Archive for July, 2011

Japan Image

Many a language learner will tell you that the best way to master a language is to immerse yourself in it, so surely there’s no better way to progress in Japanese than to be forced to speak the language frequently during a holiday or a period of short- or long-term residency in the country.

However, with this in mind, such an experience should not immediately be equated with other linguistic holidaymaking opportunities such as a trip across the Rio Grande for an American or on the Eurotunnel to Paris for a Brit.

The average Japanese is far less used to meeting or speaking with people who have limited proficiency in their native language.

Your tentative attempts to order a meal, buy a train ticket, or ask for directions may be unsuccessful not necessarily due to your incoherent pronunciation or poor grammar, but simply due to the object (or self-perceived victim) of your inquiry being petrified, and thereafter beating a hasty retreat.  The advent of the JET program that has brought foreign teachers to many Japanese schools and the increasing emphasis placed on kokusaika (internationalization) and English proficiency in the workplace have changed matters; however, this is Japan, in which change often occurs very gradually.

The average Japanese is not used to meeting or interacting with individuals who do not look or act Japanese.

So, for individuals who do not have an Asian appearance, even error-free Japanese may simply be met with a refusal to attempt to understand what has been said, given the conventional wisdom that people who don`t look Japanese don`t speak Japanese. Alternatively, the unease caused by your appearance or body language may result in a retreat into keigo (honorific form of the Japanese language), which can make understanding much more difficult for less advanced learners. An awareness of these potential obstacles will save first-time visitors and students of the Japanese language some disappointment or frustration, and provide insight that a thick skin may be required to practice and pick up Japanese on the street.

Regional Differences

Of course, there are regional differences in the tendencies described above.  Most Japanese urbanites, especially in Tokyo and the Kansai cities of Kyoto and Osaka, will see, if not interact with, foreigners on a daily basis. Nonetheless, Japan`s long period of isolation and the dearth of established foreign communities (with the notable exception of Koreans) in Japan compared with the West are still reflected in people`s tolerance for mediocre Japanese, or in their willingness to attempt to work out the intended meaning of a sentence in which an incorrect preposition, for example, has been used. This is particularly noticeable in more remote parts of the country, such as the fishing villages of Hokkaido or the interior of Shikoku (the northernmost and the smallest of the four main islands, respectively).


These problems can be exacerbated by the fact that the Japanese are a very proud as well as obliging people, such that they may perceive that the need to hold a conversation in Japanese with a foreigner reflects badly on them, namely, in their inability to help you in your own language. A general understanding of these issues and an awareness of the novelty of a foreigner speaking Japanese are definitely helpful.



shopping in Japan

Entering a Shop in Japan

When you go shopping in Japan, you will probably hear a lot of the same expressions repeated over and over again. When entering any kind of shop, be it a ramen shop, coffee shop, clothing store, or even a real estate agency, one of the first things you will probably hear is “Irashaimase!”

“Irashaimase” is basically a polite, or keigo way to say, “Welcome!” in Japanese.

The great thing for Japanese learners is that, as a shopper, you don’t really have to say anything in return. Smile if you want to, nod, or just go your way.

When shopping at supermarkets or convenience stores, the cashier will often read off the price of each
item individually as it scans. (This is a great time to practice listening to numbers.) At the end, they’ll
say the total price. When you hand over your money, they’ll say the amount followed by “o azukari
itashimasu”. This is just a polite way of saying that they’ve received and taken that amount from you.

Next they’ll say they the amount of change and announce that they are returning that amount with your

Until this point, there is still really no need to say anything.

Using English Loan Words in Japanese to Shop

If you need help from a clerk in the shop, you can benefit from the many foreign loan words that
find their way into Japanese. Size, large, medium, small, and many colors can be spoken with slight
pronunciation adjustments and work perfectly well to get your point across.

“Size” in Japanese can be pronounced “saizu”.

“Large” can be pronounced “Lah – ji”… sounding like La and the letter G.

“Medium” can be pronounced in Japanese by changing the “um” part to sound like the “om” part in

“Small” also sounds similar to the English word and can be said as “smolu” where the o is long.

Colors are also quite easy to say, and although Japanese has quite a few words to express different
colors, the main colors – black, white, blue, red, green, yellow, grey, pink, and even orange should all
be easily understandable when spoken slowly in English. The word for “color” in Japanese is “iro”, but
“color” pronounced as “kalah” should also be easily understandable.

