WaniKani Review: The Pros and Cons

Out of many Japanese learning resources, you’ve probably heard of WaniKani before. It’s a website that uses mnemonics and an SRS system — specifically, to teach kanji. As one of the most dreaded Japanese language elements, kanji demands serious study hours and, most of the time, quality resources.

If you’re serious about learning Japanese, you might want to find the right to help you read kanji. And with so much buzz and reviews on WaniKani (and other great learning apps), you might ask: is WaniKani actually worth the money? And is it the most effective kanji app? 

We’ve made a WaniKani review and gathered all the information you need to know about this learning tool.


What is WaniKani?

WaniKani is a website that uses the spaced repetition system (SRS) and mnemonic methods to teach Japanese radical, kanji and vocabulary. The website is divided into 60 levels, and it claims that you can learn around 2,000 kanji and 6,000 vocabularies in just over a year. 

Specifically, WaniKani teaches 2,136 Jouyou kanji  (常用漢字), which literally means “daily kanji”. This is a set of kanji characters frequently used, and s usually ordered based on how often you’ll come across it day to day. 

The one-year claim has been confirmed by a lot of users, but keep in mind that there is no magic route to achieving Japanese fluency. Learning Japanese takes time and dedication, so if you’re not committing to your study routine and achieving your daily (or weekly target), you’ll fall back from the desired time. 

The first 3 levels are free. However, you need to pay for the subscription plan ($9/month, $89/year or $299 lifetime) later on. There is no official app, so you have to learn either on your computer or on the browser on your phone. However, you can use third-party options such as Flaming Durtles, Jakeipuu, or Tsurukame on iOS and Android phones.

wanikani learning kanji

How Does WaniKani Teach Japanese?

There are two parts on the dashboard — Lessons and Reviews. As the names suggest, the “lessons” page is where you learn radicals, kanji characters, and vocabulary, and the “reviews” page is where you review what you have studied so far. Once you start learning, each level will teach you radicals, kanji that use these radicals, then vocabulary that uses these kanji. You learn all of this in a mnemonic method as the explanation, example comes with short and (sometimes) funny sentences so you can remember easier and faster.

After you finish the lessons, you will move to the review stage where you have to answer what is the meaning of these radicals, how to read these kanji and vocabulary (in hiragana) and what they mean (in English). 

The review phase uses the spaced repetition system similar to Anki, which means you will have to repeatedly review them like using a flashcard. However, the time between each review and how often you see the same words is entirely customized to match how well you answered before. If you get the answer wrong, it will come up more frequently and the items you answer correctly will eventually come up right before you forget them. Hence, the method is enhancing long-term memory.

WaniKani’s Features

wanikani review

Every radical, kanji and vocabulary start from the “apprentice” stage. When you answer them correctly, the boxes underneath will be filled. Once they are full, you will pass and move them to the next stage called “guru”. When the radicals reach the guru stage, the kanji using these radicals will be unlocked. In the same manner, when the kanji reaches the guru, the vocabulary using these kanji will be unlocked as well.

Even though you level up, this doesn’t mean you won’t see these words ever again. The review continues as there are 5 stages in WaniKani’s spaced repetition system—apprentice, guru, master, enlightened, and burned

Once you reach the “burned” stage, this means you have memorized them in your brain and the word will be removed from the review session. However, there is an option to “unburned” the items and put them back in the apprentice stage.

The same system also applies to their vocabulary section, which utilizes the kanji you have learned. Additionally, it includes high-quality audio recordings of both male and female speakers.


Besides the regular lessons and reviews, WaniKani also offers a new “extra study” option which has been recently added to the website. You can answer all the recent reviews as well as recent mistakes. However, these won’t count as the regular review and don’t affect the overall spaced repetition cycle. 

The Levels at WaniKani

WaniKani divides the kanji into 60 levels, with each level consisting of approximately 30-33 kanji. These levels don’t directly correspond to JLPT levels, but they’re extra useful because they help split the kanji characters into digestible chunks, rather than compiling them into one, giant list. 

