How to Learn Japanese for Beginners
In this guide, you’ll find all of the resources you need to go from a beginner to a low-intermediate level of Japanese.
While this guide is for beginners, it assumes you already know the basic fundamentals of Japanese. If this is your first time learning Japanese, check out our getting started guide: How to Learn Japanese: A Complete Guide for Absolute Beginners
Beginning Japanese Course : Skills Needed
At this level, you should know
- Japanese Pronunciation
- How to Read and Write Hiragana
- 100 – 300 Vocabulary Words
- Simple Grammar (my name is, I like, etc.)
- How to Do a Self-Introduction in Japanese
What You’ll Learn in This Guide
- How to Read & Write Katakana
- How to Learn More Vocabulary Words (at least 500 new words)
- How to Practice Reading Japanese
- More Grammar Patterns
- The Fastest Way to Learn Japanese
- Numbers (1 – 10,000 and above)
- Introduction to Kanji
Step 1: Learning Katakana
By now, you should be able to read and write all of the hiragana characters. Now it’s time to learn katakana, another one of Japan’s writing systems.
The good news is that the characters aren’t hard to learn. Just like hiragana, each katakana character represents one syllable in Japanese.
Part I: A Quick Overview of Katakana
You might be thinking to yourself, “why do they have two writing systems to express the same alphabet (syllables)?”
Basically, hiragana is used to express Japanese words. Either words that are natively Japanese, or words that have integrated into the Japanese language. Hiragana is also used in combination with kanji (Chinese characters) to express different words and ideas in Japanese.
Katakana is mainly used to express foreign loan words. This also includes non-Japanese names. So if your name isn’t Japanese, it will be written in katakana.
Foreign loan words are almost always written in katakana. For example, “pan” is the word for bread. “Pan” came from the Portuguese language. Since it is not a native Japanese word, it is written in katakana (パン).
The good thing about foreign loan words is that many of them should sound very familiar to you. In fact, you probably already know hundreds of words in Japanese, because many of them come from English.
Check out a few examples:
- チーズ (chi-zu): Cheese
- コーヒー (ko-hi-): Coffee
- ノートブック(notobukku): Notebook
- プレッシャー (puressha): Pressure (psychological pressure)
If you ever visit Japan, knowing how to read and write katakana can be very helpful. Many hotels in Japan have “foreign” names, so they will be written in katakana (even the word “hotel” is written in katakana – ホテル). If you ever get lost in Japan, you can write the name of your hotel in katakana and show it to a taxi or train station employee.
Part II: Complete the Katakana Course
Here is a free katakana course that will teach you how to read and write each character. Be sure to follow all of the steps for the reading, writing, and typing lessons.
How to Read and Write Katakana Video Lesson
If you would like to see how the katakana characters are written and how they are pronounced, check out this video. It’s the perfect resource to use with the katakana course above. With both of these resources, you should be able to learn all of the katakana characters in a few days.
How to Learn Katakana
Just like with hiragana, you should practice writing each character. Writing helps you to learn faster with a deeper level of understanding than if just read each character.
Writing katakana is an art form. The way you write the character is important. So be sure to follow the correct stroke order. If you can afford to get a katakana book, that is a great way to learn. However, the free course listed above is pretty good as well.
You’ll also be using katakana a lot as you study more advanced Japanese, so you should take the time to master it now.
Be sure to write out each character several times. Repetition is your best friend when learning katakana. Making flash cards is a great way to learn katakana.
Here are some katakana sheets you can use to practice writing. Print them out and you’ll have all you’ll need to learn how to write the characters.
Katakana Writing Practice
Step 2: Increasing Your Vocabulary
If you completed our absolute beginner guide, you should know at least 100 vocabulary words in Japanese. We want to take that to the next level and remember at least 500 more.
In addition to learning nouns, it’s time to learn adjectives (descriptive words like big, small, blue, pretty, etc.).
Learning adjectives will allow to express your feelings and opinions, as well as being able to describe things and situations. Knowing how to describe things will make speaking Japanese much more fun and free. Here are some awesome free resources to learn adjectives in Japanese.
Part I: How to Use Adjectives in Japanese
This guide will teach you how to conjugate and use adjectives in Japanese sentences.
