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How to Learn Japanese (Self Study & Abroad): The Best Tips and Resources to Learn Fast

Welcome to the Japanese Learning Journey!

Are you looking to study abroad in Japan? Are you trying to figure out the best materials for your self-study routine? Maybe you are wondering how to prepare for the JPLT. If so, you have come to the right place!

日本語を勉強しましょう!

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My Background and Goals…

A few years ago I realized I was looking for some change, challenge, and adventure in my life, so I quit my job, enrolled in a language school, packed my bags, and set off for Japan!

Learning Japanese and exploring Japan!

As of January 2023, I am currently living abroad in Fukuoka, Japan, and have been in the country for just over two years.

When I first arrived in January 2021, I started a 1.5 year program at a language school called Genki JACS. Now I am working in Japan doing a variety of things (app design for a startup, freelance writing for a Japanese food platform, and soon I will translate for a Japanese travel company).

In order to get a non-teaching job in Japan, the higher your Japanese skills the better. Because of this, my first goal was to attain JPLT N2 proficiency. (JPLT stands for Japanese Proficiency Language Test and is the national standard test of Japanese fluency).

Keep reading to learn about how I studied, what resources I found most helpful, and what the journey has been like along the way.

Learning Japanese: Find What Works for You

There is no blanket learning style that works the same for every person. That being said, having a broad sense of the different tools and learning resources available will give you the best chance of finding a combination that works for you.

By finding fun ways to combine passive learning (ex. listening to Japanese music) with active learning (ex. daily flashcards, attending classes), your language skills will flourish in no time.

In this post, I share a ton of different ways to help improve your Japanese. Experiment with what works best for you and have fun!


Japanese Listening and Speaking Resources

I passed the JLPT N3 less than a year after starting language school, and reached N2 six months after that. For the N3 test, I scored almost 100% on the listening section, a success I attribute to the resources below!

Japanese Podcast (JapanesePod 101)

JapanesePod101 is one of my favorite resources because of the huge database of lessons available. Podcasts are bite-sized (~15 min) and entertaining. With both native Japanese and English hosts, the lessons are easy to understand and learn from.

Each lesson comes with pdfs that break down the grammar, vocabulary, and dialog so you can take your studying even further.

Finding a learning path can be a bit confusing because there is so much content, but the Nihongo Dojo series is a good place for beginners to start.

After finishing Nihongo Dojo, I recommend moving to the Upper Beginner and Intermediate Season 1 series.

JapanesePod101 has been an awesome tool to increase my listening abilities and reinforce grammar + vocabulary.

In my life: I download lessons to my phone and listen to podcasts when I walk around the city or prepare meals. This gives me a good 30-60 minutes of additional practice each day and is a great way to learn while multitasking.

Sign up for Japanese Pod101 (FREE) here!

Conversation Practice (Italki)

Italki.com

Before coming to Japan I wanted to practice speaking and listening, so I signed up for Italki, a service that connects you with people around the world through conversational lessons. I practiced simple conversations with a handful of different teachers and had excellent experiences with everyone!

Itaki is a great platform to tune up your speaking and listening while also allowing you to meet people across the globe.

While it can be intimidating to have a conversation with a stranger, I definitely recommend taking on the challenge and trying it yourself!

Sign up for Italki to get $10 off and boost your speaking and listening skills!

In my life: I was able to find a teacher in Fukuoka who I really like. I schedule lessons every couple of weeks with her and she gives me feedback and notes from each lesson so I can remember what we covered. Since I live in Japan I don’t use Italki as much as I did when I was back in the US.

CafeTalk is a similar service for online lessons. I haven’t used it myself, but it was highly rated by fellow language school classmates.

Japanese Radio and News

Another good place to hear native Japanese is on the radio. I bought a small FM radio so I could tune into morning news updates and various talk shows. (This only works if you are currently in Japan)

Radio-level conversation is still a bit advanced for me to understand everything, but I found it an easy way to surround myself with real-life Japanese.

If you don’t have a radio, NHK’s らじるらじる (Rajiru Rajiru) can be accessed from the web browser.

You can also find streams of Japanese news on Youtube. This is a good way for those outside of Japan to practice listening to real-life topics and familiarize yourself with reading kanji.

Japanese Music

When I’m not listening to JapanesePod 101 or the radio, I usually listening to Japanese songs. This is a fun way to get used to hearing the language and tap into some of the pop culture.

I can’t always understand what is being sung, but I still find it fun to listen. Knowing popular Japanese songs comes in handy during karaoke sessions too!

In my life: I download my favorite songs through the Spotify app so that I can listen offline and on the go.

Spotify Japanese Playlists
Japan-themed playlists on Spotify

Anime and TV Shows

With so much anime out in the world, I’m sure you can find one you like. I’ve gotten much more into anime since being in Japan and have enjoyed shows like Demon Slayer (Kimetsu no Yaiba), One Piece, and Death Note.

