"How to learn Japanese?" is really "how to build the right patterns and habits
If you ask someone who's become fluent in the language, "how to learn Japanese," odds are the answer will be: "Just start."
The reason so many people get hung up at a beginner level in anything (not just learning Japanese!) is that motivation is finite. You start off excited, gung-ho, and ready to learn. You open a few tabs on your browser, read a handful of pages, and then... that's it. Heck, maybe you bought a course that you'll never progress past lesson 3, too.
It happens to the best of us.
This is why we made this guide. It's not about crushing it on day 1 — or even on day 10. It's about setting up a pattern and consistency in your study habits. It gives you some easy things to accomplish each week that will get you on your way to being a perapera nihongo speaker.
This guide is designed for anyone who is starting out studying Japanese
Because starting out is difficult – especially as an English speaker trying to pick up Japanese.
This guide will help get you past the very beginning stages, and set you up with some of the tools, strategies, and resources that you should find most useful in your early months. Keep in mind 2 important things:
1. Learning Japanese (or anything, for that matter) is a marathon, not a sprint. You will acquire skills naturally over time with repeated exposure and effort.
2. All outcomes are predicated on your effort. Try a little, learn a little; try hard, and you will learn a lot!
For most people looking for a strategy about how to learn Japanese, it starts and ends quite quickly (numerous times).
Let’s not do that. This is your chance to build a real skill that can bring you real benefits in your life. I have broken the contents of this guide to studying Japanese for beginners into a 4 week process to make it easy to start learning Japanese as a beginner and to make real progress.
Foreword — Updated August 2020
Japan is a unique country in that it is so integral to global culture and economy, and yet English fluency among its populace is quite low. While frustrating for the uninitiated, this can be a welcome respite for those of us looking to immerse ourselves in something completely different and unique. It can be a lovely (if not slightly frustrating) language with the different alphabets, levels of politeness, and regional variances, and I have taken great pleasure in the journey that is the path to fluency over the past 15 years. I hope that as you progress along your own path, you find a way to make the experience enjoyable.
This guide is designed to ease you into Japanese as a beginner and give you real tangible skills in the span of 1 month. Whether you're planning on traveling, or you eventually want to live and work in Japan, this guide will hopefully start you off on the right foot.
Best of luck!
Week 1: How to Write in Japanese
What?? We're starting off with writing in Japanese?
Yes. It's not terrible, and you don't have to memorize the whole kanji alphabet (over 2000 characters!) to start, but the longer you put it off, the longer you'll flounder in "absolute beginner" land.
With that noted, let's jump into it!
Japanese has 3 alphabets, or writing systems (yes, actually). Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. The deeper into Japanese study you get, the more you will learn about these and what they are used for. For the time being, you'll have to accept the fact that to be able to study Japanese, you have a bit of a hurdle to overcome. You must fully memorize both hiragana and katakana. This can take you a weekend or a year depending how efficiently you memorize things, but for the purposes of this guide, assume about a week. There's a section dedicated to this below.
But first, let's learn a little bit about these writing systems.
This is where everybody starts in typical Japanese for beginners courses. If you only know one writing system in Japanese, this is it. There are 46 characters in total, and over time you'll be so confident reading these that the number actually doesn't matter.
Historically derived from freehand kanji writing (think cursive writing), hiragana flows nicely when handwritten. It can be used totally in place of kanji, but you'll see as you progress that Japanese written entirely in hiragana is quite difficult to read because there are no natural breaks.
Hiragana's more angular cousin, katakana is identical to hiragana in number of characters and pronunciation. It was used more widely for native Japanese words historically, but now effectively conveys "foreign" loan words and exclamations (eg. smash!). Nowadays, Katakana is particularly useful in restaurants, where words like cheese, wine, and steak are almost always written in katakana. You're not going to get away without learning it, so you might as well blast through it at the same time as hiragana.
