Notes for Instructors

For learners of Japanese who have grown up with no exposure to Chinese characters, kanji represent completely new territory. Of course, it would be ideal if language instructors could take the time needed to guide learners through all aspects of their entry into this new territory, explaining the history of kanji, their radicals and their writing. But given the strictly regimented curriculum of beginning language classes, where the teaching of basic grammar and vocabulary is usually given precedence, the reality is that it is difficult to make enough time to teach kanji. In response to this challenge, in 2002 we created Kanji alive, an online teaching tool for kanji, which helps both learners and instructors navigate the challenging territory of Japanese kanji.

Thanks to Kanji alive, virtually all class time—apart from periodic in-class evaluation of learners’ kanji acquisition—is freed up for conversation-based learning. Passive learning and teacher-centered explanation is reduced, and the class emphasis is shifted to active, learner-centered speaking, reading and writing.

Computer technology has advanced by leaps and bounds in the decade since Kanji alive was launched. Now there are many online kanji sites and kanji dictionaries. However, many of them have not been created from the pedagogical point of view, so Japanese learners are always looking for an effective yet reliable learning tool for kanji that is truly tailored to their needs.

Taking this opportunity of our tenth anniversary, we have improved Kanji alive drastically. Of course, you can still search a kanji by onyomi, kunyomi, radical, radical stroke number, kanji stroke number, elementary school grade level, or by textbook. Now in response to user requests, Kanji alive allows you to search a kanji by entering the kanji itself in quick search mode. In addition, you can use any number of combined searches by using the advanced search option. For example, you can enter in the search field kanji stroke numbers and the radical’s Japanese name (e.g. 6 kanji strokes + “ninben” as ks:6 rjn:ninben), kanji stroke numbers and radical stroke numbers (e.g. 6 kanji stokes + 2 radical strokes as ks:6 rs:2), onyomi and kanji stroke numbers (e.g. “kyuu” + 6 kanji strokes as on:kyuu ks:6) or onyomi and radical Japanese name (e.g “kyuu” + “ninben” as on:kyuu rjn:ninben). And now, besides entering your search in Romaji – the standard input method until now – you can also key your search in Hiragana or Katakana.

No doubt many instructors discourage their students from using online tools, stressing instead the importance of learning to use standard hard-copy kanji dictionaries. However, when students use Kanji alive, they are in fact learning to use hard-copy kanji dictionaries, because Kanji alive‘s search methods and means of presenting search results, mimic those used in standard kanji dictionaries. Students can also learn which search method is the most efficient for finding a target kanji. Furthermore, unlike hard-copy kanji dictionaries, students need not remember the page number of a target kanji, turning over pages to locate it. They can find the target kanji immediately.

When there are several kanji in the results, you can view the results grouped by radical stroke number or kanji stroke number. Within each stroke group, the kanji are then sorted by radicals which are presented next to the kanji in the canonical Kangxi dictionary order. As a result, students’ awareness of radicals will increase and hopefully they will pay more attention to radicals as they learn kanji.

Regarding the information presented with each kanji, besides the information from the legacy version of Kanji alive, each target kanji is now shown in four model typefaces — Kyoukashotai, Mincho, Gothic and Maru, and four additional typefaces, Tensho, Gyosho, Kanteiryu and Suzumushi — to accustom learners to recognize these varied styles. And a custom link to the Luminous English-Japanese Japanese-English Dictionary by Kenkyusha was added, so that learners can be exposed to more example words from this well-known dictionary.

As before, when first introducing kanji, instructors can direct students to the Introduction to Kanji and the 214 Traditional Radicals pages of the Kanji alive website, encouraging them to read – outside of class – the PDF documents that describe the history of kanji, the radicals, and the basic rules of writing.

Kanji alive was originally developed for use in universities, but it can be used by a variety of learners of Japanese, from primary and secondary schools, to students in international schools in Japan, to Japanese nationals in Japanese schools in foreign countries. Depending on the situation it might be necessary for instructors to supplement the online tool with further explanation. Adult learners of Japanese can use Kanji alive whenever and however it suits them.

