WaniKani Review: Excellent (But Ugly) Kanji + Vocab Trainer

  • Ichika Yamamoto
    Written byIchika Yamamoto
  • Read time5 mins
  • Comments4
A comprehensive (albeit overwhelming) way to learn kanji through what appears to be a unique and sensible approach to mnemonics.
WaniKani Review: Excellent (But Ugly) Kanji + Vocab Trainer

Pricing: Starts at $9 a month
  • Unique and effective mnemonics method
  • Spaced-repetition approach
  • Inexpensive
  • Free account restricted to 3 levels
  • Overwhelming dashboard
  • Dated interface


WaniKani's unique mnemonics are an effective way to acquire and retain large amounts of Japanese in a relatively short time. The SRS approach and periodic reviews ensure that what you've learned is not lost. The API is brilliant and well-documented. Overall, a decent trainer for Japanese vocabulary.

DepthThis is 'content' richness. How comprehensive is WaniKani and does it take you far in terms of levels, or is it more suited to low level/tourist learners?
UniquenessIs WaniKani innovative or is it just an imitation? Does it have a unique selling proposition (USP) that makes it stand out among competitors?
QualityOverall product quality indicator that covers everything from video/dialogue clarity, authenticity, explanations, and effectiveness.
CostIs WaniKani acceptably priced and how does its pricing compare to market competition?

If you love Japanese culture or need to learn Japanese for any reason (e.g. reading manga comics) then you need quality resources to help you read kanji.

WaniKani is becoming an increasingly popular vocabulary trainer for Japanese learners.

Generally I recommend Rocket Japanese as a structured course that covers kanji in detail or Innovative Language’s JapanesePod101 along with italki for native speaker lessons. But WaniKani is another resource that’s caught my attention given its unique approach to mnemonics.

So in this review, I’ll share my thoughts on WaniKani and whether or not it’s worth the price.

🐊 What is WaniKani and who is it for?

WaniKani’s claim and purpose in their own words:

2,000 kanji. 6,000 vocabulary words. In just over a year.

That’s Jōyō kanji (常用漢字), which are taught in primary and secondary school in Japan and actually consist of 2,136 characters (WaniKani leaves out a few rare/unnecessary ones).

The claim of “just over a year” has been verified by numerous community members but requires an extremely dedicated, daily effort to achieve.

WaniKani is well-suited to absolute beginners learning to read for the first time, and progresses in levels (60 in total). These levels do not directly correspond to JLPT levels, however.

Pleasant1 - 10
Painful11 - 20
Death21 - 30
Hell31 - 40
Paradise41 - 50
Reality51 - 60

You’ll be presented with what are called “radicals” - these are essentially building blocks for kanji. A mnemonic is given to help you remember their meaning, followed by kanji built from that radical, and as you click ‘next’, the lesson is marked complete.

Finally, you’re quizzed to make sure you’ve learned it.

The same is true of vocabulary which are made up of the kanji you’ve learned (see my Japanese onomatopoeia guide too).

Vocabulary also includes audio (both a female and male voice) which are high quality audio bites.

Successful acquisition of kanji and vocabulary is referred to by WaniKani as “burned” (as in “burned into your memory”). Once this is achieved, you won’t have to go over this item again.

Prior to this, you achieve various ‘stages’ (Apprentice → Guru → Master → Enlightened → Burned).

WaniKani does kanji and vocabulary extremely well

And doesn’t try to be anything else.

This is a great thing about WaniKani is that it’s a dedicated kanji and vocab trainer. It doesn’t try to incorporate other skills (e.g. listening comprehension) or add other half-baked features.

It just focuses on what it’s intended for and does it comprehensively.

Dated and overwhelming dashboard

Honestly, the single biggest issue I have with WaniKani is a superficial one - I just cannot stand the ugliness and overwhelmingness of the interface.

From a UX (user experience) perspective, it’s just not nice to use.

You log in and it’s not immediately clear what you should do next. There are prompts to start your first lesson (a popup modal), but it’s just not clear how it all works or where to go.

Plus, for those of you who may be new to Japanese, you may end up wondering what all this Japanese stuff on the opening screen actually means (i.e. what’s a radical?)

I feel that if WaniKani improved the interface and simplified everything, it’d be even more popular than it already is.

Pricing: Is WaniKani free?

WaniKani offers a free account up until you reach Level 4.

At that point, you have the following options to subscribe:

  • $9 a month
  • $89 a year (2 months free)
  • $299 lifetime/one-time charge

I find this pricing reasonable and in line with most other online subscription for language courses/products.

WaniKani vs Anki vs Memrise

Anki is the all-time best, 100% free and open source alternative to sites like WaniKani.

This is an SRS flashcard program that runs on all operating systems where you can create your own decks of vocabulary, phrases and even kanji.

The problem of course, is that you have to create your own decks or find the right decks to import. The good news is that there appear to ways to export WaniKani data to Anki decks (check the community forum for questions on this).

Another alternative to both WaniKani and Anki is Memrise.

This is a free online collection of community decks that is beautifully designed and gamified, but with a premium paid option. See this comparison between Memrise and Duolingo for more info.

WaniKani API

One of my absolute favorite features of WaniKani is the exposed and very well-documented API.

This won’t interest most people since it’s really just for developers, but I’ll try to explain what it means for you:

WaniKani have enabled developers to connect to their server programmatically so that they can retrieve things like stats, and much more. This means that a developer can produce an app, website or enhancement with added functionality (i.e. a nicer interface) which pulls that data from WaniKani.

You can see the massive list of third party apps and sites created by developers using WaniKani’s API.