This is the big one, and actually the reason Risu Press exists. There are officially 2,136 jouyou, or daily use, kanji (常用漢字) that the government has designated as the basic kanji everyone should be able to read and write. In reality, with the advent of smart phones and computers, fewer young adults can actually write all 2,136, but you'd sure better be able to read the majority of them if you want to read the news or a novel.
Kanji came to Japan from China sometime in the 5th century via merchants and Buddhist scholars, and Japan adopted it as the defacto writing system. In classical Japanese, the whole text is Chinese "kanji" (hanzi) written in a way that matches Japanese grammar and vocabulary. Because of this, there are still significant overlaps to this day between Japanese kanji and Chinese hanzi, although a longer text is largely incomprehensible to readers of one and not the other.
Interestingly, the characters for kanji 漢字 mean 漢 (kan) referring to the kingdom of Han which became modern day China, and 字 (ji) which means written character. Therefore, even in Japanese, the word kanji literally means "Chinese characters."
Free Japanese Resources and Downloads
You really don’t need a textbook at this stage, so don’t worry about investing in one quite yet. The best thing you can do is work with paper, pen, and hiragana and katakana charts to quickly memorize hiragana and katakana. After a month of working through stuff your find for free online, you can consider picking up a textbook. The GENKI series is quite popular (I started with that) but I've also heard good things about Japanese for Busy People.
You may want to learn Japanese because you’d like to eventually work and live in Japan. Fantastic. I went that route, and it turned out just fine – but know that it can be a long path, if you’re living outside of Japan.
But that’s okay, because everyone who studies Japanese long enough has had those same experiences; we all remember trying to figure out the difference between 出逢うand 出会う. It just takes practice and exposure. There will be some major wins ahead of you though, if you stick with this. I promise.
Let’s get a few things ready for you to begin learning.
We can start off super basic – you don’t need to pick up Japanese novels or subscribe to TV Japan or anything (yet).
Lay the hiragana chart out on your desk.
See how it goes from right-to-left, top-to-bottom? That’s how it should be used, as it will be the most common way you see it in the future. I’m not going to go into pronunciation here, because that’s what youtube is for, but don’t skimp it. You don’t want someone mistaking your polite request for a taiyaki for a challenge to fight.
Start with the first column, your vowel column. This is referred to as the あいうえお line. It’s now your new best friend. When you want to alphabetize something in Japanese, it will be in that order, and then ascend as per the consonants of the top row. あいうえお、かきくけこ.
Take a piece of paper and redraw the whole chart onto it, noting stroke orders (also very easy to find on Google). Once you have written each character at least once, your brain begins the process of memorizing them. Work in columns, as they are laid out, and make little flashcards of each one, hiragana on the front, and equivalent English on the back. This is how anybody can learn the alphabet in about 2-3 days. Same thing with katakana. Get these both to the point where you don’t hesitate at all when you see a character, making it second nature.
Note 1: Voiced Consonants
There are some additional markers to certain characters that will change up how they are pronounced. Here are the full lists for your reference, and I recommended you write it in the “notes” section on each chart.
Hiragana Voiced Consonants
Katakana Voiced Consonants
Note 2: Small や ゆ よ
The characters や ゆ よ can be made small and attached to the i row characters to make new sounds as well. しゃ Sha しゅ Shu しょ Sho きゃ Kya きゅ Kyu きょ Kyo りゃ Rya りゅ Ryu りょ Ryo (etc.) No need to memorize these for now, but you will see them.
Note 3: Small つ / ツ
A small つ or ツ (tsu) will double a consonant. いた ita vs. いった itta
Week 2: 35 Words of Vocabulary and How to Count
Now you have hiragana and katakana under your belt, you’re ready to start picking up some real words! For anybody studying Japanese for beginners, your limited vocabulary is one of the most frustrating limitations to actually beginning to communicate. No guide anywhere is going to show you every single word you need to know to have a conversation, but we can start you off with 35 really useful words. For everything else, you can use a solid online dictionary!
