Study Japanese with Anki

It’s been two years since I originally posted about how to study Japanese with Anki. I am still an avid user and continue to add new notes whenever I run into new words or characters, and due to my commute, I spend more time than ever on crowded trains reviewing cards. My old Anki guides were far and away the most visited blog posts I’ve ever had, though it was becoming increasingly outdated. I thought I’d go back and tidy up my old guide to anyone looking to set up their own Anki decks.

The Cardinal Rule

The goal of using Anki to study is to enter in your notes and generate cards as quickly and effortlessly as possible, then spend the vast majority of your time actually reviewing cards. AVOID time sinks such as manually entering in cards individually, creating too many different overlapping note types, inputting data into too many fields, and so on. Always keep this in mind when using the backend of Anki: how can I streamline this process to be even quicker so I can get back to studying?

Recommended note types

I’ll be covering this later, but I generally advise sticking to two note types below: Basic (optional reversed card) and Cloze. If you need to create a custom note type, I recommend cloning one of those types and avoid adding too many fields. Also avoid creating too many different custom note types as that will only unnecessarily increase your time fiddling with Anki and decrease your time actually studying.

No multiple-choice?

If you saw my old Anki guides, you might remember a section where I described how to make multiple-choice notes. I have since dropped that section because I believe that setting up multiple-choice options for your cards requires several more steps per note, forces you to input a lot of data that only results in a single card, and does not actually help you learn the materials any more effectively than Basic/Cloze cards. In short: multiple-choice notes go against The Cardinal Rule in every possible way.

I’ve also dumped my recommendation of the Example Sentences addon for similar reasons. You should be studying Japanese from authentic (“real life”) sources, not picking and choosing through user-generated sentences of somewhat dubious legitimacy. Using Anki should reinforce things you learned from other places, and should NOT be the place where you learn information for the first time. This is also why I recommend making your own notes instead of relying on Shared Decks.

Setup

Get Anki

Install a copy of Anki on your computer (Win/Linux/Mac). This is where you’ll be making the bulk of your notes. You can make notes on your phone or tablet, but I personally prefer the ease of using a desktop computer to handle my rather sizable collection.

Get Anki on your mobile device

If you have a smartphone or tablet, be sure to pick up the Anki apps for your respective devices. If you’re on Android, get AnkiDroid, which is free. If you’re on iOS you unfortunately do have to pay for the AnkiMobile app. However, I highly recommend it just because of how useful it is to study on the go.

Sign up for AnkiWeb

Make an AnkiWeb account. It’s free! This is to sync the notes you create on your desktop to your mobile devices, as well as any other computers you have where Anki is installed. If you have iOS and don’t want to pay for AnkiMobile, you can use the mobile browser version of AnkiWeb to study on the go.

Sync to AnkiWeb

Open up Anki and click the Sync button:

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Sign into your AnkiWeb account. If you installed the Anki mobile apps, be sure to log into the same account there as well.

Voilà! You can now study your Anki collection anywhere!

Basic note types

Basic

Basic cards have front and back, and they’re good for studying entire sentences at once. Here’s an example of a Basic note:

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This will create a single card that looks like this:

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Front

Back

Back

Note that since Basic cards only generate one card, this is an effective way to study for sentences where you don’t necessarily need to translate both sides, as in this example, where it is unlikely you’d want to test for “(Subject) has two cats.”

Basic (and reversed)

If you wanted to test both Front and Back, then you would change the note type to Basic (and reversed):

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This will create two cards, one testing for 猫 and one testing for cat:

Front of Card 1

Front of Card 1

Back of Card 1

Back of Card 1

Front of Card 2

Front of Card 2

Back of Card 2

Back of Card 2

As you can see, using Basic (and reversed card) will create two cards using one note, rather than having to create two different Basic cards. This is an effective way to study shorter terms and vocabulary.

Basic (optional reversed card)

So we’ve learned that Basic cards are good for studying sentences that you don’t want to test both sides for, and Basic (and reversed card) is good for short terms and vocabulary where we want to be able to test both sides. In your studies, you will probably want to make both types of notes. You could constantly swap back and forth between the two note types, or you could use Basic (optional reversed card) to handle both types easily without having to change types.

If you wanted a Basic-style card, simply fill in the Front and Back as before. Leave the Add Reverse input blank:

anki 10This will create a single card that looks like this:

Front

Front

Back

Back

If you wanted a Basic (and reversed) style of card, simply type anything into the Add Reverse input. Note that it doesn’t matter what you type as it won’t actually show up on the cards themselves, but will instead trigger Anki to create two notes using this one note:

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This will create two cards that look like this:

Front of Card 1

Front of Card 1

Back of Card 1

Back of Card 1

Front of Card 2

Front of Card 2

Back of Card 2

Back of Card 2

Using Basic (optional reversed card) when inputting a bunch of notes at once is a great way of using both styles without having to constantly switch the type of note you are making.

Adding furigana

Download the Cloze Furigana Tools addon by going to Tools > Addons > Browse & Install, then input the addon code.

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Once the addon has downloaded and installed, restart the Anki program. Now when you add a new note, you have a new tool bar on your notes pages. Enter in your sentence or vocabulary that includes kanji, then click the Generate readings button:

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If you only want to display furigana for certain words, highlight the words you want and then click the Generate readings button:

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IMPORTANT NOTE: Sometimes the generated readings will be different from what you wanted. In those cases, simply edit the furigana.

