The Complete Guide to Learning Japanese for Beginners

Many people believe that it’s hard to learn Japanese.

While it’s true that Japanese is not an easy language to learn, it’s possible to master it. 

The good thing about learning Japanese is that you have access to many resources. 

You can take online courses. You can learn with private teachers. You can learn at a language school either in your home country or in Japan. 

There are also lots of movies, TV series, anime, manga, books, and podcasts available. 

Let’s take a look at how to get started and all the options you have to learn Japanese. 

Disclaimer: This article may link to products and services from one or more of Expat Den’s advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on those links. This won’t cost you anything extra, but it helps us cover the costs of running this website.

Why Should You Learn Japanese?

Different people have different reasons to learn Japanese. 

Some want to learn it to get a better understanding of the unique and charming Japanese culture. 

Some want to learn Japanese because they are living in Japan. While they can survive in the country without being able to speak Japanese, it constrains them significantly.

Different people have different reason of learning Japanese

Although it’s possible to find your way around and buy food, since many stations and restaurants have ticket machines with English menus, you will have quite the challenge dealing with minor issues in your life if you can’t speak Japanese. 

Japanese people often can’t speak English well, and then will decide not to even attempt it since they feel embarrassed. 

Some want to learn Japanese because of their job. 

Some want to learn Japanese because they want to watch Japanese anime without having to read the subtitles.

How about you? What’s your reason for learning Japanese?

Is It Difficult to Learn Japanese? 

Many people want to learn Japanese, but they end up giving up after hearing that Japanese is a difficult language.

But is it true?

The Foreign Language Institute in the United States says that Japanese is a very difficult language for English speakers. It requires at least 2,200 hours in order to learn the language. 

While that’s true, it is better to phrase it like this: Japanese is not hard to learn but it’s difficult to master. 

The main challenges in learning Japense come from two main subjects: grammar and Kanji. 

Japanese grammar is difficult for English speakers because it has many rules and structures that don’t exist in English. 

Kanji is a script that’s derived from Chinese. Each Kanji character has its own appearance, pronunciation, and meaning. 

To be able to read Japanese fluently, you are required to memorize at least 2,000 Kanji characters. 

However, these two challenges are not a problem for casual Japanese. 

For example, Japanese particles, which is one of the most confusing parts of Japanese grammar, are often omitted in a casual conversation. 

You won’t need to know how to read Kanji if you want to only focus on speaking and listening. 

Other than that, Japanese is a straightforward language. Characters have exact pronunciations. Many Japanese words are used repetitively in many scenarios. You can also find some English words in Japanese as well. 

On the good side, unlike learning Thai, learning Japanese is much more systematic. Courses and learning materials circle around the JLPT, or Japanese Language Proficiency Test, which we are going to explain in the next section. 

There are also various types of additional resources for learning the language that you can’t find in other languages, such as manga and anime. 

Japanese isn’t as difficult as you think it is. You only need to know where to start and how to correctly learn it. 

JLPT

The JLPT, or the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, is the official Japanese language test in Japan.

It can be said that everyone who learns Japanese should take this test once. 

JLPT official logo

There are 5 JLPT levels, starting from N5, which is the beginner level, to N1, which is the highest level. 

Passing N4 and N5 shows that you can understand basic Japanese. However, you still can’t really use it in daily life. 

If you pass N3, it means you can start using Japanese in your daily life on many occasions. 

Passing N2 means you are quite fluent in Japanese. It is also the minimum requirement for positions that are related to Japanese language. 

N1 isn’t always necessary. If you pass this level, it means you are very fluent in Japanese and are able to understand complex reading material and conversations. 

You can see a full definition of each level from the official JLPT website

There are two main reasons why people take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test:

  1. To test their own Japanese 
  2. They need the JPLT certificate to apply for work or study

JLPT tests are conducted twice a year. Test sites are available in many cities. Here’s a list of available test sites throughout the world

Challenges

The main challenges of learning Japense are Kanji characters, sentence structure, verb conjugations, and particles.

If you want to master the language, you need to overcome all of them.

