Japanese Self-Study

So you want to learn Japanese. The best cure for this way to do this is to live in Japan. I struggled to remember yoroshiku onegaishimasu when I arrived in Kumamoto, but after two years I’d passed the top level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test without ever taking a language class. But just drinking with kids and playing with adults – I mean playing with kids and drinking with adults – wasn’t enough to get me from 0 to 1, my friend! Hence this post about the materials I used at home.

Appuru wo onegaishimasu
iPhone functions are in vogue now. They render $100 electronic dictionaries obsolete. If you’d like to look up words on the go, this is the way to do it, especially since this is one of the few countries where iPhones are cheaper than the alternatives.

Essential Kanji (肝要漢字)
This is one of the two books I brought with me to Japan, and it’s made it all the way to Taiwan, beaten and battered as it’s become. It’s a little outdated because 5% of the 2000 “essential” characters (all on the difficult end of the spectrum) were changed last year, but it’s still a classic. It starts from the most common characters (#1 is 一) and builds up from there. It tells you the Chinese and Japanese readings for each individual character and includes two great examples of compounds including that character: my Japanese friends were startled when 焦 cited 焦熱地獄 (“burning hell”) and 懲 referenced 勧善懲悪 (“reward good and punish evil”). (By the way, if you aren’t seeing the characters in this paragraph, go to Languages in your Control Panel and download the Japanese character set.)

The entries also number stroke order, explains the different parts of the character, and show alternate versions, and include the Mandarin Chinese pronunciation (sadly in Wade-Giles, not Pinyin). All this, and it still fits easily in a purse or cargo pants pocket. Because the book limits itself to the essential 2000, the two indexes in the back (one by stroke count and one by pronunciation) are not unwieldy. (Hence, they are wieldy?)

Grammar: 日本語表現文型辞典
Everyone should buy this book. It lists the grammatical expressions used on all levels of the JLPT in alphabetical order and explains them in four languages. Its example sentences are so fresh that my Japanese friends laughed at some of them. I just opened the book, and the first sentence I saw was this, for ならでは (unless):

Unless a child painted this picture, it’s so simpleminded we can’t show it to anyone.

Polite Japanese: 敬語すらすらBOOK
You need to study polite Japanese. It makes worlds of difference in how you’re perceived. There is a lot of material out there for Japanese speakers. I bought this book because the approach was so clear: it’s almost entirely made up of example sentences.

JLPT Textbooks
Regardless of your personal feelings on whether a test truly demonstrates language ability, exams have been a highly respect part of East Asian culture ever since the imperial Chinese civil service exams. If you want to use the language in an official capacity later, take some tests. Even telling people you’re studying for one increases their respect for you. I used the 完全マスター and 実力アップ series because they were rated well on Amazon, and I was satisfied.

Make sure to practice the Listening Test! I could speak Japanese all day, but I always struggled with the Listening Section more than I expected – this could say something about my personality (all mouth no ears), but I would prefer to attribute it to the test format being so different from normal conversation.

Here are a couple more resources: JLPT Vocabulary List and Past Exams.

JAL Academy BJT Textbook
This test is about to be discontinued, but I’m a fan. It helps you study the kind of Japanese that’s often-used in business and little-used on tests, and its methods are more intuitive than the JLPT’s.

Nihongo Kentei and Kanji Kentei?
These are tests Japanese people use to measure their own skills. My school librarians and literature teachers took them to demonstrate their own abilities. The ones worth taking are beyond the top level of the JLPT, though, and I haven’t met any foreigners who have taken them.

Online Japanese-English Dictionary
This is amazing. It’s fast and thorough. Reading the news online and copy-pasting words into here is so much easier than whatever people had to do before. I feel sorry for Whaley and other pioneers of translation.

CAVEAT: This is a Chinese-English dictionary. I included it because the character look-up function (draw it on the screen and it’ll show you the closest match) can save you some time. Be careful about unique Japanese characters (like 峠) and simplifications (譲). Also, this site crashes too much. If your search gets 404’d, keep refreshing until it goes through.

Surfing the Web
Japanese is so difficult that the bestsellers in domestic bookstores always include a couple manuals on how to improve your Japanese. So the Internet also has a lot of resources for Nihonjin who are trying to do things like decode haiku, write formal letters, and write dialogue in a feminine voice. Seek and you will find: I once wondered if there was a guide to the one-character abbreviations newspapers use for countries, and indeed there is. Even trees and fish get lists all their own.

YouTube and Lyrics Websites
I loved Japanese music before I loved the language itself, so I started out by studying my favorite songs. Goo.ne.jp is my favorite lyrics site because the selection is big, you can copy-paste, and there aren’t many pop-ups.

Tatoeba: Collecting Example Sentences
This is a good way to get started and see vocabulary words are used in context. You can cross-reference as many languages as you like.

The Yomiuri Shinbun and NHK
Once you’re past Level 2, you should be following these every day (the latter if you’re living in the country). They keep you clued in to Japanese society, teach you more complex vocabulary, and cover a wide variety of topics. My reading score on Level 1 improved dramatically after a semester reading the Shinbun. (Obviously, I don’t have anything against the Asahi Shinbun.) NHK’s 30-minute Japanese-subtitled domestic news programs are fantastic.

Detective Conan
First of all, this is a great show, so you’ll stay interested. Second, because it’s a detective show that appeals to both children and adults, it mixes conversational and professional vocabulary very well. There’s a good blend of children, adults, and criminals, all of whom speak different kinds of Japanese. Most of the characters speak Tokyo Japanese, which helped me a lot because I spent all my time in the western countryside, but there’s also a couple from Osaka that pours on the Kansai dialect, and the foreigners add linguistic interest themselves. Truthfully, there’s plenty of other anime series available on YouTube. People subtitle them for free.

The copyright has run out on some Japanese classics, so they’re now available online, where it’s much easier to copy-paste the boatloads of difficult words. For example, here are 走れメロス and 人間失格 by Dazai Osamu.

Find something that interests you, and go with it. Video games, television, magazines: anything and everything is good as long as you use it regularly. Ganbatte ne!

Explore posts in the same categories: Education, Japan


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3 Comments on “Japanese Self-Study”

  1. Tae Says:

    This is Tae from nciku and i’m happy to announce that we’ve launched our nciku Japanese service.

    Also, we’re working our 404 issues to make it more responsive.

    Thanks again!

    • jsmyth Says:

      Thanks for getting in touch with me! I would also appreciate it if there were more support for traditional Chinese characters. Some words only have dictionary entries for their simplified versions.

  2. Brayn Says:


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