Want to Learn Japanese? Here’s how I did it.
People often ask me how I learned Japanese.
First of all, let me tell you that there is no fast and easy way to do so.
If there are any books or websites that claim that, screw them!
You gotta put a lot of effort and time into this. There’s no way around it.
If you thought I’m going to show you some magic trick how to become fluent in Japanese quickly, then you might as well stop reading now.
I can’t tell you what you should do in order to be successful in your studies.
I won’t sit down next to you and hold your hand while you study. I wouldn’t be a good Japanese teacher anyway.
All I can do is share how I learned Japanese by telling you what worked for me and what didn’t.
Learning Japanese: How it all started
I used to do Karate when I was in elementary school. Naturally I learned my first few Japanese words (e.g. greetings, how to count) that way. That was back in the 80s.
Of course, back then I never thought that one day I’d study Japanese or even move to Japan.
Much later, around 1998, when I was into anime and manga, I got motivated to learn a few basic things such as phrases, hiragana and katakana. I wasn’t all that serious, but I did learn a few things.
Fast forward – in university I took basic Japanese lessons for a year or so. That was in 2002. It was good to learn the basics from a native speaker, but I can’t really say that it got me very far. It’s probably an issue a lot of you have experienced. I was just too busy with my major to really focus on Japanese.
But I really wanted to become fluent in Japanese, so whenever I had some time, I browsed through the few books I had back then to study at least a bit.
Let me tell you that back in the days it was a lot harder to study Japanese, especially on your own! It’s become so much easier nowadays with all the great websites, programs and apps out there. A few of them I’ll introduce later.
In 2007 I visited Japan for the first time. It was nice to see that I could handle some simple conversations, but that was about it.
In 2008 I finally moved to Japan and that’s when I also got extremely serious about becoming fluent. All the signs around me, all the letters in my mailbox … I didn’t want to depend on others forever. I wanted to understand this new world around me.
It goes without saying that you always should put effort into learning the language of the foreign country you chose to live in, but that wasn’t my motivation at all. Maybe I wouldn’t have been able to pull it off with a “weak motivation” like that. I truly just wanted to become fluent in Japanese.
By that time I could hold basic conversations, knew hiragana, katakana and maybe about 150 kanji – and some basic grammar. My listening skills were far beyond my other skills. I could understand random conversations, but I couldn’t yet respond to them properly.
My listening was already that good because I had been watching Japanese dramas, movies and anime and listened to Japanese music for about a decade by then.
I sat down every single day before and after work and studied like crazy. My original plan was to earn enough money in my full-time job so that I’d be able to eventually attend one of those language schools. That was my main goal back then, but I never went to such a school in the end.
So, that was my background story. Now, I want to tell you what I did, what worked and what didn’t. Please note that what worked for me might not work for you and vice versa. A lot of the methods others recommended, didn’t do anything for me.
Kanji / Reading
I think my biggest problem at the beginning were kanji. I’m sure I’m not the only one, right?
I tried so many different approaches.
First, I just sat down and tried to study them like I usually would study vocabulary.
That works for the simple kanji (and that’s how I remembered my first 150-ish kanji), but as soon as the more complex kanji popped up, it didn’t work out anymore.
Next, I tried paper flashcards. I used the “White Rabbit Press” ones. Don’t get me wrong, they’re really good …. that approach just wasn’t right for me.
Eventually I took the “Heisig” road. I know that it has always been discussed controversially, so I wasn’t sure about this method, either. But for me it worked WONDERS!
If you use Heisig, you’ll first learn the meaning (not the readings) and how to write a kanji. It’s splitting up the task of learning kanji. You won’t have to memorize everything at the same time. And it’s a lot of fun because you’re working with an imaginative memory technique. Basically you’re creating a story for each and every kanji. Ideally you should combine this with a SRS (space repetition system). I’ll explain what exactly that is later.
For me that was the best choice! I learned 2000 kanji in a bit more than 2 months (while working full-time)!!
The next step was to learn how to read the kanji I just memorized. Heisig offers a second book where you’ll learn the “on-yomi“, but I didn’t like that approach. Instead I tried something similar to book 1. Back then it was called “The Movie Method“.
It’s REALLY simple and very similar to the previous method. In fact, you can just upgrade your previous stories and that’s it! It’s wonderful!
For each on-yomi sound group (e.g. “KAN”) you choose a movie you associate with that sound and integrate that into your story. I didn’t work with movies, but with whatever came to my mind when I heard that sound. So, for “CHI” it was “Chili con carne” …. don’t even ask!
Here’s an example: 誓 (SEI) – swear
In this folded (折 = upper part of this kanji) letter I wrote down the words (言 = lower part of the kanji): I swear (meaning of the kanji) I’ll always love you (thus far Heisig book 1, my own story followed by adding a bit more to remember the on-yomi): Because love letters are still popular among teenagers (SEI = on-yomi of this kanji).
For the sound group “SEI” the first thing that popped up in my mind back then was “SEISHUN” (青春 = youth) and so I worked with that. *g*
I just added the “teenager / youth” part to all the stories concerning kanji with the on-yomi “SEI” (so also to 性、静 etc.).
Here’s another example (sorry, it’s all in German, but just so you see how it would look) using Anki. I’ll introduce this awesome program further down.
Here’s a story for the same kanji by someone else. As you can see it’s not SO different from mine, but it doesn’t have anything added for the reading of the kanji yet.
My stories are all super embarrassing, but whatever works is great! It’s YOUR story! You need to make it about YOU! About your life! Because only then it will be effective. I sometimes noticed my stories weren’t effective, then tossed them and created a new one.
Learning the readings took me a bit longer, maybe half a year, but then I got the on-yomi for 2000 kanji down.
Next step was to memorize the “kun-yomi“ for all those kanji. That’s similar to studying vocabulary, but it would make no sense to study those words isolated. It’s important to study them IN CONTEXT!!
So, find sentences that aren’t too difficult for you to understand (no complicated grammar) and read them again and again. That way you’ll learn how to read certain kanji, you’ll also remember what the word means and in what kind of context it is used.
It doesn’t really matter where you get those sentences from. Just make sure it’s from a source that uses correct Japanese.
I started out with “KO2001 – Kanji Odyssey“. The sentences aren’t too difficult, but you can learn the reading of most of the 2000-ish joyo kanji. I see that the books aren’t available in print form anymore. If you prefer the print version, I found it on Amazon UK.
After that I continued with the sentences from “Kanji in Context“. I never worked through the whole book and gave up halfway because the sentences were just too boring for my taste, yet a great source for new kanji compounds and vocabulary!
In the end I switched to reading Japanese novels and whenever I found a word I couldn’t understand, a kanji I couldn’t read or a grammar point I couldn’t figure out, I marked it. Every once in a while I put those sentences into Anki and thus had a new pool of sentences I could study.
I regularly checked my kanji knowledge. That screenshot is from May 2009. Unfortunately this particular website doesn’t seem to exist anymore.
You want to know what kind of novels I read?
Ok, I admit that I also kept reading manga. This is a good idea especially at the beginning as the pictures will give you a hint of what’s going on even if you have a hard time understanding what you’re reading. At first, you should pick manga that have furigana (hiragana above all kanji) or you will get frustrated. Easy manga to start with are Doraemon, Chi’s Sweet Home or generally various shojo manga (Marmalade Boy, Hana Yori Dango etc.). But make sure it’s something you’re interested in.
As for novels I really enjoyed the books of Otsu Ichi (乙一) such as “Calling You” (きみにしか聞こえない). The stories are great and not too difficult to follow along.
Of course, you could also read books of stories you already know, e.g. the Japanese version of Harry Potter.
Listening / Speaking
Like mentioned earlier my listening skills were always far beyond my other skills. And yet I kept listening to Japanese media (music, movies, dramas) every day. This is especially important if you don’t live in Japan. You need to get as much Japanese input as you can.
“Immerse yourself in Japanese!”
If you want to boost your learning effect you could watch Japanese movies / dramas with Japanese subtitles!
At some point I watched things and noticed towards the end of a show that there were no subtitles at all and THEN I panicked. That means I was able to understand things without relying on subtitles before I knew it. That’s where you want to get eventually.
