Japanese is arguably the most difficult language for English speakers to learn,1 yet the relatively recent popularization of Japanese media has resulted in a disproportionate number of learners on the Internet. Consider the number of subscribers to the various language-learning subreddits,2 which puts Japanese at more than two times as popular as the next-largest language, French. The explosive growth of the Japanese-learning community has produced a large number of free online resources, albeit of varying quality, and beginners are likely to be completely overwhelmed. The goal of this article is to provide an overview of the language and link resources that I have found useful. Although I am not an expert,3 I have studied the language for more than five years and hold the JLPT N1.
The written language consists of three separate character sets.
Hiragana (commonly misspelled hirigana) and katakana are phonetic syllabaries in which each character represents one syllable.4 Together, katakana and hiragana make up the native Japanese writing system known as kana. Visually, hiragana is squiggly (かすみ) and katakana is angular (ヤクザ). Native Japanese words tend to be written in hiragana, and foreign loanwords in katakana, but many exceptions exist. Your studies will likely begin with learning to read both hiragana and katakana.
Kanji are characters imported to Japan from China over many centuries. Of the approximately six thousand kanji listed in exhaustive dictionaries, more than two thousand are in daily use.5 Each kanji may have one or more borrowed Chinese readings, known as onyomi, and native Japanese readings, or kunyomi. Structurally, kanji are composed of simpler components known as radicals.6 A single kanji may represent a word individually, be combined with other kanji to form a multi-character compound word, or have a hiragana suffix with some grammatical function. Most personal names are also written in kanji. Among other reasons, kanji are necessitated by the large number of homophones in Japanese. For example, the characters 鼻 and 花 mean nose and flower, respectively, yet both are read hana.
The fact that kanji can be read in multiple ways depending on the context is a major gripe for beginners, but it’s really not as bad as all that. Consider the character 生, meaning life, which has an unusually large number of common readings:
- i as in 生きる (ikiru)
- ha as in 生やす (hayasu)
- sei as in 人生 (jinsei)
- u as in 生まれる (umareru)
- shou as in 一生 (isshou)
- nama by itself
However, take a look at the surrounding characters and convince yourself that there is essentially no ambiguity. Each pronunciation is clearly distinguishable through context.
Furigana, sometimes called ruby text, is a hiragana reading aid placed over kanji characters to assist in pronunciation—for example,
The system of writing Japanese with English letters is called rōmaji (commonly misspelled romanji), from the words rōma (Rome) and ji (letter). The process of converting Japanese text into rōmaji is called romanization, and several different standards exist. Rōmaji is used when typing with an English keyboard, but not for reading or writing in any other form. An IME (input method extension) is a piece of software that converts typed rōmaji into Japanese text—you can install one through your operating system, or use the Google IME. Make sure that you have the correct fonts8 installed as well, since Chinese fonts will render Japanese characters incorrectly.
On computers, Japanese is written left-to-right, like English. However, books are usually written vertically top-to-bottom, right-to-left, and are oriented with the spine on the right-hand side. There are no spaces between words in Japanese. You can pick apart un-spaced words easily in English, sowhynotinjapanesetoo?
Finally, a word on handwriting. Each character has a fixed stroke order, which must be memorized and followed to maintain legibility. Rules for determining stroke order exist, but each rule has its exceptions. Complex kanji may have as many as twenty strokes. The net result of the computerization of society has been considerably decreased ability to write kanji9 by Japanese natives, in spite of intensive handwriting education throughout primary and secondary school. Whether you choose to learn handwriting depends on your needs—do you need to fill out forms in Japanese? Arguments can be made for the role of handwriting in memorization, but I suggest not wasting time on it early in your studies. There are bigger fish to fry.
You will need to learn the each of the 46 hiragana and 46 katakana, along with their pronunciation-changed forms. I used realkana.com, but handmade flashcards will work as well. This is a simple exercise in memorization which should take less than one week to complete. Here are some stumbling points:
- shi し becomes ji じ when you add the two small dashes known as a dakuten. Many other characters do something similar.
