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

Welcome to the Japanese Learning Journey!

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初めまして皆さん!

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!

Background and Goals…

After realizing I was looking for some change, challenge, and adventure in my life, I quit my job, enrolled in a language school, packed my bags, and set off for Japan!

Learning Japanese and exploring Japan! ✌️

I am currently living abroad in Fukuoka and am studying at a language school called Genki JACS. My goal is to find a job in Japan after finishing a year (or more?) of classes, and to reach JPLT N2 proficiency. (JPLT stands for Japanese Proficiency Language Test, and is the national standard test of Japanese fluency).

In order to reach my goals, I am working hard to learn Japanese as fast as possible!

Since you’re on this page, I bet you are also interested in Japan / learning Japanese too! If so, continue reading for some of the best tips, tools, and resources I have found.

If you are curious about my ongoing Japanese learning progress, check out these posts:

Learning Japanese: Pick and Choose 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 avaliable 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.

All it takes is a bit of determination and creativity when it comes to fitting it all into your life.

Below are the different methods and resources I have used to immerse myself in Japanese, broken up into several categories. 頑張って!


Japanese Listening and Speaking Resources

Japanese Podcast (JapanesePod 101)

This is one of my favorite resources because of the huge database of lessons avaliable. 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 linear learning path can be a bit confusing because there is so much content, but the Nihongo Dojo series a good place to start for beginners.

After finishing Nihongo Dojo, I recommend Upper Beginner and Intermediate Season 1.

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 go to school. This gives me a good 30-60 minutes of additional practice each day, and is a great way learn while exercising. Find out more 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 really good 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 as a beginner it can be a bit intimidating to have a conversation with a stranger, I definitely recommend taking on the challenge and trying it yourself!

In my life: Since I am currently enrolled in language school (which is full of speaking practice), I haven’t used Italki recently. When I go back to the US though, I plan to resume again to keep up with my conversation skills.

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

Japanese Music

When I’m not listening to JapanesePod 101, I am usually listening to Japanese songs. I’ve found this to be a fun way to get used to hearing Japanese words and to tap into a bit of pop culture.

As of now, I still can’t understand the majority of what is being sung, but I still find it fun to listen to.

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 Shows

With so much anime out in the world, I’m sure you can find one you like! I’m not the biggest anime watcher, but I have enjoyed some of the popular shows like Demon Slayer (Kimetsu no Yaiba) and Death Note.

Subtitles are still super necessary for me, but I watching has been good or my listening. Additionally, the story lines are entertaining, and it’s another fun way to learn about Japan culture/ pop culture.

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

In the US I watched shows off of Netflix, Crunchyroll, and VRV. (In Japan however, the Netflix offerings are different, not all the shows have English subtitles, and many streaming sites don’t work.) GoGoAnime has been usable so far though.

In my life: I watch anime on days when I feel lazy 😂.

Movies

I don’t watch a ton of movies (there never seems to be time!), but when I do I like to watch Japanese animation films. Again, I find it 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’m looking to unwind and relax with a just a bit of Japanese learning.

Japanese Friends & Locals

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

MeetUp if 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 practice this kind of communication if you have the opportunity.

And you can also adventure out into the world! Visiting restaurants, bars, and local events has given me the opportunity to meet and talk with people in my community.

This is strategy can be a little intimidating depending on your personality and with Covid-19 still going strong, I recommend placing it on the back burner.

Flash Card Resources

Kanji Flashcards (WaniKani)

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

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 flash card 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 along 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 ~$200? (It’s cheapest during the holiday season).

WaniKani

I figured that by spending this money I would be making a committed investment into myself and my studies. Right now I am on level 23/60 so lots more to go for me!

For those who like stats and graphs for extra motivation, you can see these too! Track your kanji progress relative to the JPLT, news sites, Japanese newspapers and more.

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

Update 8/2021: I have finally gotten in the habit of doing all my reviews in the morning and learning 5-10 new lessons a day. If I have a free moment throughout 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, but in my mind, slow and steady is the key. I just got to level 28!

Additional Flashcards (Anki)

Two flash card 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

By downloading decks specifically for the Genki Textbooks or the JPLT, I’ve been able to quickly learn a little vocabulary each day. If you really don’t want to spend the money on WaniKani, you can get by almost as well with Anki decks.

In my life: I do Anki reviews every morning after my WaniKani reviews. I have finished the Genki 1&2 Vocab decks and am now working my way through JPLT Vocabulary.