Of course, once you live in Japan, it gets easier. I learned so much every single day just by passively listening to people around me. In my case, I picked up weird expressions from my students, but who cares. *g*
But I also learned the infamous keigo (super polite language) by listening to my co-workers who were answering the phone or talking to customers.
If you don’t live in Japan, it might be difficult to practice speaking. But that’s also something you need to get used to, so find a language exchange partner. Nowadays with Skype and all, that’s not so difficult anymore.
If you study kanji you will have to write a lot. You need to learn how to write them and your hands need to remember that feeling as well.
With the Heisig method I wrote so many kanji, I think by the end of book 1 I had over 10 notebooks full of kanji.
But you also should practice writing Japanese in general. You could have a Japanese diary and start with simple things.
Why? Well, it’s really difficult to remember how to write a word in kanji if you don’t practice it regularly. This even happens to Japanese people, especially in recent times with smartphones and all. They just type it in and will be given a choice of kanji compounds.
A good practice is to get kanji drill books that are aimed at junior high (or even high school) students where you have to fill in the correct kanji. I used to copy worksheets of my students and sat down together with them to see who could finish the task first. *g*
I really hated my handwriting, so I had a Japanese co-worker correct it. Eventually I gave up. I just can’t have a beautiful Japanese handwriting it seems. It looks like it’s written by a Japanese boy in his teens. But who cares?
Digital writing is also a good way of practicing. Not so much for kanji, but for your general output. You could create a personal blog or journal in Japanese. If you want to communicate with Japanese people, then using a platform that Japanese people often use is a good idea such as Ameblo, Yahoo Japan, Yaplog, Mixi, etc.
Another great option is Lang-8. I’ll write more about this later.
Learning Japanese Grammar
Grammar has always been and is until now my biggest problem.
As you might have noticed by now I studied Japanese on my own. Not having a teacher who can explain certain grammar rules to you certainly was an issue sometimes. When I decided to take 2kyuu (now N2) of the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test), I noticed that I could even pass 1kyuu – apart from the grammar section. I really had to work on my grammar.
For that, I just crammed. I used the Kanzen Master series (also for cramming the reading part). I picked the best example sentences and studied them again and again. Same as always, DON’T study grammar isolated, but in context.
Once you’ve seen enough sentences with a certain grammar point, you usually get how and when to use it. Sometimes I didn’t, so I just asked my Japanese friends to explain it to me. Most of the time that worked. Sometimes, though, I just got a “Just because!” – Yeah, native speakers often cannot explain grammar rules to others. I know that all too well.
Becoming Fluent in Japanese – How long did it take me?
Uhm, I wouldn’t say I’m fluent in Japanese. I wouldn’t even say I’m fluent in English!
I’m not even entirely sure I’m fluent in German! Go figure!
And please don’t think that you’ll ever “finish” to learn a language. Because you won’t.
It’s true that I stopped studying Japanese “actively” in 2010 / 2011. I passed N2 in 2010, wanted to take N1 next (mock tests already showed me that apart from the grammar I’m good to go), but then I somehow just lost interest.
Once you live in a foreign country and you notice that you can handle daily life just fine, that’s good enough, I guess. I didn’t want to become a professor for Japanese literature or something like that after all. I wanted to be able to understand the doctors, read any novel or watch any TV program I wanted to – and I managed to do those things just fine.
However, I learned so much more from 2011 until now nevertheless. Moving to Kansai was great, because I got to learn my favorite dialect of all times, Kansai-ben, without having to do anything! Just by listening to my students every day, I picked up everything I needed. And that’s just ONE example.
I also noticed a huge progress as we had to translate speeches our students had written (from Japanese into English). At the beginning (2008) I had a hard time, but towards the end (2011+) it was super easy. In the end, I got all the work, because among all my co-workers, Japanese and foreigners, I was the one who could do it the fastest (note that neither of those is my mother tongue). And it was a lot of fun, too. Although I had to haunt a few of my students when their handwriting was so ugly that I couldn’t read it at all.
Of course, I keep reading Japanese novels, listening to Japanese music and watching Japanese media. That’s even more important now that I have left Japan and suddenly in almost a decade I don’t use Japanese every single day anymore. It’s such a weird scenario!
