Studying Japanese while in Japan is a given, but it can be difficult to know where to start, or what to do when you hit a plateau. To help alleviate some of these problems the following is a collection of level-appropriate study tips and resources to help you at whatever stage you’re at. Everyone learns differently, so if you have any tips or resources to share (or questions about the resources below), contact the CIR PA.
Setting Your Goals
First, decide what you want to study and set some goals. Especially for beginners a solid foundation of grammar is really important, and if you want to reach the intermediate or advanced level, taking kanji seriously from the start will help you a lot in the long run.
There are many different benchmarks you could use: tests (JLPT, BJT, J-Test, J-Cat (a free online test offered for research purposes), Nihongo Kentei, Kanji Kentei, etc.), for business, your daily life, hobbies, etc. Once you have the basics down, you can tailor your studies to suit and achieve your goals.
At the beginner level, a class or private tutor is particularly helpful. Japanese is very different from English, and a teacher can help walk you through understanding these differences and make sure you properly learn the basics. Classes are available in various parts of the prefecture (try contacting SPIRA) as well as online. Don’t be afraid to ask your JTEs or other coworkers for help–you are surrounded by native speakers every day!
A few suggested texts are listed below:
- Beginner: Genki I + II, Japanese for Busy People, Minna no Nihongo, the JET Programme CLAIR Courses (you must sign up through your CO), TextFugu (online), Tae Kim’s Guide to Japanese (online).
- Intermediate: An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese, Tobira.
- Upper Intermediate: Authentic Japanese: Progressing from Intermediate to Advanced Japanese.
- All levels: The Dictionary of Japanese Grammar (Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced).
If you dig around the MIT website, you might find their Japanese course materials and information for free!
The Japanese Language Proficiency Test
The JLPT may not be the perfect test, but it provides a good progression from beginner to advanced, and passing it can be both a great personal goal as well as a good resume builder.
The content of Genki I is roughly equal to N5, Genki II to N4, and An Integrated Approach to N3. Around N3, JLPT-focused texts to be the most helpful. There is no shortage of texts available in Japanese book stores at reasonable prices. Spend some time browsing the texts in the store to decide which ones best fit your learning style.
Practice tests are good for all covered skills: vocabulary, kanji, grammar, reading and listening. One full-length test for all five levels is available for free on the official website. Some recommended study resources include:
- 日本語そうまとめ are split into different skills (reading, listening, etc)
- TRY! 日本語能力試験 series
- 耳から覚える for listening (and shadowing) grammar
- 直前対策 is a good resource for advanced levels, and is a great resource for practicing for the kanji/vocab/grammar section (which is given as one section on the N2 and N1 tests)
- JGram and Renshuu.org both have resources for grammar that appears on the JLPT, as well as example sentences and community-written explanations. Renshuu also has resources for vocabulary and kanji.
Business Japanese Test
The the BJT is much more business-focused than the JLPT.
There is only one written test and results are given as a grade (as opposed to JLPT’s five-level, pass-fail system). The content is pretty challenging, so it would probably be best attempted from the N2 level and after feeling comfortable with keigo.
Unfortunately there are very few resources for the BJT, but the official books are relatively helpful and are good practice for basic business reading and listening.
Keigo is important for pretty much any professional environment in Japan. It’s not the most fun aspect of the language to learn and most people are fine with letting it slide because it’s difficult to master or they simply don’t need it. However, understanding keigo can make daily life a little easier, and it’s nice to be able to show respect when you want to.
- Genki and An Integrated Approach both cover the basics of keigo. If you want a different approach, ちびまる子ちゃんの敬語教室 is a manga highly recommended on Amazon for children.
- 日本語敬語トレーニング is a good step up, though covering it with a tutor will help clear up a lot of confusion.
- そのまま使える敬語ハンドブック, 敬語すらすら, 敬語使いこなしパーフェクトマニュアル, etc. are keigo books aimed at native speakers. Japanese people struggle with keigo, too!
Kanji is really easy to overlook or ignore because there are just so many of them, and they don’t necessarily apply to reading. However, solid kanji recognition will not only make reading possible, it will make your daily life much easier.
- Remembering the Kanji is a book series meant to teach the meaning of all Joyo kanji and then some. Though it is recommended to start with zero kanji knowledge, it can help reinforce information you’ve already learned.
- Wanikani is a web-based subscription service (though unofficial apps do exist) which uses SRS to teach you kanji based on frequency of usage. It does so by first teaching radicals, then kanji. Roughly the first 1600 most frequently used kanji are divided into 50 levels (with an expansion to 60 levels planned). This is another service that’s designed for those with zero kanji knowledge, though again it can’t hurt to review.
- Read the Kanji is another web-based subscription service
- Memrise.com has many different kanji lists and uses an SRS system
- Anki is similar to Memrise but doesn’t have a time limit associted with it.
- Apps and games: There are a lot of kanji-focused apps and DS games designed for Japanese children to learn kanji
Hannah’s (Saga Prefecture CIR PA) sample Anki setup:
The card displays both the reading and the meaning. Write the answer on a piece of paper…
…then check it. After writing it 10 times, select how difficult it was to recall the kanji (this affects how long efore the next review).
