How to Guide: Learn Japanese

I moved to Japan in 1999 with 2 years of high school Spanish and a slim assortment of Japanese words in my linguistic back pocket:

bonsai (the little trees)
Kobe (because of the 1994 earthquake, it was on the news)
Mt. Fuji
ohayo “good morning” (the US state named “Ohio” made this one stick. Linguistically, the term for words sounding similar from two different languages is “false friend.” In case you wondered…)

Of that list, the ones in bold were actually useful for everyday living. I was not, however, limited to those iconic words. There were also the following:


A roll call of the planet’s largest and best recognized Japanese companies. And extremely handy for vehicle, appliance, gadget, dinnerware and pearl shopping expeditions.

Needless to say, in my tenure here, I’ve acquired and learned (there is a difference) an abundance of Japanese since the “early days.” I can understand and make myself understood in most situations. I order pizza and ask the post office to deliver my packages over the phone. I do my business at the bank, the city hall and tax office. I give directions to taxi drivers, and ask station masters for assistance. I drive a car and get where I want to go within a reasonable timeframe. All in all, the years of blood, sweat and tears are paying off. I’m a far cry from where I began on that cold January afternoon after stepping off the plane, walking under Narita International Airport’s “Welcome to Japan” sign and having my passport stamped for the first time.

I’ve given impromptu as well as meticulously planned “survival/crash course Japanese” lessons. I’ve conducted innumerable cross-cultural training sessions; many designed explicitly for troupes of green faced “fresh off the boaters.” I also occasionally receive requests for tips, tricks and resources to learning one of the world’s harder tongues. As expected, I’ve amassed a broad collection of “learn Japanese” resources- both old and new.

The resources below range from basic travel communications tools to study aids for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) to language tutors and beyond. While not exhaustive, there’s plenty here to explore. The selections appeal to the full spectrum of skill levels, learning styles and preferences. The prices are from 0¥ to 40,000¥ (0-400.00 USD) leaning heavily towards the “free” category.

If you have any preferred resources, in either the following categories or new ones, please share in the comments below.

¥¥¥¥     Let’s Learn Japanese Picture Dictionary for Kids Hardback. 1,500 basic words.
¥¥¥¥     Learning Kanji Through Stories I & II Paperback. 300+ characters.
¥¥¥¥     Kanji Power a Workbook for Mastering Japanese Paperback. 240 characters
¥¥¥¥     TextFugu Online textbook designed for self-study.
¥¥¥¥     Hacking Japanese Super Course A “how to learn” tool.

¥¥¥¥     Tap & Say Free lite version. Good for travel and the basics.
¥¥¥¥     Human Japanese Free lite version. Good for self-directed learning.
¥¥¥¥     Japanese Sensei Paid. Good for self-directed learning.
¥¥¥¥     Imiwa? Free. Dictionary.
¥¥¥¥     Midori Paid. Dictionary.
¥¥¥¥     Klik Free. Vocabulary builder.
¥¥¥¥     Fundamental Japanese Free lite version. Vocabulary builder with English alphabet.
¥¥¥¥     Google Translate Mobile Free.
¥¥¥¥     StickyStudy Paid. Character recognition builder.
¥¥¥¥     iKana Paid. Character recognition builder.
¥¥¥¥     KatakanaSB! Free. Character recognition builder.
¥¥¥¥     JpVerbs! Free. Ultra simple word a day.
¥¥¥¥     JLPT study Free. Study aid for JLPT L1-5
¥¥¥¥     Memrise Free. Study aid for JLPT L1-5

¥¥¥¥     Cooori Free trial + paid subscription.
¥¥¥¥     LiveMocha Free. Strong social learning community.
¥¥¥¥     Lingualift Free trial + paid subscription.
¥¥¥¥     iKnow Free trial + paid subscription.
¥¥¥¥     Anki Free. Open source customizable memory aid. Mobile & desktop apps available.
¥¥¥¥     Japanese Pod 101 Free. Multimedia including a podcast.
¥¥¥¥     Japanese Lingq Free trial. Build listening skills.
¥¥¥¥     CafeTalk Online lessons with live tutors. Some free lessons. Paid point system.
¥¥¥¥ Paid. Online lessons with live tutors.
¥¥¥¥     News in Slow Japanese Free + paid membership. Builds listening skills.

¥¥¥¥     BBC Languages Free. Useful for travelers and students of culture.
¥¥¥¥     NHK Japan World. Free. NHK is Japan’s national news agency.
¥¥¥¥     Learning Lab by The Japan News Free. Useful for developing reading skills.
¥¥¥¥    Study by Gaijinpot Free. Miscellaneous cultural and language info.

¥¥¥¥     One Minute Japanese a 10 lesson course.
¥¥¥¥     Learn Japanese POD a 10 episode course.
¥¥¥¥     Bite Size Japanese Great for travel.
¥¥¥¥ Anime fans will appreciate this.
¥¥¥¥     Japanese- Survival Phrases a 15 episode course.
¥¥¥¥     JLPT Boot Camp Study aid for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test L1-5

¥¥¥¥     Pimsluer Free trial. Paid. Audio + mobile app
¥¥¥¥     Rosettastone. Free trial. Paid. Multimedia.
¥¥¥¥     Tofugu Free. Good resources and links.
¥¥¥¥     Craigslist Japan Free. Good for finding private tutors and used textbooks.
¥¥¥¥     Fluent in 3 Months Free. Good for learning characters.
¥¥¥¥     Lang-8 Free. Connect with native speakers. Good for writing skills.

¥¥¥¥    starts at free
¥¥¥¥    starts at 1,000¥/10.00USD
¥¥¥¥    starts at 5,000¥/50.00USD
¥¥¥¥    starts at 15,000¥/150.00USD


  1. Bec
    January 5, 2016

    I did a lot of private tuition. Like a lot and big $
    Id working in Chiba or Tsudaduma? and travel to Iidasashii in my break time… most days! For my lesson. Then studied at night. Haven’t lived there since 2005 and forget a bit but somethings I still think Japanese first. I would love to learn again but in Australia there aren’t too many opportunities. Books. I had them all. JlPT past books, current guides, dictionaries, flash cards, kanji cards. All books and cards for me and Id be writing it all down. I still have them all.

    • January 17, 2016

      You and Liz and Richard are some of my top language super heroes! I remember you three walking around with the zombie, “I just studied kanji for hours” look. Ha! Wish I had that degree of want when it comes to learning JP….

  2. F. Patrick Bonnesen
    March 29, 2016

    Hi Gracey:

    I was planning to take a language school in Fukuoka, but I need some pre-Japanese what would your suggestion be.

    My friend, Dave Bustin gave me this blog.

    Thank you for your time.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *