Hello I'm currently learning Kanjis ( well I had already JPLT N4 level but I want to speed up my learning ) so I decided to learn meaning and writing of Kanjis through Heisig Method. I'm learning the primitives first on an anki deck ( I also got the books) and sometimes I'm a bit puzzled about the primitive meaning.

Why did he invent the primitive meanings? I have come across meanings such as teepee ( I doubt Middle Age chinese civilisation was aware of American Indian...), scrapbook, missile, staple gun, thanksgiving... he came up with those meanings and that's really too bad, we don't know the true meaning of primitives though I'm sure they exist...Do you now where I could find the true original meaning of the primitive

Also I'm a bit confuse when I see a primitive constructed from other primitive with a '"strange meaning" like "child" made of "hat" and "elbow". How did the guys came up with a construction like that? Where could I find real explanations for the construction of primitives?

Thanks for your enlightenments!

  • Do the books not explain the method and how the names were decided upon?
    – Leebo
    May 21, 2020 at 8:53
  • 2
    Heisig's primitives are not meant to teach you kanji as how they relate to the language, the aim is to make you comfortable so you don't get overwhelmed by the idea of learning thousands of kanji. As such, the primitives' meanings are made up, in part or in full. If you're not gonna get overwhelmed by the idea of learning thousands of kanji, I suggest you discard this learning method and learn kanji properly, through functional character components, lightly flavoured with a bit of linguistics and paleography (but that's my opinion =]).
    – dROOOze
    May 21, 2020 at 10:00
  • rebuuilt's answer and dROOOze's comment are both good. If you're interested in a beginner's approach to the actual derivations of the kanji, I'd say ignore Heisig altogether -- he's all about mnemonics, but very often with zero connection to historical reality. As an alternative, I'd suggest Henshall's Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters, which I found much more interesting, useful, and easier for me than Heisig's often-bizarre memory tricks. May 23, 2020 at 0:25

2 Answers 2


As dROOOze has already mentioned, and as Heisig has mentioned himself, the primitive's meanings are made up, in part or in full. I suggest you read the preface.

The basic alphabet of the imaginative world hidden in the kanji we may call, following traditional terminology, primitive elements (or simply primitives). These are not to be confused with the so-called “radicals” which form the basis of etymological studies of sound and meaning, and now are used for the lexical ordering of the characters. In fact, most of the radicals are themselves primitives, but the number of primitives is not restricted to the traditional list of radicals.

If you want to know how those kanjis were derived, feel free to post your question here, because Heisig's method won't give you that. Post your questions on this site and kanji experts including dROOOze will help you with that.

Now, this is my opinion. If you can handle the deluge of kanji, then follow RTK to the letter. In my case, I did not. I studied RTK out of a need to survive my Japanese class, where we were asked to write down words from memory, words which were pedagogically beyond our level and which included kanjis that were difficult to remember. A ready-made RTK Anki deck helped me pass those kanji tests. For that reason, I'm thankful for Heisig's RTK. I do suggest though that you try a lighter version of RTK that only deals with 教育漢字 which is just half of the 常用漢字. It's less frustrating.


It's mostly to serve as a building block for more complex characters, for him to create the "stories" using already pre-determined characters. Most of the primitives don't have direct translations and aren't used in anything other than as part of larger kanji. The only other place you'll find most of them is in names. It's good to remember them as Heisig titles them if you're using his method of creating stories as it helps to add meaning to kanji that would be hard to create stories for otherwise. It's also fine to change the meaning of the primitives to something you prefer, so long as you can change the stories that the primitive is later used in around the new meaning.

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