Learning Japanese

This post is for all of you who want to learn Japanese or who are starting to study Japanese.

1.- Learn Hiragana and Katakana
The first step to learn Japanese is to learn the syllabaries Katakana and Hiragana. You can start learning Japanese without knowing Hiragana and Katakana but I would never recommend it. What would you think if a Japanese starts learning English using their characters? For example, “My name is David” would be written by a Japanese student like this “マイ ナイム イス デービッド”. Do you think it is a good idea for a Japanese student to learn English with their characters? Then, don’t do the same when learning Japanese, learn Katakana and Hiragana first, and then start studying vocabulary, grammar and conversation.

2.- Go to a Japanese school

I think that at least at the beginning is important to go to a school. I think the ideal is six months or one year. With that you will know the basic things you need to know to start learning by your own. That is my style, I find it boring to go to classes when I feel I could learn more by my own. I guess it depends on your personality, think about what fits you best.

3.- Recommended books

I’ve used tons of books, my recommendation is to use as many sources as possible and make your own conclusions.

  • Beginner level:
    • “Japanese for Busy People” series: are three books pretty popular among foreigners who just arrived to Japan and do not have any idea of Japanese. It is a good solution to start with the language but I don’t really think it is the best way.
    • “Japanese for Young People” series: similar to “Japanese of Busy People”.
    • Minna no Nihongo: these I think are a little bit better than the “Japanese for Busy People” and “Japanese for Young People”. When you finish with them you will have a pretty good level of Japanese to start talking in simple conversations.
    • “Genki, An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese” series from Japan Times: these are two books, very well organized. I think these are the best books to start learning the language. If you are serious about learning Japanese get these from the beginning.
    • Basic Kanji Book 1 and 2: these are THE BEST book to start learning your first 500 kanji.
    • A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar: it is a grammar reference. I like it, it has really good explanations of every basic grammar pattern with practical examples.
  • Intermediate level:
    • A Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar: this is the second part of “A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar” but with more advanced grammar patterns. I don’t find it as useful as the first part, I think they’ve concentrated too many patterns and the explanations are not as good as in the first volume.
    • An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese: this is the best book for Japanese intermediate level I’ve used. Each chapter starts with some reading and vocabulary and then you have to practice all the new grammar patterns with exercises.
    • Kanzen masutaa 2 kyuu: Nihongo Nouryoku Shiken Bunpou Mondai Taisaku: this is another book that you HAVE to get to move from your beginner level to intermediate level. This book is really good to prepare JLPT 2.
    • Kanji Preparation Japanese Language Proficiency: this is the next level for kanjis after you know the first 300-500. This book is not bad but I good not recommended with all my heart. I also do not recommend the continuation of Basic Kanji Book series. What I feel, is that once you are reaching a good level with kanjis what you need to learn more is to learn vocabulary and read A LOT.
  • Advanced level:
  • All levels:

4.- Tango Cards

“Tango Cards” is a method that many Japanese people use to learn English vocabulary. Basically “Tango cards” are cards where in one side you write the word in one language and on the other side the translation. There is no magic at all, but the cool thing is that you have all your cards together with a ring so it is very easy to take a look to the words even inside a crowed train or wherever.

These are “Tango Cards”

Usually “Tango Cards” are blank and you write the contents. But there are also packs fo “Tango Cards” with vocabulary and kanjis written for you, I don’t like these because just by writing the words in blank cards you are learning. If they give you half of the work don’t it is more difficult to learn.

5.- Official exams

Exams are good to put pressure on yourself. Following the JLPT levels is a pretty good idea. Between the 3rd and the 2nd level there is a huge gap but from 2010 the system is going to change and there will be an intermediate level between the current 3rd and 2nd. The level 2 and level 1 difficulty will not change.

If you want to focus in Japanese for business then maybe the best option are the JETRO exams.

6.- Learning Japanese with the Nintendo DS

There are tons of software for the Nintendo DS for Japanese improvement, most of it is for Kanji learning. The main problem is that most of the games are designed for Japanese adults and Japanese kids but not for foreigners learning Japanese. There is only one game designed for foreigners, it is called My Japanese Coach and it is pretty bad and only recommendable if you are a very beginner with Japanese.

Here there is a list of the software you can find in Japan that I have used (And I’m using) to learn Japanese. I do NOT recommend you any of these if you don’t already have an advanced or nearly advanced Japanese level:

    • なぞっておぼえる大人の漢字練習完全版: this is my favorite game for kanji learning. Hand written recognition is almost perfect. It is just awesome and 100% recommendable for those of you who know around 1.000 kanjis and want to finish learning all the basic joyo kanji.
    • 美文字トレーニング: also kanjis but it concentrates on teaching the user how to write kanjis in a correct way. It is pretty boring and only recommendable for perfectionist people 🙂

Capture from 美文字トレーニング

6.- Video games

Playing videogames is also a great and fun way to learn new languages. The best way is to start with games with not much text and learn the basic vocabulary to move around the menus etc. Once you feel comfortable then get an easy RPG, for example a Zelda (In the last Zelda’s games there is even furigana). And the last level is to play hardcore RPG games with tons of text.