I also created decks for the new intermediate textbook I started and for other vocab I pick up from outside life and readings.

By learning vocab through a variety of sources (Anki, WaniKani, my textbook, and JapanesePod101) I get lots of practice and am able to learn and remember words faster.

Japanese Reading Resources

Japanese Graded Readers (Tadoku)

These books by Tadoku are written explicitly for different levels of proficiency. Since they are catered to each reading level, it is easy to enjoy and learn from these books. (This feeling of success is super important as it is a great motivator to keep on learning!)

Level 2 (初級後半, second half of beginner) graded readers are a suitable level if you are midway through Genki 2.

These books can only really be bought in bundles and they are pretty expensive. Luckily, there are some free books online that you can read first to check your level and see if it’s something you like. After finishing Genki 1&2, I feel ready to move on to the Level 3 books.

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. When I come across words I don’t know, I make Anki flashcards.

Manga

Manga can be a little tricky as a beginner since the kanji, vocab, and grammar are surprisingly complex. To start easy, I have been reading a very simple manga called Yotsuba.

NHK News Web Easy

NHK News Web Easy is a site made for foreigners that contains Japanese news written in simplified Japanese. I had tried reading a few articles a while back, but at the time it was a bit overwhelming.

NHK New Web Easy

Now that I’ve finished both Genki Textbooks and am in the high level 20’s of Wanikani, I feel much more prepared to understand the content.

In addition to the simplified Japanese, the articles are color coded to help you distinguish between the names of locations, people, companies, etc, and have a built in dictionary (in Japanese) to define difficult words.

NHK New Web Easy Color Coding
Color coding legend for news article

To challenge yourself, there is the option to toggle off furigana readings, and 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.

Japanese Textbook Resources

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

Genki Textbooks- Beginner

The Genki Books 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. They 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 beginning points of Japanese quite well with these books.

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

中級へ行こう- Intermediate

After completing the Genki Textbooks, I am now on a pre-intermediate textbook called: 中級へ行こう (Let’s Go to Intermediate Level) .

中級へ行こう 日本語の文型と表現55 第2版: 9784883197286: Amazon.com: Books
Intermediate Textbook

The entire book is pretty much all in Japanese which was a little daunting at first. After starting the first chapters though though, I have been surprised to find that I can 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.

中級へ行こう Example Grammar
Example grammar

Where I can see the Genki books being relatively straightforward to self studying, I’m really glad to have more explanation and examples available from my Japanese teachers for the grammar points in this textbook.

Kanji Book

If you want a textbook for studying kanji, Basic Kanji Book is a great place to start! This book is similar to WaniKani in the way 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. Additionally, there are small boxes to practice writing.

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 using these translation apps much more useful, and is one of the big reasons why I looked into getting a data SIM.

DeepL

This has been the most accurate and reliable translator I have used so far. It works similarly to Google Translate, but provides more natural translations. I wish they included furigana for the kanji though.

There is no camera feature so you need to type or copy and paste the text you want translated.

Deep L Translator
Deep L Translator

Google Translate

While I sometimes get really funky translations from Google Translate, I have still found find myself using it quite often (though I always take the translations with a grain of salt.)

Google Translate Best Features
Google Translate features

There are my two favorite features on Google Translate:

  1. Translation through the camera. In the app, you can use your camera to point at Japanese text and have it translated live. While this feature don’t work great on handwritten or artistic fonts, it has come in handy when I have wanted to translate parts of menus, on screen instructions, signs, etc. You can also import images and have the detected text translated. Importing often leads to better translations (as long as the image is clear), but this takes a few more steps.
  2. Write Kanji –> Turns to Text Character. Sometimes I just want to know what a simple kanji word is. Using the drawing feature, I can copy the kanji as best as possible and Google Translate will show a list of related kanji. After choosing the correct kanji characters, I can see the Google Translation or input it into DeepL or Jisho.org (next on the list) for an alternative translation.

In my life: Google Translate is handy for getting the general gist of any Japanese text (on menus, notices, signs, etc).

Jisho.org

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

jisho.org

It does a good job of breaking words down into their subsequent kanji characters, providing many definition variations, and also has the handy draw-to-text feature like Google Translate.

jisho.org example

Final Thoughts

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

If you have any questions please let me know! Until then, 頑張ります, we are in this together!


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

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