d be happy to share the deck. Watch your inbox!

      Reply

  3. Hello Kuma-sensei
    thanks for your article.
    I was wondering if you would be so kind as to lend me your Anki cards that you mad for the Kanji in Context series?
    I actually have bought the older versions of the book ( all 3 of them ) and will now purchase the new versions.
    My email is fynx.gloire@gmail.com
    thx

    Reply

  4. Posted on reddit but i’ll repost here, we never know :

    Very interesting ! I was very interested in Kanji in Context a while ago, however the author of the Kodansha Kanji Learner’s released some graded readers that gives around 10 sentences for each learned kanji. How do you think it compares to that now ? I’m genuinely interested in your opinion, you can check the first volume of the graded reader for free here https://keystojapanese.com/klcgrs-volumes/

    I’m still unsure of which solution i will use so your input will have great value. Also, could you upload your anki deck ? It would be very useful, me and many people have been looking for a kanji in context anki decks and so far, they all disappeared and none are available anymore

    Thanks for your great review by the way

    Reply

    1. Hey, thanks for the message, I’ll reply on Reddit as well for good measure.

      After skimming through volume 1 of the reader set you linked to, it looks like an overall solid way to gain more exposure to sentences, which is always a good thing. It seems that the author is also attempting to make it as affordable as possible, and it looks like an honest effort went into gathering the contents, which I appreciate.

      However, the aim of the resource is a little ambiguous for me. I believe that graded readers should follow a coherent storyline that has a beginning, middle, and end. The point of using graded readers, after all, is to improve reading speed and fluency. Also, I’m not sure if the author quite understands the meaning of “extensive reading.” He claims that it must

      1. challenge you with new forms
      2. give you adequate support to understand what you are reading

      …neither of which is really true. According to one of the leading experts on the subject, Richard R. Day, extensive reading done at a level that is outside of your comfort zone is missing the point of extensive reading entirely. While you’re reading, you shouldn’t have to be constantly checking your reference dictionaries. If your ability level is i, then reading at the i-1 level will build confidence and will make it easier for you to begin to build both sight and general vocabularies. It makes it clear to you that this is a different kind of reading practice from what you may be used to, and that’s because the reading goals are different (Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom, Day & Bamford, 1998).

      The resource you linked does not strive for these goals, which puts it outside the realm of extensive reading.

      So it seems we have something of an identity crisis on our hands.

      It’s not quite a grammar-teaching resource, as there is no clear method to the madness in how it introduces grammar forms. I feel that all of the “grammar glosses” in general are a bit superfluous and undermine the learner’s ability to look stuff up on their own — it ends up contributing little more than additional, unsightly text to each entry.

      The inclusion of English translations is also something that does more harm than good in the long run, in my opinion. If you’re going to add translations, it really should only be for the target kanji/vocabulary being learned. Leave the rest of the interpretation up to the learner. If the meaning is too esoteric, perhaps you shouldn’t be using the constitution of Japan and Plato to teach Japanese in the first place.

      These are just a few of my nitpicks, which are, if I can be honest, more like glaring flaws than minor nitpicks. I’m not trying to harp on the author too much here – I appreciate the honest effort. But I think it’s just trying to do too many things at once, and ends up falling short as a result. You might as well pick up a normal textbook until the intermediate stage, at which point you can start using more specialized texts like this one or Kanji in Context.

      Final thoughts: KLC looks like it’s put together well enough to use. If you’re a current user, and you enjoy it, I’m not advocating that you stop using it. And for people thinking of trying it, it’s nice that you can buy it in separate chunks. And hey, more exposure to sentences. But if I had to choose between the two, I would definitely go with Kanji in Context, if only because it’s a more polished text that is abundantly more clear in its teaching goals (and perhaps more effective in their execution). Hope this helps!

      Reply

      1. Thank you very much for your great answer. I guess i’ll use Kanji in Context then ! Seems like a very great book, i’ll have around 800 kanji under my belt when i’ll use it so it seems perfect for me.

        I don’t know if you saw, but i was interested in your Anki Deck too. I think it would be a very valuable ressource for anyone trying to do Kanji in Context, since that’s one of the few books that has close to no helping ressource online. That was also one of the big reason i was looking for an alternative and i would be very grateful for it.

        Thank you for everything, your site is very well done and helps a lot

        Reply

        1. 800 kanji would be a great starting point. I think you’ll like the book!

          I need to clean up the Anki deck because I changed the formatting of the cards’ back side a little bit as I went along. Not a big deal, but just kind of inconsistent in some parts. Also, my deck consists of the older edition of Volume 1 and the newer edition of Volume 2, so there’s a possibility that the contents don’t match up 100% with the current edition of Volume 1. I compared the books in person at a bookstore and there didn’t seem to be any differences, but I’m sure there’s a sentence or two that might have been altered.

          If these issues aren’t a problem, I’d be happy to share the deck. Something tells me, however, that it’s not OK to just post all of the workbooks’ contents online, even in the form of flash cards, since that’s really the meat of the series, which is protected by copyright. I’ll look into some options and get back to you. If nothing else, perhaps I can send the deck privately via email. If anyone else is interested, let me know.

          Reply

          1. I did a long answer unfortunately it seems it didn’t send…. Anyway i was basically saying that i understand and that i won’t be using KIC before finishing tobira, aka around in 3 or 4 months so there’s time !

            I intend to learn kanji the “textebook” way till i can because even though everyone seems to hate this method and recommend real kanji courses, it works suprisingly well for me. I think it’s the context that they add, like most kanji are gradually introduced in each lesson and i love that because it really makes everything stick in my brain as opposed to the “mnemonics” way, which doesn’t work nearly as well for me. That’s why when i discovered there was a whole kanji book working like that, i fell in love haha ^^ I feel it’s sad it’s not that popular, and it’s great that you did publictiy for it because i’m a big believer in context learning.

            Anyway so as i said in my previous post, i plan to use it in conjuction with Authentic Japanese and then rapid reading japanese because they don’t have a kanji section. After finishing rapid reading japanese and KIC, i hope i’ll be able to just dive into native material and not use textbooks anymore ! But i know myself, after playing many FF games in japanese and reading many mangas, i’ll maybe do the whole Kanzen Master N1 series if i want to try to pass the JLPT N1 🙂

            Thank you btw for all the help, very much appreciated

            Reply

Leave a Reply to vaanen Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *