How to write kanji

When a student is taught kanji, one of the first thing that is explained to him is the concept of stroke order—the one and only correct way of writing kanji characters. Unfortunately, the reason behind it as well as the main rules are often left undiscussed.

Most students are left wondering about why they are supposed to learn one more characteristic for each of the already complicated character, and some of them decide not to follow any of the well established rules at all. In this article I’ll try to explain why it generally is important to use correct stroke order and what are the basic rules that should cover the majority of the kanji characters.

Why is kanji stroke order important?

First of all, unlike the Latin alphabet (or Cyrillic, for that matter) the Chinese characters and their Japanese deviations are always monospaced—each character occupies the same amount of space. When you combine this typographic rule with the often incredible amount of strokes involved, it becomes clear, why writing nicely looking characters may be so difficult.

Shodō (書道, Japanese calligraphy) is an art that was practiced for centuries in Japan and thus, the proper way of writing kanji is a very well researched topic. You may not believe it at first, but try writing the same kanji with different stroke orders and you’ll see the difference. Moreover, in Japan, an opinion about you may be formed based on your calligraphy. In the same way as by speaking improperly, your bad handwriting may make a bad impression on the others.

Windows 7 TIP Japanese - Handwriting recognition

Secondly, stroke order is a great learning aid. Especially for some of the more complicated characters, one may forget how precisely a it character look, yet remember how to write it by following the correct order. This phenomenon is called motor memory and you probably already experience it in your every day life. Actually, neuromuscular facilitation is involved even in basic task like speech—one doesn’t think about complex tongue, lips, and other movements—and is the primary cause of accents.

At last, traditional paper kanji dictionaries are often organized by stroke order, and even if one decides to use computer handwriting recognition—be it a Tablet PC, a smartphone, or a dedicated denshi jisho (電子辞書, electronic dictionary)—it will work best if you use the correct stroke order.

OK, so what are the guidelines?

1. Top to bottom

Kanji stroke order - Three

2. Left to right

Kanji stroke order - river

3. Center strokes are written before wings

Kanji stroke order - small

4. Center strokes connecting to other strokes are written first

Kanji stroke order - above

5. Center strokes passing through other strokes are written last

Kanji stroke order - middle

6. Frames that enclose other strokes are written first, but closed last

Kanji stroke order - map

7. Right-to-left diagonals are written before left-to-right diagonals

Kanji stroke order - sentence

Although there are many exceptions, you generally won’t go wrong if you follow these rules. As you’ll learn kanji, the stroke order will become more natural and—with the exception of tricky kanji like 凹 (おう, concave) or 凸 (とつ, convex) —you won’t have to think about it, or learn it kanji by kanji.

Learn Japanese with us

Find out more →

We've built on years of experience teaching languages to create the best lessons, tools and educational games for Japanese self-learners.

+Philip Seyfi is a Russian independent strategy consultant and entrepreneur, author of NihongoUp, and co-founder & CEO of EduLift.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:
  • http://twitter.com/nihongoup nihongoup

    Blogged: How to write kanji – http://bit.ly/2ZphsD #kanji #japanese #edufire #chinese
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • http://twitter.com/JapanesePortal JapanesePortal

    Great blog post about Kanji stroke order http://bit.ly/2ZphsD http://bit.ly/2QbTmB
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • http://twitter.com/ImaginaryJapan @ImaginaryJapan

    Even though I knew all of this, I really enjoyed reading it. Great post!

  • @ImaginaryJapan

    Even though I knew all of this, I really enjoyed reading it. Great post!

  • http://twitter.com/ImaginaryJapan @ImaginaryJapan

    Even though I knew all of this, I really enjoyed reading it. Great post!

  • http://twitter.com/rainbowhill @rainbowhill

    I often make the point that stroke order is essential to learning kanji. Often I hear that people just want to learn how to read, so it doesn't matter, but learning how to read kanji without ever writing it is like learning how to understand spoken Japanese without ever having to speak it.

