The Japanese language has over 40,000 kanji characters, but most of them are never used. So how many kanji does the average Japanese person know? And how many kanji can Japanese both read and write? As a Japanese learner, knowing these numbers will help you gauge how many kanji you need to reach Japanese fluency.
One way to figure out how many kanji ordinary Japanese people know is to, well, look at ordinary people. First, let’s look at your typical Japanese high school graduate.
How many kanji do Japanese students learn?
Most Japanese people learn the bulk of the kanji they know during compulsory education. Therefore, we can ask, “How many kanji do Japanese high school students know?” This should give us a good idea of how many kanji the typical Japanese knows.
The Japanese Ministry of Education has a list of kanji called the jōyō kanji (常用漢字). These 2136 kanji are meant to be a literary baseline for kids who finish compulsory education. Most high school graduates know these.
The numbers, split between primary and secondary school kanji:
- In primary school (1-6 grades), students learn 1,006 kanji. These are also known as the kyōiku kanji (教育漢字).
- In secondary school (7-12 grades), students learn an additional 1,130 kanji.
However, the jōyō kanji are just a baseline for kanji education. Japanese adults will also know kanji not in this list. How many more? One population to look at is the population of Japanese university graduates.
How many kanji do higher-educated Japanese know?
Japanese who go through higher education will know even more kanji. How many more? It depends a lot on what one studies and how much time one spends with kanji (someone studying Japanese law will know more kanji than someone studying English), but a good estimate seems to be an extra 2000 kanji for the average university-educated Japanese person.
One commenter on this Reddit suggests writes:
“My conservative estimate from seeing what my co-workers and other Japanese people around me write is that anyone with secondary education (college/university) has a reading vocabulary at least 50% higher than the minimum set, possibly 2x that, and most people can write nearly all of the ones they know with pretty good speed and accuracy. … (Source: I’ve lived and worked in Japan for over a decade).”
As someone who has also lived in Japan for about a decade, the 50-100% number for kanji known seems right to me. However, I do not think it is true that your average Japanese can write most of what they can read. We will look more into that in the next next section.
Also, looking at this thread with replies from Japanese natives on Quora, you can see that the Japanese respondents give similar numbers. In general, it seems that a university graduate can read 4000-5000 kanji.s
How many kanji can Japanese write (not read)?
Out of curiosity, I also wanted to figure out how many kanji the average Japanese can write. Although learners of Japanese seem to think that Japanese people can write all of the kanji they can read, this is unlikely for two (fairly obvious reasons):
- Active recall is always harder than passive recall. Just as you can understand more words in English than you can actively use, one will always be able to read more kanji than one can write.
- Use it or you lose it. There are probably only a few hundred kanji that one has to write by hand on a weekly (or even monthly basis). Everything else these days is done with computers. What’s the chance a Japanese person remembers how to write a word if they use it only once a year?
Answers by Japanese from the same Quora thread above seem to support this. For example, one respondent says (my translation):
“By the way, I can read almost all kanji except for really difficult ones. Reading books, I rarely come across kanji I cannot read. However, the number of kanji I can write by hand is only about 300. I’d lose to your average elementary school student. … I used a computer since I was young, so I don’t have a habit of hand-writing things.”
Although 300 seems a bit low, I think it’s likely that your average Japanese person can not write even half of the jōyō kanji. That is good news for us learners, though! This means you don’t need to pressure yourself to write all kanji perfectly—even native Japanese speakers can’t do it.
Put another way, I think you could argue that knowing how to write kanji is an outdated skill. Just like ancient memory techniques for memorizing large amounts of information went out of style with the invention of writing, the need to write kanji is going out of style with the invention of the computer. Why learn to write when you can type?
How many kanji to learn for fluency?
So, as Japanese learners, how many kanji do we need to learn for fluency? A good starting goal would be to learn to read the 2136 jōyō kanji, which make us 98% of all written text.
Afterwards, you’ll probably want to learn kanji on only a as-needed basis. Remember, learning kanji has diminishing returns. Past 2000 characters, each additional character you learn gets less and less useful. Past this point, some kanji may be so rare that they only come up once a year!