- Understand the difference between small tsu っ and big tsu つ. Incidentally, the small tsu produces a sound known as a glottal stop.
- きょ is read kyo, not kiyo. Learn the use of the small yo, ya, and yu.
- ha は is sometimes read as wa, and you should learn when and why this happens.
Once you have mastered recognition and pronunciation of kana, you will need to learn to read faster. Far and away the most effective method I have used for increasing reading speed is singing along to Japanese music on YouTube with lyrics in the video. Useful search terms include 歌詞つき (kashitsuki, lyrics included) and カラオケ (karaoke). As you should now know, karaoke is properly pronounced kah-rah-o-keh, not ka-ree-o-key.
You will most likely not want to study kanji individually. I recommend studying them as they appear in words, although there is a popular book called Remembering the Kanji (RtK) by Heisig which promotes the individual-kanji approach. To me, this approach appears to be waste of time; after spending several months studying RtK, you can’t read anything! Learning to read real words is left as an exercise to the reader! Additionally, not learning words immediately will slow your understanding of example sentences and therefore grammar. Search the Internet for similar arguments and rebuttals.
An SRS (spaced repetition system) is an algorithm that determines when to display flashcards based on its estimation of when you are about to forget them, so you don’t waste time reviewing things you know well. Anki is essentially the only popular SRS software. The desktop and web apps are free, but the iPhone app is $25. There is no strict need to purchase the iPhone app, unless you wish to support the developer—a worthy cause. A popular flashcard deck is the core10k,10 which contains the 10,000 most frequent words in the language. There is a wealth of information and debates on how to most effectively use Anki, but the default settings worked fine for me for many years.
Japanese word dictionaries are organized in gojūon11 order, and kanji dictionaries are ordered by radical. Most people use Internet dictionaries such as the aptly-named jisho.org.
Many people recommend consuming native material (that is, books, manga, cartoons, etc.) and adding new vocabulary words to a personal flashcard deck in Anki. I found this to be absurdly time consuming, especially early on when my vocabulary was small. I prefer using pre-made Anki decks, rather than creating my own.
The Internet tends to recommend the textbooks Genki I and II, although I have never used either. Other sources of note include imabi.net and Tae Kim’s guide, but the former is perhaps too verbose and the latter, in my experience, occasionally plays fast and loose with the grammatical definitions. I learned from a mix of both, and picked up a good deal of grammar from reading and listening. Specifically, finding anime, manga, or music that you enjoy and breaking down the sentences is an excellent way to internalize grammar and understand how it’s used in the wild. The important keyword for anime and manga is raw, meaning untranslated or un-subtitled. Both Japanese and English subtitles for most popular anime are available online, and watching anime with Japanese subtitles is useful at intermediate and higher levels.
I don’t have much else to say about studying grammar—just grind it out. We were all there once.
Spoken Japanese, like English, contains slang and contractions, which I recommend learning naturally through exposure to conversation and native material. Note that many words and phrases are gender-specific. If your friends or instructors are not the same gender as you, be wary of mimicking their speech patterns. In particular, Japanese has a large number of first-person pronouns and each carries unique connotations—do your research. Men generally don’t say atashi.
Unlike English, Japanese has several dialects that vary significantly enough to warrant individual attention. Two of the most popular are the Tokyo dialect and the Kansai (southwest) dialect. The Tokyo dialect, often called Standard Japanese, is used by the government and the vast majority of textbooks. You do not need to specifically study non-standard dialects unless you plan on visiting rural areas and want to fit in, since pretty much all Japanese people will understand the Tokyo dialect.
- Shadowing is the process of speaking words at the same time as a character in a movie or cartoon, and helps to improve intonation, pitch, and pacing.
- Tokyo is actually Tōkyō. Learn to tell the difference between long and short vowels.