Part II: List of Useful Japanese Adjectives
After completing the lesson above, check out this list of adjectives from Coscom below. All of the adjectives on this list are used often in daily conversations, so be sure to learn them all.
Part III: Video Lesson on Japanese Adjectives
After you finish studying the material in part I & II, check out this video lesson. It will help you to understand the material much better. You’ll also learn how to use adjectives in sentences.
Part IV: Other Vocabulary Words
In addition to adjectives, you should learn other vocabulary words as well. I highly recommend you remember words that are interesting to you. Study words that are related to your hobbies or things you are interested in. A good place to find a lot of words to study that are organized into categories is the vocabulary list page on Japanesepod101.
Just memorizing a list of words can be useful for learning Japanese, but let’s face it…that’s boring as heck. So instead of just memorizing endless lists of vocabulary, let’s take a look at another way to learn Japanese words and grammar.
Step 3: A Great Way to Learn Japanese
An awesome way to learn new vocabulary words, grammar, and natural Japanese is through context. This means you’ll learn natural Japanese by using real-life materials. This way of studying is common sense and has been done for years, but few people actually do it. . Learning through context by reading works really, really well.
Not only do you get to see how Japanese is used naturally, but learning through context allows you to study things that you are interested in. Instead of forcing yourself to remember a list of random words, you can read a blog about something you love and pick up new words from that.
When you read real-world material like Japanese books, magazines, or blogs, you do more than just learn new words and grammar. You also learn something even more important that very few textbooks teach. You learn nuance. You’ll gain a deeper understanding of what a word or expression means, and learn how to use it correctly.
Learning Through Context: What You’ll Need
Make sure you have a good dictionary at hand so you can look up any words you don’t know. If you have a smart device, I highly recommend the app, “Japanese by Renzo.” It’s the best Japanese dictionary app I have used, and as of this writing, its free!
After you look up the meaning of a word, write it down in a notebook or make flashcards so you can review them later.
This method of study also works with music, tv shows, or movies. You can listen to songs and study the lyrics. Watching TV or movies are actually one of the best ways to learn Japanese on your own. Not only do you get to hear natural Japanese being spoken, but you can to see the gestures and expressions of the actors.
I really loved watching and studying crazy Japanese shows like “Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai” and other variety shows. There’s quite of bit of slang used (especially kansai-ben, a dialect of Japanese spoken in the Kansai region of Japan that is used by many comedians), but I learned a lot by watching these shows and actually studying them.
If you have a Netflix subscription, there’s a lot of Japanese shows you can watch. If you don’t, YouTube has tons of Japanese TV shows you can watch and study.
What to Read: Free Japanese Stories
Unfortunately, it’s hard to find topics you’re interested in at this level of Japanese. However, here are some resources that are great for practicing reading while keeping things interesting.
Unlimited Japanese Study Material: The Power of the Internet
I’ve said this many times in my articles about learning Japanese. Reading blogs or articles about things you love is not only an awesome way to learn Japanese, but it’s also free! And you can find pretty much anything with just a Google search.
The only problem is that most blogs or Japanese websites use lots of kanji and more advanced grammar patterns.
However, this doesn’t mean you need to wait until your Japanese reaches an advanced level. You can go ahead and get started now. If you use a laptop or desktop computer, you have the ability to read almost any material in Japanese right now.
You’ll need to install an add-on to either Google Chrome or Modzilla Firefox.
This is super useful add-on. All you need to do is hover you mouse pointer over a kanji character or word, and it will give you the reading and definition of it. This makes reading any Japanese page online much, much easier.
Try it out and you’ll be able to read and study material in Japanese that is at a more advanced level.
Another great way to read multiple sentences or even paragraphs of Japanese is by using the text glossing feature on the famous “Jim Breen’s Japanese Page.”
All you need to do is copy and paste words, sentences, or even paragraphs of Japanese in the text box. It will translate all of the kanji compounds and most of the words into English. It’s great for when you want to have all of the translations on one page.
Step 4: Learn More Grammar
In our absolute beginner guide, you should have completed the first 24 lessons on the NHK World Website . For this guide, you will continue where you left off, and finish the remaining 24 lessons.
