Recently I’ve been a bit slack with posting regularly. The reason for this is that I decided to devote some time to studying Japanese. Despite having lived here for more than five years my language skills are laughably poor so I wanted to take some steps towards remedying this.

Yes, I suck at studying Japanese, but you don’t have to!

Studying Alone

One reason why I’m no good at Japanese is because I haven’t had many real lessons. When I arrived in the land of the rising sun I mumbled keywords from a tatty phrasebook. Once I’d settled, I found a private tutor but couldn’t commit to the lessons. A year or so later I tried attending a study group taught mostly by local volunteers. I stayed a bit longer with this group but found the commute tiring and ultimately became noncommittal.

Of course these are all terrible excuses and I know others who have flourished in these learning environments. Nevertheless they didn’t worked for me so I was forced into studying Japanese solo. I’m not especially good at studying by myself – I lack focus and commitment.

So in summary: I suck at going to lessons and I suck at studying alone. What a champ.

Apps and Books

Every now and then I go through a phase of “OK, time to really study” and I buy books and try new programs or smartphone apps. Here’s what I’ve used:


  • Japanese For Busy People – This was the first study aid I used. A CD accompanies the text and friendly pictures. I also liked that at the end of each section there is a short quiz to help review the chapter.
  • Genki – I didn’t use this too much but it was as highly recommended as the above.
  • Remembering The Kanji by James W. Heisig – I never finished this book but I still use the techniques it discusses to help me remember kanji characters.
  • Minna No Nihongo – This was the textbook used in my study group. It also comes with a CD and quiz sections.

Minna No Nihongo

Computer Programs

  • Rosetta Stone – Regarded as one of the best language learning programs, I tried it for a while in 2011. It’s  visually very appealing and turns language learning into an interactive game. It even uses voice recognition so one can practice a bit of speaking. Unfortunately it’s pretty expensive and the voice recognition is not a replacement for speaking with a real person.
  • Anki – This is a flashcard program in which you choose from a category (most commonly a language, but there are other subjects) and it will cycle through the cards while you read and absorb the info. This repetitive drilling approach can be very effective. It’s also free and has a smartphone app. The downside is it doesn’t evaluate accuracy or retention; that’s up to the user.


  • Memrise – This has been my recent go-to. It works similarly to Anki’s repetitive drilling, except it uses a variety of interactive games like Rosetta Stone. The courses are user-created. Rather than just studying “Japanese” one could choose to study “Beginner Japanese” or “JLPT N5 Kanji”. The main content is free and can be accessed via web browser as well. Another useful feature is the ability to set daily goals.
  • Kanji Study – I found this app after reading a review of it on Japanese Talk Online. It gives a lot of info for each character; pronunciations, meanings and even example sentences. It also has a writing practice element that gives you an animated guide to follow. You can practice using a flashcard system, a multiple choice quiz or a writing quiz. It’s geared towards studying for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. The lowest level (N5) is free but you have to pay for the rest. The price is pretty reasonable considering how many characters there are in the upper levels.
  • Obenkyo – This is app doesn’t have the polish of the two above, but it does contain a ton of material, completely free. As well as vocabulary, it has Kanji and their stroke order as well as some quizzes.
  • JLPT Practice/JLPT Prepare – There are various other apps out there that offer JLPT level-based quizzes similar but largely inferior to services like Memrise or DuoLingo (which sadly doesn’t offer Japanese). These can be useful, especially if one is looking to change things up.
Memrise's 3 free game modes: Learn New Words, Classic Review, and Speed Review
Memrise’s 3 free game modes: Learn New Words, Classic Review, and Speed Review

Japanese Language Proficiency Test

To give myself a bit of a kick in the rear I decided to apply for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). There are five levels (N5 – N1) with N5 being the easiest. There are sample tests online so I tried out the N5 and passed with almost 100%. I then tried the N4 sample and got close to 0%. So my choice was; go for the easy win or challenge myself to do better, to push on to greater things.

I opted for the easy win.

But after being berated by my friends I changed my mind. As I write this now, with the test nearly a week away, I’m brickin’ it.

Studying Japanese

As I desperately cram Kanji into my congested cranium I can only hope that my sinking ship of ineptitude will serve as warning to others on a similar voyage.

Understand how you learn best and do that. Some people work better alone, others like to have study buddies, while some of us need a firm hand to teach us and tell us what to do.

Be regular in your studies. It doesn’t have to be every day but it helps to establish a regular schedule. If you have a schedule then you have something to stick to, if you don’t then you’re just a spiralling leaf at the mercy of the winds of change.

Don’t be cheap when getting what you need. Sure, as the textbooks, workbooks, notebooks, and digital goods stack up so does the cost, but to get a job done a workman needs the right tools. Otherwise the shelf will just fall down and your mum will shout at you for breaking all her spice jars … and then you’ll never learn Japanese!

Are you studying Japanese? How’s it going? What resources do you use?

Best of luck to everyone who’s taking the upcoming JLPT. See you at the finish line (I hope) .


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