If you’re a complete beginner to Japanese and don’t know where to start, never fear! We’re here to tell you what the easiest way to learn Japanese is.
It's easiest to start by learning how to write Japanese characters, before moving onto studying both the hiragana and katakana alphabets. Once you've mastered these you can move onto kanji by studying individual radicals, before finally taking the plunge to start speaking!
Step 1: Start with the absolute basics
Many people bite off more than they can chew with Japanese and jump right straight into learning vocabulary. While there’s no wrong way to learn a language, you’ll find it a lot easier to learn vocabulary once you can actually read the vocabulary.
You see, the Japanese language uses three alphabets:
- The two phonetic alphabets are hiragana and katakana and are collectively referred to as kana.
- The last alphabet is kanji, the pictographic system of writing similar to that of Chinese characters.
Japanese also refers to anything written using the Roman alphabet as romaji. You'll actually find that a lot of Japanese classes in the West begin by teaching vocabulary using romaji, while students are learning the three main alphabets.
So if you can use romaji to learn Japanese, why shouldn’t you? Because romaji isn’t exactly the best representation of Japanese. Using romaji adds an additional step that you’ll only have to unlearn later. Trust us when we say unlearning is a lot more difficult than learning. Eliminate the fluff and start with learning the alphabets first.
Before you learn to read the alphabets, you should first learn how to write them. Here’s why:
Learning stroke order is the foundation of all three Japanese alphabets!
Here’s an exercise for you.
Take out a piece of paper and a pen and write your name.
Now do it again. And again. And, then once more.
Do you notice how every single time you write your name, you write the letters the same way every time?
Japanese functions in exactly the same way.
It uses a defined set of rules that details how you write characters. It’s essential to learn these strokes in the correct order because it will help you when learning radicals. Don’t worry—we’ll cover what those are later on.
Stroke Order in a Nutshell
Here’s a very basic rundown of Japanese stroke order:
- Write top-to-bottom
- Write left-to-right
- Long vertical lines come before symmetrical strokes on either side
- But long vertical lines that cross through other strokes come last
- Boxes are written with three strokes, not four
- Write boxes before you fill them
- But close the bottom of boxes off last
- Right-to-left diagonals come before left-to-right diagonals
- Dots and dashes come last—except when they’re at the top
Phew! That sure seems like a lot to remember, doesn’t it? It certainly takes some getting used to! Luckily, some of the steps are easier to remember with some memory tricks.
Take the rules about boxes, for example. Imagine you’re packing something to mail out. You can’t fill a box you don’t have, right? But you also don’t want to seal the box up before you’ve filled it up. That’s why the bottom stroke comes last.
Let’s take a look at the character that represents the number four to give you a basic idea of stroke order:
You’ll notice stroke three is written right-to-left instead of left-to-right. That’s because, in this case, the rule of top-to-bottom supersedes the rule of left-to-right. Many characters will have exceptions like this that you’ll have to learn, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
The good news is, once you start getting the feel for it, stroke order quickly becomes second nature—just like writing your name.
Step 2: Build upon your foundation with kana
Now that you have a foundation of how to write the different alphabets, you can move on to learning how to read them.
As we mentioned before, Japanese uses three alphabets. Two of those are phonetic alphabets, meaning the characters by themselves represent only sounds, not meaning. We'd recommend starting with hiragana first, then learning katakana.
The reason for this is that hiragana is much more widely used than katakana. There are exceptions, of course, but katakana is mostly used for loanwords borrowed from other languages, or foreign names.
Not only that but katakana largely resembles hiragana. Learn hiragana first, and katakana will be much easier to learn. Besides, you’ll be using hiragana more anyway, so it makes sense to focus on that as your foundation.
Hiragana is used in conjunction with kanji in Japanese and helps to form the bulk of the written language. In Japanese, words are formed not by individual consonants and vowels but consonant-vowel syllable pairs, with very few exceptions.
That makes your job that much easier: you don’t have to pair them because the language does it for you!
Hiragana is more fluid and cursive-like than katakana, and each character is much more distinct. Many learners find learning hiragana easier than katakana for that reason exactly.
Another reason why hiragana is so important is that it’s used in furigana. Rather than an alphabet in itself, furigana is a reading aid that you use when you're reading kanji. It tells you how the kanji is pronounced, written in smaller characters either to the right of or above the kanji itself. You’ll find it’s typically used with rare kanji, to clarify non-standard kanji readings, or in children’s books and learning materials.
As an added bonus, by learning hiragana first instead of relying on romaji you’re eliminating an extra step when learning vocab. Less work for the same result? Sign us up!