  • @rainbowhill

    I often make the point that stroke order is essential to learning kanji. Often I hear that people just want to learn how to read, so it doesn't matter, but learning how to read kanji without ever writing it is like learning how to understand spoken Japanese without ever having to speak it.

  • http://twitter.com/rainbowhill @rainbowhill

    I often make the point that stroke order is essential to learning kanji. Often I hear that people just want to learn how to read, so it doesn't matter, but learning how to read kanji without ever writing it is like learning how to understand spoken Japanese without ever having to speak it.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/kadhine/ Kadhine

    Very interesting, I appreciate the fact that we need to learn te stroke order, it helps me remember how to write it (I make up a little dance almost for the difficult ones :P ) , and it improves the look – as you said.

  • Kadhine

    Very interesting, I appreciate the fact that we need to learn te stroke order, it helps me remember how to write it (I make up a little dance almost for the difficult ones :P ) , and it improves the look – as you said.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/kadhine/ Kadhine

    Very interesting, I appreciate the fact that we need to learn te stroke order, it helps me remember how to write it (I make up a little dance almost for the difficult ones :P ) , and it improves the look – as you said.

  • Hidarikiki

    As a left-handed person, stroke order is constantly vexing. Even roman letters present a challenge, as pushing a pen left to right with your left hand is much more difficult than it is to pull a pen left to right with your right hand. I often find myself reversing or making mirror images of kanji according to strokes, especially if the character or part of the character is symmetrical, i.e. for 日, "day", I'll usually make the right vertical first, then go from right to left on the top and then down the left vertical for stroke two, and then right to left two more times for the middle and bottom horizontals. Nobody, American or Japanese, has been able to give me a good approach to solving 1. my incomprehensible writing if I follow correct stroke order or 2. the legible but "off" look of my mirrored strokes. Most Japanese have recommended simply saying "hidari kiki, gomen ne" as an explanation and leaving it at that.

    Long story short – if there is such a thing as a resource for lefties trying to write kanji, I'd love to see it.

    • http://divita.eu/ seifip

      That's an interesting problem.

      Well, first of all, being left-handed is actually advantage when you write vertically, so try to write vertically whenever possible. Secondly, have you tried writing with your right hand? I have nothing against lefties, but it's always good to know how to use both hands (being a right-handed person, I try to do as much as possible with my left hand as well).

      In any case, after some consideration, I would avoid mirroring the stroke order. It may be easier for you to write that way, but as you'll write faster and your characters will become cursive they won't look as they should as the connections between the lines won't be the same.

      • http://twitter.com/fembassist Jenny

        I’m also left handed and writing right handed is not an option. I tried doing that with English and it wasn’t a pretty sight. I agree with Will with seeing a teacher or others write differently is annoying. Even asking them the correct stroke order will result in a blank stare as they’re so used to the kanji and how they write it.

        As for my paper, I have it straight instead of slanted to the side as I do for writing English. I find that when it’s straight I tend to write kanji better for some reason. I also learned the correct stroke order from day one so I try to do the correct left to right.

    • http://www.culturezest.org/home/users/detail?UserHexID=2C585A58-2C78-4DF9-97F9-90DEFAE9A51C Kuei-Ti Lu

      Most of the people I know who use left hands to write write the horizontal line differently only. For such strokes, they write from the right to the left, but for the other strokes, it seems there is no problem for them.

    • http://www.culturezest.org/home/users/detail?UserHexID=2C585A58-2C78-4DF9-97F9-90DEFAE9A51C Kuei-Ti Lu

      Most of the people I know who use left hands to write write the horizontal line differently only. For such strokes, they write from the right to the left, but for the other strokes, it seems there is no problem for them.