It is also worth it to try the English word for things when you don’t know the Japanese words, and in
some cases the clerk will understand what you mean. In other cases, you can use the Japanese words for
“this” and “that” as described below.

Asking for Things in a Japanese Store

When requesting something, you can simply point and say “Kudasai”, which basically means please.
“This” can be spoken as “kore” (ko as in coat and re as in red) and “that” can be spoken as “sore” (so as
in soap and re as in red).

Putting those together, you can pretty much by whatever you want by pointing something out and
saying “Kore kudasai,” or “Sore kudasai.” This is absolutely perfect Japanese for “This please,” or “That

Kudasai can be used with almost any noun as a way of requesting something and is a word that anyone
learning Japanese or visiting Japan should be ready to use. It is polite and useful in any situation.

Saying Thank You in Japanese and Leaving the Store

Just after having read this article, people of any level of Japanese should be able to head out to the local
department store of mall and point to a nice necktie, dress, or plate of sushi, say “Kore kudasai,” and get
exactly what you came for.

The last thing to do is to pay for your purchase, say “thank you”, and enjoy. Thankfully, in Japan it is
common practice to make the price clearly visible on a cash register or calculator so that there is no
confusion even among native Japanese speakers.

Saying thank you is as simple as “Arigato” which is pretty widely known. Another short way to thank
someone is to say “Domo”, or to put them together as “Domo arigato” which is an especially polite way
to say it. To make it the most polite form possible, simply add “gozaimasu” to the end and say “Domo
arigato gozaimasu,” which is so polite that you will probably never hear a customer say it, but rather the
salesman would say it

On your way out the door, do not be surprised to hear the clerk or cashier shout “Arigato gozaimashita”
(the polite way to say thank you) followed by the commonly used expression, “Mata okoshi
kudaisamase!” which means, of course, “Please come again!”

Talk on the Phone in Japanese

Talking on the phone in Japanese for the first time can be a pretty scary experience. At the beginning of the conversation, the person on the other line won’t know he or she is talking to a beginning Japanese speaker and so it’s easy to get nervous and worry about people talking to fast or making some other faux pas.

While there is no way to guarantee a successful conversation, it can help to know what to expect and what to do when talking on the phone in Japanese.

How to Answer the Phone in Japanese

Answering the phone in Japanese is very easy. Simply say “Moshi-moshi”. This expression is used by all people, male and female, young and old when answering the phone. People at companies will generally use keigo or polite speech when answering the phone stating first the company name and then their own. Some people, mostly men, may answer the phone by just saying “Hai”. Still others might answer in a special way depending on whose calling, and thanks to all the caller ID capabilities of today’s cell phones.

For general purposes, however, you can’t miss with “Moshi-moshi.”

Conversing in Japanese on the Phone:

A big part of talking on the phone in Japanese is responding in a way that shows the other person that you are listening and engaged with what they are talking about. It’s commonly called “aizuchi wo utsu” which basically means that one should consistently say something to show the other person you are listening. It can be a grunt, or “Hai” meaning “Yes”, or even interjections such as “Honto desuka?” which means “Really?”

The flipside of what’s stated above is that you should be ready for a barrage of interjections from the person on the other line when you are speaking on the phone. Most of the time they are just showing interest and keeping the conversation flowing. When they have something to say, or want to jump in, they will generally use a full sentence or say your name to get your attention.

Ending a Phone Conversation in Japanese

One of the most important terms to understand when learning Japanese is also one of the shortest. The term “ja”, which is a shortened form of “de ha” or “de wa”, is a great way to end a conversation or change the subject. You can also raise the ending and make it a question which asks the other person to sum up and finish, very politely of course.

It can also be used as a common way to say goodbye Japanese, as the internationally known Japanese word for goodbye, “sayonara” is not usually used to end phone conversations, but more common when speaking in person.

Goodbye on the phone can be “Ja” or “Ja ne” with the softening particle “ne” added on. In more formal conversations you might want to bring “Ja” out to its full length as “Soredeha” or “Sorede wa…” Among younger people and good friends, “Bye-bye”, pronounced the same as the English is also a common way to say goodbye.

