The Kanshudo complete guide to writing Japanese

Draw b03a4fb1d2fea027d67c3eb6d0b308e10e667b6ae5ef13739c19b4431a63a713

Kanshudo's guide to writing Japanese

In this guide you'll learn the standard strokes used to draw all Japanese kanji, how to determine the stroke order for a kanji, the differences between printed and handwritten forms of kanji and more! In addition there are plenty of links to our kanji drawing practice tool so you can perfect your own writing style.
1. Why learn to write Japanese?
One of the most common questions we hear is 'why learn to write kanji?'. After all, computers and smartphones are nearly universal, and make it extremely easy to draw any character you need to. Even if you have to create a handwritten note, it's easy to use a device to look up the kanji first if you need to.
Our answer is very simple: learning to write kanji will cement them in your memory more effectively than any other approach. If you can actually summon to mind the components of a kanji, and reproduce them on paper by hand, we can pretty much guarantee that you will not forget that kanji. Purely recognition-based approaches are a great first step, and they are fast and effective, but writing invokes 'muscle memory' - it uses an entirely different part of your brain, which then works in tandem to complement the part of your brain that handles recognition. In the same way that speaking Japanese also improves your listening skills, learning to write will help you to read.
Learning a language effectively (and efficiently) needs a holistic approach - you have to work on reading, listening, speaking and writing in parallel. Learning to write will help you master the kanji, and Japanese, more quickly and effectively.
2. The standard strokes used to draw kanji
The good news is that all kanji, even the incredibly complex ones, are actually just combinations of the same set of standard strokes. If you learn and practice each of these basic strokes by writing simpler kanji that use them, you will soon start to see how more complex kanji are built up. In turn that will enable you to see how to draw any kanji.
What is a stroke, and why does it matter?
By 'stroke' (
), we mean a single stroke of a pen or brush. In other words, to draw a stroke, you put your pen down and begin drawing, and when you lift it up that stroke is complete. Of course, you could draw any kanji by just copying the shape. But over thousands of years, the art of Japanese calligraphy or
has evolved a standardized way of drawing every kanji, optimized partly to aid memorization, partly for speed of writing, partly for attractiveness of the end result, and partly based on how well it can be simplified in handwritten form.
The standard strokes
The list below shows the 23 strokes that make up all Jōyō kanji, along with example kanji that use them. Each example is linked to the drawing practice page for that kanji (see Section 6 for information on how to use the drawing practice tool). The dots indicate where you start drawing the strokes.
One dot 45fc4e06155b476bae9e108672ba32e37c0ecd465f414054e2913b7e79cb6682
Stick dot ef9abe9097be1bb283130b9d1f851a45edbc03d8049216136dab0721929a7bfd
Twig dot 780693e4b10179df5b31c317693f8eb51a55b554f779581e399ccacdebb6a1fd
Left hook dot 1810bf8cf343c08e147d6c6174214f904bd67951e59eda6b5a780d4cead3dbd5
Right curved hook dot b2d1a86782964c2532e7486c2e4634c922f62a537c24f5c94d2988ef924e150c
Right hook dot c87dfac3d6d39240c526dd82d01d4db6e1d9f11d2bd80c843d47150790d4223c
Right sweep dot 3745ac753c1d0cd6209e84c9426c348b9d0d38e904fe9ecdc98a8939e9b3418c
Down dash dot a2e50aa574cdb5c526ef8ec32b7de0b2e21d1f4e91ee31bb212a91a325a04f64
Right corner dot 0a94cc7e13f4f245999580d53b95759c3c3327a05ca943af0ff340e1da7bf16c
Right square angle dot ff189f92525942b4d9ab32b234a3ea5409b8e4e1d2794af97a814c84a810f125
Right angle hook dot 7de93d3689ed6792d8eb79bca9a1509539ed03707809e6f98fc078dd0e021de7
Fu dot fa82e48e9446fa61c20cede4fbdce5302eed2222daed8f3846770f1605dbaa9c
Right angle right hook dot d2b6eb80e0f1299f7e971f9197fb7932b29b5d29cf9668bcba84ed9a1e87d476
Left square angle dot df94ebe5e9d0ff0a3ffe4c872da7da03ef66769c7ae30935ea24236b4059f652
Left corner dot 091aa2d5dafaaa865e42f10111de8cb3ce9a33fbc2806f2a894ac08c26ff97d7
Ku dot 0cd8c29b5c11e8bf84ad4fe25ba87d52f86ca0e2ab4077a2cee1793f2fbb52e2
Bow dot 0726443e14f7cdb7901629216b8bab70df7d05ea3147577b9739ad342004a43c
Staircase dot f401a321f9b13eb5b26a671531ef6e042cf218a29027682935613cc70c424746
Three dot 90e11b2694cdee90b815b3b183e6db790e906771eb95e47422b6b0482193436f
Some 'gotchas'
In general strokes that appear the same are drawn the same way whenever they are used. However, there are exceptions. For example, the short stroke that appears on the top left of 牛 (cow) is usually written from top to bottom, but is occasionally written from bottom to top, for example as it is used in the lower part of 扌 (the component form of 手, hand).