  • Hidarikiki

    As a left-handed person, stroke order is constantly vexing. Even roman letters present a challenge, as pushing a pen left to right with your left hand is much more difficult than it is to pull a pen left to right with your right hand. I often find myself reversing or making mirror images of kanji according to strokes, especially if the character or part of the character is symmetrical, i.e. for 日, "day", I'll usually make the right vertical first, then go from right to left on the top and then down the left vertical for stroke two, and then right to left two more times for the middle and bottom horizontals. Nobody, American or Japanese, has been able to give me a good approach to solving 1. my incomprehensible writing if I follow correct stroke order or 2. the legible but "off" look of my mirrored strokes. Most Japanese have recommended simply saying "hidari kiki, gomen ne" as an explanation and leaving it at that. Long story short – if there is such a thing as a resource for lefties trying to write kanji, I'd love to see it.

  • Hidarikiki

    As a left-handed person, stroke order is constantly vexing. Even roman letters present a challenge, as pushing a pen left to right with your left hand is much more difficult than it is to pull a pen left to right with your right hand. I often find myself reversing or making mirror images of kanji according to strokes, especially if the character or part of the character is symmetrical, i.e. for 日, "day", I'll usually make the right vertical first, then go from right to left on the top and then down the left vertical for stroke two, and then right to left two more times for the middle and bottom horizontals. Nobody, American or Japanese, has been able to give me a good approach to solving 1. my incomprehensible writing if I follow correct stroke order or 2. the legible but "off" look of my mirrored strokes. Most Japanese have recommended simply saying "hidari kiki, gomen ne" as an explanation and leaving it at that.

    Long story short – if there is such a thing as a resource for lefties trying to write kanji, I'd love to see it.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/seifip seifip

      That's an interesting problem.

      Well, first of all, being left-handed is actually advantage when you write vertically, so try to write vertically whenever possible. Secondly, have you tried writing with your right hand? I have nothing against lefties, but it's always good to know how to use both hands (being a right-handed person, I try to do as much as possible with my left hand as well).

      In any case, after some consideration, I would avoid mirroring the stroke order. It may be easier for you to write that way, but as you'll write faster and your characters will become cursive they won't look as they should as the connections between the lines won't be the same.

  • seifip

    That's an interesting problem. Well, first of all, being left-handed is actually advantage when you write vertically, so try to write vertically whenever possible. Secondly, have you tried writing with your right hand? I have nothing against lefties, but it's always good to know how to use both hands (being a right-handed person, I try to do as much as possible with my left hand as well). In any case, after some consideration, I would avoid mirroring the stroke order. It may be easier for you to write that way, but as you'll write faster and your characters will become cursive they won't look as they should as the connections between the lines won't be the same.

  • http://turningotaku.com/ Will

    I’m also a lefty, I never thought about whether it affects how I write kanji… so that’s a very interesting issue. I also get very annoyed when even Japanese teachers use the wrong stroke order, people in my class write on of the most fundamental kanji ever, 口, with one stroke!

    • http://www.japannewbie.com/ Harvey

      There is sort of a thing as "cursive" Kanji. Not really cursive, but you know, short cuts people will take so that they can write more quickly. This leads for very hard to read characters! Every Japanese person does it though and you'll notice that it makes reading tough if you're used to nice neat crisp characters.

      Maybe this is where the one stroke 口 is coming from… even though that's pretty extreme!

      • http://divita.eu/ seifip

        The stroke order generally doesn't change in the semi-cursive kanji script. On the contrary, it becomes even more important to write the kanji with the correct stroke order (ex. the 口 character with three strokes) as a semi-cursive kanji can very easily become unreadable if you make even small changes to the stroke order (as the connections between the lines won't be the same/at the same place).

        In the cursive script (which you'll rarely see in real life, and which you'll probably never be able to read easily), the stroke order may eventually change as the whole kanji—even a very complicated one—is generally written with a single stroke. This however is an extreme alteration of the character which should only be used in calligraphy and definitely shouldn't be used in everyday life as you'll most probably be the only one able to read it.

        • http://www.japannewbie.com/ Harvey

          Order doesn't change – but the number of total strokes do – and that's what I really meant to point out.

