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Weird-But-Valuable SRS Hacks: Using the SRS to Remember Names

Almost exactly 4 years ago, I came to Japan. Since I didn’t physically grow up here, I simulated a childhood before coming, using electronic media tools. I continue that simulation even now.

No matter where you live, it’s fun and useful to make friends fast, and one thing that helps friendships form is accurately remembering people’s names (and then saying them a lot).

Here in Japan, because I stand out so much and look so radically different from everyone else, it’s usually quite easy for other people to remember my name…but I don’t frequently get the same benefit of a “lone statistical outlier” in physical appearance to help names stick in memory. Until recently, I often found myself in situations where everyone knew my name, but I was drawing blanks. And I felt bad about that; it just made things unnecessarily awkward.

Whenever I meet people from the kanjisphere, all I ever do is talk about kanji, starting with their names. I’ll get them to write down all the kanji; we’ll talk about variant characters and name distributions — South China has lots of 呉s and Kansai has lots of this and Okinawan names have lots of syllables and all that good stuff. But for all that talk and writing, I was having a really hard time actually remembering those names…

At times, the happier the encounter, the worse it seemed 😀 . You know how it is. You’ll meet someone really cool and you’ll have this great conversation, and then you’re like “I’m sorry, what was your name again?” Or, the conversation went so well and you had so much fun, that you actually feel bad about asking their name, so you tell yourself you’ll get their name through the person who introduced you in the first place (so you don’t look bad), and then you and the cool person part ways, but then you meet this cool person again another day and they’re all excited to see you, but you didn’t get around to asking their name and to ask now might imply that they were forgettable and you don’t want to hurt their feelings and…

…yeah, awkwardness…

For a while I thought I must just be a cold person. Indeed, Kenyan women often describe Kenyan men as cold, arrogant, boring and poorly dressed [particularly in comparison to Zairean men, the lords of the earth. And by “Zairean men”, I mean Kanda Bongo Man 😛 ], So…I figured I must just be fulfilling the national dream. Maybe I was just a cold man who only loved kanji. And toys. And tall women.

And Ann Coulter. Ann. It’s like…there’s so much hate, the only response left is love. Kind of like when you’re so happy that you go over the edge and wrap right back around to crying. It’s integer overflow, but with emotions. Incidentally, being a real man, I never cry…except when I’m in your mother’s arms….

Where was I? Oh yeah. But the thing is, Kenyan or not, I do like people and hanging out with them and playing ultimate frisbee with them, so…I knew that wasn’t the problem. I realized that all I had to do was turn learning people’s names into a fun game, just like learning kanji. So I came up with an SRS card format to remember people’s names. Here’s the basic structure:


Any relevant details about the person that I feel like adding. Even pictures (if convenient) are OK. Usually I fill in the more salient features of their body/gestures/persona (e.g. “buck teeth”, “hoarse voice”). It can be quite blunt, but no offence is intended. Having said that, given the lack of tact in these descriptions, offence would be taken, so…I don’t exactly go around showing these decks to the people in question. Besides, they’re probably happier that way: they get to think that their names were remembered only because of their good looks and charm and not because of clever memory games.


Full Name [and nicknames for reference]

Objective and Structure Details

Pretty much anything goes on the front, but the name (and any nicknames that are too much of a giveaway, which is most nicknames) is only allowed on the back. The object of the game is to say the person’s full name, given all the details on the front. Nicknames are for reference only. IMHO, one principle of good SRS cards is that there be one and only one correct answer, and that this answer be short, clear and concise (BTW lazy kanji cards kind of violate this principle to some extent, which bugs the side of me that wants a simple, straightforward game with a clear, unambiguous objective…but we’ll leave that for another post).

Actual Sample Cards

Here are a few actual sample cards. Observe that while these cards are in English, most of my actual cards are in Japanese.


Big nose. Incredibly loud laugh.
Dad looks like Don Knotts.





TANAKA Taro’s girlfriend.
Looks like Jane Doe from OmniCorp, but somewhat taller and with less chest (hey — I’m trying to remember names here…anything goes)





Spikey hair.
Likes to tell jokes.
Looks just like the kid from Battle Royale/Death Note


SATOU Saburou


I arrange these cards into decks grouped by location/situation. So for example, my frisbee buddies are in one deck, my bookstore buddies are in another, people I met at a certain wedding are in yet a third. The decks have names like “rolodex-frisbee”, “rolodex-taroswedding”, “rolodex-hokkaidolads” and so on…

More Amateur Sociology

I find that people don’t mind details about their lives being forgotten, but they do mind their names being forgotten. Put another way, if you can only remember one thing about a person, remember their name, because this will make them really happy. If you have their name, you have the key to their…whatever…heart…or…chastity belt…I dunno. As Dale Carnegie famously discussed in How To Win Friends and Influence People, everyone loves their name: it’s their favorite word.

In RL, people walk around with their faces, voices and personalities in full view, but very few walk around wearing nametags. At the same time, we can only really call people by their names, at least if we want to be even moderately polite. “Hey, you, whatsyourface-that-looks-like-the-kid-from-Battle-Royale!” can be pretty hit-and-miss in terms of “winning the hearts and minds”, to put it mildly. So memorizing names is important. And thanks to SRS, it’s now easy as well. So even if you’re a cold, distant, arrogant, poorly-dressed, self-absorbed geek, you don’t have to “get social skills” in order to work well with people…you can just geekify the process itself.

