What You Need to Know About Kanji Stroke Order
The consensus among people who are just starting to learn Japanese is: Kanji is horrifying!
In this blog post, we will be going over the following in detail:
- What stroke order is
- How to look up unfamiliar kanji
- Important stroke order “rules” that will make learning to write new kanji more straightforward.
We hope that this blog post will remove some of the horrors from learning kanji and help it all to make more sense!
(If you would like to view our other kanji-related blog posts, click here)
The thing you should know above all is: Do not get intimidated by kanji! There may be hundreds of them, but there is a concrete pattern to the seeming madness, and you will pick them up much quicker than you might think.
Also, Rome was not built in a day – Japanese kids take years learning all the kanji. You, being older, will undoubtedly learn them faster than elementary school kids would. However, don’t put pressure on yourself to be able to read them all in just weeks or even months! It will take years, not months, for you to become completely kanji-literate; and that is fine!
What is Kanji Stroke Order? why Learn it?
When in reference to kanji, strokes refer to individual lines. Each kanji has a stroke number, and a stroke order.
Stroke number is one way that kanji are classified in dictionaries. (The simplest kanji, the kanji 一 (one), is a single stroke; and the most complex kanji are 20-something strokes).
Stroke order is exactly what you think it is: the order in which you write the lines that make up the kanji.
Stroke order is important for two reasons.
Firstly, if you write kanji in an incorrect stroke order, it can make it look funny. Some kanji are so similar that this can cause a kanji to look like a different kanji. In most cases, the kanji will still be legible, but your handwriting will look bad!
Secondly, if the stroke order is incorrect, it will be either difficult or impossible to find in some kanji dictionaries.
How Can I Learn kanji Stroke Order?
Read this blog post! (ha, ha, ha)
And then, use stroke order GIFs!
When you use online dictionaries or apps to look up kanji, you can often find an animated GIF of the kanji being written in real time. These GIFs are the best way to check a stroke order. My personal favorite app dictionary is the Imi Wa? (iPhone) or Imi (Android) app.
To get to the stroke order GIF for a kanji in Imi Wa?:
- Go to the menu, and click “Kanji”
- Search for a kanji (for example, you could search “cat”)
- Click the entry for “cat” and it will bring you to a page with the GIF
- Go to the menu, and click “Dictionary”
- Search for a word (for example, you could search “lizard”)
- Click on the entry you want
- Scroll all the way to the bottom of the entry page. You will see a kanji disambiguation
- Click on the kanji you want the stroke order for and it will bring you to the page with the GIF
Other popular app or web dictionaries often have stroke order GIFs also, although (as in Imi Wa?) sometimes you must do some digging to find the page.
When you are learning a new kanji, or if you are not sure that you remember the stroke order for a kanji, always check a stroke order GIF!
There are many general rules for stroke order (which we will go over below), but the language is full of exceptions and things that appear to be one way, but are another.
How Can I Look Up Unfamiliar Kanji?
Good news, readers: Looking up kanji is much easier than it was just five to ten years ago!!
If you do not know the pronunciation of a kanji, you can look it up using several methods. You can use either a phone app (which I recommend most), an electronic dictionary , a Nintendo DS (also very good), or a paper dictionary (also fine but not recommended).
Method 1: Handwriting
When doing this, stroke order is very, very important. The dictionary search won’t work if you do an incorrect stroke order, too much space between pieces of your kanji, and other writing inconsistencies.
Note that some phone apps (including Imi Wa?) may not have a handwriting option built in. One workaround for this is to install the Mandarin Chinese handwriting keyboard on your phone. It will recognize a large number (if not all) of kanji as they are used in Japan.
For more on the handwriting keyboard, you can view our blog post on typing in Japanese here: link
Method 2: Radical
If writing the character is not working, you can look up your kanji by radical. This may be one of the easier options if you have a paper dictionary but is useful in app/web dictionaries too.
We will not get into too much detail about radicals in this blog post, but generally speaking the radical is the piece of the kanji that is used to classify it.