Vocabulary is difficult to find the motivation to study, but in reality one of the more important skills. Without a large vocabulary, you can’t even breach the four essential language skills. Grammar can be understood with reason and there are a limited number of grammar points, and there is a limit to how many kanji you can learn. However vocabulary is (seemingly) limitless!
- Anki: Very customizable and the tried-and-true option for SRS vocabulary building.
- Memrise: Anki is customizable, but can be a little daunting for new users. Memrise makes up for more limited customization with an easy-to-use design and points system.
- Wanikani: teaches you vocabulary based on the kanji you are learning.
Speaking and Listening
Speaking and listening are both fun skills to work on if you have Japanese friends or enjoy chatting with your coworkers, but not everyone has someone they can talk with every day.
There are a variety of shadowing textbooks available, and mimicking any dialogues on other learning CDs is great practice too! Japanese Pod 101 is also very popular, especially at the intermediate level, and has a lot of sales. Of course YouTube has plenty of resources for free.
What do you do if you don’t know a word? There are plenty of paper dictionaries available, though they are quickly becoming obsolete in the face of new, intelligent smartphone dictionaries.
- Jisho.org is very useful for most vocab up to post-N1. The beta version has more predictive features!
- ALC also has a great database.
- Jim Breen’s dictionary is also very popular and in depth, but tricky to use
- Electronic dictionaries are usually aimed at Japanese learners of English, but they work both ways! They aren’t cheap and come in a wide variety of styles and target audiences, so definitely research before buying.
- Nintendo DS: 漢字そのまま is a game that turns your DS into an electronic dictionary. It’s not as professional looking, but more affordable if you already have a Japanese DS.
- Weblio: A Japanese dictionary service. It usually gets the job done when jisho.org can’t.
- Linguee: Searches a data base of professionally translated texts to see how a given word has been dealt with in a variety of situations. This is recommended for very specialized terms.
- iPhone apps such as Japanese and Imiwa are great for a quick lookup. Japanese has tons of built-in lists (which organize words by lexical category, topic, JLPT level, etc), and you can make your own for SRS study.
When all else fails, reverse search! Often Japanese people will be confused by the exact same word. Type in the word or phrase in Japanese plus 英語 and there will likely be plenty of question and answer pages. I find chiebukuro on Yahoo often pops up with great explanations! Another great option is Weblio.
Nontraditional Resources and Study Methods
And there are plenty of other textbooks and non-traditional study methods, too!
Tackling a “real” book or newspaper article can really build your confidence.
There are graded readers and children’s newspaper articles available online for the lower levels (check out NHK News Easy), and from N3 or N2 you can definitely start to tackle simpler novels. Romance stories are not everyone’s cup of tea, but they usually deal with very easy-to-understand topics and use every day vocabulary.
The 英語で話すseries places an English translation next to original Japanese text, and covers a lot of different topics. Careful, though: quality may differ by the book.
Playing video games in Japanese is another great way to get some practice. Playstation systems aren’t region-locked, and you can pick up some cheap games at Book Off.
From N1, you can pretty much explore anything you want. The newspaper is a great place to start, and will give you something to talk about with coworkers. If you want to start with a structured approach to reading and listening to the news, I recommend ニュースの日本語 聴解50. Asahi Shinbum’s famous 天声人語 can be accessed for free the day it is published. Many students may even be asked to read this.
Karaoke helps build reading and speaking skills, and has the added benefit of not feeling like you’re studying. Also try shadowing. You can either use special shadowing textbooks, or just use anything for which you have both a (native) recording and a script.
TV is great for improving your listening! Difficulty and usability vary depending on what you watch, but variety/talk shows are good for simpler topics, and the news is good for a challenge. NHK’s asadora (morning dramas) run for months at a time, and episodes are fairly easy to digest at only 15 minutes.
If you’re into anime or dramas they can surely help too, as long as you’re careful what you watch. For example, shows like Dragon Ball and Sazae-san can be easy to understand, but Shingeki no Kyojin has so much specialized vocab and screaming that things get complicated. You can often find many episode on YouTube. Note that you should not take cues from anime characters on how to speak Japanese in everyday life (it may not end well).
Bobby Judo, a local TV personality, recommends watching English-language movies with Japanese subtitles. You can compare the subs to the dialogue and get a good feel of how common English phrases would be translated into Japanese.
- For writing practice, lang-8 is great. You can get native feedback on writing, though there is an incentive system which encourages you to correct entries in your native language.
- Kumon offers two Japanese courses: one for foreign learners (which can be taken at their centers or as a correspondence course) and a kokugo course aimed at Japanese kids. It’s not a common method, but works for some people.
Simply getting involved can help you improve and stay motivated!
Find friends with common interests so your studying doesn’t feel like studying. Talk to coworkers and people you see often, don’t be shy! Often, just making an effort will be appreciated. Don’t allow yourself to be trapped inside a bubble. It can be challenging, but once you start making connections it will really pay off.
Learning a new language is something with no foreseeable end, so don’t treat it like a task to get over with. Set short-term goals that will directly improve your quality of life and you will find you enjoy your time in Japan much more.