For instructors using Kanji alive at their own educational institution with its own textbook, the ability to search for kanji based on lesson numbers will probably be of great benefit to your students. For this reason we offer the option of customizing Kanji alive so that your own institution or textbook name can also appear in the Kanji alive search window as a search parameter. For details please see the customization section below.

A word to elementary school teachers in Japan

Since lately the use of tablets and smart boards (electronic blackboards) has been increasing in elementary schools in Japan, teachers of native Japanese speakers in Japanese elementary schools will find Kanji alive useful not only in Kokugo (Japanese) class but also in teaching computer skills.

In Kokugo (Japanese) class, you can call up any character(s) you want to display simply by entering the kanji itself or the kun reading. When you search by grade, you can retrieve all kanji taught in that grade, categorized by radicals, radical stroke numbers or kanji stroke numbers. The animated sequences showing the historical derivation of radicals in particular, if supplemented by your explanation, will deepen the students’ understanding of kanji.

In teaching computer skills, you can use kanji practice as the final goal in a lesson that would involve learning how to access the web and type in Kana and Roman characters. First teach the students how to access the web, and let them find the Kanji alive site. Then instruct them on how to type using Kana and Roman characters so that they can use the search function that requires Kana and Roman character input. Finally, when they have found the correct character, have them do their kanji practice using the information about the character provided on the screen. If used in this way, Kanji alive can be a tool that takes three subjects that are usually taught separately— computers, English, and kanji–and integrates them into one unified goal.

If you have any other ideas on uses for Kanji alive, we would love to hear from you. Please see the Feedback page for contact information.

Important Notes

1. Kanji alive is not an English-Japanese dictionary. Kanji alive has a useful search function to help students find kanji by their core meaning(s) in English, but it is not designed to be used as a dictionary. The search function does not allow a user to search for compound words, such as 電話 (denwa, telephone). A search by English meaning(s) will only yield the individual kanji with that meaning. We advise our students at the University of Chicago to search for assigned kanji by the lesson number of their textbook. This is the most effective way for students to search for the kanji they must learn to write.

2 To teach “stop”, “sweep” and “hook” stroke endings, Kanji alive presents a hand-written kanji and the Kyokasho typeface. The Kyokasho typeface shows the clearest distinction among the three main stroke endings: the stop, the sweep and the hook (please consult the PDF document on the Introduction to Kanji page for an explanation of the three stroke types).

Kanji alive calligraphic style font

Kyokashotai style

The pen font, which is displayed during the animated sequence, shows how the “stop” “sweep” and “hook” appear when the kanji is written in everyday situations. Please instruct learners to use this style of writing as their model when they practice.

Kanji alive pen style animation

Hand-written style

We are sometimes asked why we did not use a brush for the animated sequence. The answer is as follows: For people who are familiar with calligraphy, it seems most natural to illustrate the three stroke types in the calligraphic style. However, learners without the knowledge of calligraphy find it difficult to correlate calligraphic strokes with the results they get from a pen or pencil. Of course one could take the time to teach students that the three strokes represent conventions of calligraphic writing, but the number of times students will actually be exposed to calligraphy is very limited, and when they are writing in everyday circumstances they will use a pen or pencil, not a brush. For this reason, Kanji alive does not use animated clips of kanji being drawn with a calligraphic brush. Instead we have decided to adopt the kyokashotai font to display the difference between the three strokes clearly, but to use the pen font as a model for writing. Students can toggle between them to learn the important “stop”, “sweep” or “hook” endings for each stroke.

