REVIEW: Kanji in 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.

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: Get 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.


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.

White Rabbit Japan

Reference Book – Workbook Vol. 1Workbook Vol. 2


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.