How standard is standard?
There is actually no completely standardized definition of the different strokes in use, and as a result there is no agreed count of the number of possible strokes. Many strokes are written in slightly different ways in different kanji, and some scholars consider these variations of a single stroke type, where others consider them different strokes. However, this debate is not too important, and you will soon come to recognize the distinguishing features that enable you to separate one kanji from another.
3. Determining kanji strokes and stroke order
As a beginner it can seem almost impossible to find some kanji at first, and only later do you discover that you were 'drawing it wrongly', and as a result had miscounted the number of strokes.
However, the good news is that the vast majority of kanji can be broken down into the correct strokes in the correct order using a few simple rules. Here they are! As with all rules worth their salt, every one of these has exceptions, but these rules will work 90% or more of the time.
1. Start horizontal strokes first (from the left) then vertical strokes (from the top)
Horizontal strokes are drawn left to right, and vertical strokes are drawn top to bottom. Diagonal strokes almost always start at the top. Generally, horizontal strokes are drawn before vertical strokes (although rule 3 leads to exceptions).
Animation / stroke order not available.
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Practice drawing:    
2. Draw strokes that start at the top left first, and work towards the bottom right
Choose strokes with starting points nearest the top left first. When two or more strokes start at the same point, choose the ones that go towards the bottom left before ones that go towards the bottom right (so that you end in the bottom right). There are two exceptions to this rule: (a) strokes which span the whole kanji, crossing other strokes, which are usually drawn last in their component (see rule 5), as in the top of 書, and (b) dots and other minor strokes, which are typically drawn last of all, as in the dot in 玉.
Animation / stroke order not available.
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Practice drawing:        
3. Draw elements that give vertical symmetry before symmetrical elements
Kanji often contain vertical strokes that provide vertical symmetry, and then multiple similar elements on either side. Draw the vertical strokes first, followed by the symmetrical elements (left to right), as in 木 or 水. However, when there are multiple groups of symmetrical elements, the first group is drawn, then the vertical stroke, then the next group (as in 来).
Animation / stroke order not available.
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Practice drawing:      
4. Watch for combined horizontal / vertical strokes
As you can see from the standard strokes list, some stroke types are created by combining other simpler strokes. It is possible to create some shapes using different combinations of standard strokes, and this is the most common source of 'stroke counting' problems. Unfortunately, this is a bit irregular. However, a good guideline is that a horizontal followed by a vertical is generally combined - as in 日. If that combination is not possible, a vertical followed by a horizontal might be combined - as in 断. Sometimes (but rarely enough it's easy to spot), more than two strokes may be combined, as in 凸凹.
Animation / stroke order not available.
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Practice drawing:        
5. Draw components separately, starting with the ones 'inside' or on the top left
As you will know if you are following the Kanshudo method of learning kanji, most kanji are composed of two or more components. In general, identify these components, and draw them in order following the same rules as you would as if each component was a stroke: top to bottom, left to right.
Some components 'contain' other components, and they need to be handled a little differently. In the case of ⻌ (the move radical), the components it 'contains' are always drawn first. In the case of 囗 (box, enclosure), you draw the top and sides first, then the component inside, then the bottom. This approach also applies to other components such as 匚.
Animation / stroke order not available.
Animation / stroke order not available.