As in English, another very common goodbye is to reaffirm the appointment made as in “Hai, raishu no nichiyobi ni aimasho.” Or “Yes, let’s meet next week.”


Phone conversations in a foreign language can be quite challenging because of the inability to supplement with gestures, but it can also be fun and a great way to test your true ability. The important thing, as always, is to get your point across and be sure to improve each time you try.


So you’ve decided to study a new language and narrowed it down to one with characters; the most obvious being Mandarin Chinese and Japanese. Some people might claim one is more difficult than the other but the fact is, language is not so black an white. Some aspects of one are easier and others are difficult. The good news regardless of which you decide to choose is that if you decide to study the other later, you will have an advantage over people who do not speak either.

Learning Chinese

Chinese is a language that you can begin speaking after just a few weeks or months of study. The words have very exact meaning and grammar is not very complicated. Some people make the mistake of saying that Chinese has NO grammar. This is, of course, is not true but the grammar is simple and so one can start speaking much faster. On the other hand, there are about twice as many characters that you must learn in order to be considered literate. What is difficult about Chinese is the pronunciation. Not only the tones, but the sounds used are very different from western languages and can be difficult to get used to.

Learning Japanese

Japanese on the other hand is a language where each word does not always carry a definite meaning but when the words are put together, the sentence as a whole carries various meanings. A sentence is often made up of more grammar than words that carry exact meaning. These words, by themselves tell you nothing but when you string them together, the meaning becomes apparent. This makes it more difficult to grasp the meaning and so when you start to study, you might find it a bit challenging. On the other hand Japanese has extremely easy pronunciation, and may be one of the easiest languages in the world to pronounce. Each Hiragana has a phonetic sound that never changes when combined with other Hiragana so there are less than 50 sounds in Japanese. Compare that to the thousands of sounds that result of mixing letters in many other languages (English included). That’s why Japanese people have such a hard time pronouncing other language. This will work to your advantage when you study Japanese. There are also fewer kanji that are commonly used.

Language Difficulty

While Chinese is a language which is easy at first and more difficult as you progress, Japanese is a language that starts off difficult and gets progressively easier, the have some things in common. The most obvious thing in common are the characters. Since Japanese writing is based off Chinese they often use the same characters. Chinese uses a simplified version so sometimes they may be a bit different and Japanese tends to have more characters with multiple pronunciations. Many people say Chinese grammar resembles English because of the word order but some aspects resemble Japanese as well.

I chose to study Japanese first and I am happy with my decision. I find that their complex grammar gives way for a way of communication that is unique among languages and find myself thinking very differently when speaking Japanese. As a speaker of both English and Japanese, I find that learning Chinese is going much quicker than some of my English speaking and Japanese speaking friends. Languages are more than just words, they provide you with a new way of thinking so enjoy studying Japanese, and perhaps Chinese as well.

learning method

A common question among students who begin to study Japanese is “Where do I start?”. I am of the opinion that the best study is based around a textbook that fits you. Different textbooks work for different people but there are certain things to keep in mind. First, you should decide if you want to 1: Enter a class, 2: Get a tutor, or 3: self-study. Some people say that you need to enter a class, or go to Japan to learn Japanese. While I do admit these are more efficient methods, I also find that people get too comfortable when someone else sets their schedule and some classes move at an extremely slow or extremely fast paces. As a person who likes to move at my own pace, self-study was the obvious answer for me and I am living proof that you can excel with minimal help as long as you set goals, stay diligent, organized and use various methods of studying Japanese.

Japanese Textbook

If you decide to self study, the next step is choosing a good textbook. Be aware of the difference between supplements and textbooks. For reasons that I do not understand, most American book stores do not sell real textbooks, rather they sell lots of supplementary books with titles that use the words “Easy” “quick” “in (some short amount of time)”. Books that make learning a language sound very easy tend to be rather unorganized and I have yet to meet anyone who has excelled at Japanese without either a textbook, a class, or living in Japan. Also be wary of extremely expensive methods. Anything priced above $50 or $60 US should be questioned and there are some good resources for as little as $20-30. I recommend using these books as extra study if you find one that you like. University book stores and the internet (or big book stores in Japan) are where you find the better selection of material to study Japanese.