We mentioned that katakana is not as widely used as hiragana. This is because it’s used for words that have no kanji to represent the meaning. Often, this means it’s used for transcription of foreign names, loan words borrowed from other languages, or onomatopoeias.
Japanese uses a lot of loan words, so it’s important to learn katakana as early as possible. For example, the words “pink,” “orange,” “lemon,” “Internet,” and “beer” are all loanwords from English. You’ll find you already know tonnes of words simply by understanding how to recognize them in katakana!
Katakana is also used for grammatical inflexions, similar to the way we use italics in English. Pretty nifty, right?
You’ll notice in many respects that katakana resembles hiragana. In contrast to hiragana’s long, cursive-like strokes, though, katakana uses short strokes with sharp edges. Some characters are difficult to distinguish from one another, too.
This is one of the many reasons why stroke order is important. In katakana, sometimes the only difference between characters is the direction of the stroke!
Step 3: Break down kanji into easy-to-digest radicals
So you’ve spent hours perfecting the proper stroke order. You’ve spent days learning to read kana. So, is this really the easiest way to learn Japanese? Well, yes.
Aside from the reasons we’ve already mentioned, getting through these steps first puts you in a good position to start learning kanji.
We know from experience that learning kanji can be intimidating. There are just so many! Where do you even start?
We'd recommend starting with the first 100 kanji that you'll need to pass the lowest level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, or JLPT. This includes the characters for numbers, time, people and things, places and directions, and common verbs.
In other words, these are some of the most common kanji that you’ll use in your day-to-day conversations.
These are also important because many of these kanji are also used as radicals!
“Okay,” I hear you say, “you mentioned this before. What is a radical?”
Radicals are simple kanji that form the building blocks of more complex kanji.
Many kanji are simply compound words formed by combining one radical with more strokes, or even two or more radicals together.
Physical Japanese dictionaries are organized by radical rather than by Roman alphabetical order. With the advent of the Internet, it’s easy to write off radicals as non-essential. After all, it’s faster to just type the word into an online dictionary and instantly get a definition.
That's true, but it doesn’t give us enough reason to drop radicals altogether.
Once you start learning more complicated kanji, you’ll quickly learn that some characters have upwards of twenty strokes. Remembering the stroke order for those characters can seem daunting.
However, if you know the individual components of the character, you can break it down into smaller, easier-to-remember pieces. Hence the need for radicals!
Let’s take a look at the character 電 (“electricity”).
This character has thirteen strokes, which is simple enough. But then you think about the thousands of characters you need to be literate in Japanese, and suddenly it’s not so simple.
Instead of focusing simply on the number of strokes a character has, focus on the number of radicals. Remember, these radicals are simple kanji and therefore already easier to remember.
The character 電 has three radicals: 雨 (“rain”), 田 (“rice paddy”), and 乚 (“umbrella”).
Breaking down characters into their component radicals makes your job way easier. Not all characters are made up just of multiple radicals, of course.
However, by learning radicals, you’re essentially cutting the number of those unique stroke configurations down to a more manageable number. You’ll start to recognize patterns and be able to apply them to more complicated kanji.
Suddenly it’s not so overwhelming, is it?
Step 4: Apply all of this to actually speaking Japanese!
So far we’ve focused on learning to read and write Japanese.
That’s all well and good, but you want to speak Japanese with real people! And, you certainly don’t want to wait until you’ve learned thousands of kanji before striking up a conversation, right?
Nor should you! But getting the basics of Japanese literacy under your belt opens up the gateway of conversation. You’ll be better equipped to start learning vocabulary, and you’ll learn it faster, to boot.
Not only that but learning kana and kanji first helps you to learn proper pronunciation. You’d be amazed what being able to read will do for your speaking confidence. This brings me to my next point…
Read Aloud, Read Proud
Reading aloud is one of the best ways to build up your confidence in speaking Japanese. This is one of the reasons we place so much emphasis on building your foundation in Japanese literacy first. Taking just a few minutes every day to read aloud is invaluable.
But what do you read when you’re first starting out and don’t yet know a whole lot of kanji?
Children’s manga often includes furigana, which makes it a great place to start. Manga covers such a breadth of genres that you’ll almost certainly find something you like. Plus, manga reads quickly by nature, so it’s something you can do easily in a short amount of time.
Even if the manga you choose doesn’t use furigana, since you know how to use radicals, you can look up the character yourself. After that, just write in the furigana, and move on to reading aloud.
Do Your Daily Tasks in Japanese
Most people don’t admit to talking to themselves, but it’s a good habit to pick up when you're learning a language. Japanese is no exception.
