Articles by: Zachary Lebowitz


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.

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!)。

When you go to a new country, you want to try new and interesting foods, right? Japan has an endless variety of food and while you are studying Japanese, it can be an interesting way to learn bits and pieces of Japanese culture. Japan has a very rich food culture that both stays true to it’s roots and embraces endless variety of foreign and fusion styles. In this series, I’ll talk about the eating and drinking aspects of Japanese culture.

The Meal

The most important thing to understand about food in Japan is that the concept of a meal is very different in Japan. A meal is supposed to have some sort of meat, some sort of vegetable and either bread, noodles or rice. Subtract one from the mix and it may not be considered a meal for some. I’ve seen Japanese eat endless amount of vegetables and meat and still claim to be hungry because there is no rice, but as long as they have all three, they seem to be satisfied whether it’s portion made for a monster or for a mouse. The main dish is considered to be the rice, bread or noodle part. Everything else is side dishes, even if it’s the smallest part and even if you are anticipating it the least. The nice thing about this is that most things come in sets and you can find some really cheap lunch specials.

The one time this “main dish” rule does not apply is when drinking with co-workers or friends in a party like setting (and these settings are very common in Japan). At izakaya (or a cross between a restaurant and a bar with private seating), people forget the rules of balance and often beer becomes their starch of choice while they slowly eat all kinds of side dishes and share everything.


Ordering a drink is almost understood at a Japanese. Of course no waiter or chef will get angry with you if you don’t drink alcohol but since food is often set at very fair prices, a lot of places make their money from drinks so depending on the price of the meal, at a local place, you may want to consider ordering at least an ice tea or coffee to keep the place running. The soft drinks are often close in price to the alcohol so some people find themselves drinking a lot more alcohol, trying to get more bang for their buck. I am certainly guilty of this. I usually check the atmosphere first to see if I can get away with not ordering a drink. If everyone around me is drunk or in a group or if the food is dirt cheap, I take it as a cue to get a drink. If it’s all families or if the dishes seem priced to make a profit, I skip the drink. Since I live in cafe’s, I am often ordering a drink though. We’ll talk all about drinking culture and the Izakaya in a future article.


There is a common complaint among some foreigners that portions are too small in Japan. I think this is a matter of expectations and if you don’t compare it to your own country, you may find yourself quite satisfied with the portions. Remember, it is considered polite to finish your entire meal and a chef may even feel a little pinch of sadness when someone doesn’t, although you should never force yourself. It is also very uncommon to take leftovers back with you may even get a confused look if you ask. In contrast, in the States or on trips to China, I find many people leaving a good portion of their meal for the garbage can.

As you study Japanese, don’t forget to enjoy the culture in one of the most fundamental and primitive ways possible: eating.

Using mnemonics and tricks is a great way to learn Japanese faster. You may learn these from a friend or a teacher or you may come up with your own but there are all kinds of tricks to help you along the way. This can make the painful process of learning Kanji go much quicker. The whole purpose of this article is to help you enjoy learning Japanese. With these tricks it shouldn’t be that hard to learn your first 100 kanji in a week. If you push yourself I think it’s do-able in about 3 days. Some of these tricks are strange, some are a stretch, but these are a few of the ideas I used to help me learn characters quickly and effectively. Some of these characters have multiple pronunciations so make sure to stick to the pronunciation that fits the context (mostly stand alone words) and worry about other pronunciations later. (Note: make sure you are writing down the pronunciation with these characters). Once you learn many simple Kanji, you realize that the more complicated ones are made up of the more simple ones. This will give you a good base.

The Tips!

1. 右 migi、左 hidari- (left and right) – Write them on your hands! This may feel ridiculous but it works. You may want to write it on your palm so no one thinks your memory is THAT bad.

2. 北 kita、南 minami、東 higashi、西 nishi (North, South, East, West)/ 上 ue、下 shita, 中 naka (up and down, middle) – Make a compass on your notes. Keep doing it and it will stick.

3. 一、二、三 etc. – count to 10 everywhere, these numbers stick really quickly. You might as well learn 100, 1000 and 10000 while your at it. Write dates or make lists.