If you are serious about learning Japanese, try to find a book that eases you into the writing. A book that sticks to romaji (roman characters) may be good if you are looking for some travel phrases but they rarely give you a foundation for becoming.

Some textbooks work better for self study and some work better for classes or with tutors. The extremely popular “Minna no Nihongo” may work for classes but I find it less useful for self study. As a fan of self-study, I have had good experiences with most books published by The Japan Times and 3A. Genki 1 and 2 were my textbooks of choice to start (I tried many) and 3A’s Kanzen Master series is great for JLPT study. There are other great textbooks out there though so I urge you to look into it and find one that works for you.

Other Supplements for Learning Japanese

Whether you take a class or self study, it’s also good to find some supplements that fit you. Whether they be books (Kodansha, for example publishes some decent supplementary books), online vocabulary lists, or podcasts, try to find one that includes things that are lacking in your textbook (no textbook is perfect). Movies, music or comics also make for good supplements that also motivate you to study Japanese harder and make the process more fun. Making Japanese friends is also a good idea and it’s fun.

I have met some people who claim that the most productive thing you can do when you study Japanese is to practice reading aloud a fixed amount of sentences every day until you nearly memorize them and make sure you understand their meaning. I have tried this method and while it can be tiring, it is extremely efficient. If your textbook has reading practice and grammar examples (most good textbooks will) it’s a good idea to read them aloud until you’ve nearly memorized them.

Language involves reading, writing, speaking and listening so make sure you incorporate all four into you Japanese study!

Japanese Writing System

Everyone has different goals when they decide to study Japanese. Some people may just be looking to survive while traveling while others want to read newspapers and novels. Some want to have a good time talking at a bar with locals and others want to understand TV programs. At first, you may not feel like you need to read and write Japanese and romaji (Japanese written in English letters) might work for you but if you are hoping to achieve anything other than the very basics, it is not only a question of goals, it may be more practical to learn hiragana, katakana and kanji when you study Japanese.

Basic Japanese Writing Systems

First let’s go over the writing systems. Kanji, are Japanese characters that were taken from Chinese and represent a meaning and can often have multiple pronunciations. These characters can show up everywhere but are not all there is to Japanese writing. Hiragana and Katakana are both phonetic alphabet-like systems that are collectively called Kana. Kana makes up all the writing in between characters. Anything in Japanese can be writing in Kana because it is phonetic and based on all the sounds used in Japanese. That means that if you don’t know the kanji for a word, you can use Hiragana or Katakana instead. Hiragana is used for words of a Japanese origin as well as conjugation and Katakana is used for words of a foreign origin and a few other kinds of words like many animals, onomatopoeia and some slang.

Learning Hiragana, Katakana, or both?

So the first question when you decide to study Japanese is “Do I learn Hiragana and Katakana?”. I think that most peoples goals make it practical for them to learn Hiragana and Katakana. The sounds are very simple so you can remember them in less then a week if you put the time in. It is also much easier to learn correct pronunciation when you can quit romaji. Even if you use romaji, you will have to remember how to correctly pronounce it and you may find yourself falling into the trap of sounding out the letters the way you would in English.


The next question is “Do I learn Kanji?”. This is all up to you. I encourage everyone to try. The way people learn to write is interconnected with the way they speak and there is culture in the writing. Not only is it fun but the characters can work to your advantage the same way learning the roots of a word could in a western language. The same character can show up in multiple places and knowing it’s meaning and pronunciations can help you remember other words. A random example of this is the word for perfume. The kanji give you an endless amount of mnumonics to work with when you study Japanese. For example, I had a hard time remembering the word for “perfume”, which is 香水. But then I looked at the kanji and realized that the two characters (香水) represent the meaning of “aromatic” and “water”. Water has two pronunciations but it almost always takes the sound of “sui” in kanji compounds. That meant I just had to remember the sound “kou”. This will continue to help you learn new words and remember some of the less common words that you will come across as you study Japanese and learn about Japanese culture. お焼香 (oshoukou) are incense used in religious places and you will definitely come across them if you are sightseeing in Japan. When I learned this word, I saw the character for “aromatic” that also shows up in the word “perfume”, I knew the pronunciation was “kou” and it immediately made it easier to remember the word. 自転車 (jitensha or bicycle) contains the characters for self, roll or turn, and vehicle. The same characters will show up and often have the same pronunciations to give you hints while you are remember words. This will also shed a little light on the way people think when they speak Japanese.