After completing all of the lessons, you’ll have a good foundation of the basics of Japanese grammar.
Complete all 48 Japanese Lessons Here: NHK World Japanese Lessons
*Note: While you’ll know some useful Japanese grammar from the NHK website, it does not teach things in a systematic, organized way. They concentrate more on useful Japanese that you’ll probably use as a foreigner in Japan. These lessons are great, but they leave a lot of holes by not covering many grammar patterns at a beginning to low-intermediate level of Japanese.
That’s why I recommend getting a book to supplement your lessons, or better yet, check out the audio and video lessons at Japanesepod101. They are the some of the best lessons out there, and the best part is that a lot of them are completely FREE! You just need to sign up with an e-mail address. When you do, you’ll have access to the first 3 lessons of EVERY section on their website. There are dozens of sections, which means you’ll have free access to hundreds of lessons.
If you can afford it, I recommend using one good book and a premium membership at Japanesepod101. These two things alone is all you need to reach an advanced level of Japanese.
Step 5: Unlocking the Most Powerful Way to Learn Japanese
You now have enough knowledge of Japanese grammar, vocabulary words, and expression to have very short conversations. Even though you can’t express a lot of what you want to say yet, you should start speaking.
Speaking is the best and fastest way to improve your Japanese. No questions about it.
The more you speak, the better your Japanese will become. It is that simple.
Now I know speaking is scary. We fear making mistakes and just don’t like being nervous. But if you want to super charge your Japanese, you must practice speaking.
Speaking will put all of the random pieces of Japanese you learned together, turning it into a beautiful picture. You’ll not only learn new words, expressions, and nuances from speaking, but you’ll also learn how to USE what you know. You’ll see how everything fits together, and you’ll gain a deeper understanding of how Japanese works. You’ll also be training your mouth and facial muscles to pronounce Japanese clearly and smoothly. Speaking is just the best way to learn Japanese, period.
There are two drawbacks to this though:
- It costs money or time to find someone to speak with
- It can be nerve-racking to speak to someone in Japanese
Drawback # 1
You have to find a good person to speak Japanese with. By this I mean someone who can speak at your level, and also explain things to you to make things clear. Basically, you want a Japanese teacher. If you can afford it, I highly, highly recommend you hiring a Japanese teacher for private lessons online. It’s fast and easy to find a good teacher, and the prices aren’t that bad. You’ll probably learn more Japanese in a few private lessons than weeks or months of studying a textbook or taking classes at school.
Another option would be to hire a private tutor instead of a certified teacher. Some tutors can be just as good as professional teachers. The great thing about this is that tutors are usually much cheaper to hire than a certified teacher. Some tutors can even teach group lessons. So if you have friends who want to learn Japanese, you can all split the cost to make things even cheaper.
Where to Find Teachers/Tutors Online
If you don’t want to hire someone, you can go on Japanese friend sites to find people to speak with. Unfortunately, many sites also cost money, and it takes a lot of time to find someone cool that you click with. It’s actually very difficult to make friends on sites like these. First of all, there’s lots of competition (especially if it’s a cute girl or guy) for making friends with someone. Second, even if you find someone to communicate with, it’s very rare that you’ll find someone who can actually teach you Japanese.
In my opinion, it’s not worth the time, money, and effort. If you want to make friends, then go for it. But if you want to learn Japanese, hire a teacher or tutor instead.
Other ways to find Japanese speakers for free:
- Creating a language group on Facebook or Meetup.com
- Going to your local university/college to see if they have a Japanese club
- Finding and volunteering for Japanese events near you
If you want more details on how to meet Japanese people, we’ll be publishing a guide on that soon.
Speaking with a stranger is scary, especially when it’s in another language. It’s just something you have to do. However there are a few ways to can improve your Japanese without speaking to someone.
Even speaking to yourself can improve your Japanese. Check out our guide here: How to Practice Speaking Japanese by Yourself
Eventually though, you’ll want to speak to other people. You just can’t beat having real conversations with people.
If you still feel shy about talking to people, check out our “How to Speak Japanese if You’re Shy” guide.