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Practice drawing:        
Worked example: 鬱
Given the rules above, let's take a look at one of the most complex kanji out there - the kanji with the most strokes in the Jōyō (29): .
Animation / stroke order not available.
  1. First let's see what components 鬱 contains. It is pretty complicated! It has several: 缶, 林 (or 木 on either side), 冖, a complex piece 鬯 which in itself could be made up of other elements, and finally 彡.
  2. So, let's start with rule 5 to help us figure out the order of components to draw: symmetry first (缶), then the 木 on either side, then another symmetrical component 冖, then the left side 鬯 and 彡. None of these are 'containing' components, so we can just draw each one by one. This is already looking more straightforward!
  3. Let's take 缶. This is mostly straightforward: we start with rule 2 which shows us we start at the top left with our little diagonal stroke. Rule 1 then tells us to do the two horizontals, followed by the vertical. Now things get tricky: in fact the bottom of this component is only two strokes, a 'shelf' and another vertical.
  4. Next we draw our two trees. Rule 1 tells that we do our horizontal first, followed by the vertical. Rule two tells us to do the left diagonal followed by the right diagonal.
  5. Next we have 冖: there are actually two challenges here - we draw the left side vertical first, and then the horizontal and the right vertical as a combined element.
  6. Next we go to 鬯. This is actually a radical (standard component) in Chinese, which uses a longer radical list than Japanese. However, in Japanese it is extremely uncommon. Stroke order is fairly standard, though, if you remember to apply rule 3 several times, as that shows you how to decide what orde to do the strokes in the brush.
  7. And 彡 is a nice easy one to finish: rule 1 tells us we draw our strokes top to bottom, and each stroke starts at the top.
Practice drawing:              
4. Hiragana and katakana
Hiragana and katakana began their existence as kanji, and so generally speaking they follow similar rules.
Katakana origin cc039f7b095bc26b2bb0648f2072511de8f3a2eadc85a46fc246334c2a913030
Image source: Wikipedia
Katakana characters in particular were created by taking elements of kanji - for example, katakana カ originally came from , and the stroke order is unchanged.
However, hiragana characters were created as simplifications of the kanji they derive from. For example, although hiragana か was also derived from 加, the 口 on the right remains, but simplified to a single dash. This simplification changes stroke types and sometimes order away from the original.
Hiragana origin 15622a9fe91fec6e0bbc95beeff532843526ab3f25f4758605bd65ea24924c16
Image source: Wikipedia
To set your Japanese and kanji studies off on the right foot, there is no shortcut to learning the hiragana and katakana thoroughly. Start with Kanshudo's guides, which provide an introductory explanation, drawing practice, and links to free flashcards: hiragana, katakana.
5. Handwritten vs printed Japanese
As you can see from the chart illustrating the origin of hiragana above, handwritten Japanese characters can bear little obvious relation to their typeset equivalents! While
presents every stroke clearly and independently, the cursive form of Japanese arises from the same sort of mechanism as cursive writing of the English alphabet - the desire to avoid lifting the pen (or in the case of Japanese, the brush) off the page.
For non-native Japanese learners, fully cursive writing, known as
or 'rough script' ('rough' is from the original meaning of 草, which means 'grass' in modern Japanese), presents tremendous difficulty, because it requires you to know a kanji well enough to be able to recognize and differentiate only a few salient characteristics. For example, the following is a rendition of the following poem: 癸卯参月 在蘇之雲隠山房 雨窓無事. As with all Japanese writing, start from the top right of the image and work in columns. The first column - the farthest to the right - contains just two characters: 癸 and 卯.
Cursive 1076643f55583ebb14e524d348ae218672b3ac29da8a97f115227c647f20aaf6
Source: 草書体
Gyousyo oukousyo1 fa811304eff908aebef807f691ee2a116b2e3aae44709c3b5547f193c2880199
Source: Wikipedia
Most Japanese write kanji on a daily basis in an intermediate semi-cursive form known as
. This form is much more approachable for learners, as most of the strokes of the original are still present. It's even possible to get hold of 行書 fonts (see further reading #3)!
In this example, it's much easier to make out the original characters, although still not trivial. This one says 横雪山人王鴻緒謹題 邸舎時年七十有四.