On the other hand, if you know you only want to be able to use Japanese in your daily life, you won’t need to deal with many of these challenges. 

Alphabet

The very first challenge all Japanese learners encounter when learning Japanese is the alphabet. 

There are three types of writing systems in Japanese: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. 

All of them are essential for Japanese learners. 

Hiragana has 46 characters. Each character has its own sound, but doesn’t have a meaning. 

To create a meaning, the Hiragana character needs to be combined with other Hiragana characters.  

Hiragana is used for words that are originally Japanese. 

Hiragana is the very first thing you should remember when learning Japanese

Katakana also has 46 characters. Katakana has the same sounds as Hiragana but the characters are written differently.

Katakana is mainly used for words that are derived from other languages. A lot of Japanese people also write their name in Katakana in their daily lives since it’s easier to read than Kanji. 

If a Japanese woman marries a foreigner and wants to change to her husband’s surname, the surname is going to be written in Katakana as well. 

Nicknames are also commonly written in Katakana. 

Each Hiragana and Katakana character has their own pronunciation. Once you are able to memorize them, you should be able to correctly pronouce Japanese words automatically. 

In addition, there are only five vowels in Japanese, which are a, i, u, e, and o. This makes it quite easy to pronouce the sounds.

Learning Hiragana and Katakana is simple. With practice, you should be able to memorize all of them within a week. 

After that, you need to learn Kanji, which is the hardest part of the Japanese writing system. 

Kanji are basically Chinese characters that are only used in written Japanese. Each Kanji character has their own meaning, and can be combined with other Kanji characters to create a new meaning as well. 

In addition, many Kanji characters have multiple ways to pronounce them. For example, 日 which means “day”, can be pronounced as “hi”, “ni-chi”, “chi-su”, and “ka”. 

Although there are over forty seven thousand Kanji characters out there, only around two thousand Kanji are used in daily life. 

Kanji is significant in written Japanese. A lot of Japanese words have similar pronunciations. You only know the exact meaning once you see the Kanji used to write the word. 

Sentence Structure

Japanese has a different sentence structure than English.

In English, the grammar structure goes like this

“Subject + Verb + Object”.

In Japanese, it’s “Subject + Object + Verb”. 

For example, if you want to say “I love you”, you need to say “I you love” in Japanese. 

In addition, when it comes to explaining nouns, the position of Japanese words is also opposite to English. A noun that you want to explain will be put at the very end. 

For example, if you want to say “a man who is eating noodles”. You need to say “noodles eating a man” in Japanese. 

Verb Conjugations

Verb conjugation is another key part of Japanese grammar. Similar to adding “-ed” at the end of a verb in English in order to show past tense, you need to do the same in Japanese. 

There are a lot of verb conjugations in Japanese. Each verb conjugation has their own rules. 

For example, “eat” in Japanese (食べる) can be conjugated into

  • 食べます if you want to say it politely
  • 食べた if it’s a past tense
  • 食べろ if you want to order someone to eat it
  • 食べない if it’s a negative form
  • 食べれば if it’s a conditional form
  • 食べられる if you want to say you are able to eat it

It’s very important to learn and memorize how to use all of the verb conjutations. It’s a key part of understanding Japanese. 

Wasabi-JPN.com has a useful chart of common Japanese verb conjugations.

A good way to learn them is to read textbooks, or take some Japanese courses, to get some basic understanding about each verb conjugation. 

After that, you can find something to listen to, like podcasts or movies. You will understand more once you hear how Japanese people use each verb conjugation in conversation.  

Particles

Particles are one of the most confusing parts of Japanese. Basically, it’s a Hiragana character or sentence that is added between each word in order to connect them together. 

Although many particles do not have their own meaning, they are a key part to show the function and motion of Japanese words. 

For example, 

  • は (wa) is a particle that is always after the Subject of the sentence
  • に (ni) is a particle that indicate places and time
  • を (wo) is a particle that is added before Verbs

Some particles may also have similar functions as other ones. For example, you can use both “に” and “で” to indicate place. The difference is that “で” indicates an action that happens in that place.  

