WaniKani Review: A hilarious addition to your kanji toolkit

In this WaniKani review, we take a look at the dedicated flashcard web app for learning Japanese kanji. Join us as we dive deeper into what it does, how it does it, and whether you should add it to your Japanese learning toolkit.

Our Verdict

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WaniKani is a very well-executed flashcard programme that uses entertaining mnemonics (types of learning techniques) and spaced repetition to teach you kanji. We reckon it’s a very useful addition to any JSL student’s toolkit.

It's worth keeping in mind that WaniKani uses a different approach to radicals and the order in which you learn kanji. This could potentially be confusing for those that are used to the traditional approach of learning kanji.

TL;DR WaniKani Review

Here are some quick pros and cons of WaniKani if you haven’t got time to read the whole review: 

Pros

  • Helps you to learn kanji much more quickly than traditional means 
  • Mnemonics are hilarious and great for helping memorize kanji
  • You can learn the first 100 or so kanji for free!

Cons

  • A unique radicals system means you may find yourself confused when referring back to traditional radicals
  • You learn complex kanji before you can reasonably use them in daily life
  • Reviews are timed, and there’s no option to skip kanji or radicals you already know
  • No mobile app (yet)
  • Teaches you only the most common kanji reading

What is WaniKani?

WaniKani is a web-based flashcard program that hopes to teach you Japanese kanji. It uses spaced repetition and mnemonics and rethinks the traditional order you'd usually use to learn kanji. This way, the programme caters to English-speaking adult learners to get you learning more kanji in less time.

What Can You Do on WaniKani?

WaniKani’s Philosophy: Learning Kanji for Adults

The single most important thing to realize about WaniKani is that it is first and foremost geared for adults. Literate adults, specifically. 

Kanji is taught to Japanese children by order of word difficulty rather than structure difficulty. Even if a kanji has more strokes in it, children will learn easier if the word’s meaning is simple. 

Adults, on the other hand, already have an established vocabulary to lean back on. As a result, WaniKani made the decision to start with simpler kanji from which to build upon. The idea is that learning kanji with fewer strokes first, then building up in complexity, will get you learning more kanji in less time.

The trade-off is that you don’t learn some of the basic, more common words until later on in the programme. You will catch up eventually, but we found it rather odd that WaniKani chose to focus on textbook literacy over actual fluency.

Learning Radicals

The first few lessons you’ll find on WaniKani cover radicals, which are the building blocks of any kanji. Because WaniKani uses its own system of radicals, you’ll only be taught the names of these radicals in English. 

You’re then given a mnemonic to help you remember the radicals and some examples of kanji that use that radical. 

The mnemonics are really where WaniKani shines. Each one is hand-written with a tongue-in-cheek style of humour that’s both entertaining and memorable. I had no trouble getting through the first 26 radicals. 

You’ll learn five at a time, with a simple quiz that asks you to input the name of the radical. You can review the mnemonic if you need to, or jot down some additional notes of your own here. Then comes the hard part…

Hurry Up and Wait

WaniKani utilises a spaced repetition system (SRS), which is thought to be among the best methods of memorisation. This system tracks when you get answers right or wrong and adjusts how frequently words appear in your review sessions accordingly. 

But where WaniKani takes it a step further is that it doesn’t allow you until that SRS tells you to. Other programs, like MosaLingua, will allow you to go back review words as frequently or infrequently as you like. 

WaniKani does not allow this. Why wait, you ask? It’s because you’re supposed to be checking in with the app frequently at the intervals it allows. When you finish a review session, you’ll see a timeline on your dashboard of when next to check in to review the next set of words. 

This is done to reinforce your memory while also encouraging you to step away from the program and not burn yourself out. Frequency is key to memorisation, and overdoing it all at once will not help you learn kanji any faster. 

The caveat is that this means you have to check in with the app multiple times a day, every single day.

Unlocking Kanji and Vocabulary Lessons

If you review your radicals several times a day as WaniKani recommends, you’ll unlock kanji after a couple of days. 

The core of these lessons is very similar to the lessons you took for radicals, with a few additions and changes. You’ll get four tabs for every word in this section: radical composition for kanji and kanji composition for vocabulary, meaning, reading, and examples or context. Here’s how they break down. 

Radical or Kanji Composition

The first tab is fairly straightforward. For kanji, you’ll see the radicals that make up the character, and for vocab, you’ll see the kanji that makes up the word. You won’t get a mnemonic for these, but it will prompt you to spot where the radicals are in a character, or how the meaning of the kanji relates to the word as a whole.

Meaning

This is the definition (or definitions) of the kanji or vocabulary word. This is one of two possible mnemonics you’ll get for a character or word. Since kanji characters can have multiple meanings, sometimes the mnemonics do get rather long, and in our opinion, overly complicated. But you can tell the effort that went into writing them because they remain hilarious and unique for each kanji. 

The mnemonics for vocabulary, on the other hand, are short, sweet, and to the point. Typically vocabulary words will rely on your understanding of the individual kanji, so the mnemonics will fall back on those.

Reading

This is how the word is pronounced in Japanese. All kanji will have on’yomi and kun’yomi readings; that is, the word’s derivative pronunciation from Chinese, and the native Japanese pronunciation. Both are used in daily Japanese, but WaniKani typically gives you only the on’yomi reading in the section on kanji. 

For vocabulary words, if it is a jukugo, or compound, word, it’s usually pronounced the same as its kanji, typically in on’yomi form. WaniKani will tell you this instead of giving you yet another mnemonic to memorise. If a word uses its kun’yomi form, WaniKani will teach you that reading for the word, too.