Summary: Is WaniKani worth it?

I think WaniKani is extremely comprehensive in what it does.

It’s essentially a vocabulary and literacy trainer for Japanese kanji, with an enormous amount of attention to detail.

If you’re looking for a Japanese course or app to learn Japanese then look elsewhere. That’s not what WaniKani is designed for.

WaniKani will not teach you speaking or listening comprehension.

My biggest issue with WaniKani however, is the dated and overwhelming interface, and the bland presentation of the mnemomics (contrasted with the simplicity of Memrise for example).

If you can look past the UI deficiencies, it’s an otherwise great product for Japanese at a perfectly reasonable price point.

Create a free account before laying any money down and use it for the first 3 levels at no risk.

Also see this list of Japanese resources for other alternatives.

Used WaniKani before? What are your thoughts?

Comment below!

Pricing: Starts at $9 a month

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Peter Cuce

Peter Cuce

Memrise is terrible. I tried to use it for a long time. They never update the stuff that’s broken. Comparing WK to Memrise shows a superficial usage and understanding of both perhaps. Also Anki is good but doesn’t hold your feet to the fire. It’s very easy to lie to yourself and say you know something when you actually don’t. It’s not holding your feet to the fire the way WaniKani does. After wandering in the wilderness of self-study Japanese for many years, I find WK to be truly excellent.

The interface is a bit weird, but the only thing that was unintuitive to me was the review forecast and the Burned cards. To say you don’t know what to do seems impossible. You only have to press the button and start doing the lessons it gives you.

WK is life-changing for me and many others. It deserves 5 stars despite any interface shortcomings.



Thanks for the review! I have used WaniKani for a few months and I’m on level 9. The main thing I liked about the website is the level system and how there is a structured approach to learning the Kanji. One complaint I have is how overwhelming the reviews can get; if you take a break for a few days, you could be swarmed with hundreds of kanji (there is an option to pause it though)!



Hey, Lawrence. Knowing that the higher levels present hundreds of reviews over a few days period, plus the ability to pause is a great share. Thank you. I’m doing the free training right now, and already plan on paying for higher levels.

I’m in the middle of level 2 after 11 days. I’m really enjoying the tool. Unfortunately, some of their mnemonics are terrible. Seriously, terrible! Wanikani’s idea of a mnemonic is that the hint SOUNDS like the word regardless of its ability to actually help you remember the vocabulary. For example, “remember Jourm” when you want to remember the English word for “toe.” They’ll often create very elaborate and memorable stories around the word, but in the end, you need to remember Jourm or Koichi as the mnemonic. On the other hand, some of their mnemonics are pure gold like looking down when you walk to avoid stepping in “shi ta” (Japanese for down).

Wanikani says they’re willing to accept suggestions, but have shot down the dozen I have submitted so far. Every argument they make about my idea not working can be applied to mnemonics they’re already using that break those rules, so I don’t really understand their logic. For example, they use Mrs. Chou, the street lady, as the mnemonic for the English word “street,” so I suggested street food vendor that servers chow, which is easier to remember than a street lady named Mrs. Chou. They felt the word Chou was closer in sound than “chow,” so even though a mnemonic is meant to REMEMBER something easier, they prefer Chou over Chow. I even gave them suggestions for words that don’t have mnemonics, and they’d rather not have mnemonics than use an English word that doesn’t sound EXACTLY like the Japanese pronunciation. Anyway, their site, so their choice. I still really like the site...just not some of their mnemonics. Fortunately, I can capture my own mnemonics in the note section of each word for my own sake.

Overall, I think the interface is rather easy to use. As long as you remember to refresh the dashboard (main page), the pink or blue box will light up at the top of the page if Wanikani’s algorithm feels you are ready to proceed with learning a new word or reviewing an older word, respectively. It even provides you a schedule for when new reviews will be triggered in the next day or so (up to a week away). If you want fewer words to review, then you just need to be less aggressive in learning new words. The site also provides you a method to quickly click through all of the radicals, kanji, and vocabulary you’ve already learned as a quick refresher.

Two downsides for me, While reviewing words I’ve already learned, there is no way to filter out words that I haven’t learned yet, so you have to keep clicking through each group of thirty-ish vocabulary words until you find one you’ve already learned. Also, while paging through the vocabulary, it only presents them in alphabetical order by English word. Thus, if you wanted to learn First Day, Second Day, Third Day, etc. in numerical order, you’ll need to find them individually and click on them, go back a page, and find the next one. Otherwise, just accept the fact that you’re going to see them in the following order 8, 5, 1, 4, 9, 2, 7, 6, 10, 3 (eighth, fifth, first, fourth, ninth, second, seventh, sixth, tenth, and third).

As for Anki, I downloaded the app to my PC and found someone else’s deck to test the tool. Unfortunately, Anki is not user-friendly for first time users. I have no idea how to go to the next flash card, how to flip over the current flash card, or perform any other activity with that Anki tool. Since it wasn’t intuitive, I barely gave it 1-2 minutes before determining that it will need to wait for future use. I do know it comes highly recommended, so I’m not giving up on it. HOWEVER, I’d love to find out if anybody has created a deck that ties vocabulary from Wanikani into a flash card deck that can be used on Anki. I may need to do a web search for that one day. That would probably get me to use it sooner.

Thanks for the review.



Hmm, I have to be honest that I cannot imagine comparing wanikani to memrise or anki. I have used all three and the latter two are not good for kanji. The mnemonics and format of wanikani are amazing and I can’t begin to imagine the level of work that went into making that program.

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