35 over 7 days is just 5 new words a day. If you consider that the most common 1000 words in any language will basically get you through most of daily life, you’ll see how attainable the goal of basic fluency is.
Besides grammar functions (in English, these would include prepositions, etc.), you typically have the basic groups of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.
This week is all about memorizing some common words so you can start getting a sense of the language, and how the alphabets you just learned come together to make Japanese. Full disclosure, this list is totally not scientific or based on data, but rather a starting point to get you used to memorizing words (and I know from experience these are useful).
Note 4: Pluralization
Nouns in Japanese don’t change when you pluralize them. For example, ほん (book) can mean “book” or “books” depending on context. Where English has tricky pluralizations like goose -> geese, Japanese is simpler in this way!
Your vocab list to learn
Take this list and make it your own. Write the words, try them out, get the hang of spacing your characters next to each other nicely. Above all, say the words out loud repeatedly as you read so you get used to speaking Japanese.
To return (home)
As a final bonus word, here’s one of the most useful: です (soft “su” so it sounds more like des). This means is, or am.
Turn these into flashcards, or make lists – whatever works best for you. These may be the first 35 words you learn this way, but you will be making many more lists like this in the future so get comfortable with a technique that you like!
し / よん
なな / しち
きゅう / くう
We could fill up the next 2 pages with more counting, or you can check out this article here and draw up your flashcards (pro tip: you should) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_numerals
Week 3: Basic Japanese Grammar
Vocab without grammar is like... a book missing every other page. You kind of get the gist of things, but you miss all the important nuance and detail.
Week 3 in our How to Learn Japanese guide is all about tying your newly learned Japanese vocabulary together! Grammar in Japanese is quite different than English, but don't sweat it! There are some pretty simple rules to learn, and then it's overall way more standardized than English.
So, how does grammar work in Japanese?
Japanese follows a Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) form. So where we would say things in English like:
I eat bananas.
In Japanese this becomes:
I (particle) banana(s) (particle) eat.
Let’s start with the particles. As per wikipedia, “particles are suffixes or short words in Japanese grammar that immediately follow the modified noun, verb, adjective, or sentence.” This means they affect whichever word came right before them.
は (ha on your hiragana chart) is actually pronounced wa when used as a particle. It signifies the subject of the sentence.
を (wo on your hiragana chart) is actually pronounced more like o more or less always. It signifies the way in which the verb acts on the preceding object.
So, as much as I hate to use roman alphabet to show pronunciation, we will do so here one time to show how this sounds:
Watashi wa banana o taberu.
I banana eat. (I eat banana(s))
Let’s see some others:
わたしはがくせいです。I am a student.
わたしはしごとにいく。I go to work.
わたしたちはともだちです。We are friends.
This is a very simple pattern that will cover a lot of what you learn to begin with.
A good structure to follow up with is the question particle か.
あなたはがくせいですか？ Are you a student?
あなたはしごとにいく？ Will you go to work?
わたしたちはともだちですか？ Are we friends?
For the sake of this short guide, we won’t go into too much detail here, but play around with some of the vocabulary you learned above. To help you make sentences, here are some very useful question words.
Try to break down some of the following sentences and understand the meaning. This isn’t a textbook – there is no test at the end. Use google translate when and where necessary to understand words you don’t recognize, and focus on learning the patterns. Some words will not have been covered in the 35 you already learned, but this is a good chance to pick up some new ones.
(Every time you find a word you don’t know and you look it up, add it to your list. These are your words now!)
Week 4: Basic Kanji
How is everything going so far? Feeling a bit more confident? Maybe not yet, but no stress. It’s a marathon, not a sprint!
This week, we’ll look at getting you started with some basic kanji. Most people put this off for a long time, and work with just hiragana instead, but I really think you will benefit from just diving in near the start of your studies and getting used to writing simple kanji. You will have a tough time writing them at first, but don’t worry about it.
Generally your strokes will go from left to right, top to bottom, and you work through each stroke in the kanji from top left to bottom right. Let's see how this looks in the following video.