Wikipedia has a list of Japanese particles. It also gives you a brief idea on how to use them. 

A good thing about many particles is that they are often omitted in casual Japanese. 

However, if you need to use Japanese in writing, using the right particle is very important. 

Courses

Taking Japanese courses is a good way to start learning Japanese. Not only does it give you a good foundation of the language, but it’s an effective way to learn advanced Japanese. 

While there are a lot of learning materials out there, many of them are geared toward beginners. Materials for advanced learners are still quite limited. 

Japanesepod101

JapanesePod101.com is a comprehensive online course for learning Japanese. Their courses are suitable for those who want to speak and understand Japanese in their daily lives.

Being an online course, you can learn at your own pace while practicing all Japanese skills at the same time, including reading, listening, writing, and even speaking. 

There are thousands of lessons available on JapanesePod101 for four levels of Japanese learners: absolute beginner, beginner, intermediate, and advanced. 

Each lesson comes with conversation, vocabulary, and grammar explanations, and are available in the form of video, audio, and lesson notes in both Japanese and Romaji (Japanese words spelled out with Latin characters).

Lesson notes can be downloaded in PDF format. 

For a complete beginner, you can start by watching their lessons on how to write Hiragana and Katakana, consisting of 20 mini-lessons at 3 and a half hours combined. 

For intermediate Japanese learners, you can take a look at their lessons in the intermediate level, and study Japanese through various conversations.

For those who want to take JLPT examinations, you can also find practice lessons for N5 to N2 on Japanesepod101.com 

Lessons from Japanesepod101.com on how to write Hiragana and Katakana

3 plans are available at Japanesepod101.com: $4/month, $10/month, and $23/month. 

The $10 plan is good since it gives you access to everything you need to learn Japanese. 

The $23 plan is for serious learners who want to speak with teachers from JapanesePod101.

The downside of JapanesePod101 is that it isn’t suitable for advanced learners who want to understand complex conversations, or those who want to take the JLPT N2 level and above. 

Lessons available here can be too easy for those learners. 

All in all, JapanesePod101 is a good course for those who want to get started in learning Japanese and those who want to be able to speak Japanese in their daily lives. 

It is also cheaper than other methods. You pay only $10 a month for unlimited hours, while other methods cost you around $10-$20 per hour on average. 

You can check out our JapanesePod101 review here.

Private Teachers

Hiring a private teacher is another good way to learn Japanese. It can be expensive but it’s worth it. 

Private teachers dedicate their time to improving your Japanese skills. 

A great benefit of learning with a private teacher that you can’t find from other methods is that a private teacher can instantly correct your mistakes and pronunciation, while explaining things that you don’t understand in detail. 

You also have the chance of fully using your Japanese skills with your private teacher, which can quickly and significantly improve your Japanese. 

Italki.com is a good way to find an online private teacher. There are hundreds of online private teachers there who are native speakers. You can review their profiles one by one and take a trial lesson with the one you feel most comfortable with. 

You can find a lot of online private teachers on italki.com

A lot of them can speak good English.

Private teacher rates are normally in the range of $10 to $30 USD per hour. 

Choosing a good private teacher is key. You should ask teachers for a trial lesson before committing to a full course. Although many private teachers are unable to give you a free lesson, they can give you a significant discount. 

If you go with this route, you should at the very least spend an hour a week learning with a private teacher. 

You should note that learning with a private teacher an hour or two a week can’t significantly improve your Japanese if you don’t do your own part by also learning on your own. 

On the other hand, if you are seriously studying Japanese on your own, spending your time with a private teacher even an hour a week can make a big difference. You can use this chance to speak Japanese, and your teacher can point out your weakness and improve your Japanese as a whole. 

Language Schools

If you have the budget and time, and are serious about learning Japanese, studying in a Japanese language school in Japan is one of the most effective ways of learning Japanese. 

A lot of people become fluent in Japanese within a year or two through this option. 

By studying at a language school in Japan, you will spend the whole time learning Japanese for 4 hours a day, 20 hours a week on average.

Flying to Japan and studying in a language school is another popular option for serious learners.

