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Learning Japanese: Where Do Beginners Even Start?

Learning Japanese: Where Do Beginners Even Start?

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Maybe you’ve watched a few too many episodes of One Piece, Naruto or the more recently trendy My Hero Academia; or maybe you’ve finally discovered the ugly truth that subtitles and dubs often omit information in order to sound more natural, and now you’re curious to know what your favorite character is really saying. 

Regardless of why you’re here, you’ve come to the right place.

Sit down, grab a cup of tea and follow this handy roadmap that will guide you on your journey through learning Japanese, all the while shedding some light on how this convoluted yet fascinating language came to be.

Japanese for Beginners


Japanese: A beginner’s nightmare?

Before we start, let’s do a quick mental exercise. Try to remember the last time you saw a non-native speaker who spoke fluent Spanish, French, or even German. I imagine a couple people may come to mind.

Now try to remember the last time you saw a non-Japanese person speaking fluent Japanese. Needless to say, it’s certainly not a common sight.

Why is that? Well, according to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the Department of State, Japanese is categorized as a category 4 language, together with Arabic, Korean, Cantonese and Mandarin.

These are said to be “exceptionally difficult for English speakers”. That information on its own already frightens a lot of potential learners.

Another point that’s worth mentioning is that Japanese is from the Japonic language family, that means there are no other languages related to it outside of Japan.

To put it in perspective, languages such as English, Portuguese, Danish, Persian, Greek and Russian are all members of one large language family, the Indo-European language family.

But by far the biggest obstacle that Japanese learners have to face are the three different writing systems, Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji.

They’re all used in tandem in Japanese writing, which gives the language it’s unique look, in contrast to other East Asiatic languages like Korean or Mandarin, that only use a single writing system.

But if you can see past all those hurdles, you’ll find a beautiful language that goes back millennia. A language whose history is ingrained not only in its words but even in the writing system itself.

A language that even to this day is associated with great wisdom, great warriors of old, and great art and entertainment.

You’’ll also find that even something as difficult as Japanese can be surprisingly easy and fun to learn if you’re enjoying the process.

Also, some Japanese vocabulary is actually pretty easy to learn for English native speakers, as there are many English loanwords in the Japanese language, such as “husbando.”

Then we also have other words in Japanese that are basically known universally such as “Kamikaze“, which is a word you surely came across at some point of your life, right?


Learning Hiragana

The first step of our grand adventure will be to learn our first writing system, and perhaps the most important of all, Hiragana.

The history behind Hiragana is very interesting, to say the least.

Back in the old days, Japanese people wrote using only Chinese characters, which was very tasking and difficult.

And since women didn’t have access to the same levels of education as men, they started to write using an adapted form of the script, which was easier to write. This later evolved to become Hiragana.

The tale of Genji and other early novels written by female authors used hiragana extensively.

Hiragana is used to write word inflections, particles, as well as some native Japanese words for which there are no Chinese characters or whose Chinese character form isn’t widely used.

But don’t worry about any of that. For now, all you need to do is learn 46 characters.

You can learn Hiragana with Memrise, JapanesePod101 or Japanese Ammo.

And don’t forget to practice. You can practice with Kana.pro, Realkana and Hiragana Quiz.

You can also learn and practice Hiragana by playing games such as Learn Japanese to Survive! Hiragana Battle, Slime forest Adventure and Knuckles in China Land.


Learning Katakana

Congratulations on completing the first step. Now that you can read Hiragana, your next step will be to learn its counterpart, Katakana.

Much like Hiragana, the history behind Katakana tells us a lot about Japanese society.

Remember how back in the old days of Japanese, people used to write everything using Chinese characters, and how troublesome that was?

As it turns out, women weren’t the only one who found it a pain to write everything using Chinese characters.

Buddhist monks needed not only to write but to read extensive passages all written in Chinese characters.

Needless to say, they arrived at the same conclusion as the women. They started to write simplified versions of those characters on bark with bamboo sticks. Something that later evolved into what we know today as Katakana.

Katakana, much like Hiragana, is a set of syllabaries used to write Japanese words phonetically.

But in contrast to Hiragana, Katakana is used to write loan words, foreign words (including foreign names such as John or Alice), onomatopoeias, technical or scientific terms and the names of plants and animals.

Just like you did with Hiragana, you’ll need to learn 46 characters.

You can learn Hiragana with Memrise or JapanesePod101.

And you can practice it with Kana.pro and Realkana.

You can also learn and practice Katakana by playing games such as Learn Japanese to Survive! Katakana War, Slime Forest Adventure and Knuckles in China Land.


Learn the basics of Japanese grammar

Now that you’ve learned both syllabaries, you’re all set to start learning how to build your very first sentences, and most importantly, make sense of your very first sentences.

If you visit Japanese learning communities such as r/learnjapanese, you’ll find that there are a particular set of books that virtually everyone uses to learn Japanese, such as Genki or Minna no Nihongo.

But you’ll also notice that these kinds of communities are always filled to the brim with beginner students.

That’s because, as we discussed a few topics ago, the majority of those who try to learn Japanese end up giving up. And this is exactly the kind of trap that leads them through a path of boredom and lack of motivation that lasts for years, until the fatidic day when they finally give up.

Unless you’re studying Japanese in school and you’re obligated to do so, you shouldn’t be reading textbooks. They can be useful if you have a question about grammar, but even so, you’re much more likely to find someone else online who already answered that same question.

Reading about grammar isn’t going to teach you grammar. The only way for you to learn grammar will be to encounter it “in the wild”, that is, in a natural environment, be it reading a book or watching a movie.

