How To Learn Japanese For Beginners – My Personal Tips!

Row of red flags with white Japanese characters, girl standing next to them smiling
These are my best tips on learning Japanese at home with tools for writing, alphabet, kanji, grammar, vocabulary and more!

If I had to name one positive thing that’s come out of this global crisis, I would say that it’s LEARNING. Learning about what’s important in life, learning to pivot and adjust to new circumstances, learning about injustice, learning about ourselves, learning new skills and for me personally as well: language learning!

I’ve been studying Japanese on-and-off since my first trip to Japan in 2006 and even took a weekly class in The Netherlands for a few months. While I know a good amount of words and phrases, I definitely still consider myself a beginner. That’s why I’ve set myself the goal to finally have a short conversation in Japanese at the end of this year.

Wondering how to learn Japanese for beginners as well? Study together with me using the resources I’ve compiled for you below. I don’t currently take classes, neither can I practice while travelling at the moment, but some self-study can take you a long way as you will see!

Handy Overview

HOW TO LEARN JAPANESE AT HOME

How To Learn Japanese For Beginners - My Personal Tips! || The Travel Tester

Why learn Japanese? Or any other language?

I strongly believe that learning a new language has several benefits that can be applied to many facets in your life.

First of all, it opens your mind to new words, phrases, ideas and teaches you to be patient and have fun while studying. At the same time, you will get the chance to understand another culture a bit better. Diving into a language will take you along specific expressions, business and social situations that you might not encounter in your own culture.

If you ever want to live abroad in a country where people speak the language you’re studying, you will always be one step ahead. Life will be so much easier for you when you’re able to understand and explain basic phrases, especially when you first move there! Living abroad can be stressful enough, I can tell you from personal experience, so if there is a language barrier, I can imagine this complicates things even more.

Of course, then there is also the chance of better job opportunities when you speak a second, or even more languages. Not just when you’re moving abroad, but perhaps in your own country or town!

And finally, I definitely think that learning another language will improve your memory and general brain health. You will notice that learning a language is all about patterns, repetition and memorization, so stretch that grey matter and see what it does for you!

Elderly Japanese woman sitting in her candy shop in Okinawa, Japan
One of the main reasons I wanted to learn Japanese was to speak a little with the locals on my travels. I’ve been to Japan 7 times already and pick up words and phrases each time I visit.

Why I Learn Japanese Myself

As I mentioned briefly under the photo above (of the lady in her sweet shop in Okinawa), my main reason to learn Japanese was to be able to speak a little with the locals on my travels. But another reason was that I am fascinated by the history and culture of Japan and I believe that language is one of the best ways to learn more about these topics.

I am not a huge fan of Japanese anime, manga or J-pop music myself, but I know there are many people that started their Japanese language studies to follow their favourite comics, films, shows and idols. And then of course there are people that study the language because they need it for work.

The reason why you want to study another language makes a HUGE difference in the way you approach your studies and the materials you end up using.

Are you aiming to pass a JLPT Japanese-Language Proficiency Test? Are you learning the language so you can communicate in the native language of a family member or partner? Do you want to be able to write Kanji? Or is it enough for you to just know a few phrases useful for travelling or to speak with a Japanese friend?

My personal goals (for now) are:

  1. Being able to hold a simple conversation with Japanese people on my travels
  2. Being able to read (road) signs and most of print media (newspaper/magazine) in Japanese
  3. Being able to read and write basic Kanji that you’ll come across in daily life

What is the reason you want to study Japanese?

Girl holding umbrella standing in front of orange Japanese temple gates
How to learn Japanese language on things like these torii gates?!

How to Start Learning Japanese

It might seem obvious, but one of the best places to start learning the Japanese language is to find out which Japanese words and phrases you already know. It might be more than you think! How about sushi (すし), samurai (侍) or karaoke (カラオケ) for example. What I did when I started learning, is making a list of all the Japanese words that I already knew. Which words can you list?

Did you know that about 10% of all Japanese words used today actually come from the English language?

The second tip I would give is to pick a real-life situation in which you want to use your Japanese skill first.

For example, when I started my studies, I was travelling to Japan and I wanted to be able to say please, thank you, what is that? and where is… This gave me some pointers to words and phrases that were most important to me at that point in time and narrowed my studies down to the basics.

How to learn japanese for beginners - Very Hungry Caterpillar Book in Japanese
Let’s be real, the main reason I want to learn Japanese is to read the Very Hungry Caterpillar in Japanese
How To Learn Japanese For Beginners - My Personal Tips! || The Travel Tester
…and speak with kawaii (cute) mascots like these! (oh, and understand what the bleep they actually are, ha!)