4. 鼻 hana,舌 shita、耳 mimi、口 kuchi、目 me (nose, tongue ears, mouth, eyes / 唇 kuchibiru, 髪の毛 kaminoke – Draw a face using kanji for corresponding parts. This will look ridiculous but if you enjoy yourself it’s more likely to stick in your head. Be creative. You can draw a tongue inside a mouth or just use the one you are having a hard time remembering. Write the pronunciation on the bottom of the paper and test yourself.

5. 手 te 、足 ashi、胸 mune、お腹 onaka, 顔 kao, 膝 hiza, 腕 ude, 首お尻 oshiri (hand, foot/leg, chest, stomach, face, knee, arm, butt) – Same as the above. Some of these are hard and if you can only work in the basics for now that’s fine. Studying Japanese has never been more ridiculous.

You’ve already learned more than 30 characters!
6. 木、林、 森 - If those aren’t easy to understand I don’t know what is. Tree, Woods, Forrest. The more trees, the more trees.

7. 日曜日 nichiyoubi、月曜日 getsuyoubi 、火曜日 kayoubi、水 sui、木 moku、金 kin、土 do (day, sun, moon, water, wood, metal, dirt)– A great way to learn 7+1 kanji are to write the day of the week. These correspond to different elements but these characters also come up in planet names similar to English days of the week. Keep in mind that 日 means both day and sun and that 月 means both month and moon. This may be confusing but it makes sense.

8. 青 ao, 赤 aka、黄色 kiiro、黒 kuro、白shiro 緑 midori 紫 murasaki – (Blue, Red, Yellow, Black, White, Green, Purple) – Learn colors in color! Draw these in the corresponding color or make some kind of art project of your own with this. Come up with something crazy like a paint by character.

9.大きい、小さい、暑い、寒い、嬉しい、悲しい、Learn things in pairs or in categories– big and small、hot and cold, happy and sad. I find that you recall these things quicker when you put them in pairs and group them in categories like emotions or physical characteristics.

10. 中国 chuugoku、日本 nihon, 韓国 kankoku (China, Japan, Korea) – Make a map of Asia! Many other countries have characters that were once used but now they are almost exclusively written in Katakana. China is the center country. Japan is the origin of the sun.

11. 東京、長崎、京都、広島、横浜、福島、大阪、沖縄, 新宿、渋谷、原宿、秋葉原 (Tokyo, Nagasaki, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Yokohama, Osaka) – Make a map of Japan. Some of these characters are very common (島 – island, 大 - big, 広 -wide、長 – long, 秋 – autumn、新 – new) and some are not but come up in some place and people names (福 for example). These will help you get used to some alternate pronunciations that will show up in compound words rather than stand alone words. Sadly quite a few Japanese places are famous for natural disasters.(Note:Some of the romanizations miss and extra o or u sound. Tokyo is actually Toukyou and Osaka is actually Oosaka for example)

12. 寿司、刺身、お好み焼き、お茶、酒、焼肉、焼き鳥、丼 (Sushi, Sashimi, Okonomiyaki, Ocha, Sake, Yakiniku, Yakitori, donburi)- Learn the food you love! These stick quick! Some are more useful than others. Sushi, Sashimi, and fish names are often written in Hiragana but you will come across them in Kanji from time to time. Some characters like Udon and Soba are so uncommon that you may never feel the need to learn them. You may have fun learning fish names because they all have a common radical (鮭、鮪、鯵、鱸、etc). These will come up at SOME sushi restaurants but not many.

13. 侍、漫画、津波、布団、相撲, 空手、着物、忍者 (Samurai, Manga, Tsunami, Futon, Sumou, Karate, Ninja, Ninja) – We have quite a few words and concepts in English that come from Japanese. You will remember these characters quickly because you already understand the concepts. Make sure you don’t pronounce them in with an English accent. If you say Futon in English people may not understand you (in this case the concept is a little different as well).

14. –  鈴木一郎、夏目漱石、村上春樹、渡辺謙、宮崎、浜崎 (Suzuki Ichiro, Natsume Souseki, Murakami Haruki, Watanabe Ken, Miyazaki, Hamasaki) – Names are a part of the language too. Some of these characters will come up a lot in words, some will come up a lot in names and some will barely come up at all. Learning author names will help you browse around in a book store and singers names in a CD store. Try to learn the characters of the people you know though. There are a few Japanese names that are very very common and will come up almost too much and it pays to know them. 田中、加藤、山本、高橋 (Tanaka, Katou, Yamamoto, Takahashi) to name a few. Learn your friends names. This stuff tends to stick easy despite often being very difficult.