There are both short-term and long-term courses, from a few weeks to over two years. 

Upon enrolling in the language school, you are required to do a Japanese proficiency test in order to examine your Japanese skill and put you in the right class. 

Students in these language schools are mainly from South Korea, China, and Hong Kong. They range in age from 20 years old to late 30s. 

By studying at these language schools, you not only learn the language, but also culture. You can make new friends internationally. 

Living in Japan also gives more opportunities to improve your Japanese. You can use it in your daily life and get more access to learning resources, such as Japanese TV programs and news. 

You can find these language schools in many provinces in Japan, including Tokyo, Osaka, and Sapporo. Some might even provide scholarships. 

You can find some of them from this Japanese language school directory.  

However, language schools are quite expensive. 

You should expect to pay around 150,000 yen ($1,400) to 250,000 yen ($2,300) a month with this option. 50,000 yen ($460) to 80,000 yen ($740) a month goes to the language school, and the rest is for the accommodations. 

Since you only need to study around 20 hours a week, it’s possible to take a part-time job there. Supermarkets and convenience stores are popular places. They normally pay 800 yen to 1,200 yen per hour. 

In case you can’t fly to Japan and study, you can check out Japanese language schools in your own city. The Japanese Foundation is a good place to start. They have language courses in many countries throughout the world

Resources

A good thing about learning Japanese is that you have tons of resources available. A lot of them are free. You just need to know where to look. 

Let’s take a look at the resources you can use for learning Japanese. 

For online resources, read our complete guide to learning Japanese online.

Book

Books for learning Japanese are mainly based on JLPT levels.  

Minna no Nihongo is one of the most popular book series for learning Japanese. It consists of four books in total: two books for beginners (Shokyu 1-2 for JLPT N 4-5) and another two books for intermediate learners (Chukyu 1-2 for JLPT N 3). 

Minna no Nihongo is a popular book series for learning Japanese

The books are translated into many languages, including English, French, German, and Spanish. 

You should note that in some languages, such as Thai, there might be four books for Minna no Nihongo Shokyu instead of two.  

Genki Japan is another recommended book series for learning Japanese. However, there are only two books available for beginners (JLPT N4).  

Movies and Anime

If you love watching movies, Netflix is a good source.

There are a number of Japanese movies and anime available on Netflix. You can watch them in Japanese with English subtitles. Some of them also have Japanese subtitles for intermediate learners and above. 

The key benefit of watching Japanese movies and anime with Japanese subtitles is that it can surprisingly help you memorize Kanji that are regularly used. You see the same word appear many times in many different scenarios, which helps you to subconsciously memorize them. 

You can use this Google Chrome extension to open two subtitles at the same time. 

You may even be able to know the meaning without knowing how to pronounce them correctly.

A key to using Netflix to learn Japanese is about choosing the right movies. For example, you can’t watch an investigation movie and expect to learn Japanese words for daily life. 

Another point is that you should choose movies that you can rewatch many times. 

Terrace House is a good Japanese series to start with. It’s an unscripted reality show putting six Japanese people together in a single house. You can learn how Japanese is really spoken from this series. 

Terrace House is a good Japanese series for Japanese learners

The real challenge of learning through movies is that it can be time-consuming and you might end up focusing more on the story than learning Japanese. 

While watching anime is a fun way to learn Japanese, you should note that Japanese words used in anime are often different from what Japanese people really use in everyday speech. 

If you speak the exact same way as in the anime to Japanese people, they may find it either funny or quite rude. 

Manga

Japan is a land of manga (comics), with thousands of titles available in all genres. 

The good thing about learning Japanese through manga is the furigana, or small hiragana to help you read Kanji. 

Unless it’s a book for learning Japanese, furigana normally only appears on difficult Kanji. 

However, in Manga, furigana is shown for almost every Kanji character, making it another good resource for helping you to remember new Kanji. 

Second hand stores such as Book Off are a great place to buy used Manga. They come with a significant discount. You can find a lot of titles there. And most of them are still in good condition. 

