An essential list of Japanese language study resources – This post contains referral links to Amazon.com for some of the resources mentioned below. By using these links to make your purchases, you are supporting Expat Empire in its goal to make living and working abroad a more achievable goal for people around the world. Your support is greatly appreciated.
Are you considering studying Japanese and want to know where to start? Just starting out on your journey to becoming fluent in Japanese and looking for the best resources in the world to use for your studies? An experienced Japanese language learner that is searching for the best tools to take your skills to the next level? Regardless of your current background, if you are looking for a concise list of Japanese study materials, you have come to the right place!
I started studying Japanese when I was 12 years old and continued developing my fluency in the language throughout high school, university, and over two years of living in Tokyo. Throughout that time, I constantly searched for the best tools that would make my precious study time as productive as possible. There are hundreds of Japanese language study mobile apps, podcasts, apps, websites, textbooks, and courses out there that promise to help you learn and improve your Japanese. With new apps and products being released all the time, it can be hard to keep up, and you run the risk of constantly feeling like if you spent just one more hour searching for better study materials you would definitely be able to at least double the productivity of your study time!
The truth of the situation is that most study materials are not that great and will not take you very far in your studies. As long as you have resources that match your learning style in each of the main aspects of a language (grammar, reading, listening, writing, and vocabulary), then your time will be better spent actually studying the language rather than scouring every corner of the Internet for a program that may improve the efficiency of your study time by 0.5%.
After more than 15 years of trying many of the Japanese language learning materials out there, I found the ones that worked best for me and stuck with them. I will share those books, podcasts, apps, resources, and tools in this post with the hope that it will help you to spend less time searching for the silver bullet for Japanese language studies and more time actually studying.
The flashcard software program Anki gets its own section because it can be used alongside all the other tools I will discuss in this post to improve your memorization of vocabulary, grammar, and written characters. My frustration with flashcards has always come from the fact that I have to go through the exact same flashcards time and time again, even if I remembered most of them well, just to find the few flashcards that I actually need to practice. Thanks to Anki, this has not been an issue for me while studying Japanese!
Started on the web and since ported to mobile apps, Anki is a flashcard memorization service that uses a fantastic algorithm for spaced repetition that only shows you the cards that you need to practice right now. Though it can be used for any flashcard-related purpose, the developer of the app actually built it because he wanted to create a more efficient way to study Japanese! The spaced repetition algorithm that Anki utilizes matches the flashcard review schedule to your needs. Every time that Anki presents you with a flashcard, you can respond with a number on a scale from 1 to 5 representing how well you were able to recall the definition. Based on your response, Anki will wait to show you that card until the proper time to reinforce your memory of the flashcard once again. This way, Anki ensures that you are using your flashcard review time as effectively as possible.
You can download pre-made decks of flashcards from the Anki website or create your own. I prefer to make my own flashcards because 1) I can reinforce what I am studying by typing out the words and definitions myself and 2) my deck will only include the words that I have personally studied as opposed to a long list of words that I cannot mentally connect to anything I have covered in my recent studies. I mostly made flashcards for vocabulary words that showed the word in Japanese first while I tried to recall the English translation, but I would also suggest inputting full sentences in Anki so that you can make connections between the grammar and vocabulary words that are used to convey a single thought in its entirety.
There are free Mac, Windows, and Linux desktop apps, a free online web service that can be used through any web browser, a paid official iOS app, and a free Android app made by a third party. Anki synchronizes your flashcards and current progress across all platforms so that you can review the most current material from anywhere at any time. Register online and start reviewing your flashcards today!
My top pick for Japanese language learning podcasts has always been JapanesePod101. The podcasts provide example conversations by native speakers with a translation and breakdown of important grammar and vocabulary that you can add to your arsenal. JapanesePod101 provides several levels of Japanese practice so that you can stick with it over time as your skills continue to improve.
Most of the audio is available for free, whereas the study guides for each episode are offered for sale. I found the free audio files to be helpful enough on their own for listening practice. To use the podcast to its full potential, add new flashcards to Anki every time you hear some new vocabulary and grammar in the audio lessons.
Japanese Listening Advanced
For those of you already many months or years into your studies, try the Japanese Listening Advanced podcast to experience hearing authentic, natural Japanese conversation spoken at full speed. When I topped out of the upper intermediate lessons available through JapanesePod101, I started listening to this podcast to see if I could follow along. Amazingly, these podcasts also usually come with a transcript so that you can better parse out individual words and phrases from the full-speed audio. I highly recommend this podcast for Japanese learners that have leveled out of most of the available Japanese learning audio content.
There is nothing better for practicing your reading than picking up an actual book or magazine in Japanese. You should align the difficulty of the reading material with your Japanese level, so I would recommend that you start out with an extremely basic children’s picture book with a few sentences per page just like I did. Work through that beginner book one word at a time with your dictionary next to you until you can read the entire book on your own. From there, proceed to a children’s manga comic book or a young adult novel, which will likely take you much longer to complete. Eventually, you can move on to more complex manga, magazines, or full novels in Japanese. Pick something that you want to read and stick with it to improve your reading comprehension!