Step 6: All About Numbers
It’s time to learn numbers in Japanese. There’s some good news and some bad news.
The bad news first. Just like with the multiple writing systems, there are different ways to count in Japanese as well. For example, the number 1 can be expressed in a few ways: ichi, hitosu, tsuitachi (for the first day of the month), etc.
There are also a special words (counters) you use to count objects. If you are counting long, slim objects like pencils, you would use the counter “hon.” If you are counting small animals, you would use the counter “hiki,” and so on.
The Good News
The number system in Japanese is much more systemized that in English. This makes it easier to learn.
For example, the basic way to say “1” in Japaese is “ichi.” The way to say ten is “juu.” Do you know what the word for “11” is? If you said “juu-ichi,” you would be absolutely correct. 11 = 10(juu) + 1(ichi).
The one tricky thing about Japanese numbers is that larger numbers are grouped in units of 10,000 (pronounced “man” in Japanese). In America, we use 1,000 as a unit.
For example, the number 100,000 is many English speaking countries would be read as “one-hundred thousand.”
In Japan, 100,000 would be read as “juu-man,” or literally “10 ten-thousands.”
How to Learn Numbers in Japanese
You can learn how to count in Japanese using our guide here: Learning Numbers in Japanese Guide
Read and study the Japanese number page and learn how to count to 10,000 (or higher) in Japanese.
In addition to learning the basic numbers in Japanese, you also need to learn the “kun,” or Japanese reading of numbers (hitotsu, futatsu, mitsu, etc.). This way of counting is very, very useful if you ever go to Japan. There is a chart listing all of these numbers and video lesson in our guide mentioned above, so be sure master this way of counting.
As mentioned earlier, counting objects in Japanese requires that you use special counters along with the number. This counter word changes depending on the type of object you are counting.
For example, for thin, flat objects (like paper, cards,etc.) the counter is “mai.” The way to count one piece of paper would be “ichi mai” two pieces would be “ni mai” and so on.
That’s why using the kun, or “tsu” way of reading numbers are so great. You can use them without knowing any other specific counters.
For example, if you go to a restaurant and want 3 hamburgers, 2 salads, and a coke, you could just use these numbers to order them (ハンバーガーみっつ hanbaagaa mittsu, サラダふたつ – sarada futatsu, コーラひとつ – ko-ra hitotsu).
The only drawback is that these numbers only go up to 10. However, in my many years living in Japan, I never once ordered 10 items of anything in a restaurant, store, or buying tickets. Unless you have a big appetite and eat more than 10 hamburgers at a time, you’ll probably be just fine getting around in Japan knowing these numbers.
Check out this video to learn about these numbers:
Step 7: Learning Kanji
By step 6 of this guide, you should already know how to read and write both hiragana and katakana. You should also have a solid foundation of basic grammar and vocabulary words.
It’s now time to get your feet wet in the big ocean of kanji. Kanji, or Chinese characters is something that is both exciting, and extremely frustrating. Unlike the English alphabet with 26 characters, there are thousands of kanji characters. You’ll need to learn around 2,000 characters just to be able to read at a high school level. To make this worse, most characters have several different ways to read it. Talk about a challenge!
As students of Japanese, learning thousands of different characters seems almost impossible. But believe me, it’s not. It will take time, and lots of it. But once you start learning kanji, you’ll see that it’s not bad at all.
There are so many different ways to learn kanij, but I highly recommend the book “Remembering the Kanij” by James Heisig.
This books teaches you how to write and remember the meaning of each kanji. It does not teach you the Japanese readings at all. It breaks the kanji down into similar parts, and then groups the together to make memorizing them easier.
I really like this method because I feel that traditional methods make remembering kanji difficult. With traditional study methods, you learn everything at once. You learn the meaning of the kanji as well as how to read and write it. Trying to remember all of this at once overloads yoru brain. I could never remember the characters I studied for more than a week.
The Heisig method allows you to concentrate on just the meaning of the kanji, and how to write them. The system he has for remember the meanings of the kanji is probably the best method out there.
If you want to know in detail why I like this method the best, check out the “Best Way to Learn Kanji” guide.
Before you dive head first into that book, I recommend you go through a free online kanji course first.