Podcasts

Podcasts are a good way to learn Japanese. They’re free, and you can listen to them while doing something else that doesn’t need a lot of focus such as exercising, walking, commuting, and cleaning. 

The more you listen, the more you are able to understand and speak Japanese. 

However, podcasts are only recommended for those who have been learning Japanese for a while and know some basic Japanese words.

If you are a complete beginner, it’s better to use other methods. 

There are a lot of good podcasts for Japanese learners including:

Nihongo con Teppei

Nihongo con Teppei is made by a native Japanese person from Oita named Teppei. Teppei Sensei (sensei is a Japanese word meaning “teacher”) has been using podcasts to learn Spanish and English and decided to make one for Japanese learners. 

Nihongo con Teppei is good for intermediate learners. 

Teppei Sensei talks about his personal life, experiences, and stories in his podcasts, all in Japanese. Everything is unscripted. You are able to listen and understand how a native speaker naturally speaks. 

When he uses difficult vocabulary, he will explain the meaning to you in either Japanese or English. 

Each episode is around 10-12 minutes long. There are over 400 episodes as of now. New episodes are released every 2-3 days. 

He also has another podcast channel for beginners titled “Nihon go con Teppei for beginners”. 

Learn Japanese Pod

Learn Japanese Pod is hosted by Alex Brooke, a British man living in Tokyo. It is usually co-hosted by a native Japanese person who can fluently speak English. 

Learn Japanese Pod normally starts the podcast with Japanese conversations before teaching you word by word later in the episode. 

In addition to conversations and vocabulary, you will learn a lot of Japanese culture and traditions from this podcast. 

It is also more suitable for a beginner than Nihongo con Teppei, since English is the main language of this podcast. 

On the other hand, it might not be suitable for intermidate or higher level learners.

Each episode of Learn Japanese Pod is quite long at 50 minutes on average. 

Small Talk Japanese

Small Talk Japanese is suitable for intermediate learners and above. The podcast is hosted by two Japanese teens. You can listen to casual conversations about various topics about their lives. 

To fully benefit from Small Talk Japanese, you should check out their blogs. All important vocabulary from each episode are listed there. You should read them a few times first before listening to the episodes. 

New episodes are released every one or two weeks. Each episode is around 40 minutes long with three sub-topics. 

Games

Good news for video game lovers. You can use video games to learn Japanese. There are both educational games, specifically for learning Japanese, as well as normal games that you can learn from. 

Learn Japanese to Survive Kanji Combat is a good example of an educational game. The idea of the game is simple. You learn a set of Kanji and use them to go on your adventure and fight monsters. 

For normal video games, you can take a look at the Tales series and Dragon Quest series. These two video game series are entertaining and easy to understand. 

Mobile Applications

There are a number of both free and paid applications that can help you learn Japanese. Let’s take a look at some of them. 

Duolingo

Duolingo is one of the world’s most popular applications for learning new languages. Japanese is one of the languages they offer. 

It’s an interactive application coming with various forms of quizzes. 

The application starts from teaching you the Japanese writing system, to basic grammar and vocabulary in various scenarios. 

Although learning with Duolingo is free, there is a limit on how much you can learn per day. If you want to keep learning, you need to subscribe to one of their plans. 

Duoling’so teaching style is repetitive, where you will learn the same vocabulary and grammar again and again in various scenarios. It’s a good way to learn, but might not be suitable for those who expect quick progress. 

JLPT N4 & N5 Vocabulary – Play & Learn – Minano

JLPT N4 & N5 Vocabulary – Play & Learn – Minano is a good application for those who read Minna no Nihongo. The applications come with vocabulary for all 50 chapters. 

All vocabulary comes with audio and pictures. There’s also an autoscroll function, allowing you to learn new words without having to touch your phone. 

Several forms of quizzes are also available, including flash cards, audio quizzes, and picture quizzes. 

The application comes with ads and is completely free. 

Learn Japanese N5~N1 (JPro)

Learn Japanese N5~N1 (JPro) is one of the most comprehensive applications for learning Japanese out there. You can learn Japanese from N5 to N1 within this one application.