          I saw a lot of semi-cursive script when Japanese would write things on white boards at the office and things written on memos.

          Not to say that this is some official stylized cursive kanji script, but it's just people taking the shortcuts that come naturally when writing characters quickly.

          • http://twitter.com/BretMayer @BretMayer

            If we're talking about cursive, there are "cursive styles" that are fairly standardized, though not set in stone. However, not only is stroke order important, but also where you breathe in and breathe out, as well as where you do or do not allow the pen to leave the paper.

            If you mean just people scrawling kanji quickly, we call that 適当 :D

          • http://divita.eu/ seifip

            Unlike the Chinese stroke, the Japanese kanji stroke order is based on the semi-cursive script and thus it's easier to remember the "standard" way of writing semi-cursive characters.

            Also, the semi-cursive script is actually very helpful for those learning stroke orders as it is much better visible than on the regular script where each stroke is written separately.

          • http://www.culturezest.org/home/users/detail?UserHexID=2C585A58-2C78-4DF9-97F9-90DEFAE9A51C Kuei-Ti Lu

            I learn Chinese since childhood and Japanese since elementary school. In fact, I do not see the difference between their stroke orders. All in all, I think the best of stroke order is that it makes writing writing instead of drawing, and mimicking a character is usually easier than mimicking a picture.

  • http://turningotaku.com Will

    I’m also a lefty, I never thought about whether it affects how I write kanji… so that’s a very interesting issue. I also get very annoyed when even Japanese teachers use the wrong stroke order, people in my class write on of the most fundamental kanji ever, 口, with one stroke!

    • http://www.japannewbie.com Harvey

      There is sort of a thing as "cursive" Kanji. Not really cursive, but you know, short cuts people will take so that they can write more quickly. This leads for very hard to read characters! Every Japanese person does it though and you'll notice that it makes reading tough if you're used to nice neat crisp characters.

      Maybe this is where the one stroke 口 is coming from… even though that's pretty extreme!

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/seifip seifip

        The stroke order generally doesn't change in the semi-cursive kanji script. On the contrary, it becomes even more important to write the kanji with the correct stroke order (ex. the 口 character with three strokes) as a semi-cursive kanji can very easily become unreadable if you make even small changes to the stroke order (as the connections between the lines won't be the same/at the same place).

        In the cursive script (which you'll rarely see in real life, and which you'll probably never be able to read easily), the stroke order may eventually change as the whole kanji—even a very complicated one—is generally written with a single stroke. This however is an extreme alteration of the character which should only be used in calligraphy and definitely shouldn't be used in everyday life as you'll most probably be the only one able to read it.

        • http://www.japannewbie.com Harvey

          Order doesn't change – but the number of total strokes do – and that's what I really meant to point out.

          I saw a lot of semi-cursive script when Japanese would write things on white boards at the office and things written on memos.

          Not to say that this is some official stylized cursive kanji script, but it's just people taking the shortcuts that come naturally when writing characters quickly.

          • http://twitter.com/BretMayer @BretMayer

            If we're talking about cursive, there are "cursive styles" that are fairly standardized, though not set in stone. However, not only is stroke order important, but also where you breathe in and breathe out, as well as where you do or do not allow the pen to leave the paper.

            If you mean just people scrawling kanji quickly, we call that 適当 :D

          • http://intensedebate.com/people/seifip seifip

            Unlike the Chinese stroke, the Japanese kanji stroke order is based on the semi-cursive script and thus it's easier to remember the "standard" way of writing semi-cursive characters.

            Also, the semi-cursive script is actually very helpful for those learning stroke orders as it is much better visible than on the regular script where each stroke is written separately.

  • Will

    I’m also a lefty, I never thought about whether it affects how I write kanji… so that’s a very interesting issue. I also get very annoyed when even Japanese teachers use the wrong stroke order, people in my class write on of the most fundamental kanji ever, 口, with one stroke!