How to Learn the Basics of Kanij for Free
Part I: An Introduction to Kanji
Before you begin with the kanji course, read this article to learn the basics: Introduction to Kanji
Part II: Complete the Kanji Course for Beginners
After you’ve finished reading the introduction to kanji above, it’s time to get right into it. Let’s learn how to read and write some basic characters. As always, be sure to practice writing each character to help you remember it better and quicker. Complete all 8 parts of this course and you’ll have a good basic knowledge of kanji.
Learning Basic Kanji: Beginning Kanji Course
**Note: The table of contents for this beginning kanji course shows 13 parts (lessons). However, as of this writing, there are only 8 kanji lessons and 3 drills. This is fine. Just complete all 8 lessons and you’ll have a good knowledge of what kanji is and how it works. Do the drills if you can, but many people have trouble getting it to work. If you can’t get the drills to open, don’t worry. Focus on learning all the material from the 8 lessons and you won’t have to complete the drills.
Step 7: Resources to Use
Here are resources for learning Japanese that will help you on your journey
You need a dictionary to look up new words that you hear and read. You could use a real dictionary, but electronic versions are much better.
For Smart Devices (iPhone, iPad, etc.):
Japanese by Renzo App – This is the best dictionary app I have used. I still use it all the time. You can search for kanji and make flash cards to study too. The best part? It’s absolutely free! But get it soon…it used to be a paid app and it’s possible that it will be that way again so get it for free while you can.
- Jim Breen WWWJDIC Page: This website is all you need. You can search for words in both English and Japanese, or use the text glossing feature to translate paragraphs of Japanese at a time.
- Rikaichan for Modzilla Firefox: This add-on makes reading websites in Japanese a breeze. This is the perfect tool when reading and studying blogs or articles in Japanese.
- Rikaikun for Google Chrome: Same add-on as above but for Google Chrome
2. Flashcard Programs for Studying
Anki: This is a very simple flashcard app, but it’s very effective for learning Japanese. There’s tons of pre-made flashcards with Japanese vocabulary, grammar, and kanji you can download.
The desktop version is free, but the app costs money.
If you’re like me and use public transportation to get around, the app is perfect for studyign on your commute. The one big negative about the app version is that you can’t create flashcards from the app. You need to either download pre-made flashcards or use a desktop computer.
3. Japanese Audio & Video Lessons
Japanesepod101: My favorite way to study Japanese. There’s an amazing amount of material on their website, ranging from complete beginners to advanced. If you could only choose one way to study Japanese, this would be the best choice.
There’s a ton of free lessons available, but getting a premium membership to access all of the material is the way to go. Check out my Japanesepod101 review to see all of the pros and cons of the program.
4. A Good Notebook
While there are apps for taking notes, I actually prefer the real thing. Taking notes and writing things down will help you remember things much, much better. This will make it easy to review all of the material you studied as well.
5. A Good Japanese Book (Just One!)
You don’t need 10 different books at this level. One good book is all you need. Check out our list for the best books for beginners. However, if you use the lessons on Japanesepod101, you probably don’t need a book at all.
6. A Good Japanese Teacher/Tutor
Yes, you can learn Japanese completely on your own. However, if you can afford private lessons from an online teacher or tutor, you’ll learn Japanese much, much faster. If can’t afford it, don’t worry! Master the lessons in this guide and remember have fun! Listen to Japanese music or watch Japanese movies and TV shows. Read blogs or websites in Japanese that interest you. Just doing these things can really improve your Japanese a lot! If you’re interested in finding an online teacher or tutor, I recommend either italki or Verbling.
For More Resources
What Should You Do Next?
If you finished all of the steps in this guide, congratulations! You’re now at a low-intermediate level of Japanese.
At this level, speaking should be your biggest priority. If you don’t have any opportunities to speak with someone, concentrate on reading. In addition to this, keep learning more vocabulary and grammar skills. One of the best resources for learning grammar at this level is Tae Kim’s Japanese Guide.
If you would like me to create another guide to learn Japanese for low-intermediate level students, please contact me or leave a comment below. If I get enough requests for another learning Japanese guide I’ll be sure to create one for you guys! Thanks and have fun learning Japanese!