When you’re living in a new country, like I am, remembering names can speed up and smooth out the process of making new friends. And as we all know, good friends can really make any place amazing.

  13 comments for “Weird-But-Valuable SRS Hacks: Using the SRS to Remember Names

  1. Dani
    May 27, 2010 at 14:00

    Funnily enough, I find living in Japan gives me an excellent advantage in terms of remembering people’s names: I have an excellent excuse to ask them to write it down for me. Whenever I meet someone (Japanese) here, it quickly becomes apparent that I find kanji and that interesting, so it’s pretty easy to say, “So hey, how is your name written?”, and hand over my notebook. Back in England I’d look pretty odd if I wrote everyone’s name down after I met them…

    So yes, not only can SRS be used to store them in your head, but the very fact that they’re written all funny like can be used as an excuse to store them in a book long enough to get them into your SRS!

    Also, strangely, quite often when I ask someone to write down their name for me, they put a phone number alongside it. Pro-tip! 😛

  2. May 27, 2010 at 16:36

    … I have handicap, I’m not very good (or even decent) at remembering names.
    I’m going to be a teacher.

    Thanks so much for this simple idea – it’s so logical. I’ve been using Anki for Japanese, school work, quotes/motivation etc. for over 2 1/2 years, but I never once considered using it to remember names.

    I think I’ll just use the schoolpictures of my groups and enter those in a name deck… Problem solved!

    • Nagoya Blue
      November 9, 2011 at 12:51

      Or just use a seating plan with the names written on it…that’s what I did when I had classes 0f 30 kids in English Secondary school.

  3. フランク様
    May 27, 2010 at 16:46

    haha dani interesting tip! i’ll be sure to try that one out. what I’m curious about is how japanese can effectively read ending credits when names have such varying readings. like when they’re reading them can they say with a 100% confidence that their saying it correctly?

  4. Dougal
    May 27, 2010 at 17:36

    Glad you normalized this.

    I’d been doing it for a while now but had thought maybe I was a little Talented Mr Ripley-ish.

    And, yeah, the advice on keeping these decks private is totally warranted 😉 They could be massive hotbeds for misunderstanding, that’s for sure.

  5. khatzumoto
    May 27, 2010 at 17:37

    > “So hey, how is your name written?”, and hand over my notebook. Back in England I’d look pretty odd if I wrote everyone’s name down after I met them…

    Haha. Funny you should mention that. I actually started to have people write down their names for me as a tool to aid my memory. But I was still forgetting the names, so I decided to bust out the big guns (SRS).

    So, yeah, definitely, just like you said, the whole “being allowed to act like a curious alien/child” thing is a great privilege we enjoy here; the notebook acts as a highly convenient and reliable intermediate, and then the SRS takes you all the way home to SayingNamesCorrectlyFromMemory駅 😛

  6. May 27, 2010 at 17:41

    Pretty good idea. I imagine in today’s world where cameras are built into phone, you can just take a snap shot of them and save it as their full name, and enter it into your SRS later for memorization.

  7. May 28, 2010 at 01:22

    I like the picture idea too. snap it in your fone and write notes. I know I can do that with my iPhone. Put it in as a contact (even with no number) and write notes and put the Kanji in to

  8. あんど
    May 28, 2010 at 03:01

    See, I’ve already been using the SRS to remember names, but I’ve felt so limited because I felt like I needed a picture to so do. Didn’t think about using a description, haha. I’m totally gonna have to utilize this mess. Many thanks, Sir Moto!

  9. Herman
    May 28, 2010 at 19:49


    Japanese people are often totally unable to read lots of kanji stuff, in particular people’s and place names, and it really doesn’t seem to bother them as much as it bothers those of us learning the language. I guess once you’re really comfortable with the language, not being able to read some, mostly useless, stuff becomes a non-issue. Kind of like the names of all the chemicals on the ingredients list on food packaging. While I *can* read that in English it’s mostly total gibberish to me and if I had to say it out loud I’m sure I’d get it completely wrong.

  10. Tommy Newbhall
    May 30, 2010 at 08:52

    This link is either very appropriate or very inappropriate

    I, for one, lolled

  11. SRSAddict
    June 7, 2010 at 21:23

    I’ve been using Supermemo to remember names for quite some time now; indeed it is very useful. When I take people’s pictures, I’ll say to them “In two weeks, I will remember your name forever.”

    But not only people’s names, but other people’s personality and preferences can also be put into your SRS program of choice. Take certain things that your significant other is enthusiastic about (Literary quotes, poems, favorite flowers, foods, etc.), and make flashcards out of those things. The whole purpose of an SRS program is to learn things that are significant and important to you.
    Actually, the creator of Supermemo seems to have already walked this path, as he puts a great deal of information about his family and friends into Supermeo. I wish he would write a more detailed article on it. I was able to find this excerpt (In regards to using Supermemo to recall memories):

    Instead of keeping your family picture archive in mothballs, you can now come back to selected memories in a systematic manner. You will be surprised how much you can learn from old pictures and how addictive the whole process can be.

  12. Benny
    June 17, 2010 at 20:26

    Nice idea!
    I’ve been using Anki to remember Birthdays of all my friends so I don’t have to rely on facebook.

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