- Pitch accent (the rising and falling pitch of your voice as you speak) distinguishes between homophones in the spoken language as different kanji do in writing.
- The r sound in ra ri ru re ro is not an English r. Instead, it has been described as a mix of r, d, and l.
- The pronunciation of fu is not as in the English word “fool.” It is a mix of the English f and h sounds.
- Aidzuchi are short phrases indicating acknowledgement and understanding during conversion. Japanese people use them frequently, and you should too.
Everyone worth their salt recommends immersion, the practice of constantly exposing oneself to the target language in everyday life. Some listen to podcasts, others watch mildly suggestive cartoons, and a brave few set their computer system language to Japanese. I am guilty of all three, although only the cartoons seemed to have any lasting effect. Experiment with immersion to the extent that you can tolerate.
With that said, here are some interesting resources.
- Dogen is a YouTuber who creates extremely entertaining comedy videos in Japanese, and also has a series of paid videos on Japanese phonetics.
- subs2srs is a software that converts subtitle files into Anki decks.
- Miyachi is a Japanese-American rapper who often subtitles his videos.
- Tofugu is a Japanese-themed blog with articles about the language and other cultural topics. They also run a paid online SRS software called WaniKani, which is generally recommended as a more streamlined alternative to Anki.
- The /r/learnjapanese subreddit is a large forum with members of all skill levels.
- Atsugiri Jason is an American who does comedy in Japan that focuses on aspects of the language. His success can be attributed to matching the Japanese stereotype of Americans as loud and rude, rather than his comedic ability.
The oft-mentioned JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) tests reading comprehension, grammar, and listening ability. The levels of the test range, in increasing difficulty, from N5 to N1. There is no good reason to take levels N5, N4, or N3. On the other hand, N2, or occasionally N1, may be required for employment by a Japanese firm in Japan. Many learners self-assess their level without sitting for the exam; feel free to ignore their claims. I took and passed N1 in December of 2015.
Less frequently discussed is the masochistic Kanji Kentei, a comprehensive kanji examination the highest level of which covers the correct stroke order, usage, and pronunciation of more than 6000 kanji. I have never and likely will never sit this exam. For that matter, even native speakers generally cannot pass higher levels of the Kentei without concerted study.12
I think that covers essentially all major topics referenced frequently in the Japanese-learning community, and should prepare you to start studying in a reasonable and efficient way. There is much more to be said on the language itself, of course, but I will leave that to the textbook authors. Tweet me if you have any comments; I’d love feedback. Finally, in true Japanese style, here is a relevant four-character idiom (a yojijukugo).
下学上達 (kagaku jōtatsu): starting from the basics but eventually standing atop a distant pillar of knowledge
The US Foreign Service Institute considers Japanese, Arabic, Korean, Cantonese, and Mandarin to be the five most difficult languages for English speakers to learn. See this page (scroll to the bottom). ↩︎
This post is from 2018, but the results are valid at the time of writing. ↩︎
You are taking advice from someone who spent more than three thousand hours studying a complex language spoken on a distant volcanic archipelago in order to watch cartoons more effectively. ↩︎
Technically, each kana character represents one mora, not one syllable. ↩︎
The 2136 kanji designated for daily use are known as the jōyō kanji. ↩︎
Radicals can be used to look up kanji in a dictionary. ↩︎
Furigana with a different pronunciation from the actual characters' reading can be used for puns or to imply a double meaning. See here. ↩︎
Due to Han Unification, the display of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean characters is decided by the font. ↩︎
Character amnesia ↩︎
The core2k/6k/10k decks were removed from the Anki distribution server due to supposed copyright issues, but had been previously released under a permissive license which obviates any potential infringement. At the time of writing, the core10k is available here. ↩︎
The two main kana ordering systems are Gojūon and Iroha. ↩︎
This video (no subtitles) is about the first non-Japanese person to pass the highest level of the Kentei. ↩︎