Immerse and Memorization

When you know why you want to learn another language, the second most important thing is to immerse yourself in the language as much as possible. This can be by living abroad, travelling to a country or simply implementing the language in everything you do at home (watch Japanese tv, listen to Japanese music, read Japanese books, meet Japanese people in your home town, etc.).

Then, teaching yourself memorization techniques will definitely a dealbreaker in your ability to learn a new language, and actually remember it long term. There are some tried and tested techniques to do this, including using spaced-repetition (learning a word, then reviewing it 1 day, then 3, 5, 10, 20 and 30 days later until you won’t forget it), creating fun mnemonics and combining words with images. You can even create your own Memory Palace to learn a language fast.

Some great tools for this are Memrise and Anki.

My blogger friend Michelle tells you all about the best language memorization techniques in her amazing video below. Make sure to check out her channel The Intrepid Guide on YouTube, she has so many great language learning tips!

Japanese Study Books for Writing

I’ll start with my recommendations on how to learn Japanese writing with books that teach you the Japanese “alphabet”. As you might (or might not) already know, there are three writing systems in Japanese: hiragana (syllables used primarily for native/naturalised Japanese words and grammatical elements), katakana (syllables used primarily for foreign words and names, loanwords, onomatopoeia, scientific names, and sometimes for emphasis), and kanji (adopted Chinese characters).

Over the years, I’ve become a big fan of Tuttle Publishing. Since 1948 they are the leader in publishing books on the culture, arts, cuisines, languages and literature of Asia. By now, they know my love for Japan, so when new books come out, I’m one of the first to know and receive a review copy.

At the end of 2020, they released the books “Reading and Writing Japanese Hiragana” and “Reading and Writing Japanese Katakana” by Emiko Konomi. I’ve been using them ever since to practice my skills. The books consist of an extensive introduction to the writing systems, as well as writing drills and it also will teach you how to learn Japanese vocabulary with practice lessons.

But that’s not all, with the books come digital photocopiable writing paper, audio files for good pronunciation, printable flashcards and even more reading and writing practice in the form of word lists on the most used topics such as greetings, shopping, food & drink and much more. It really is all you need to get a solid foundation in read and writing Japanese.

Japanese Katakana and Hiragana Study Books
Hopefully the Tuttle Books will teach me enough to be able to read the cute Japanese children’s books pictured above! (The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Mysterious Mofumofu Cafe)
Japanese Katakana and Hiragana Study Books - How to learn japanese for beginners

CAN’T DECIDE WHAT TO READ?

The Travel Tester loves to review books and magazines with travel (related) and self-development topics to help you decide if it will be something for on your bookshelf.

From travel guides to self-growth and business books and from cultural stories to cook books from kitchens around the world. If it looks interesting to us, we’ll test it!
No matter where you are going or what you want to learn, with our reviews you’ll know exactly what to read next.

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Flashcards for Language Learning

Ask anyone how to learn Japanese for beginners and they will probably tell you to start using flashcards. So will I!

Flashcards are little pieces of card with a cue or hint on one side, and a corresponding answer on the back. The cue can be a question, an image, or just one word. Whatever you find most convenient. I got a few packs of cards on a ring from my last visit to Japan, but you can also find them on Amazon or probably in your local bookshop.

On the “front” I write the Japanese words in both Rōmaji (Latin script) as in either hiragana or katakana, depending on the word. On the “back” I write the translation in English (or sometimes in Dutch if that translation makes it easier for me to remember – because it’s more similar to the Japanese word, for example). I put “front” and “back” in quotation marks, because I will practice with the cards from either side.

An app that’s useful to create flashcards is called “Quizle‪t‬“. You can find it in the App Store and on Google Play.

Flashcards with Japanese characters and the words "tabemasu" and "tokidoki" on them
tabemasu – to eat and tokidoki – sometimes (one of my favourite Japanese words!)

How To Learn Japanese For Beginners: Kanji

After studying the relatively “easy” syllabic writing systems, it’s time to get serious. But how to learn Japanese Kanji the best way? Well. Start by not doing what I did. A few years back I purchased the book “250 Essential Kanji for everyday use“, since it sounded like it was the most practical for what my study goals were, but I must confess I have yet to start in it.

It’s not because the book isn’t great, in fact, it’s pretty damn good. I actually only just realize it’s also by Tuttle Publishing (makes sense), written by the officious sounding “Kanji Text Research Group” at Tokyo University. This group apparently is made up of teachers whose focus is teaching Japanese language to foreign students and they have spent more than two decades developing the most effective methods to help beginning learners of Japanese grasp the kanji.