We rather wish WaniKani didn’t strip out the kun’yomi meaning on the whole. Not knowing the multiple readings of a character can set students up for mispronunciation errors in the future, and it’s a hard habit to unlearn. 

Examples or Context

This last section is the practical section; how a kanji might be used in vocabulary words, or how a vocabulary word might be used in a sentence. For the latter, you don’t need to know every word in the example sentence. In fact, in some cases, the sentence will not be at your reading level. It’s more to provide context and show you how a word might be used in conversation or writing.

What does WaniKani Look Like?

Navigating WaniKani is a breeze. With its streamlined, minimalist design, you can access your lessons and review sessions from your dashboard. Your review forecast on the right-hand side will tell you when your next review session is available. 

You can also access the WaniKani community page from the dashboard as well. Here you’ll have access to discussions with other Japanese learners, and you can post discussions or questions of your own. 

Best of all is its topic feature, which allows you to filter discussion threads by topic to easily find what you’re looking for. 

The only drawback to the design is that it’s not well-suited for access on mobile browsers. And since there isn’t a mobile app, you’ll have to do all of your lessons from a laptop or desktop computer. A shame for learners who prefer to study on the go, especially as you'll need to check in with WaniKani frequently.

Who is WaniKani Best For?

We went over WaniKani’s philosophy of teaching kanji by difficulty of structure rather than difficulty of definition. The problem with this is that you’ll end up learning complex kanji before you can reasonably use them in daily life. Sure, you’ll learn to read more kanji quickly, but it does you little good if you can’t use them in a conversation! 

There’s a reason why Japanese children learn kanji the way they do, and most JSL courses follow this general standard. 

For that reason, WaniKani is best for English-speaking adult learners who already have a solid foundation in Japanese. WaniKani will absolutely help those learners strengthen their knowledge of kanji and Japanese overall. 

But for beginners starting from scratch, we’d recommend you find a programme that teaches you in the more traditional order to avoid confusion. You’ll also need to find another method of learning kana; that is, hiragana and katakana. WaniKani assumes you already know both.

What Languages Does WaniKani Offer?

Japanese! That’s it. Because WaniKani is a specialised programme geared toward teaching you kanji, you’ll only learn Japanese. 

Having said that, kanji shares a lot of similarities with traditional Chinese characters. WaniKani won’t teach you the Chinese readings for characters or tell you how it’s written in simplified Chinese. But having knowledge of kanji will help translate over to learning Chinese because the characters often share the same or similar meanings. 

How Much Does WaniKani Cost?

The first three levels of WaniKani are available absolutely free of charge. You just provide an email address to sign up and you’re off to the races. The first three levels will teach you about a school year’s worth of kanji, or about 55% of what’s needed to pass the JLPT N5.

To access the rest of the levels, you’ll need to opt into WaniKani Premium. The subscription options are monthly at $9 per month or annually at $89 per year. Alternatively, you can purchase lifetime access for $299

Note that premium membership does not allow you to skip levels; you’ll still have to progress through from the beginning.

What are the Pros and Cons of WaniKani?

Pros

  • Learn kanji much more quickly than traditional means 
  • Mnemonics are hilarious and great for helping memorize kanji
  • First 100 or so kanji are free 

Cons

  • A unique radicals system means you may find yourself confused when referring back to traditional radicals
  • You learn complex kanji before you can reasonably use them in daily life
  • Reviews are timed, and there’s no option to skip kanji or radicals you already know
  • No mobile app available
  • Teaches you only the most common kanji reading

Are There Any WaniKani Alternatives?

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WaniKani vs. Anki

Anki is another popular flashcard app that many Japanese learners swear by. Because it’s open-sourced, you’re responsible for curating your own decks. Be that by making your own decks or finding ones created by other people, you are in charge of what you learn. 

Anki also doesn’t use a spaced repetition system, so you’ll have to figure out what review pattern works best for you on your own.

But that means Anki is more customisable than WaniKani. WaniKani also doesn’t allow you to review at your own pace, be that a fast or a slow one. If you want more freedom for what you learn and when you learn it, Anki might be a better option for you.

WaniKani vs. LingoDeer

We’ve talked about LingoDeer before, so you can read our review to find out why we love it so much. And while both WaniKani and LingoDeer use spaced repetition, LingoDeer has one leg up on WaniKani: the mobile app. 

LingoDeer’s mobile app allows you to take your learning on the go, but it’s more than that. The app not only teaches you how to read kanji but the proper stroke order for writing it. The only downside is that it isn’t immediately clear how many kanji LingoDeer offers. WaniKani, on the other hand, is very clear-cut: over 2,000 kanji and more than 6,000 vocabulary words.

A round-up of our WaniKani review

WaniKani knows exactly what it is and does not try to be something it isn’t. It doesn’t promise you fluency in Japanese, nor does it even promise to teach you how to speak it. What it does promise is kanji literacy, and it really does deliver on that promise. 

However, WaniKani suffers for missing the forest for the trees. It so heavily focuses on getting you to learn as many kanji as quickly as possible that it doesn’t consider how or why you might need to know certain characters. It claims to sacrifice your short-term fluency for long-term literacy, which we think is a shame. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. 

We also think it falls short in its decision to only teach you the more popular readings. In our opinion, that’s setting students up for miscommunication and bad habits, and we wish they’d teach all readings. 

Does this mean we think WaniKani is bad? Absolutely not. It’s a fun, effective way to learn kanji, and for those who already have a little Japanese under their belt, this could prove an invaluable tool. We just think it could be executed better.