A Mnemonic for Japanese

I frequently encounter words in Japanese that are difficult to memorize. For these cases, I’ve adopted a system that maps phonemes in Japanese to English keywords. The keywords are then combined into mnemonic stories related to the word’s meaning.

Type a hiragana word in the box below to see its keywords.

Guidance from Heisig

I originally came across this mnemonic system in an appendix of Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji 2. Like the mapping described in Heisig’s book, my personal mnemonic map does not include all the phonemes in Japanese.

I’ve removed long vowels, since it would be unclear whether きょう should be mapped to one keyword, or two. Other phonemes (like ぱ) are quite rare, and I’ve left them out until absolutely necessary to reduce the initial memorization load.

There are currently a little over 70 sounds in the system. Many of the keywords differ from the ones suggested by Heisig. I’ve uploaded the complete mapping as an Anki deck here. It’s also available in plaintext in this post’s source code.

Below is a brief sample of the mapping. Generally, the keyword is taken from a source Japanese word in which the sound appears.

Sound Source Keywords
亜細亜 Asia
うさぎ hare; rabbit
train station
尻尾 tail
hair; fur

Example Usage

To memorize “persimmon” かき, there are two steps:

  1. Map かき into its constituent keywords: か=mosquito, き=tree.
  2. Create a story involving persimmons and the keywords in order.

For example: The sweetness of the persimmon attracts many insects, causing them to be called 'mosquito trees' in some parts of the world. Since the keywords occur in order, you can reconstruct the reading without looking it up.

As with all mnemonics, this will fall away over time until you simply know that a persimmon is a かき.

Since it’s only necessary to memorize the mapping of keywords to sounds in order to use the mnemonics, I wrote a piece of code for the <input> element at the top of this post to perform the inverse operation for me.

Word of Caution

Most people learn kanji using mnemonics composed of their radicals. However, as words have so many more connections to life than kanji, it’s a colossal waste of time to create mnemonics for words that you can memorize without their help.

Heisig provides several guidelines regarding the use of his system:

  1. Unlike radicals in kanji, this system is not intended for use as far as possible, but only as far as necessary.
  2. You should not apply it retroactively to words you already know.
  3. You should not use it to learn masses of new vocabulary isolated from the context of your reading and conversation.

The purpose of these precautions appears to be to prevent students from slowing themselves down by creating a system where one is not necessarily required.