Japanese: Where to start

So, you have decided to look into studying Japanese and are curious about where to start. This document will give you some ideas on how to get started.

Getting started

Set a Goal

First you need to evaluate why you want to study and what you want to achieve. With a goal in mind, you will find that you can progress consistently and smoothly. For an idea about how much of a commitment is required, the organization which created the JLPT test estimates 150 study hours to pass 4級, the easiest level of their test, and 900 hours to pass 1級, the most advanced level. In my opinion, it will take a bit longer than that for most people. To put that into a little bit of perspective, you would need to study at least 2.5 hours per day EVERYDAY for one year to pass the highest level test. I do not know anyone who has the time, money or motivation to push that hard.  In 2010 the JLPT test will change to include 5 levels. If you are serious then you should set a goal of passing each level at the end of every year. That will give you a time line of 5 years to become fluent.   This is a more reasonable amount of study time for most people.

Choose a Textbook Series

After you have set a goal for yourself it is time to choose a textbook. The best bet is to choose a series of textbooks that will allow you to continue from beginner to intermediate to advanced. This will ensure that you don’t spend a lot of time reviewing previously studied material and that you don’t miss something by switching to a book by a different publisher. The major series are Genki and Japanese for Busy People.  If you are a university student, or you prefer a more university style book then you could also have a look at Nakama; however, this series only covers material up to an intermediate level. This is no bad, but you will need to do a little research to find the next book to advance to.


The first steps are to learn the Japanese scripts and common greetings.

First, you should spend some time mastering hiragana. This will be the script that you will use most as a beginner.  It is included as the first step in most textbooks and you can easily make your own flashcards. There are basically 46 characters that you need to learn.  The 46 characters can be written with variations to change the sound.  For example, は is ha, ば is ba and ぱ is pa but the main part of the character is the same.  Because the characters are phonetic you will not need to spend a lot of time with phonics (unlike students of English!).  The characters are basically broken down into groups of 5 so you can learn one group per day and you should be able to learn hiragana in two weeks.

Greetings and Introductions

As you are learning new characters, you should be reviewing the ones that you have already studied.  If you are really serious about learning Japanese then you should avoid romaji, or writing Japanese using the English alphabet, as much as possible. While it may seem a bit easier to use romaji, it will hold you back and most people do not use it in real life.

As you are learning hiragana, you should practice and memorize introductions and greetings. It is important here to pay attention to proper pronounciation.  Good bye is 「さようなら」which is pronounced “sa yo na ra” and not “sai o nara”. For this a text book CD or the Shadowing book will be very helpful.  Pay close attention to the speakers pronounciation, rhythym, intonation and try your best to copy it exactly.  At this point you will start learning simple grammar and basic vocabulary. Practice reading, writing, speaking. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat!  The more times you read / write / speak / listen, the easier it will be to remember.


Once you have gotten used to hiragana and you have mastered some greetings, the next step is to learn katakana. This is the script that is used to write foreign words so once you learn katakana you will be able to write your name, city, etc…  It may take a little research to find the best spelling for such words but it will be fun to figure it out.


At this point you have accomplished a lot. You should be proud!  From this point on you will start learning kanji which is the script that uses Chinese characters. There are about 2000 characters that you need to learn to be fluent in Japanese.  From here you will also need to learn vocab, grammar, speaking and all the other skills that you need to learn a new language. Once you reach an intermediate level, you may notice that you cannot translate what you want to say from English to Japanese directly because direct English translations tend to be overly strong or harsh. Native Japanese speakers learn special ways to speak to people of a higher status than themselves as well as ways to communicate casually and of course slang and idioms. These can be very advanced and can take a lifetime to master.

Keep studying. Follow the textbook from cover to cover. Do the homework in the workbook. Make your own flashcards.  Don’t take breaks from your studies or you will find yourself falling behind and having to relearn something that you have already studied.



Other tips

Don’t become a collector!

There is quite a lot of material out there that seems to be useful.  When looking for study aids, textbooks, dictionaries and so on, you need to evaluate what you will get from that tool and set a plan to complete it. If you buy it with no plan it could sit on your shelf unused forever. I have quite a few books like that. That is not to say that you shouldn’t buy supplementary materials, it is just that you should make a plan on how to use it before you spend the money.

Watch Japanese Movies and TV

By watching Japanese Movies and TV you can learn a lot. Maybe you will not understand a lot of what is said, but gestures, sounds, intonation often stick in your head. You don’t need to understand it to get something of value from it. Children learn language in a similar way – the only difference between young children and us is that they can’t give up! If you stick with it you can get a lot out of watching Japanese programs. Look on the internet for fan-subbed dramas and anime. Check the video rental shop for Ghibli anime like “Princess Mononoke” or “Spirited Away.” Feel free to watch in Japanese with English subtitles. Watching Japanese programs can give you a lot of insight into the Japanese mind and teach you a lot about the culture.

Listen to Japanese Music

If you live in Japan then you should be singing songs in karaoke in Japanese. You do not need to understand the meaning of all the words in a song to enjoy singing it. If you are not in Japan then you can still enjoy Japanese music and sing it by yourself in your house. Japanese music comes in all varieties so there should be something for everyone. From rock to hip hop to reggae and more, Japanese music has a lot of great artists.

I want to say a huge 「ありがとうございます!」 to Anthony of www.puddlejumpr.com for helping me proofread and rewrite portions of this document.

If anyone has any question, comments or suggestions, please feel free to leave a comment!

About the Author

I have lived in Japan since 2004. I love Japan and studying Japanese.