When I starting studying Japanese, I never planned on learning how to read and write fluently. That decision came later. Take things one step at a time and enjoy studying Japanese at your own pace.

Writing Japanese

Since you are interested in learning Japanese (if we may assume), you probably have or soon will experience the Japanese importance of order. Fear not, cultural stereotypes are not the intention here. Let’s look at specifics:

Japanese Stroke Order

Because the Japanese language includes hiragana, katakana, and kanji, students should be aware of the correct way to write each character. The country name 日本 (read nihon or nippon) for example, has two kanji characters. The first character has four strokes. Any teacher worth her weight in rice wine (saké) will tell you that those four strokes have to follow a specific order – which is roughly, top to bottom and left right. Now each student is welcome to disregard this, of course, but do so at your own peril. Japanese people are fairly picky about stroke order. It is drilled into students in elementary school and most people argue that correct kakijun, stroke order, affects the final appearance of the written word. In all honesty, this is probably a vestige of times past when writing was done with brush and ink; but again, ignore it only if you dare.

Sempai/Kouhai Relationship

Hierarchy is a part of life in Japan that many do not even seem inclined to question. A good friend once told me that mastering the language was all about knowing how friendly or polite to be with your conversation partners. Rather than delving into that can of worms, how about we just master the two common words sempai and kouhai. If someone is a year above you in school, for example, they are your sempai. Or for that matter, if they are prior to you in most any kind of formal order or organization (think of offices, sports teams, a martial arts doujou, etc.) they are your sempai. In English, we struggle to translate this word as “senior” or “elder.” The opposite is kouhai. And the old joke holds true here: if after 10 minutes of looking around the room, you haven’t figured out who the kouhai is, chances are it’s probably you! Even among friends, this sempai/kouhai hierarchy can be in play. Look for signs of it in the way one person serves tea or buys drinks for another and especially in the choice of words used between speakers.

Grammatical Order

Which brings us to one of the most linguistically interesting aspects of order in Japan: grammar. Please do not run away scared just yet. It is true, though, English and Japanese sentences often have precisely the opposite word order of each other. After making a new acquaintance, for example, you might say, “O-namae-wo oshiete kudasai” (Could you tell me your name, please?). Or, another useful survival phrase is, “Ima-wa nanji desu-ka?” (What time is it now?). Do not be perturbed if the answer is given in 24-hour military time. Japanese people seem fond of using 13 o’clock as opposed to 1:00 p.m (it helps keep the order straight). And also, do not be perturbed if all you get for a reply is, “Nihongo-ga ojouzu desu-ne!” (My, you speak Japanese well!). In each of these example sentences, the English and Japanese word order just do not correspond much at all. If you are a beginner, try thinking out of order for an English speaker and you just might be right on the nose in Japanese.

The first exposure to the mass of characters that one must know to learn Japanese can be
overwhelming. However, by using certain mental approaches, one can lighten the load of mastering
hiragana, katakana, and kanji. A key method is to try to make associations with the mass of lines and
squiggles that constitute many of these characters, and then to link these associations to the true
meaning or reading.

Japanese Language Linkages

The important thing is to let your imagination do the work. If the first sight of a particular symbol
immediately leads you to associate it with some item, action, or state, then there is no reason that the
same association won’t occur the next time you see it, and the next, and the next. Unfortunately, this
association may not necessarily have anything to do with how to read the character or its meaning. This
is where you have to construct a link or explanation so that your instantaneous association with the
character can actually help you to read Japanese text.

Hiragana and Katakana Memory Triggers

In the cases of hiragana and katakana, there are many associations that one can make to help in
remembering how the symbols should be read. For example, for hiragana, く (the letter ‘ku’) can be
imagined as the picture of a bird’s beak (and birds make the sound ‘coo’); わ (the letter ‘wa’) can be
viewed as a wave (the first two letters of which are ‘wa’), and so on. The key is for the associations to
be natural and automatic for you
. In the case of katakana, examples could include ル (the letter ‘ru’),
which looks like two rude people turned away from each other, ム (the letter ‘mu’), which looks like the
halter on a cow… that goes ‘moo’; and ヨ (the letter ‘yo’), which could resemble a three-finger greeting
accompanying the word “yo” in English.
Although many of these associations may seem facile or obscure, they are simply a means of attributing
some sound or meaning to what would otherwise be just a symbol with little to distinguish it from many
other similar characters in the Japanese alphabets.