7.- Movies, Anime, Television, Manga, Music

Watching anime for kids, for example Ghibli movies like Totoro or Ponyo, is a great way to test your basic listening skills. Reading simple manga is also gratifying since you’ll be able to read and understand some real Japanese, I had tons of fun with Doraemon and Shin-chan.
Once you reach an intermediate level watching television (whatever) is great to improve your Japanese. On TV you’ll listen different accents, different ways to talk Japanese (a humorist Japanese and a news reporter Japanese is totally different). Also watching Japanese films with subtitles (Rent or buy Japanese DVDs) is great. At this intermediate level you’ll be able to read more complicated manga, I read tons of Tezuka Osamu during this stage.
And when you reach the advanced level… then start reading books, novels and whatever. Read a lot! It is the clue in order to perfectionate your skills in any language.

Doreamon es a perfect manga for beginners.

8.- Electronic dictionaries

Using a traditional-analogic-paper dictionary in order to look for japanese-english translations is a pain in the ass. Use dictionary with your computer (JDIC for example) or buy a portable electronic dictionary. In Japan tons of electronic dictionaries can be found in any electronics shop. The problem is that most of them are designed to be used by Japanese people learning English, but not the other way around. The main brands are Casio, Canon and Sharp. I recommend Canon, the Sharp models have to many useless features (With some of them you can even watch TV). On the other hand Canon focuses on usability, making the task of searching words very easy. Casio also have pretty good models.

  • Canon Wordtank series: these are usually the favorite ones among Japanese students. The first version was launched in 1995 and nowadays there are more than 20 different versions of Wordtank based on the same concept. If you are looking for something second hand I would recommend a G50, it is a classic. If you want something brand new then go for a G70 or G90. The G90 is also designed for Chinese students.


  • Sharp Papyrus series: Sharp dictionary have the best screens. But they are full of useless functionalities and they are pretty expensive.


  • Casio Ex-word series : these are pretty good and they have Spanish-Japanese, French-Japanese, German-Japanese models. But they put too many useless functions and insert many useless books and extra dictionaries just to increase the price of the device.


8.- Resources on the net

Use the power of the net to learn languages. Read Japanese blogs, read Japanese news sites. Use Japanese SNS services like Mixi to meet Japanese people and practices with them, you can also use Facebook, Skype or Twitter where there is a pretty big Japanese community. There is no end, there are some many places where you can find resources to learn languages on the Internet:

9.- Culture
You can become an expert reading and talking Japanese but if you don’t know anything about the Japanese culture it will be difficult for you to follow certain conversation. For example, you can be fluent in English but if you travel to New Zealand most probably you’ll not be able to feel integrated in conversations with locals, since they would talk about local politics and sports, or they’ll have their own jokes and expressions. The same applies to Japanese, you can be very fluent with standard Japanese but you MUST be able to move in as many environments as possible and learn about Japanese culture, how Japanese people think, their traditions, their non-verbal communication etc.
I recommend you to read books and blogs about Japan, in order to improve your knowledge about Japanese culture.

10.- Live, study and work in Japan
I’m sure that you can learn more Japanese living two months in Japan than studying Japanese in your home country during two years. If you REALLY want to learn Japanese, then you should REALLY think about coming to Japan for a while. There many options, you can come to Japan without visa for three months, and if you are a student you can apply for a Monbusho, or a Vulcanus, or other programs. But there are so many options, that the best thing you can do is to go to the nearest Japan Embassy or to your University’s International Relations department and ask for further information about which options do you have to come to Japan.

If you are willing to find a job then start with Daijob and Gaijinpot.

11.- Japanese girlfriend or Japanese boyfriend (Who can speak English)
This is the best method of ALL, forget about all the previous advice!

For you girls… Tomoya Nagase:


For you guys… Maria Ozawa:


Good luck and 頑張って!

20 replies on “Learning Japanese”

if you do get a video game, get one where you won’t be overwhelmed with searching the dictionary for words in the 2 seconds a cutscene takes place. ^^.

So many people have been in Maria Ozawa I wouldn’t even try it… anyways, a manga a lot of people say is good for learning Japanese is “Yotsubato!” since its pretty simple thing’s are explained since its from the point of view of a little girl. Plus it’s really funny so you’ll have fun reading it.

Top Post Hector! Some great tips here. Agree, nothing like living in Japan and having a Japanese Girlfriend. I have to disagree with Sheerblade though, i would LOVE to get my hands on Maria Ozawa for a few hours …. she’s be amazing to practice the 四十八手with!

Don’t forget your own Kirai Friends service. I use it to find Japanese friends online and it helps my Japanese practices

Hey mate, nice post. Perhaps can you make a post or just give tips on more manga that a beginner should read possibly read?

Thank you,

Whoa, great article, thx!

Btw, I would be interested in some “beginner-level” RPG games. Any suggestions? Any links where may I get a simplified Zelda game?

Thanks for everybody in advance!

Nice post Hector! I’ve used quite a few of these myself over the years and it definitely results in success! (Especially the last one :P)

Have you heard of Anki though? It’s a great program for flash card training. It uses an SRS so that you only see the cards you need to. You can use it on mobile phones too! You can find it here:

And I put up some of my own custom decks when hitting the books for JLPT1 here:

Another great way to improve your Japanese is to go to Japan and work part time at a hotel or a resort. boobooski ( and Japan Internships ( offer some good programs. Nothing like living and working there to boost your language skills!

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