Programs / Apps for learning Japanese:
Now, all of the above sounds nice and all, but I wouldn’t have been able to pull it off without certain little tools that helped me along the way.
The one thing you will DEFINITELY need no matter what kind of method you choose is Anki, a SRS (spaced repetition system) program.
I’ve been using Anki for as long as I can remember. I think I started using it right when it came out. You could even use it to study for tests. It’s not limited to studying languages. It’s really THE essential tool for studying Japanese. And the program has improved so much throughout the years. There’s also a mobile version. So you can sync all your decks on all your devices. As I haven’t used it in the past few years, I’m sure it became even more awesome.
What it does:
It’s like a digital flashcards system based on the famous Leitner system. You don’t have to worry about anything. The program does everything for you. Ok, you still have to study on your own, but you know what I mean. You’ll judge how well you knew what you just saw (a kanji, a grammar point) and the program will decide when to show it to you again. Simple as that. Works like magic!
I put all of the sentences I found in novels and elsewhere into a deck, marking the thing I wanted to study. In the screenshot above it was the reading and meaning of the kanji in pink.
But don’t worry. You don’t have to put in everything manually. Back then there was nothing, but nowadays there are millions of shared decks you can choose from. JLPT vocabulary, kanji, grammar points, sentences …
There are even awesome decks with pictures and sound!
By the time those came out, I didn’t need them anymore, but I’m sure it’s fun to study with them. I also remember seeing decks that featured anime screenshots with the translation of the subtitles. Great way to study if you like anime!
Anki – It’s free, it’s simple, it’s AWESOME! Go get it now! Period.
I tried out various programs and apps, but the only one I kept using was Anki. To be honest, Anki is all you need.
Not a program to study Japanese, but an add-on for Firefox browsers that is EXTREMELY useful: Rikaichan. (For Chrome there seems to be something similar called “Rikaikun“.) You hover over a Japanese word / kanji and it tells you the meaning or how to read it. There’s a name dictionary as well which is what I use most often. Reading Japanese names, especially those that aren’t very common, can be a pain in the a** – even for Japanese people!
Websites for studying Japanese:
I know there are a lot of websites out there nowadays for studying Japanese. It’s difficult to choose. Don’t waste too much time finding the right one!
Lang-8 has been one of the most helpful websites ever. And although I can’t really remember my account name anymore, I remember having a low 4-digit member number on my first account which means I used it pretty much from the very beginning.
It’s such a great website and it’s free! They also added some premium features you can pay for.
You can write something in the language you want to study and native speakers will correct it for you.
The whole system works really well. You can save corrections, so you can review them later.
If there’s anything you don’t understand while studying, you can write about it there and they will not only correct what you wrote, but also help you figure out what you couldn’t on your own.
You can add friends and correct their articles as well. It’s a great platform to get to know (Japanese) people!
What I also really want to recommend is Kanji Koohi.
Especially if you use the “Heisig” approach, you’ll find a platform there to study, to check out the stories others have created and to add your own. I kept using Anki, but it was a great resource when I just couldn’t find a fitting story for a certain kanji. Browsing there helped me come up with ideas. I still think it’s very important to use your own stories or at least modify stories so that they have some connection with your life!
The most awesome part isn’t the platform, but the forum! This has always been the BEST forum I have come across when it comes to learning Japanese. I’ve never gotten better advice, material and motivation anywhere else. I highly recommend it!
Another website I used back in the days was called “smat.fm”. Later they changed their name to “iKnow“.
I really liked it because they had all sorts of quizzes, progress charts etc. – creating a feeling of accomplishment.
Something like iKnow might help you to get your motivation back up.
I have no idea how much it has changed now, but maybe you want to have a look at it nevertheless. (*Looks like it’s not a free service anymore, but they offer free trials.)
Great Books for Learning Japanese:
- Kanji Odyssey – KO2001:
Lots of great sentences to start out with in order to learn the reading of kanji (especially after using the Heisig method). I put the sentences into Anki and studied them. Ok, to be fair there was a pre-made deck with all the sentences for Anki, but you only could access that deck if you could prove you owned the books.