It comes with a vocabulary list, Kanji, quizzes, sentence examples, reading essays, and grammar from several popular Japanese learning books. 

You are also able to create your own quizzes with this application. The application also comes with an in-app dictionary. 

Although the application is free, it’s full of ads making it almost unusable. To remove the ads, you need to purchase the full version at $7. 

KanjiSenpai

KanjiSenpai is often recommended by those who want to learn more Kanji. 

The application is an interactive quiz with audio. Kanji is catagorised into JPLT levels from N5 to N1. 

To fully utilize the application, you need to purchase their additional audio packages at $3 per 600 audio files on average.

How to Learn to Speak Japanese Quickly

Here are the steps you can take to help you learn how to speak Japanese quickly. 

Take Japanese Courses 

If you are serious about learning Japanese, taking any of the Japanese courses is a great way to start learning. 

They give you a good language foundation and you can use them to further improve your Japanese skills. 

At the very least, taking a Japanese course should help you memorize and pronounce Japanese characters correctly, as well as understand the basic grammatical structures. 

They also give you a good set of vocabulary words that are often used in daily life. 

There are various Japanese courses you can explore out there. You can take a look at online courses such as JapanesePod101.  

It’s cheap yet comprehensive. You can learn it at your pace. 

Many online courses also have PDFs available. You can download and read them to memorize new words and grammar rules. 

Once your Japanese foundation is good enough, then, you can look at other resources. 

Write Kanji Regularly

Writing is a great way to remember Kanji. You learn their appearance while you write and pronouce them. 

The sound and the image of Kanji is going to be slowly added to your brain. 

The key here is that you should write down whole words, not just single characters. 

For example, you should write down “学校” (Gakkō – school) instead of writing “学” and “校” separately. 

Although each Kanji character has a different way to pronounce it, you shouldn’t pay much attention to it in the beginning. You will learn them automatically once you write down more words. 

A serious learner normally writes down 5-10 new Kanji words on a daily basis. 

Study Grammar

Studying grammar significantly helps you understand Japanese, especially with verb conjugations and particles. 

There are many cases where you know the meaning of every word in a Japanese sentence, but you can’t understand the real meaning. It’s because you don’t understand the grammar. 

Sometimes, you might not be able to find a certain word in a dictionary. It’s because the verb is conjugated and you don’t know the dictionary form of that word. 

Books are a good way to learn Japanese grammar. Please refer back to our book section on grammar to find out which books you can read. 

Listen More

If you want to be fluent in Japanese, you should find time to listen Japanese every day. It’s easy yet effective. 

It can be Japanese music while you are driving to work, Japanese podcasts while you are exercising, or Japanese animes while you are taking a break. 

When you listen to more Japanese, you are going to more easily understand Japanese grammar automatically. There are many times that you don’t understand it much when you read it from a textbook. 

The more you listen, the more you will be able to speak Japanese fluently

However, when you listen and hear the same grammar that you just learned, you will understand more on how Japanese people really use it. 

This is the same for vocabulary. Memorizing through flashcards or textbooks alone is usually not enough. You will quickly forget within a few days. 

But when you hear these words again and again from listening, your brain will mark them as important information, helping you to memorize them. 

Use It

Learning Japanese alone isn’t enough. If you want to be fluent, you need to find opportunities to use it. 

This is one of the main reasons why those who take a course at a Japanese language school in Japan can quickly become fluent. 

They live in Japan and have opportunities to use it all the time. They need to speak Japanese in order to live and survive in Japan. 

In case you do not live in Japan, you can find a private tutor and speak Japanese with that person. You can use a website like italki.com to find one. 

Keep on Learning

Learning a new language is like running a marathon – slow and steady wins the race. You are not going to master the language within a few months. It’s going to take years. 

You should keep on learning. Learning it even for a few minutes a day is better than not learning at all.  

Now, on to You

Although learning Japanese seems to be hard for many people, it’s doable. Everything depends on your attitude. 

There are millions of people out there who can speak Japanese as a second or third language. You can be one of them. 

Therefore, be positive and involve yourself in Japanese. Be diligent and don’t give up. 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.