One of the great challenges in learning Japanese is the kanji (Chinese ideograms), on this topic there are 2 doubts that many people do: How many kanji are there? And how many kanji should I learn in Japanese? In this article we will talk about these two topics.
It is impossible to know the exact number of kanji there are. In China, thousands of kanji have been created in different regions throughout history, and Japan has also created its own ideograms. And throughout the history of Japan some kanji have ceased to be used, or are rarely seen. For these reasons it is impossible to determine an exact number of kanji in the Japanese language.
If all the kanji used in Japanese history are counted, before the existence of hiragana the numbers can exceed 40,000. The Japanese Ministry of Education has established a list called Jouyou kanji (常用漢字), with a total of 2,136 kanji. This list is designed to catalog the most commonly used kanji in Japanese, in newspapers, on television, in books, etc.
1006 kanji taught during primary education and 939 kanji taught during secondary education. The numbers are not exact, because over the years several kanji have ceased to be used and some are added.
How many kanji do the Japanese need to know?
How many kanji do Japanese people need to know in order to read, write and speak their own language? One of the biggest concerns and “headaches” of learning Japanese are the Chinese characters used in the language, known as kanji.
Japanese schoolchildren must learn 1006 basic characters, the kanji kyōiku, before finishing the sixth grade. This list is a subset of a larger list, which was implemented by the Japanese Ministry of Education in 1945.
This list is called jouyou kanji (常用漢字) which literally means commonly used Chinese ideograms. Currently this list of required ideograms has about 2136 kanji for Japanese fluency level. This larger list of characters should be mastered by the end of school. Students learn through methods of repetition.
It is generally believed that there are more than 5000 Chinese characters in the Japanese language. Over the years these ideograms have been discontinued and replaced by other words written in hiragana, with other kanji or even international words written in katakana. Knowing 2000 kanji is more than enough to speak Japanese fluently.
Do the Japanese know all the Kanji?
It is said that the Japanese do not know all the kanji on jōyō, which are the most advanced, because some of them are rarely used in everyday life and, however much they may have learned in school, the rare use of some kanji makes the Japanese forget these characters. Depending on the profession, the Japanese may or may not know all these characters.
A factory worker, for example, will not know or remember them all.
A biologist or a doctor may know more about these kanji.
Now, someone who works in education, literature, or some area of the humanities will know almost all of these kanji because they deal with these little used characters.
However, in texts and newspapers, the rarely used characters contain furigana to make it easier for those who do not know them to read. A well-lit Japanese person can read 3000 kanji or more. A doctorate can be as high as 5000, especially if it is related to your field of study.
More than 5000 is possible, but many kanji would be extremely rare, making them even harder to remember. We should not really worry about the number of ideograms in the Japanese language. Nor should we count how much we have learned. Concentrating on learning words and deciphering an unknown kanji will be easy with the help of its radicals.
How many kanji should I learn?
You must learn as many as possible without worrying about the numbers. More than 2,000 ideograms are used in Japanese, but you won’t need them all to achieve fluency. Learning the 1006 kanji taught in elementary school is more than enough for you to understand 80% of the language.
If you want to learn kanji, we recommend that you don’t focus on quantity, but try to learn the ideographs the way Japanese students learn in schools. That is, if you want to learn how to read and write each kanji, try to learn between 100 and 200 ideograms per year.
To improve your learning, we recommend studying words and phrases rather than individual ideograms. Try to learn the Japanese language and not just the kanji. Avoid trying to memorize ideograms and don’t waste time counting the number of kanji you have learned.
Personally I think it’s completely wrong to count how many kanji we’ve learned, and I think many people agree with that too.