Kanji Memory Triggers

The benefits that can be obtained from the approach mentioned above are multiplied for the much
larger kanji alphabet. In this case, characters have inherent meanings and can have more than one
reading, so there are many more possibilities, and much greater need, for associations to be made. In
some cases, the meaning can be guessed directly from the character: 一, 二, 三 (1, 2, 3), 山 (mountain),
川 (river). The next stage of difficulty is characters with an appearance with some similarity to the
meaning, such as 雨 (rain; one can imagine raindrops in the character), 食 (to eat; person using
chopsticks), 田 (paddy field; as seen from above), and 品 (goods; boxes piled up).

Of course, for more complex characters or their uses, more complex association stories may need to
be constructed. So, for example, the symbols for some of the days of the week could be remembered
by thinking that Friday is often payday (金; money) or Saturday is when you watch or play some earthy
sport like soccer or baseball (土; soil/earth). In addition, as you learn more characters, you will come
across pairs or groups of characters that show a strong resemblance to each other, such as 待 (to wait),
持 (to hold), and 特 (special). Here it may be useful to mentally group these together, so that when you
come across one within a text, you can quickly exclude the other similar possibilities by focusing in on
the small differences. The key is to keep your imagination open and to always look for connections
and associations

[Readers should note that an alternative or complementary approach using the radicals in kanji can also
be used to build up inferences about the meaning of characters, as described elsewhere.]

A lot of my friends ask if Japanese eat sushi every day. The answer is “No, of course not”. There are so many varieties of food, and many of them are not raw. Japanese restaurants abroad seem to capitalize on sushi-hype and neglect some other wonderful dishes. There are a few foods that are as, or even more popular than sushi and almost every dish in Japan has endless variations. As you study Japanese, exploring food is a great way to better understand Japanese culture.

Popular Japanese Noodles

The first common food that comes to mind is soba, or thin buckwheat noodles, which can be served in various different ways. Soba-ya or Soba resteraunts are everywhere and popular among the older generation and among working people looking for something fast, cheap and healthy. It is also a popular meal to make at home. You can order them cold with a dipping sauce or soup (mori-soba, zaru-soba) or in hot soups (tanuki, kitsune) Many Soba-ya also offer Udon, a very thick noodle as an alternative and some stores specialize in only Udon.

Ramen is another obvious answer. Aside from a billion varieties of instant noodles, there are also many famous chains and local shops serving fresh Ramen. Despite being far too greasy to call “healthy”, this is much more of a balanced meal than the instant counterpart. The standards are Soy Sauce, Miso, and Salt but there are a thousand styles with many shops specializing in a certain kind. Some of my favorite specialty ramens have been kaku-ni (soft fatty pork), goma (sesame) and garlic. You can also pick your own toppings so if you want more bamboo shoots, it’s no problem.

Other Common Japanese Foods

Many of my friends who study Japanese are surprised by this but I insist; Curry is very popular in Japan and sometimes more readily available than sushi. If you are a fan of local cafes, you know this very well. It feels like almost every cafe in Japan serves some form of curry (and/or spaghetti). There are Japanese curry shops and pre-made curry packages. Indian and Thai food is also very easy to find in and around Tokyo.

One of the dishes I always have fun introducing people to is Okonomiyaki, which falls somewhere between a cabbage pancake and a pizza. You can fill in with almost any meat you’d like (although I have never seen chicken). Popular choices are squid, pork, and shrimp though my favorite is pork, garlic and kimchi, which can be hard to find.

The “family restaurant” is also very popular in Japan. These serve a variety of Japanese and Western foods (ranging from authentic to extremely unauthentic). The easiest way to imagine these is a mix of a chain-diner and a Japanese version of Chili’s or Friday’s. In fact, Denny’s, with it’s very localized menu is considered a “fami-resu”. Japanese style Hamburgers, Port Cutlet, Spaghetti, Udon, and Omu-rice (Omlett over rice).

Department stores also have a huge variety of western and Japanese deli-style take out to explore. Some of the western food is very authentic and some of it is not at all but still very delicious.