Each lesson is super interactive and helps you master a new group of kanji. There are quizzes, vocabulary and practice sections and for each character you’ll learn its meanings, basic on–kun (Chinese-Japanese) readings, its stroke order, common compounds, and derivations. I find it a little overwhelming to browse in, but I guess I should just take it slow and start step-by-step following the well-organised lessons.

For Kanji, the best tips I got was to A) Start with it soon in your studies!, B) Focus on understanding the meaning first, the reading later (so the meaning of the Kanji could be “book”, the reading is “kun: moto” and “on: hon”) and C) Create stories to remember the Kanji, for example: the Kanji for book (本) looks like a tree with a stripe under it, e.g. the book is made from the tree)

One of the other textbooks to help you with Kanji that I got recommended was “Remembering the Kanji“. This especially goes into the story-making aspect of Kanji learning. Apparently with this method, you will be able to complete in a few short months a task that would otherwise take years!

Further down below, I’ll also talk about how to learn Japanese online with (free) Kanji learning tools.

For those of you looking to dig a little deeper into the origins of the Kanji, you have to travel to China, where 3000-year-old sources of written characters are still used today. But don’t worry, you don’t have to physically travel there, nor do all the research yourself.

In one of my favourite history books of all times, “China: Empire of Living Symbols” (pictured below is my Dutch version: “Het karakter van China” – the character of China), Swedish Sinologist Cecilia Lindqvist tells a beautifully illustrated story of the Chinese characters and shows how their shapes and concepts have permeated all of Chinese thought, architecture, art, and culture.

Japanese Kanji Books - How to learn japanese for beginners
Japanese / Chinese Character Book
Japanese Kanji Book Inside
Dive deep into the meaning of the Japanese/Chinese Kanji characters with these two books

Learning to Write Japanese

While in many language, learning to write is usually not really essential unless you want to work abroad, in Japanese I can HIGHLY recommend practicing writing along with speaking, listening and reading.

It really helps you to understand the words and grammar better and by repeating you drill everything much better into your brain (yes, drilling in brains is unfortunately not optional when learning Japanese, haha)

To improve writing the Japanese characters, my best tips are:

  • Write in boxes, this will help you to balance out the characters (get a squared notebook like this one!)
  • Use the correct stroke order, to make it easier to remember them and read (Japanese characters are always written from left to right, top to bottom, horizontal goes first, vertical second and when there’s a vertical line with symmetrical characters on the outside of it, you do the vertical line first. There are some more writing rules, but I’ll stop here – eep!)
  • Write slowly and big at first, going faster and smaller as you go along
  • Practice, practice, practice – it’s the only way!
Japanese Katakana and Hiragana Study Books
Tuttle Publishing teaches you how to learn Japanese Hiragana and Katakana

Studying a Language = Studying a Culture

What I’ve learned from studying new languages is that while your goal might be to simply read, listen, write or speak, you always get to know more about the history and culture of the country where the language is spoken. This is especially true for languages that are spoken in just one or a few countries.

I’ve read a few books on Japanese culture and etiquette and in all of them, Japanese concepts, words and phrases are always mentioned. That makes the following books a great extra resource to accompany your Japanese language learning:

Cool Tokyo Guide & Tokyo Pop-Up Book Review || The Travel Tester
Language Lessons in “Cool Tokyo Guide” by Abby Denson

(Free) Online Japanese Learning Tools

When I started studying Japanese many years ago, there wasn’t so much online yet. But now? Oh boy! You can find SO much online, you’ll never be able to go through all of it in one lifetime. And most of it is even free. Where to start?

For language lessons, I love:

Learn Japanese with Innovative Language / JapanesePod101.com
  • Innovative Language – They offer a wide variety of Japanese language learning tools, such as apps, audio books and my favourite: JapanesePod101.com. I started listening to the audio lessons from JapanesePod101 years ago (and also had a membership for a while) and they’ve since grown to one of the best Japanese language platforms in the world. You can also find them on YouTube, with many free lessons.
  • 日本語の森 (Nihongo no Mori) – This YouTube channel started in 2013 and provides you with fun and easy-to-understand lessons. They have structured their content in levels, so if you are studying for a specific Japanese test, then it’s easy to find the corresponding lessons.
  • Rosetta Stone – After struggling to learn Russian through traditional methods, Founder Allen Stoltzfus set out to develop an effective way to learn a new language through natural immersion in the late 1980s. He envisioned using computer technology to simulate the way that people learn their native language—with pictures and sounds in context, and with no translation—and innovate language education for learners of all ages. These days, Rosetta Stone is one of the most recognized technology-based learning companies in the world.
  • jlptsensei.com – Learn Japanese and Pass the JLPT, this basically sums up the website. This language blog will also teach you how to learn Japanese grammar with a database. It helps you learn Japanese and pass the Japanese language exams (if you study enough, of course)
  • japanesetest4you.com – On this website you’ll find hundreds of practice tests, thousands of infographics and flashcards and a lot more resources to master the Japanese language, structured by level.
  • HelloTalk – The concept is easy: learn a language by chatting with native speakers around the world. For free! In the app (both Android as Apple) you can chat with individual members, or join group chats for a collaborative learning experience.
  • italki – Choose from over 10,000 teachers for 1-on-1 lessons based on your goals and interests. On italki you only pay per lesson and at the price that meets your budget.
  • tofugu.com This website is all about Japanese topics to help people who want to visit Japan, live in Japan, and/or Learn Japanese. They also have a podcast and Japanese-kanji-and-vocabulary-learning web app.
  • crunchynihongo.com – Blog with easy Japanese lessons and reading practice materials for beginners, among other resources.
  • NHK World – Learn Japanese from NHK, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation in fun and easy lessons.