3. We have 1235 kanji in our database.

While we understand that the more kanji we add to the database, the more useful it becomes to general users, we also recognize that there is a limit to the usefulness of a tool such as Kanji alive. For example, very advanced learners who have already mastered 1000 or more kanji no longer need to view kanji written stroke by stroke. It is beginners and intermediate level learners who will benefit most from Kanji alive. With this in mind, we have decided to enter 1235 kanji in Kanji alive, instead of the 1945 kanji recommended for general use by the Japanese Language Council. This decision is based on the following criteria:

  • 1006 kanji are taught at Japanese elementary schools from the first grade to the sixth grade. These are called the “educational kanji.”
  • About 1000 kanji are listed for N2 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, conducted worldwide by the Japan Foundation.
  • The level of the Proficiency Exam at the University of Chicago is set at a level similar to N2 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, conducted by the Japan Foundation.
  • By the end of third year Japanese at the University of Chicago, about 1000 kanji will be included as kanji for writing.
  • Some kanji listed in “educational kanji” are not included in the list for N2 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and vice versa. Therefore, we have incorporated all of the “educational kanji” and all those used for the N2 of the Japanese Proficiency Test into our database. This represents 1235 kanji in all.

Please consult this page for a full list of all the kanji supported by Kanji alive sorted by their kanji stroke number.

4. The mnemonic hints don’t show an etymology.

The hints were revised and developed by Harumi Hibino Lory and Camelia Nakagawara especially for Kanji alive, based on 2001 Kanji by Joseph R. De Roo, Bonjinsha, 1980 (currently out of print). All information is used with permission. The meanings of radicals are often broadened, and the radicals are sometimes taken apart to create mnemonic hints.


We offer instructors the opportunity to customize our database for their own classroom as a free service. If you provide us with the grouping of kanji used in each of your textbook lessons, we will set up the database so that students can input your textbook lesson numbers as a search parameter, and thus be able to access all the kanji from each lesson with a single search. If you are interested, or have any other questions, please contact us through the information on the Feedback page.

Due to such requests, and with authorization from the authors, the following kanji lists were added and are currently searchable in Kanji alive:

  • Chieko Kano, Yuri Shimizu, Hiroko Takenaka, Eriko Ishii, Basic Kanji Book, Bonjinsha
  • The kanji list from Macquarie University JPN111 (the kanji 井、頁、and 又 are neither second level JLPT kanji nor educational kanji and thus are not supported by Kanji alive).
  • Hiromi Peterson and Naomi Omizo, Adventures in Japanese, vol. 1-4, Cheng & Tsui Company (the kanji 嬉 from Chapter 7 of the fourth volume is neither a second level JLPT kanji nor an educational kanji and thus is not supported by Kanji alive).
  • Eri Banno, Chikako Shinagawa, Youko Sakane, Yutaka Oono, Kyouko Tokashiki, Genki, Japan Times.
  • The kanji list developed by the University of Vermont Japanese program for the Tsukuba Language Group’s Situational Functional Japanese, vol. 1-3, Bonjinsha (the following 14 kanji in the third volume are neither second level JLPT kanji nor educational kanji, and are thus not supported by Kanji alive: 翻, 誘, 玄, 稿, 煮, 惑, 剤, 肝, 盲, 徹, 滝, 伎, 芦, 兼).
  • The kanji list used by Harrison High School.
  • The following 3 kanji are neither second level JLPT kanji nor educational kanji and are thus not supported by Kanji alive (忍, 丈, 豪).
  • The kanji list for the AP examination in Japanese. The kanji for the AP examination are divided into 20 sections for simplicity. To view these kanji, select “AP Kanji” as the textbook, then enter the section that you would like to view. A list of which kanji appear in which section is available here (PDF).
  • Eri Banno, Yoko Ikeda, Chikako Shinagawa, Kaori Tajima, Kyoko Tokashiki, KANJI LOOK AND LEARN, The Japan Times (the kanji 吉 in lesson 27 is neither second level JLPT kanji nor educational kanji and thus is not supported by Kanji alive).
  • Intermediate Kanji Book Vol.1, Chieko Kano, Yuri Shimizu, Eriko Ishii, Hiroko Takenaka, Bonjinsha (the kanji 訂 and 援 in lesson 3, the kanji 裕 in lesson 4, the kanji 拍 in LR1 the kanji 併 and 睡 in lesson 7, the kanji 撃, 振, 煮 in lesson 9 and the kanji 被 and 購 in LR2 are neither second level JLPT kanji nor educational kanji and thus are not supported by Kanji alive.)

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