- Kanji in Context:
A great resource for a bit more challenging sentences. Good to use after you’ve finished KO2001 (or something similar). However, I found the sentences very boring after some time.
- Kanzen Master Series:
These books help you prepare for the JLPT, but you could also use them as “normal” study material. They’re also a great resource for more sentences.
- Read Real Japanese:
A great collection of novels and short stories from famous authors with English translations and explanations. An audio CD is included as well. I still have this book and some of the works are challenging to read! There’s also a fiction version.
- Breaking Into Japanese Literature:
It’s similar to “Read Real Japanese”. It features seven modern classics from authors such as Natsume Soseki. I think I liked this one even better than “Read Real Japanese”.
- Japanese graded readers:
When I just started out, I LOVED these. The stories were entertaining and I just worked my way up until I reached the highest level. Fun times!
- Reibun de manabu kanji to kotoba:
Another great resource for sentences (N2 level-ish). I liked that one a lot better than “Kanji in Context”, so I continued with that one in the end.
- A Dictionary of ___ Japanese Grammar:
I got the whole series from basic to advanced. They were great to look up grammar – and thus far those are the best grammar books I came across.
Before I moved to Japan, I used “Japanese for busy people“. That’s also the book series we used at university.
After arriving in Japan, I had a look at the “Minna no nihongo” books. These are good books to get the basics down. Just make sure you grab a book that already uses kana (hiragana, katakana, kanji) and not only romaji (alphabet). I know it’s easier to learn with romaji, but you won’t do yourself a favor if you stick around romaji for too long. (Although not everybody would agree, I guess. )
Some Advice on How to Learn Japanese:
Here’s some advice I want to give you. I don’t want to sound all high and mighty. Feel free to ignore what I have to say, but here goes:
Use ONLY Japanese:
Once you feel that you’re ready, stop using anything but Japanese in your decks. Look up a word you don’t know in a Japanese dictionary and put the Japanese definition into the answer field. That might be a bit challenging at first, but it will have a huge effect. You learn a new word by reading the explanation for it in Japanese.
Use each and every opportunity to speak Japanese:
If you happen to come to Japan, USE that opportunity. Speak Japanese! Don’t hang around people who won’t speak Japanese with you at all. Don’t get discouraged when some people keep replying in English. Some Japanese people just tend to do that even if you’re fluent in Japanese. That’s such a great chance, don’t waste it. And don’t be afraid that you might mess up at first. You won’t learn anything unless you try. You’ll get better eventually for sure!
Keep challenging yourself:
I remember I was so busy with my full-time job and preparing for the N2, yet I signed up to take part in a prefectural speech contest. All the other participants were exchange students at universities and had teachers who practiced with them. I had to do it all by myself. I really thought I wouldn’t stand a chance, but it was such a great opportunity, so I took it.
I almost died of a heart attack on stage. I was so nervous! I don’t remember what I said or how I performed at all. But I actually won the first prize back then and that boosted my motivation up to 1000%.
You could also try to take tests such as the earlier mentioned JLPT, or the Kanji Kentei. That’ll also give you a specific goal you can work towards.
Always keep challenging yourself even if you think you can’t do it!
Don’t get too many things:
At the beginning I made the mistake to buy too many books. I thought the more books I had the greater my chances of learning Japanese properly / quickly. I ended up selling most of them again without ever really using them. And by living in Japan I had access to so many books, it was insane. My advice is to focus on a few things you’re really interested in. You don’t need any textbooks (only in the very beginning you might). Choose books, manga … maybe even the blog of your favorite Japanese actor – and read, put it into Anki, study, repeat!
This will keep your motivation up a lot more than studying with boring textbooks that have nothing to do with your interests.
Connect with others:
Especially if you study on your own, connect with others. Find language exchange partners. Join Lang-8. Create an Ameblo account. Follow your favorite idols on Facebook, Youtube or Twitter. It’s important to get a lot of input and the more you do, the more likely will you be able to have a proper conversation. It’s important that you get comfortable USING the language actively!
Ok, that was a super long blog post, but I hope it was somewhat helpful.
Feel free to ask away if there’s still anything you want to know.
But please keep in mind that I’m not fluent in Japanese myself and that I’m very bad at explaining or teaching Japanese to others.
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