Japanese Language Learning Apps

Here are some apps to download on your phone:

My Favourite Japanese / Japan-Based YouTubers

For content on Japanese culture, live in Japan and sometimes also language learning tips, I love watching:

Old Japanese man in traditional robe holding fish-shaped flags while looking out over pond

Traditional Language Learning Methods

You would think that I’d start this article with standard language learning tools such as text / course books, phrase book or dictionaryies but I’ve found that actually, these are the things I use the least when studying myself.

I believe textbooks are made for and best used in classroom-type situations, where you need everyone to study on the same topic and test them on the same things. But since I already gave the advice to start studying on topics and goals that are more specific to your own situation, you can see how these type of study materials just aren’t a good fit.

If, however, you need more structure, here are three books you might find useful:

Other, more traditional study methods and some additional online resources focusing also on Japanese Grammar that I saw recommended are:

  • Nihongo So-Matome – Essential Practice for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) with Kanji, Vocabulary, Grammar, Reading and Listening Comprehension – The levels are N5-N1, with N5 being the easiest + Nihongo So-matome N5 Vocabulary
  • Genki Textbooks – Covers speaking, listening, reading, and writing to cultivate overall language ability. Each lesson features audio files.
  • Minna no Nihongo – Since it was first published in 1998, these study books have been a staple of Japanese language learning. The vocabulary is accompanied by illustrations that help structure learning. There is also audio with supplementary exercises and conversation techniques.
  • A Guide to Japanese Grammar – Written by Tae K Kim, this book is a compilation of all the content that you can find (for free) on the website guidetojapanese.org. If you prefer a physical copy of the material, the book breaks down grammatical concepts that will allow you to comprehend anything from simple to very complex sentences. You will also learn Japanese that’s spoken by real people including casual speech patterns and slang, stuff that’s often left out in most textbooks.
  • Tuttle Publishing – I’ve mentioned them before, via this link you will find all their Japanese Language books and practice materials.
Book "Japanese for Busy People" and Japanese Dictionary on table
Phrase Book with Japanese Pick-Up Lines
I was more into the “rejections” section – haha

Online Japanese Dictionaries

If you’re looking for a translation, but are not a fan of the traditional paper dictionaries, well, the 21st century has you covered. Here are some good online translation tools for you:

Japanese Language Browser Extensions

The following extensions will translate Japanese language directly in your browser. I especially love the Netflix one!

Japanese Music

To immerse yourself even further, here is some Japanese music to enjoy online. Please note that I don’t know ANYTHING about J-pop, so any suggestions, please let me know, would love to add to this meager list.

I really hope this extensive article helps you answer the question of how to learn Japanese on your own. As you can see there is a lot out there, mostly free! All you need is a bit of focus and consistency to get the ball rolling. Ganbatte Kudasai! 頑張ってください Do your best!

Practical Information by The Travel Tester

FIND ALL RESOURCES HERE!

JAPANSE STUDY MATERIAL LIST

Here is a complete overview of all the study materials mentioned in this article:

[STUDY TOOLS]

[READING & WRITING]

[FLASHCARDS]

[JAPANESE CULTURE & LANGUAGE]

[ONLINE LEARNING]

[APPS]

[YOUTUBERS]

JAPAN TRIP PLANNING RESOURCES

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How To Learn Japanese For Beginners - My Personal Tips! || The Travel Tester
How To Learn Japanese For Beginners - My Personal Tips! || The Travel Tester

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2 Comments

  1. says: Akshay

    Hi,
    I was planning a trip to Japan but I don’t know how to speak Japanese language but after this post, I got an Idea of how to learn the Japanese language, it is important to learn this if we are visiting Japan. Thank You!

    1. says: Nienke

      Thank you! I found in the bigger cities you have no problem travelling with just English, but always nice to be able to say something in the native language on your travels. Enjoy!

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