15 kanji to start
You may have heard something about "kanji readings" in your initial searches about kanji. This stems from the fact that as adopted Chinese characters, Japan had words for things long before the writing system came to be. These native Japanese pronunciations are called 訓読み kunyomi, while the Chinese-derived pronunciations are called 音読み onyomi.
In daily life the general rule is that a single kanji by itself will be pronounced with the kunyomi pronunciation, while compound words will use the onyomi pronunciation. As with all good things in life, though, the rules will be broken from time to time 😉
An example of the general rule of thumb would be like this:
水 みず mizu – water
塩水 えんすい ensui – salt water
You'll see the same character here, 水, but with two very different pronunciations based on the situation. Here's quick video explainer.
Basics of kanji: onyomi / kunyomi / stroke order
Your first kanji
To kick off this week, here is your list of vocal from before, but now with the most appropriate kanji instead of hiragana. Not every word should be turned into kanji, even when there is a kanji for that word! This is one of those understandings that comes from repeated exposure to the language, and is absolutely not intuitive, so don’t worry if it doesn’t make sense at first.
(Rarely used. The actual kanji is 貴方 but you'll almost always see this one in hiragana.)
(This one is basically 100% of the time just hiragana)
To return (home)
(Hiragana word again!)
(Written in katakana only)
Right away, you’ll notice that these aren’t the “easiest” kanji you’ll learn, but that’s fine.
We’ll follow up here with a list of some of those. However, be prepared to see these kanji a lot in actual Japanese text. They are not “uncommon” so you should just begin preparing yourself to recognize them.
Our famous JLPT Kanji Poster Set
Ask anyone who’s studied Japanese for a long time what was the biggest hurdle to reading fluency, and they will likely answer, “kanji.”
In fact, that’s why we made Risu Press in the first place! Our product, the Kanji Poster Set, came about because we saw a need in the marketplace for people to see all the kanji, all the readings (yes, most characters can be pronounced different ways depending on the context), and most importantly, to tie the kanji to an easy-to-recognize English meaning. If you're interested and you've followed through all the way to this point, maybe consider picking up a set to throw up on your wall at home 🙂
The method behind progressing from beginner Japanese to intermediate Japanese
Congratulations! You’ve got a good foundation to start self-study in Japanese now, and if you’re consistent, you’ll do very well.
I will say right away that the best way to get good at Japanese quickly is to hop on a plane, land yourself some cheap accommodation in Tokyo or Osaka, and hit the streets. Surrounding yourself with the language you are trying to learn is hands-down the most effective way to force your brain to adapt and grow.
That being said, that’s probably not an option for those of us who are putting in a solid 9-5 or going to school. Make your environment more Japanese in as many ways as you can. I don’t mean you need to replace the spaghetti in your pantry with ramen, but focus more on the things you already do everyday, and make them more Japanese.
Have a smartphone? Great, change it to Japanese. Your computer, too.
Like music? Sure you do. I like good old-school hip hop, so I found groups like Rhymester and Rip Slyme to be really easy to get into.
Do you make shopping lists and stick them to your fridge? Now do that in Japanese.
Essentially anything you can do that makes you interact with Japanese in a useful way is going to help improve your level.
Your Next Steps on How to Learn Japanese
I hope this guide has given you some useful insight into how to learn Japanese. It is not a quick process, nor will it always be a smooth increase. You will hit plateaus, no doubt, but always be looking ahead, and always be constant in your approach.
You will excel at all of this when you realize that it is a process and not a race. Utilize anything you can get your hands on.
While Japanese people are born into a world ideal for learning Japanese, you must create your own and then benefit from it in the way that is best for you as an individual. The learning process is relatively simple (hear, read, repeat), but the way this actually occurs will be unique to you.
Let this guide be the starting block for you to go begin studying Japanese, whatever your end goals may be.
As one life-long Japanese learner to another, 頑張って！ You’ve got this.