Do you count the stairs as you walk up and down them? Count in Japanese.
Do you read your grocery list aloud when you’re out shopping? Write the grocery list in Japanese, even if it’s all in kana. If you don’t read it aloud as you tick the items off, now’s the time to start.
Put your phone’s settings in Japanese, or if that’s too difficult, change the voice recognition system (like Siri or Cortana). Dictate questions or tasks to it and see how much it picks up.
Make daily habits that get you using your Japanese more naturally. This will make it easier for you to think in Japanese, which will in turn make speaking the language easier.
Other Tips and Tricks
Now that we’ve gone over the fundamentals of getting you started, let’s get into some tips and tricks to make it even easier to learn Japanese.
1. Consume as Much Japanese Media As You Can
Raise your hand if you’ve spent hours bingeing the latest show on Netflix or HBOgo. Don’t be ashamed; we’ve all been there.
Now consider how much of that time you could be putting toward learning Japanese. You don’t even have to give up your bingeing hobby to do it!
In today’s digital age, you have access to hundreds of thousands of hours of Japanese media. Instead of turning on Game of Thrones or Wandavision, consider watching a Japanese drama instead.
Alternatively, you could watch an anime! Anime in Japan is not strictly marketed toward children. There’s a plethora of anime that’s made with adult audiences in mind, across every possible genre imaginable. Even full-length feature films are animated if series aren’t your thing.
Of course, we aren’t just talking about television, here. Your options are endless. Are you a video game enthusiast? Check your game settings to see if there are options to put the audio or text in Japanese.
Do you like to keep up with current events? Take an hour to listen to a Japanese news broadcast instead of tuning into BBC or CNN.
We already mentioned manga, but light novels are hugely popular in Japan. These books often run shorter than your average novel and are quick, easy reads, with short paragraphs and simpler vocabulary.
Instead of listening to your usual favourites in the car on your commute, put on some Japanese tunes!
The goal here is to expose yourself to as much Japanese, in the widest array of mediums, as possible.
2. Strike up a Friendship with Natives!
In school, we’re often taught that primary sources of information are the most reliable. This holds true for learning any language; native speakers will be the most invaluable tool on your learning journey.
A native speaker can correct your pronunciation. If you get stuck, they’ll be able to explain certain things about the language to you better than any textbook. And, perhaps most importantly, speaking with natives will remind you why you wanted to learn Japanese in the first place, no matter your reason!
Services like iTalki or Preply will connect you with tutors or other language instructors for a price. These services are a great resource if you want something more structured out of a language partner.
You could also use apps like HiNative, where you can upload questions or soundbites and get feedback from native speakers.
Actually, I find that one of the easiest ways to learn Japanese is to take advantage of good old social media. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are excellent places to connect with native speakers no matter what your interests are. If you’re feeling brave, you could even venture into Japanese social media platforms like Niconico.
Our Final Thoughts on the Easiest Way to Learn Japanese
We’re not going to sugarcoat it: learning Japanese is hard. There’s a reason that the American Foreign Service Institute ranks it as a Category IV language.
But it doesn’t have to be overly difficult or complicated. You just need to figure out the easiest way to learn Japanese for you, before rushing into things. Even simply knowing kana will set you up for success much faster than if you tried diving into the language headfirst.
It may take a bit more time doing it this way, and you may feel tempted to skip right into learning words and grammar, but trust us when we say you have to learn to walk before you can run.
Once you feel steady on your feet with reading Japanese, then you can really hit the ground running on your learning journey.
Japanese Tools and Resources
We've reviewed a few language programs that could come in handy if you're learning Japanese:
- Japanese Uncovered, 4.5/5: Japanese Uncovered is a comprehensive course that uses the “StoryLearning” method to teach you the language through stories and context.
- LingoDeer, 4/5: LingoDeer focuses on teaching you Japanese in its entirety using a grammar-based structure. Its traditional lessons help to build your understanding of vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, and sentence structure.
- Rocket Japanese, 4/5: Rocket Languages is a desktop and app-based learning platform that uses a traditional teaching approach to take you from beginner level to advanced in Japanese.
- WaniKani 3.5/5: A flashcard app that uses entertaining graphics and the space repition method to teach adult learners kanji.
Ori Starling is a writer, editor, and translator based out of the United States. Their interest in languages began over 25 years ago, teaching themselves Spanish at a young age from tapes so that they could speak with family. Since then, they've studied Korean, Mandarin, and Japanese, with plans to continue their lifelong language learning journey.