Radicals tend to be (but are not always) the left-most or top-most OR bottom-most piece of a kanji. For example, in 港 (port), 氵 on the left is radical.
Method 3: Stroke number/arrangement
If the above two methods are not working, you can look the kanji up by how many strokes it has or by the arrangement of the pieces of the kanji.
We classify Kanji as either the following:
- Left-right (the radical is on the left)
- Top-bottom (the radical is on the top)
- Enclosure pattern (the radical is on more than one side of the kanji)
- Solid pattern (which has several sub-categories).
Stroke number is a fairly straightforward way to look up an uncooperative kanji. However, looking up a kanji by arrangement can be time-consuming and frustrating and I generally do not recommend it unless the other methods are not working.
kanji Stroke Order in a Nutshell
Now we get into “rules” for stroke order! Keep in mind that there are no rules in a language that apply 100% of the time and that these are only the most common “rules.”
There are extra rules and patterns to stroke order that we don’t have space for here. However, keeping the below rules in mind should be enough to get you going. You will most likely start to notice other rules and patterns on your own!
1. In kanji that have many distinct component pieces, each piece has meaning.
This is because in most cases, each piece can either be a stand-alone kanji all by itself or is an alternate form of a stand-alone kanji.
For example, the kanji 話 (talk) is made of the kanji 言 (say) and the kanji 舌 (tongue). Both characters are written slightly smaller and smushed close together.
Learning the meanings of kanji that are commonly used to make other kanji is helpful for coming up with meaning mnemonics. Learning the stroke order for these kanji is crucial for writing complicated kanji correctly.
2. Generally speaking, components of kanji do not change in stroke order from kanji to kanji.
And, generally speaking, each component of a kanji is written separately from its other components.
Beginners sometimes end up combining pieces that are not supposed to be connected or mistaking two strokes that happen to line up between pieces for one long stroke. For example, the kanji 男 (man) can appear to be 6 strokes, but if you zoom in you will see that the top piece 田 and the bottom piece 力 are separate from each other and do not share that central line. The kanji is 7 strokes.
3. To speak very generally, kanji are generally written starting at each character’s top left and moving toward their bottom right.
So, in simple kanji that are made up of a left part and a right part (such as 行 (going)), the left part is always written first and the right part is always written second. Similarly, in simple kanji that are made up of a top part and a bottom part (such as 男 (man)), the top part is always written first and the bottom part is always written second.
4. Horizontal lines are usually written left to right, and vertical lines top to bottom.
However, watch out for the angle at which strokes are written, and (depending on the font) for where the thickest part of each stroke is. The topmost stroke of 手 (hand), for example, is at an angle and is slightly thicker on the right side; and therefore should be assumed to be written right to left.
5. When a kanji has one horizontal piece in the manner of 十 (ten), the horizontal piece is almost always written first.
When a kanji has three horizontal pieces in the manner of 王 (king), however, usually the top horizontal piece comes first, then the vertical piece, then the middle horizontal piece, then the bottom horizontal piece.
6. When a kanji is a square shape (such as 口 (mouth)), it is almost always three strokes.
The top of the square and the right-hand side of the square are one stroke together. When a kanji has a square shape with things inside of it (such as 四 (four)), the left side and the top/right side of the square shape are written first, then the pieces inside the square shape, then the bottom of the square shape.
If all of those rules feel overwhelming, that’s ok!! Most people (including Japanese children!) feel overwhelmed by kanji stroke order at first. As you study kanji, the rules above will come into play so frequently that very soon, you will be quite accustomed to them. Kanji, like many other aspects of the Japanese language, are highly pattern based, and once you get used to seeing the commonly used components of kanji and get familiar with their stroke order, all of this will not seem like as much of a deluge of information.
In the meantime, if you have any questions at all about stroke order or kanji studies, please do leave us a comment or send us a message! We’d love to help you out!
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If you would like to view our other kanji-related blog posts, click here!