  • Harvey

    There is sort of a thing as "cursive" Kanji. Not really cursive, but you know, short cuts people will take so that they can write more quickly. This leads for very hard to read characters! Every Japanese person does it though and you'll notice that it makes reading tough if you're used to nice neat crisp characters. Maybe this is where the one stroke 口 is coming from… even though that's pretty extreme!

  • seifip

    The stroke order generally doesn't change in the semi-cursive kanji script. On the contrary, it becomes even more important to write the kanji with the correct stroke order (ex. the 口 character with three strokes) as a semi-cursive kanji can very easily become unreadable if you make even small changes to the stroke order (as the connections between the lines won't be the same/at the same place). In the cursive script (which you'll rarely see in real life, and which you'll probably never be able to read easily), the stroke order may eventually change as the whole kanji—even a very complicated one—is generally written with a single stroke. This however is an extreme alteration of the character which should only be used in calligraphy and definitely shouldn't be used in everyday life as you'll most probably be the only one able to read it.

  • http://twitter.com/nihongoup nihongoup

    A very interesting discussion about #kanji stroke order and cursive/semi-cursive scripts is going on at http://bit.ly/4qtRaH #japanese
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • Harvey

    Order doesn't change – but the number of total strokes do – and that's what I really meant to point out. I saw a lot of semi-cursive script when Japanese would write things on white boards at the office and things written on memos. Not to say that this is some official stylized cursive kanji script, but it's just people taking the shortcuts that come naturally when writing characters quickly.

  • http://twitter.com/theillien @theillien

    One thing I often find myself doing is listening to the rhythm of my pencil on the paper when I practice a character. As the rhythm becomes more and more familiar and I'm able to keep the tempo steady each time I write the character it becomes more and more defined and legible. Knowing the proper stroke order helps this because of the flow that each stroke makes to the next.

    • http://twitter.com/rainbowhill @rainbowhill

      This tactile and auditory sense of the character is something that is missed if you're not writing as part of your study, a very good point. The more senses you use in committing something to memory the more more likely it is to stick.

      Even when 口 is written cursively there is a definite stroke order, count and rhythm, even if the brush never leaves the page. If you don't have these fundamentals in place then it becomes illegible.

      • http://divita.eu/ seifip

        That’s what I’m always telling everyone… use as many sources and as many senses as possible as diversity is what’s most important when learning a language. Otherwise it’ll be a painful process and, most importantly, you’ll risk to be come a very one sided person who knows perfectly one aspect of the language yet fails completely in another which may be satisfying, but definitely not enough for you to be considered as somebody who truly knows the language.

  • @theillien

    One thing I often find myself doing is listening to the rhythm of my pencil on the paper when I practice a character. As the rhythm becomes more and more familiar and I'm able to keep the tempo steady each time I write the character it becomes more and more defined and legible. Knowing the proper stroke order helps this because of the flow that each stroke makes to the next.

  • http://twitter.com/theillien @theillien

    One thing I often find myself doing is listening to the rhythm of my pencil on the paper when I practice a character. As the rhythm becomes more and more familiar and I'm able to keep the tempo steady each time I write the character it becomes more and more defined and legible. Knowing the proper stroke order helps this because of the flow that each stroke makes to the next.

    • http://twitter.com/rainbowhill @rainbowhill

      This tactile and auditory sense of the character is something that is missed if you're not writing as part of your study, a very good point. The more senses you use in committing something to memory the more more likely it is to stick.

      Even when 口 is written cursively there is a definite stroke order, count and rhythm, even if the brush never leaves the page. If you don't have these fundamentals in place then it becomes illegible.

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/seifip seifip

        That;s what I'm always telling everyone… use as many sources and as many senses as possible as diversity is what's most important when learning a language. Otherwise it'll be a painful process and, most importantly, you'll risk to be come a very one sided person who knows perfectly one aspect of the language yet fails completely in another which may be satisfying, but definitely not enough for you to be considered as somebody who truly knows the language.