Cloze notes

Cloze

Cloze notes let you test multiple words and readings from a single note. Select the words you’d like to test and click the […] button to generate a card testing those words. For example, this one note…

anki 21…turns into three cards that look like this:

Front of Card 1

Front of Card 1

Back of Card 1

Back of Card 1

Front of Card 2

Front of Card 2

Back of Card 2

Back of Card 2

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Front of Card 3

Back of Card 3

Back of Card 3

Because there is effectively no limit to how many things you can cloze off, you can use a single note to generate several cards. However, BE SURE not to make your original passage too long, as you will likely not be able to effectively learn from something long or complicated. Try to keep the front of your card at a sentence or two at the most, and only cloze off the parts that you have trouble with.

Note you can also use cloze to block off only one word, creating a fill-in-the-blank type of card. This is more efficient than creating Basic notes where you manually enter in the question and answer for both the front and the back. You can also cloze off words that have furigana above them:

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Front

Back

Back

Cloze kanji/furigana cards

You can also use the Cloze Furigana Tools addon to make cloze cards for the furigana in order to make reading exercises. After generating the furigana readings, click the Furigana: Cloze/Uncloze button. That’s how you can turn this one note…

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…into six cards that each look like this:

Front

Front

Back

Back

Like generating furigana, you can also cloze off only select furigana readings by highlighting the words you want to test.

You can use the Cloze Furigana Tools to cloze off only the kanji, turning this one note…

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…into six cards that each look like this:

Front

Front

Back

Back

Hide furigana readings unless specifically quizzing them

If you want to hide generated furigana readings unless specifically testing for them, use the Furigana: Hide/Show button:

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Then cloze off the readings that you want to test:

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This note will create three cards that look like this:

Front

Front

Back

Back

Decks verus tags

It might be tempting to create a new deck for each Japanese book or source that you find. However, I recommend creating decks for general subjects (Japanese, chemistry, TESOL, etc.) and then dividing up your cards using tags.

Hierarchical Tags

Get the addon Hierarchical Tags, which as its name suggests creates a hierarchical structure for your tags. (Instructions on downloading addons for Anki provided above)

Now try entering in some tags into the field on your new notes. For example, if I want to separate my cards up by Textbook :: Unit :: Section :: Page and also JLPT :: N2, I might do this:

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On the main Anki screen, click on Browse. This will bring up your library of notes across all of your decks. If you have installed the Hierarchical Tags addon, your tags at the bottom will be in collapsing branches:

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As always, keep The Cardinal Rule in mind when setting up your tags. They can be a powerful way to organize your collection, but always think about how to make them more efficient, less redundant. For example, was it really necessary that I tagged the section of the chapter and the page number? If it’s not something you’re ever honestly going to use, cut it.

Custom note types

As I said in The Cardinal Rule, you shouldn’t make too many custom note types because your focus should be on inputting data as quickly and effortlessly as possible. That said, Basic (optional reversed card) and Cloze note types can be a bit restrictive, so creating custom note types can be a useful way of building on them. Just be sure not to add too many input fields as they will increase your time spent creating notes.

I highly recommend cloning Basic (optional reversed card) or Cloze and customizing them, rather than creating a new note type from scratch.

Kanji Colorizer (stroke order diagrams)

Get the addon Kanji Colorizer, which generates stroke order diagrams for kanji that you input. (Instructions on downloading addons for Anki provided above)

Go to Tools > Manage Note Types.

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In the Note Types window, click the Add button.

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In the next window, highlight Clone: Basic and click OK. Name the note type Japanese Stroke Order. (NOTE: You can actually name your note type to whatever you want, but in order for the Kanji Colorizer addon to work, the word “Japanese” MUST be included.)

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With your new note type Japanese Stroke Order highlighted, click the Fields button.

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Rename Front to Kanji, and Back to Diagram. (NOTE: You can add other fields such as Onyomi or Kunyomi, but in order for the Kanji Colorizer addon to work, there MUST be at least two fields named Kanji and Diagram.)

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Now add a new card. Change its Type to Japanese Stroke Order. Enter the kanji character you want to test into the Kanji field:

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Then click anywhere outside of the field to generate a colorized stroke order diagram:

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This will create a card that looks like this:

Front

Front

Back

Back

Note that it will create diagrams for all of the kanji you enter into the Kanji field, but not hiragana or katakana:

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Custom fields and card layouts

You can also edit the fields and card layouts. Going back to the previous Kanji Colorizer example, let’s add fields for an English keyword. (Useful if you’re using Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji!)

Go to Tools > Manage Note Types again. Highlight Japanese Stroke Order, then click the Fields… button.

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Click Add and enter in the name of your new field. I chose Keyword.

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Click Close and go back to the Note Types window. Next, click on the Cards… button.

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We want to test for the keyword, so in the Front Template field, replace {{Kanji}} with {{Keyword}}.

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Close the window and make a new card. There should be a new field for your keyword.

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This will create a card that looks like this:

Front

Front

Back

Back

Using the same steps above, you can also create fields for onyomi/kunyomi readings. However, I recommend not adding too many fields as this will increase the amount of time spent making notes. (And I personally find it better to study onyomi/kunyomi readings by clozing off furigana in vocabulary, rather than testing them off of the kanji characters by themselves.)

Closing

I hope that by using this tutorial, you have learned the basics of using Anki to study Japanese. There is of course a wealth of other options and things to check out under the hood, and in the future I might revise this post to include more tips and tricks. Do check out the official Anki Manual as it covers quite a deal more than I ever possibly could.

Above all though, always keep The Cardinal Rule in mind: spend more time studying, less time setting up Anki. Good luck with your studies!