If the context isn’t sufficient for you to understand that particular grammar point, it’s okay to watch a video or read about it online.

That being said, much like in a video game, you’ll need to go through a tutorial first before you tackle the real game.

That’s why we’ve separated some grammar guides that will take you from tabula rasa to reading Japanese in no time.

The first of which is the Cure Dolly Youtube channel. Admittedly, it’s a bit on the eccentric side, with the whole android voice and a 3D character as the teacher, but it’s nonetheless a great channel that teaches Japanese in a very curious yet effective way.

Cure Dolly is also not afraid to venture into native materials, such as the famous Japanese ghost stories, all the while analyzing grammar structures and teaching the nuances of the language.

If for some particular reason Cure Dolly doesn’t appeal to you, our second recommendation is a bit more traditional, namely Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese, which can only be described as a grammar book laid out in blog format.

What differentiates Tae Kim from your common grammar book though, is that the whole grammar guide is not only packed full with example sentences but also incredibly concise, sparing you from much of the things that make grammar books boring.

It is nonetheless quite a bit dull if compared to Cure Dolly, so be careful not to lose your motivation to learn Japanese, it is the fuel with which you learn.


Improving your reading skills

If you’ve followed all steps so far, you must be feeling on top of the world. You’ve not only learned 2 whole syllabaries but you’ve also learned how to form sentences and read simple pieces of text.

Now it’s time level up your Japanese skills a bit further, and the key to doing that will be improving your reading skills.

Much like a machine, in order to output, your brain needs input, and that input comes primarily from reading. In other words, if you learn to read more intricate pieces of text, you’ll also learn to write and speak better as a result.

You could just pick up the latest volume of One Piece and start with that, using online dictionaries such as Jisho or Weblio whenever you need to, and you would learn tons of new vocabulary and grammar points with each page. But that would be too hard for most people.

That’s why your next step will be to read graded readers. These are books written in Japanese with an English glossary at the end of each section, allowing you to read whole books without ever having to open the dictionary.

We recommend you get First Japanese Reader Japanese Graded Reader and Second Japanese Reader.

These are a collection of traditional Japanese stories. Each new story introduces new vocabulary and grammar points, building on what you’ve learned previously.

You can also use the free alternative Wasabi’s Read-aloud Method with Easy Japanese.


Learn Kanji

If you’ve been following everything so far, you should have improved your reading skills a lot. As a result, you should have learned a few Kanji along the way.

Kanji were imported from China a long time ago and they became Japan’s first writing system.

In contrast to the Roman alphabet or even Hiragana and Katakana, Kanji convey primarily meaning instead of sound. That’s why even though many characters are pronounced differently in China, they still hold the same meaning.

Kanji are generally seen as “the big bad” of Japanese learning. We’ve ignored them so far because we didn’t need to focus all our efforts on them, but now we do.

Now that you’ve improved your reading skills, the only thing separating you from being fluent is Kanji. 

Not that they’re the only thing you’re lacking, but Kanji are the key to mastering the Japanese language.

They’re not the enemy, they’re your allies.

They will help you read quicker and easier, they’ll help you learn more vocabulary and anchor down any vocabulary that you may have learned subconsciously.

And most importantly, they’ll allow you to learn Japanese in a whole new way. You will now be able to learn Japanese by reading native content.

Be it manga, light novels, video games, you’ll eventually be able to read them all, and the more you read the more Kanji you’ll learn.

Now that you know they’re the good guys, let’s meet the tools that will help you with such endeavor:

Jisho is a free online Japanese dictionary where you can look up not only words but also Kanji, together with stroke order and related characters.

And the best part is that with Jisho, you can also look up Kanji by drawing them, which will help you get used to writing them using correct stroke order.

Weblio is another online Japanese dictionary, but differently from Jisho, here you can also look up idioms and expressions and Weblio will show you not only their meaning but also how to use them in a sentence.

You can also look up an English word or expression to learn the most natural way to say that in Japanese, which will help tremendously when composing a piece of text in Japanese.

Another great asset is the Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course, which will guide you through all 2136 jōyō Kanji (everyday use Kanji) and an extra 164 jinmeiyō kanji (Kanji used to write names), together with their pronunciation, stroke order and most common vocabulary.

But what really brings the Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course to life is its companion series, the Kanji Learner’s Course Graded Reading Sets.

It consists of a series of reading exercises that gradually increase in difficulty. With each new chapter, a new Kanji is added to the reading exercises, in a cumulative manner.

Since you’ll regularly see Kanji you’ve learned in previous chapters, you’ll be constantly reviewing both old and new information.

This allows you to ditch the flashcards and really focus on the reading, as the rest will simply fall into place.

You can download the first volume of the Kanji Learner’s Course Graded Reading Sets for free on the author’s website.

Your next and final assignment will be to use these resources to learn all 2136 jōyō Kanji, as you slowly grind your way into being able to read meaningful and enjoyable content.

You don’t have to finish these books to the end. Much like when you were learning how to ride a bike, eventually you’ll feel confident enough to remove the training wheels and ride on your own.

You should also try reading something more challenging every now and then, you’ll be surprised by your progress, which I’m sure will boost your confidence.


Closing thoughts

I hope this guide helped you on your first steps towards Japanese fluency. The road is long but very rewarding. Keep your head up and focus on your goals, but don’t forget to enjoy the process.

We’ll be working on adding more Japanese related content to the website but, in the meantime, take a gander at our other articles, I’m sure you’ll like them.


Study Japanese for Beginners by Marcel Iseli