  • @BretMayer

    If we're talking about cursive, there are "cursive styles" that are fairly standardized, though not set in stone. However, not only is stroke order important, but also where you breathe in and breathe out, as well as where you do or do not allow the pen to leave the paper. If you mean just people scrawling kanji quickly, we call that 適当 :D

  • http://twitter.com/Sloganmaker Sloganmaker

    How to write kanji http://ow.ly/z2oO
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • seifip

    Unlike the Chinese stroke, the Japanese kanji stroke order is based on the semi-cursive script and thus it's easier to remember the "standard" way of writing semi-cursive characters. Also, the semi-cursive script is actually very helpful for those learning stroke orders as it is much better visible than on the regular script where each stroke is written separately.

  • @rainbowhill

    This tactile and auditory sense of the character is something that is missed if you're not writing as part of your study, a very good point. The more senses you use in committing something to memory the more more likely it is to stick. Even when 口 is written cursively there is a definite stroke order, count and rhythm, even if the brush never leaves the page. If you don't have these fundamentals in place then it becomes illegible.

  • http://twitter.com/rainbowhill rainbowhill

    This tactile and auditory sense of the character is something that is missed if you’re not writing http://bit.ly/1GliLg (ht @theillien)
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • http://www.kotodama-japan.com/ KATO

    Interesting story. I am running a website “Kotodama”, where you can get a customized Japanese design. Please visit
    http://www.kotodama-japan.com/

  • seifip

    That's what I'm always telling everyone… use as many sources and as many senses as possible as diversity is what's most important when learning a language. Otherwise it'll be a painful process and, most importantly, you'll risk becoming a very one sided person who knows perfectly one aspect of the language yet fails completely in another. While it may be satisfying, it's definitely not enough for you to be considered as proficient in the language you are trying to learn.

  • ss

    額~~~汗死。漢字呀

  • Pingback: Japanese Poster Design and the Films of Studio Ghibli | Artfans Design

  • @Japan<3'sU

    Awesome this was so helpful because im doing a project about Kanji!

  • Vegeta_the_prince_of_saiyans

    I need help please

  • Soheliadeep

    thanks for this its going to help a lot

  • Pingback: Japanese writing vocab refresh

  • http://www.facebook.com/matthew.white.3152130 Matthew White

    Thanks, I am thinking of getting some of the Kanji characters tattooed onto me but I don’t know which order to put them in. The symbols are: Strong hate sorrow, guilty conscience, traitor, and rage. It will be a constant reminder for me on something I’d rather not talk about.

  • Pingback: cigarette electronique

  • Pingback: lucky

  • Pingback: vinn

  • Pingback: leaflet distribution

  • Pingback: 行動電源

  • Pingback: 行動電源

  • Pingback: how much is a wheel alignment

  • Pingback: asia

  • Pingback: Tyrkia leilighet

  • Pingback: leilighet Alanya

  • Pingback: e cig free trial

  • Pingback: maillot inter milan manche longue

  • Pingback: bing

  • Pingback: blazer

  • Pingback: go there

  • Pingback: click here

  • Pingback: Lee Harbert

  • Pingback: My Homepage

  • Pingback: vancouver wa plastic surgeon

  • Pingback: learn the facts here now

  • Pingback: توصيات اسهم

  • Pingback: Villa til salgs tyrkia

  • Pingback: otto-gutschein.net

  • Pingback: Mike Chang Afterburn Fuel Review

  • Pingback: سئو

  • Pingback: seo services newyork

  • Pingback: reviews on muscle factor x - musclefactorx.blogspot.com

  • Pingback: mens custom dress shirts

Join thousands of motivated 日本語 learners today!

Japanese for Clever People is a free email course that will teach you how to:
a) learn Japanese faster, and b) remember what you learn forever, two goals for all Japanese learners...

Sign up now and you'll also get your 13 ways to learn Japanese more effectively ebook ($14.95 value) for FREE!

We don't share your address and we don't spam.