While you study Japanese it’s important to understand the culture and food is a big part of the culture. It’s also delicious so いっぱい食べてください (Please eat a lot!)。

For native English speakers, attempting to learn Japanese can seem to be a very daunting task, and it is, but definitely an achievable one, and probably in a much shorter time than you might imagine.

These are a few of the tips I have used and encountered in my own slow attempt in piecing together a usable Japanese ability. I hope you find them helpful.


Focusing on listening is the fastest way to gain a foothold in the language. This is probably the simplest and most passive way of studying yet it creates a great deal of confidence and the basis for a more in depth approach. For someone living in Japan there are ample opportunities to hear native speakers in daily conversation, but for those studying outside Japan there are plenty of ways to improve your listening skills. Of course there are numerous study programs with audio materials, but I find almost all of them narrate and explain the Japanese with English. This is obviously necessary in the beginning; however, listening to Japanese only audio will allow you to begin thinking of Japanese in Japanese. The English translations can be very distracting and I often found myself tuning out on the Japanese portion ultimately defeating the purpose of listening. With an all-Japanese audio even if my mind generally begins to wander and tune out, I am still able to pick out the few words and phrases I know, thus reinforcing their place in my memory. Another downfall of learning through translation is that the vocabulary is often tied to a single translation while the various nuances of usage associated with the Japanese word become more difficult to grasp later. Whereas, with an all-Japanese audio, a familiar word may be used in a different context and so that aspect of its meaning will naturally be included in your understanding of it.
An even more effective way to practice listening skills is by combining audio and video, such as with movies, television, or any of the various materials available on the Internet. I find that watching news programs is generally the most effective way to practice my listening and comprehension. Japanese news programs are very concise and organized and, therefore, easy to distinguish when the topic changes making it much simpler to follow. Moreover, the pronunciation is very clear so that the words and their meaning are more apparent to the non-native listener.

Reading and Writing

While listening is perhaps the least labor-intensive aspect of study, reading and writing may be the most. Considering there are three entirely different systems used in written Japanese, a great deal of study is involved in mastering Japanese literacy. Beginning with kana is the most appropriate way to go; however, attempting all three systems as early as possible will hurry the process of internalizing the way Japanese is written and read.
A chart showing all of the kana (hiragana and katakana, along with a Romanized pronunciation) for easy quick reference while learning these two basic scripts is essential. Copying each character numerous times each will quickly save them to memory while enforcing knowledge of how they are written.


Kanji are somewhat more complicated to memorize, but with a basic of knowledge of how they are constructed, reading them becomes a much more feasible task. Some kanji are very simple, obvious pictographs of what they represent. These kanji are rather easy to put to memory and can be done so while learning kana. Conversely, many of the more complicated kanji are made up of much simpler elements and so once these are understood the more many compound kanji become easier to grasp.

There are various kanji cards available to purchase; however, again writing them yourself greatly increases you chances of remembering them. I was given this advice from a friend who had mastered the language in less than six years. Making your own kanji cards aids in many ways to your understanding of the characters themselves as well as the many kanji compounds in which these characters are included. In your best hand, using the correct stroke order, write the characters on the front of the card. On the back write the various readings of the kanji, its meanings in English (though again, skipping this step and sticking with hiragana and katakana will serve you much better in the future,) and as many kanji compounds as you are comfortable with, leaving space to add more later.


Speaking practice often proves the most difficult when learning a language, but overcoming the fear to speak or the fear of making a mistake while speaking will greatly increase the chances of holding conversations in Japanese. Finding a patient and helpful listener is not always easy, especially for those studying outside Japan. This is probably the most effective way to begin speaking, however, so it may prove worthwhile to pay a minimal fee for a conversation teacher, either online or in person. However, in the absence of a conversation partner, simply repeating words and phrases from the audio materials while alone will greatly increase your ability to form the words readily and acquire the pronunciation and flow of the language. If you do happen to live in Japan, I have found the quickest way to begin speaking is to make friends who cannot speak English. This forces you to speak Japanese and though you will make plenty of mistakes and most likely be confused by a good deal of the conversation, it will greatly increase your listening and speaking ability.

The most important thing to remember in learning any new language is to keep going and though you may stumble through the process eventually you will get there.