Lr original 9e46385e2c0dc1ba450e71814b5514a97144eb2e3ad8ec5e27484147ed1f1561
Lr modern 816182e1f33f01f63080d8dd28e4aa670eee36c37c82810a73a90e8e6621820e
Source: poster on onsen wall in Nakanosawa, near Inawashiro Machi (via Larry Richards)
This example includes the original text as well as the modern Japanese version. It's also a good illustration of two additional challenges reading cursive script. First, a lot of cursive writing uses older Japanese. In this case, note how the negative verbs end with ぬ instead of ん, and note how 言う is written using ふ. Second, notice how the script version of ぬ has a squiggly line beneath it, like the line in the obsolete hiragana 'we': ゑ. In the early days of hiragana, alternative versions of several characters co-existed, based on different source kanji. Today's hiragana ぬ is derived from 奴, but originally another version circulated that was based on 怒, and that's what you see here. These alternative versions of hiragana are known as 'hentaigana'.
Learning to read cursive Japanese
Unfortunately, there is no magic path to this! The only real solution is lots of practice. You need to know components well enough that you can recognize them from the 'suggestions' in the handwritten forms, and then you know need to know the kanji well enough that you can bring to mind various kanji that use components you can recognize. All this is greatly complicated by the fact that handwritten Japanese may draw on a much larger range of kanji than the Jōyō. But, fear not! Reading handwritten Japanese is a rare requirement as a beginner, and if you are stuck, there are plenty of tools to help - see ref. (4) for some pointers.
6. Kanshudo's kanji drawing practice system
To practice drawing hiragana, katakana, or the most common components, we've created Drawing Practice enabling you to access everything in one place.
Additionally, you can use Kanshudo to practice drawing any kanji or component you find anywhere on Kanshudo. Our practice tool lets you draw independently, or superimpose your drawing on a reference image of the kanji for comparison.
To practice drawing a kanji, first look it up, for example using Quick Search. Scroll down to the blue 'cascading kanji' view of each kanji and its components. Click on the kanji for more details, and click on the DRAW link to bring up the drawing practice tool. You can also find a link to drawing practice from the details page of any kanji - for example 漢 details. If you subscribe to the Daily Kanji, your daily email will also contain a direct link to drawing practice.
Once you're in the drawing tool, just start drawing! Use the example on the left as a reference. At any time you can click Show reference to see the same example superimposed on the drawing grid. Clear my drawing will reset your drawing. Clear last stroke just removes one stroke at a time. The reset button will clear all your strokes as well as the reference image.
7. Further reading
  1. There are many analyses of Chinese character strokes. One sensible reference point is the Unicode specification, which defines a 'block' of characters representing strokes. Currently 36 strokes are included, but if you examine the list you will see several which are extremely similar - for example, Unicode defines a separate character for a short diagonal stroke depending on whether it goes from left to right or right to left. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stroke_(CJKV_character).
  2. For more on Japanese calligraphy, start with Wikipedia's article on the different scripts: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cursive_script_(East_Asia).
  3. See here for an example of fonts that produce cursive Japanese.
  4. One great tool is Mojizo, a system for recognizing cursive kanji from images. Kanshudo's own component builder (how to guide) is a way to find kanji quickly based on any components you recognize. Additionally, we have something new and very exciting coming soon ... watch this space!

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Change component list
By default the component builder shows the most common components (themselves joyo kanji, or used in at least 3 other joyo kanji). Select an alternative set of components below.

Full details of all components and their English names can be found here.
Help with the component builder
For detailed instructions, see the Component builder how to guide.
To find any kanji, first try to identify the components it is made up of.
For any components you recognize, if you know the English meaning or name, start typing it in the text area. Full details of all components and their English names can be found here.
Alternatively, count the strokes of the component, and scan the list to find it visually.
To find the kanji :
  • Notice that it is made of several components: 氵 艹 口 夫.
  • 氵 艹 口 all have three strokes, so you could look in the list in the 3 stroke section. 夫 has four strokes.
  • Alternatively, you could start typing 'water' (氵), 'grass' (艹), 'mouth' (口) or 'husband' (夫) in the search area, and the components will be highlighted in yellow.
  • Keep adding components until you can see your kanji in the list of matches that appears near the top.