15. 上海、北京、香港 (shanhai, pekin, honkon) – These are atypical pronunciation because they are more directly based off Chinese or Cantonese pronunciation but it will be useful to know how to read these as Chinese cities are often mentioned. They will also help you memorize the meanings of the characters (North Capital is Beijing, Above the Ocean is Shanghai).

If You’re In Japan

16. Practice words you see on the street.

17. Learn the characters of the subway lines and some stops. This will help you get around as well.

18. Study the menu. If you ask for the menu and the waiter sees you studying it like a textbook, he may even start a conversation with you. Maybe. If he’s an old guy at a local place, I’d bet on it.

Some of these may work for you, some may not. Think of your own! Come up with as many as you can.

Everyone wants learning Japanese to be more fun. That’s why so many people use movies, music, comics, food and other fun ways to learn languages. Before I say anything else, I must stress that it’s very unlikely that you’ll reach any level of fluency without structured textbook or class study. Please treat your hobbies as motivation with the bonus of added learning rather than study time in order to avoid forgetting about an organized study plan.

That being said, trying to create your own immersion experience in your own country not only helps you remember what you learn while studying, you can also educate yourself about the culture tied to the language you are studying. As you learn Japanese, you will also learn about Japanese culture I’ve met some foreigners with very good Japanese but some of them find themselves having the same conversation with everyone they meet or more often spending time with only westernized Japanese people speaking English. It isn’t that they have nothing in common, sometimes they do. But if you don’t watch any of the same movies or listen to the same music, read the same books, hear the same jokes, know the same news, it’s hard to talk about some of your interest. For 4 years 90% of the entertainment I absorbed was Japanese. It wasn’t that I was obsessed with Japan, it was just all so new to me. There was so much to explore. I watched movies I hated but they were still interesting because I could learn things about the culture from them.

Anime and Manga

The most common interest among foreigners learning Japanese seems to be anime and manga. Some of the story lines are very easy to get addicted to so it isn’t a bad way to learn a few extra words and get used to the sound of the language. It is very important to know the demographic and setting of story though. A lot of anime is geared towards middle school students and おたく (otaku). Despite what your anime club may want to believe, most Japanese adults don’t watch anime although many do still read manga to pass time on the train.


Movies and TV dramas may be a little more realistic but remember that they are dramatic. Japanese people rarely say 愛してる (I love you), they will more likely say 好きです (I like you). Subtitles always distract me from study so I make a point to find 10-20 words per episode that I think will be useful, stop, reply and make a list to study during and after the show. Anime and TV dramas were never my thing but I did watch a few just to learn a bit about them and how they differ from their western counterparts.

What really kept me interested was music. Japan has a very diverse range of popular music, the bubblegum variety is intense and sometimes childish, there are some pop singers who emulate overtly sexual western acts, Anime music is it’s own genre and Visual-Kei is still around. There is enka (post traditional japanese “country” music), rock and hip hop with a slightly different feel from it’s western counterparts. What I enjoyed most were some genre benders. Japanese indie artists (chiptune to hardcore to hip hop) also produce some of the most creative and progressive music in the world. Pop music spans a much wider variety in Japan and it moves so quickly so you will never run out of it. Learning song titles is good. Finding a song with a little repetition is good. Also make a point to learn words where the sound sticks out in your mind.

Food names are also words you have to know so you might as well learn from the first. Not only that, Japanese food is delicious and has endless variety. City and prefecture names are something you will need to know if you ever want to go to Japan and you can learn a good amount of characters this way. Learning the names of some celebrities may make learning characters more fun too.
Enjoy studying Japanese.

About the Author

  • Zachary Lebowitz I am an American living in Tokyo and experiencing all different aspects of Japanese culture. While my main income these 3 years came from an English teaching position in Saitama (public elementary, middle and high schools), I have been simultaneously digging my way through the depths of the music and arts culture of west Tokyo.

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