To advance to the next level, you must first reach the “Guru” level by answering the majority of the kanji in that level in the review sessions that occur at 4, 8, 24, and 48-hour intervals. 

Once you attain this level, the corresponding vocabulary items for those kanji will be unlocked, but they do not affect your level-up time.

All of these effectively timed levels prevent you from burning out and help you retain the kanji in the long term. 

mnemonics in wanikani

How does WaniKani teach kanji and vocabulary through mnemonics?

WaniKani is also known for its use of mnemonics. These mnemonics, combined with the SRS (Spaced Repetition System), are considered the best feature as they help reinforce the information in the learner’s memory. 

Mnemonics are basically very short poems or special words used to help a person remember something. Ever wondered why your brain can remember the full lyrics to a Japanese karaoke song, but not when you’re learning a new set of vocabulary? This is a great, simple example. Think  ABCs music to memorize the alphabet and catchy rhymes.

Additionally, the examples often add a touch of humor to the mnemonic and uses the same characters to maintain consistency. 

Pros and Cons of Wanikani

So does WaniKani help with Japanese study? Here are the pros and cons of this website:

Advantages of WaniKani

1. You memorize kanji and vocabulary faster

Since WaniKani uses mnemonics methods so you can remember radicals, kanji, and vocabulary with the story in explanation and example sentences, this makes it easier to memorize everything. Most of the story is quite short, straightforward, and easy to memorize. However, there are some stories that are a bit hard to understand. In that case, I will use the same technique and come up with a story that I think I will easily remember and use instead.

2. WaniKani helps you stay consistent

Due to the spaced repetition system, you will have new reviews in a timely manner so you have to study regularly. This method helps you to build a good study habits so that you don’t have many reviews piling up. There was a time when I was busy and left WaniKani for weeks. I ended up having more than 2,000 reviews. From that moment, it has encouraged me to study a little bit every day in order to avoid the situation again. Even though I recently discovered a vacation mode where you can stop all the reviews, I tend to use it only when I’m actually away for a long time.

wanikani community

3. WaniKani has a big, active community

Besides the study itself, WaniKani also has a community where users discuss Japanese learning and other fun stuff such as reading everyday challenges or Japanese book club. The forum is very active as you can see people post something every day. Moreover, there is also a blog called Tofugu which is the creator of WaniKani. In the blog, you can read various things about Japanese culture and language learning as well as listen to podcasts to practice your listening skill. 

Check out: Our Review on Duolingo for Learning Japanese

Disadvantages of WaniKani

1. You can’t go as fast as you want

A spaced repetition system has its own time management. You need to wait until a certain time to get another review so you can’t really rush into the next level. In the first few levels when I still didn’t have a lot of radicals, kanji and vocabulary, sometimes I had to wait for a whole day to get new reviews. Even though I was in the mood for studying, I just couldn’t do it and had to wait, which was a bit frustrating. 

2. You don’t really learn how to write kanji

Even though WaniKani focuses on kanji, the website doesn’t really teach you how to write. You know the radical of the kanji, how to pronounce and the meaning in vocabulary. However, you don’t really know how many strokes the kanji have or what the stroke order is. If you rely only on WaniKani, you probably can read many kanji without knowing how to write any. As the JLPT test doesn’t require you to write so this won’t be a problem. However, as I want to know how to write, I usually check how to write each kanji and write it in my notebook. Check here for our 5 recommended apps for kanji writing.

3. It’s not for advanced learners

WaniKani is a great resource to learn kanji and vocabulary for beginners because you will start learning from the most basic kanji such as 一, 二, 三. The more you learn, the more you know kanji and reach the harder (and hardest) kanji. 

However, it has a fixed system, which means there is no way to skip the level. Hence, you have to start learning from scratch. If you have already known some kanji, it will probably take some levels before you reach kanji you don’t really know and you might learn something you don’t know before along the way. However, if you are an advanced learner and know hundreds of kanji already, WaniKani might not be suitable for you. 

4. It teaches kanji and vocabulary

WaniKani’s strongest point in being an effective Japanese kanji and vocab trainer is also its weakest: it just teaches you that, and nothing else. Much like many learning resources, you’re not supposed to rely on WaniKani alone to be fluent in Japanese. WaniKani doesn’t incorporate other essential skills, like reading, listening or talking. It just focuses on what it’s intended for.

Is it worth paying for WaniKani?

There are many free learning applications out there so you might be less thrilled to pay for WaniKani. As I have mentioned earlier, the first 3 levels are free and after that, you have to pay for a monthly, yearly or lifetime subscription. 

However, around New Year’s every year, there is a big discount for a lifetime subscription so you pay only around $199 and save around $100. I paid a monthly subscription in the first year and switched to life later on. I have been studying for 4 years so if I still paid monthly, it would cost me $432. It is worth paying for a lifetime subscription if you decide to use it for a long time.

WaniKani Alternatives

If you think WaniKani might not be for you. There are other alternatives that teach kanji and vocabulary in similar manners.

1. Anki

Anki is a free (except for iOS) flashcard app using the spaced repetition system. You can either create your own card decks or download pre-made decks to learn Japanese. In this case, you can pick what content you want to learn by yourself. Beginner learners can learn how to read each hiragana and katakana alphabet while advanced learners can learn kanji and vocabulary. Moreover, you can also set a daily limit for new cards and maximum reviews so you can choose your own pace and don’t feel too overwhelmed when studying. 

2. Renshuu

Renshuu is a Japanese learning app that is suitable for learners of any level. In the beginning, you can pick which level you are, what JLPT you aim to take or which book you are studying in order to use the app at an appropriate level. You can learn vocabulary, kanji, and grammar using various methods such as mnemonics, examples, writing, or listening. You can also learn by playing fun and easy games such as crossword and shiritori. The app has both free and paid versions.

If you want an in-depth review of Renshuu, head to this insightful article!

3. Memrise

Memrise is a language learning app that has both free and paid versions. There are 2 types of courses—official ones curated by staff and user-generated content (some might contain mistakes). Each course consists of many levels and topics you can choose from, however, it focuses more on vocabulary. Memrise also uses spaced repetition and mnemonics systems where learners can use flashcards with audio and video to learn new words. You can also review and learn how to pronounce and listen to native speakers. 

WaniKani: Final Review

If you are looking for a place to learn kanji and vocabulary, WaniKani is probably one of the best applications as it helps you learn faster with spaced repetition and mnemonics methods. As the reviews pile up every day, it also encourages you to study regularly and have good learning habits. However, it is more suitable for Japanese learners in the beginning levels who still don’t know many kanji as you can’t skip to the harder levels. If you aren’t sure yet, I recommend you try the first 3 levels which are free to see whether it suits your learning style before actually paying for it.

Ultimately, when you’re learning Japanese alone, we don’t recommend putting your eggs in one basket, as a lot of resources are not created equal. While self-studies can be effective, it’s also helpful to get support from a native instructor. If you’re looking to study in a small group to help you practice your speaking skills (in a fun and engaging way), check out the courses at Coto Academy! We offer classes from beginner to advanced levels and provide students with comprehensive language training that includes reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

Head to WaniKani’s homepage.

Is WaniKani a great resource to learn Japanese?

As WaniKani focuses on kanji learning, it is one of the best places to learn the alphabet because you can really memorize them due to the spaced repetition and mnemonics methods. However, you might need other resources to learn how to write kanji. WaniKani also teaches vocabulary but it is based on the kanji you have learned, not how often you can see these words in daily life. WaniKani doesn’t offer other Japanese skills such as grammar, reading or listening.

What JLPT level does WaniKani teach?

According to the WaniKani statistics page, you can learn all N5 kanji when you finish level 16, all N4 kanji after finishing level 27 and all N3 and N2 kanji after finishing level 51. When you reach level 60 which is the last level, you will learn around 80% of N1 kanji. When I started to prepare for JLPT N2, I was at level 35 and most of the kanji was really in N2 levels so it actually helped me a lot during the exam preparation.

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