I still use subtitles, but depending on the story I sometimes challenge myself by using Japanese subtitles and Japanese audio.

Study challenge! Watch an episode first with both Japanese subtitles and audio. Try to listen to the words and use the visuals to understand what is going on. After, watch the same episode again, this time with Japanese audio and your native language subtitles. *This can be done at 1.5 or 2x speed. Check how well your understanding was!

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba (TV Series 2019– ) - IMDb

Other favorite shows:

  • What Did You Eat Yesterday? (Netflix) – TV show about a gay couple living together in Tokyo with an emphasis on food and cooking!
  • My Hero Academia (Netflix) – For those who like superheroes, this is for you! Follow a group of high schoolers develop their “Quirks” and learn about the responsibilities and challenges of becoming a hero.
  • SPYxFamily (Netflix) – An anime about a spy, assassin, and telepath living together as a family.

In my life: I watch anime on days when I just want to relax and enjoy some good shows.

Movies

I don’t watch a ton of movies, but when I do, I like to watch Japanese animated films. It is great listening practice and a fun way to see more of Japan’s culture.

Some favorites so far are: Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle, The Secret World of Arrietty, and Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Amazon.com: Totoro My Neighbor Totoro Poster Anime Japan Hayao Miyazaki  Cute Movie Animation Art 16x20 Inches: Posters & Prints

In my life: like anime, I watch movies when I want to unwind and relax with a bit of Japanese learning.

Japanese Friends & Locals

Of course, the best way to improve your speaking and listening skills is to use them in real life! If you have native friends, talking and messaging with them is a good way to practice conversational Japanese, casual grammar, and learn things you wouldn’t find in a textbook.

MeetUp is a super popular app in Japan where people host events and… meet up. I recommend this app/site if you are currently in Japan and looking to make new friends.

Meetup app

Host families are another way to have immersive communication practice if you have the opportunity.

Finally, don’t forget to adventure out into the world! Visiting restaurants, bars, and local events has given me the opportunity to meet and talk with many people in my community.

Flash Card Resources

Kanji Flashcards (WaniKani)

Kanji is one of the most hated and feared parts of learning Japanese, especially for Westerners. I certainly felt that way when I was first starting to learn.

Recently however, I’ve slowly started to gain an appreciation for the crazy characters, and dare I say, maybe even like them a bit?!?

WaniKani Dashboard

It’s all because of WaniKani. This smart flashcard app teaches you the fundamentals of kanji while slowly working up to more difficult items. Fun mnemonics are provided along the way to help you memorize the different characters.

Additionally, vocabulary is paired with learning the kanji so you get a two-for-one deal!

WaniKani Lesson Example

Everything about the app/ company is fun and quirky and by the end of the 60 levels, you will know almost all of the 2,000 essential kanji.

You can try the first few levels for free to see if it’s something for you. I committed to the lifetime access which was a bit expensive at ~$200, but seeing as I have been using the app for over two years and a huge part of passing the JLPT was because of WaniKani, it has totally been worth it.

If you’re planning to buy, note that it is most discounted during the holiday season!

WaniKani

For those who like stats and graphs, these are provided too. Once you have an account, you can really dive in and track your kanji progress.

WaniKani Statistics Chart
This table shows the percentage of JLPT kanji you will know after each WaniKani level

In my life: I do my reviews in the morning and learn 5-10 new lessons a day. If I have a free moment during the day, I do more reviews if they are queued.

It took a long time to develop this habit but I’m proud to keep it up so far. It might not be the quickest way to level up and learn kanji, but in my mind, slow and steady is the key. I just got to level 28! (8/2021)

Additional Flashcards (Anki)

Two flashcard apps you ask? Yes, because they are both great and fulfill different needs. Anki is a free, open-source flashcard program that also uses spaced repetition to help you quickly learn new vocab.

Since it is open-sourced, you benefit from a huge library of decks that other users have already created.

AnkiWeb Flashcards

In my life: I downloaded decks specifically for the Genki Textbooks and JLPT, and used these to practice a little vocabulary each day.

Japanese Reading Resources

Japanese Graded Readers (Tadoku)

One of the most common mistakes when it comes to reading is to pick up a book that is above your reading level. This is where graded readers come in handy.

These books by Tadoku are written specifically for different levels of proficiency. Since they are catered to a specific reading level, it is easy to enjoy and learn from these books.

These books can only be bought in bundles and they don’t come cheap. Luckily, there are some free books online that you can read first to check your level and see if it’s something you like.

I found Level 2 graded readers a suitable level for those midway through Genki 2.

In my life: These books are pretty quick to read, so I’ll pick one up if I have a bit of free time and want an interesting story.

NHK News Web Easy

NHK News Web Easy is a site made for foreigners that contains Japanese news written in simplified Japanese.

NHK New Web Easy

Once I finished both Genki Textbooks and got further along in Wanikani (high level 20’s), I felt much more prepared to understand the content. (Before this, the difficulty was too high).

