You might think learning Japanese is too difficult for you. That you’ll never get to read your favorite manga in its original language. Or that you’ll never get to grips with its pronunciation.
But you’re wrong (sorry to be blunt). Anyone can learn this language, so here are some of the best tips for learning Japanese.
How difficult is it to learn Japanese?
Japanese isn’t difficult to learn — despite its reputation. Let’s be clear, it isn’t easy to learn. It takes time and effort. But so do all languages. None of them are easy to learn.
Japanese isn’t more difficult than any other language. Sure, learning the English alphabet is easier than learning the Japanese writing systems. But Japanese pronunciation is way easier than English. When you see a Japanese word you know exactly how to pronounce it. None of the new, sew, or head, please nonsense from English.
Japanese isn’t easy to learn. But it isn’t any different from any other language — they all take time, effort, patience, and lots of practice and study to master.
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1. Say ‘no’ to romaji
When I first started learning Japanese way back in 2007, I got a golden piece of advice:
The textbook I had back then only had romaji — the Romanized spelling of Japanese words. My coworker told me to ditch that textbook. Sure, I could actually read it because my native language is English. It was familiar. I felt like I was reading. But it was mostly confusing.
Here’s why. Hiragana is the basic writing form of Japanese. It’s the first thing kids learn in school. And it gives you the keys to Japanese pronunciation. Hiragana (and katakana) are phonetic syllabaries — which is a fancy way of saying the characters represent sounds and are syllables.
Master hiragana and katakana, and you learn to read AND speak Japanese. Stick with your romaji-filled textbooks, you do neither.
When you’ve figured hiragana and katakana out, it’s time to learn basic kanji. Kanji is the third writing system consisting of 1,000s of Chinese characters. If you’re coming from a language like English with very few symbols, it’s daunting to think about kanji. But Japanese really starts to make sense when you understand some kanji.
2. Learn Japanese with manga
One of the best kinds of content for learning is manga — Japanese comics. Luckily for language learners, manga aimed at younger people often include furigana.
Furigana is a phonetic notation that shows you how to read a difficult character. Let’s say you come across a difficult kanji in a book. Without any assistance, finding out how to read the symbol can be complex (when I came across a symbol I didn’t know, I used to try and count how many strokes the kanji had and then looked it up in a kanji dictionary organized by stroke numbers — it took ages, obviously).
But in manga with furigana, there’ll be a little note above the symbol in hiragana or katakana that shows you how to read the symbol. This makes it easy to read and look up words quickly. So you can enjoy the comic as well as learn.
Here are three of the most suitable manga for learning Japanese:
Yotsuba& (よつばと). This comic is all about the daily life of a young child so the vocab and grammar are simple. And there’s furigana throughout to help you with difficult kanji.
ShiroKuma Cafe (しろくまカフェ). This comic is about a bunch of animals and humans who frequent a cafe run by a polar bear. It has furigana and a focus on daily life so there’s nothing too complicated in here.
Doraemon (ドラえもん). This comic is an institution in Japan. It started in the 60s and is still popular today. It’s all about a robot cat from the future and his friend Nobita. As with the other manga on this list, Doraemon has furigana to help you read kanji.
Reading is one of the best ways to learn a language. Japanese learners are lucky to have access to understandable reading resources or books on how to learn Japanese (finding suitable materials to read is a big challenge for language learners). You’ve got a whole world of content to choose from. So learn hiragana, katakana, and basic kanji. And enjoy some Japanese comics.
3. Go to Japan to learn Japanese
Japan is a great place to visit. It has a rich history and culture. It’s safe and clean. And there’s reasonably-priced, delicious food everywhere.
When it comes to tourist hot spots, Japan is unique. Most tourist destinations have gotten so good at English that you never need to use their language. Not Japan. There are still lots of circumstances where you need to understand some Japanese.
I’m not talking about being out in the sticks either. Even in tourist towns like Kyoto, you’ll visit restaurants where no one speaks a lick of English. Traveling around Japan will do wonders for your Japanese skills. And having Japanese skills will make your trip to Japan so much better.
Learning a language while you travel doesn’t mean hitting the textbooks. It doesn’t have to be boring. Have a look at our article on essential travel phrases and check out the Japanese travel phrases for you start with.
4. Watch Japanese movies and TV shows
Japan is famous for more than manga and its cuisine. There’s also a healthy TV and movie industry. This means there’s a ton of Japanese content on streaming services like Netflix.
Watching movies and TV shows is a great way to improve your language skills so make the most of this resource.
Anime, for example, is pretty ubiquitous nowadays. What was once a niche interest has now become mainstream. If you want to know the best anime to learn Japanese, check out our guide to some of the best anime on Netflix in 2023. Or if you like reality TV, check out Terrace House.
Here are some best shows to watch to learn Japanese:
Midnight Diner is a charming TV show with short stories about a Tokyo izakaya and its customers.
Samurai Gourmet shows a retired office worker reconnecting with his real self — a samurai in the civil war period — by eating what he wants when he wants.
Erased is a drama about murder and traveling back in time.
With millions of fellow language learners, there’s no better place to learn Japanese than with Busuu. Learn how to communicate in Japanese with the help of native speakers. And courses designed by language-learning experts.
Japanese is easier than you think
Forget its reputation as a difficult language to learn. Sure, some elements are super hard (I’m looking at you, kanji) but some elements are super easy. And with all the Japanese language content out there, you won’t have difficulty finding things to watch or read. Anyone can master Japanese. Like any language, if you’re patient and consistent, you’ll figure it out.
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