Unko Kanji Drill: get sh*t hot at writing Japanese

Learning kanji is tough – whether you’re trying to read or write it. Mastering kanji is a tricky step on the way to becoming fluent in Japanese. For kids (and foreign language learners), there’s a new, kinda unusual practice method on the scene.

The Unko Kanji Drill series.

“The most fun kanji practice in Japan!”

Yeah, so… ‘unko’ means ‘poop’. And this mascot – Unko-sensei – has a poop for a head.

(Why is it yellow… why…)

The idea behind the series is that kids find it tough concentrating when learning kanji is so repetitive. So the Unko Kanji books use poop to keep them interested. If they ‘laugh as they learn’, they’re more likely to remember.

It’s an effective method. The first print run sold out almost straight away when the books launched in March. Publisher Bunkyosha shifted over 630,000 copies that first month – 280,000 of those in the first week. A Guardian article published this month says sales to date are 1.83 million. Have a look on Amazon Japan, and most of the reviews for each book are 5 stars.

(The 1-star reviews are really interesting. Shock from people who assumed it was a joke for adults, and can’t believe anyone gives this stuff to kids. Complaints about how poop is literally ‘dirtying’ the beauty of the Japanese language. Disgruntled learners who like to study on trains and can’t bring themselves to use these books in public. We’ve definitely learned something new.)

We were lucky to pick up the full set at a local bookstore. The 3rd and 5th books we grabbed from the display were the only ones left. Hopefully they had more of them in the stockroom somewhere.

The 6 books represent each year of Japanese elementary/primary school. So by the time you’re done, you should have the same level of kanji ability as a 12-year-old. Hey, it’s a start.

Perfect for beginners

The first book opens with the absolute basics. The first kanji is ‘one’. It’s literally a straight line. ‘Two’ – two straight lines. ‘Three’ – we’ll let you guess. ‘Sun’, ‘moon’, ‘tree’, and ‘fire’ are also fairly simple.

'Train station' and 'ride', helpfully next to each other.

Line order for each kanji is shown at a helpfully large size. Circles highlight writing points – where to curve, where to stop, where to add a flick of your pen at the end. If you’ve never even tried writing kanji before, this book holds your hand.

Give yourself a push

The kanji do get tougher – and fast. By book 3, there are 18-line characters to take on. Okay, there’s only one 18-stroke kanji in that book. There it is, bottom left.

We got 99 problems but this kanji can be used to write 'problem' so that helps.

Try not to think about 9-year-olds learning to do this way before you do.

Next to each character, 3 example sentences show you how the kanji’s used. Every sentence involves poop in some way. They’re funny, for sure, and the weird ones will keep that kanji stuck in your brain. We feel sorry for the poor person who had to come up with over 3,000 poop-related sentences.

Let’s take a look at some examples! Helpfully posted by the Unko Kanji Drill Twitter account.

Readings: nai, uchi

Example 1: An acorn was stuffed inside the poop.

Example 2: He’s shy, but when we start talking about poop he cheers up.

Example 3: Within our school, there are 47 hidden poops.

Readings: shi, tsuka(eru)

Example 1: My job is introducing Japan’s poop overseas.

Example 2: When you pull the lever, the plan is that a poop will fly out from here.

Example 3: Let’s look at the king’s soldiers’ poop.

See, it’s so easy!

In a lovely ironic twist, because the books stop at 6 years of elementary school-level kanji, the actual character for ‘poop’ isn’t in any of them. It’s too difficult.

Did someone say…wipe?

Every book’s got a wipe-clean practice board at the back. It shows all the kanji from that book. There are kanji on both sides, at a reasonable size to practice with. Be careful you don’t use a permanent marker by accident! If you make a mistake, you can’t erase it. It’ll stay there forever, as a reminder of how tough kanji can be to learn.

What does that say? Let me just get my wallet.

The boards have cut-out ID cards, to use on the move. They have the kanji on one side, for reference. Whether you put your real name on the other side is up to you.

Practice is what’ll make you perfect. There’s nothing else for it. Write and rewrite those kanji, until you achieve either muscle memory or hand cramp.

Practice with poop!

In total, the 6 books teach you to write just over 1,000 kanji. (1,008 kanji, to be accurate and picky.) Study hard enough, and you can finish each book in less than a school year.

Each year's colour coded across the cover.

There are 2,000 Joyo kanji, and learning them all puts you at the ‘able to read Japanese newspapers’ level of literacy. So you’ll be halfway there with Unko Kanji Drills. With the kanji you learn in these books, you’ll know how to write:

  • Days of the week
  • The time
  • Seasons
  • Colours
  • Weather conditions
  • Japanese names for a bunch of countries

Order the Unko Kanji drill books to feel like you’re not so crap at Japanese.

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