For an added challenge, there is the option to toggle off the furigana readings. For listening practice, an audio reading of each article is also included.

This news site is a great way to get free reading (and listening) practice about relevant world events.

Manga

Manga can be surprisingly tricky for beginners since the kanji, vocab, and grammar can be complex. Yotsuba is a good manga for those just starting out. The story is a little plain, but the grammar and vocab level is managable for beginner/intermediate.

Books

I don’t recommend starting with “real” books until you have built up a solid base of kanji and can get through graded readers fairly easily. But once you feel ready, simple books are the next step to increasing Japanese fluency.

I recommend picking a book that you have already read a few times and know the story pretty well. I chose Harry Potter and read the English version at the same time to check my comprehension.

Harry Potter in Japanese

Japanese Textbook Resources

Next up I am going to introduce the textbooks I have used during my studies.

Genki Textbooks- Beginner

The Genki Books (Genki I and Genki II) are pretty decent as beginner books. I used them in college when I first started learning Japanese as well as at my Japanese language school.

Genki Japanese Language Textbooks
Genki Japanese Language Textbooks

All of the grammar points are explained in English, and there are translations for the vocab words and dialog. The books go over the basics and set a firm foundation for entering the intermediate level.

Some of the related exercises and worksheets were a bit lackluster, but for the most part, I have been able to understand the basic points of Japanese quite well with these books.

For those looking to take the JLPT, these Genki Books can get you pretty close to passing N4, but I recommend additional Kanji, vocab, and grammar studies.

Another popular series is called Minna no Nihongo. Since I never used these books myself I can’t say much about this series, but it is quite popular among many students.

中級へ行こう- Pre-Intermediate

After completing the Genki Textbooks, I used two pre-intermediate textbooks called: 中級へ行こう (Let’s Go to Intermediate Level).

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Intermediate Textbook

The entire book is pretty much all in Japanese which was a little daunting at first. After starting the first chapters though, I was surprised to find that I could understand a lot of it.

The grammar points are much less descriptive than those in the Genki books, and sometimes the diagrams take a bit of time to figure out.

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Example grammar

While I see the Genki books as being relatively straightforward and okay to use for self-studying, these books are more suited for a classroom setting where you have the ability to ask questions to the teacher and receive more indepth explanations and examples.

JLPT Focus

My school gave us quite a few JLPT specific materials to study leading up to the test.

In class, we used the So Matome, New Kanzen Master, and Try! series.

For reading, I prefered using the New Kanzen Master book. For vocab, both So Matome and New Kanzen Master were decent, but you are able to practice a lot more with the New Kanzen Master.

To read more about the JLPT and and how I studied for it, check out here!

Kanji

If you want a textbook for studying kanji, Basic Kanji Book is a great place to start! This book is similar to WaniKani in how it breaks down kanji into simple radicals.

Basic Kanji Book Cover

Related vocabulary words are learned together and complex kanji build off of previously learned forms. For those who are learning to write, there are small boxes to practice writing the characters.

Translation and Dictionary Apps

When you are learning a new language, having reliable resources for translations is very important! The three tools listed below: (Deep L, Google Translate, and Jisho.org) each have different strengths that I have found useful in various situations.

Note: having data access makes these translation apps much more useful and is a big reason to get a data SIM.

DeepL

This is the most accurate and reliable translator I have used so far. It works similarly to Google Translate but provides more natural translations which is why I use it over Google Translate 99% of the time.

My one wish would be to include furigana for the kanji. Also, there is no camera feature so you need to type or copy and paste the text you want to be translated.

Deep L Translator
Deep L Translator

Google Translate

While I sometimes get really funky translations from Google Translate, I use the app for 2 specific use cases.

Google Translate Best Features
Google Translate features

When to use Google Translate over DeepL:

  1. Translation through the camera. In the app, you can use your camera to translate photos / live images. While this feature doesn’t work great with handwritten or artistic fonts, it has come in handy when I have wanted to translate parts of menus, on-screen instructions, signs, etc.
  2. Handwritten Kanji –> Text Character. Using the draw feature, I can use my finger to write an unfamiliar kanji as best as possible and Google Translate will show a list of possible options. This makes it possible to identify and learn unfamiliar kanji.

In my life: Google Translate is handy for getting the general gist of Japanese text using photos or the camera. Its handwiting to text feature also makes it possible to learn unfamiliar kanji.

Jisho.org

Jisho.org is a great dictionary app that is much better at defining individual words than Google Translate or DeepL.

jisho.org

It breaks words down into their kanji characters, provides different definition variations, and also has a draw-to-text feature like Google Translate.

jisho.org example

Final Thoughts

This is the end of my resource list for now, so I hope you found the contents helpful. As I continue on this Japanese learning journey, I will continue to expand and develop the list.


If you are interested in learning more about life in Japan, check out the blog posts below!

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