That being said, it can be exhausting going back and forth hundreds of times between a page of Japanese text and a dictionary to search for a specific vocabulary word that you have not committed to memory yet. If you want to speed up the process of learning Japanese from books, I would recommend the following textbooks that have authentic Japanese stories with accurate English translations on the opposing page:
- Exploring Japanese Literature: Read Mishima, Tanizaki and Kawabata in the Original
- Read Real Japanese Fiction: Short Stories by Contemporary Writers
- Read Real Japanese Essays: Contemporary Writings by Popular Authors
- Breaking into Japanese Literature: Seven Modern Classics in Parallel Text
When I was really focused on learning to write kanji (漢字), Japanese written characters that originated in China, by hand, I relied exclusively on the method described in the three volumes of James W. Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji books. Most Japanese textbooks give you a set of random characters alongside their meanings and then ask you to write them dozens of times until they manage to stay in your brain just long enough for the next class quiz. The Heisig method takes a different approach by guiding you to connect the meaning and reading of the character with the radicals, or individual minor components that make up a single character so that they will stick better in your brain. Once you learn a few dozen characters, you can leverage those to learn more complex characters, and you can continue this process of building on your knowledge to learn new characters until you are able to write the 2,000 standard jōyō kanji (常用漢字) from memory.
I found the method to work quite well for me, but the truth is that I eventually decided to stop spending my time learning to write the characters by hand. Reading and writing kanji on a computer or smartphone was good enough for me. Japan still uses quite a lot of handwritten documentation and I was not able to write out what I wanted from memory in those cases, but I could use my phone to look up the characters and then copy them down by hand. However, if you are dedicated to being able to write kanji from memory, these books by James W. Heisig are definitely the way to go.
- Remembering the Kanji 1: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters
- Remembering the Kanji 2: A Systematic Guide to Reading Japanese Characters
- Remembering the Kanji 3: Writing and Reading the Japanese Characters for Upper-Level Proficiency
While it may be tempting to learn Japanese grammar as you go, I think it is best to use textbooks to systematically work through each grammar point of a language. I used many different Japanese textbooks during high school, university and then post-graduation, and the ones that I personally found most helpful were the Genki set of textbooks. The helpful exercises featured in the books and the reasonable pace of progression through the salient points of the Japanese language helped me to improve my skills more rapidly than trying to figure out what to study next on my own. If you want to add some structure to your studying, dive into this two-volume set of textbooks and workbooks!
- Genki: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese I
- Genki: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese Workbook I
- Genki: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese II
- Genki: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese, Workbook 2
- GENKI 1-2, Learning Japanese for Beginners 4-BOOK Bundle Set
A Dictionary of Basic / Intermediate / Advanced Japanese Grammar
Written by Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui, this three-volume series on Japanese Grammar is an indispensable resource for serious Japanese learners. This series of books explains the meaning and usage of various Japanese grammatical structures in great detail. While that may sound quite typical for grammar books, these books are uniquely beneficial to studying Japanese because they provide many relevant example sentences that illustrate how and how not to use each of the grammar points while also comparing and contrasting each point with similar grammatical structures so that you can clearly understand the differences in usage and connotation between each grammar point.
While the grammar explanations in this book are a clear cut above the rest for Japanese language learning, I would still use this book as a reference rather than a source to study from directly. Creating the sentences on your own in an appropriate order rather than going through the first volume in alphabetical order will serve you better in the long run. I would suggest reviewing the grammar from your textbook in these grammar dictionaries and then copying their incredible example sentences straight into Anki for your ongoing review!
- A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar
- A Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar
- A Dictionary of Advanced Japanese Grammar
- A Dictionary of Japanese Grammar for Learning Language 3- BOOK Bundle Set
Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese
While the grammar dictionaries above may not be the best way to go about systematically learning Japanese grammar, Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese will help you to do just that. This website provides a thorough walkthrough of all of the must-know Japanese grammar points, and I have used it many times as a quick reference guide from the early days of my studies until now. It is an excellent site to turn to for your first introduction to Japanese grammar as well as some of the more advanced grammar points that will surely come up during your studies, so be sure to check out the site’s free grammar guides and walkthroughs!
There are many ways that you can try to improve your general fluency in Japanese, but here are two books that I think can dramatically increase your ability to speak and understand Japanese if you spend the necessary time. The first is Giles Murray’s fantastic book 13 Secrets for Speaking Fluent Japanese. This book is geared more toward intermediate-level students and provides readers with tips that will immediately improve their Japanese communication abilities. This book walks readers through how to use many tactics when speaking Japanese that will help them have a better command of the language. It is one of the few Japanese study books that I kept long after my language skills surpassed the level of Japanese in the book because I found its content to be extremely useful.
Another fantastic addition to your collection is Jazz Up Your Japanese with Onomatopoeia by Hiroko Fukuda. Onomatopoeia is words that conjure up specific sounds or images such as “bang” and “splat” in English, and the Japanese language is bursting at the seams with its own unique onomatopoeia. As a foreign student of the language, learning all the different onomatopoeia and how to best use them is one of the most difficult things to do, but it is also one of the best ways to make your Japanese sound native. Fukuda-san’s book contains an extensive overview of dozens of Japanese onomatopoeia that, if used correctly, will surely take your Japanese to the next level.
I am sure that it would be much easier to become fluent in Japanese while living in Japan, particularly if you are in the countryside where there are fewer foreigners who speak your native language. If you are unable to make it to Japan, then a good alternative is to find someone to meet up with within your city, a pen pal to exchange emails with, or a practice partner to meet with over Skype. I found Conversation Exchange to be a great way to meet people in my area that I could practice Japanese and English with in person. Spend an hour talking in Japanese and then an hour in your partner’s target language to make it a fair deal for both parties. You could also try looking on Facebook or Meetup.com for Japanese groups in your area to find practice partners.
There are some new smartphone apps that have also tried to address the need for simple language exchange partner matching. One app that I saw used in Japan frequently was HelloTalk. Just download one of these smartphone apps and start exchanging messages with Japanese speakers from around the world!
While not an exhaustive list, I think that using at least a handful of the tools, podcasts, books, apps, and other resources discussed in this post and sticking with them for the coming months will take you far in your Japanese studies.
Agree with my picks? Have some favorites of your own that you would like to share? Please let us know in the comments below!
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