What's The First Japanese Word You Learned

Learning Japanese is difficult, but it can be done. After living in Japan for 27+ years and running J-List for 23+ years, I’ve always wanted to make a post about how I learned Japanese and give some advice to anyone who wants to achieve this goal. And here it is!

How I Learned Japanese

I learned Japanese by taking four years of formal study at SDSU from 1988–1991. This was in the days before fancy online courses or learning apps for cell phones, and it was a very analog process.

How I Leanred Japanese University

Right up front, I honestly didn’t find Japanese to be difficult to learn, at least given my motivation level. If I have a gift for language, it’s that I’ve never been afraid to open my mouth and start talking, despite the high chance that I’d make mistakes. My daughter shares this quickness of speech and has always been good at speaking English (even, we joked, if she has no idea what her words meant). If my daughter and I are “free-speakers-and-error-makers,” my wife and son, by contrast, are both “linguistic calculators” who prepared what they want to say for several seconds before starting to speak, though the conversation has usually moved on to a new topic by this point.

But First, is it Possible to Study Japanese Casually?

A word of warning: as you can probably tell, I took learning Japanese quite seriously, and am aiming this article and people who’d like to attain a high level in the language. But is it possible to study Japanese casually, without pouring one’s life into it?

I’d say absolutely yes! If you’re planning a trip to Japan and want to prepare by learning basic phrases and pronunciation, master reading of hiragana, katakana and the basics of kanji, that’s a fine goal! The more you learn about Japan and its language, the more you’ll get out of a visit to Japan, or any other similar interaction. If you’re planning on living in Japan, you can similarly seek to attain compotence in enough of the language related to whatever you do, without going whole hog like I did.

What Was Easy about Learning Japanese?

First, the good news. There are many, many aspects of learning Japanese that are downright easy. There’s no Chinese or Thai-style intonation to worry about, and only five vowel sounds — a (ah as in far), i (rhymes with see), u (rhymes with zoo), e (rhymes with say) and o (like oh) — which happen to be the five vowel sounds found in Spanish. Spanish speakers can learn to speak Japanese with a very little accent and vice-versa.

Grammar, while obviously totally different from any Western language, is in many ways far simpler. Strange verb forms like future perfect and past conditional tense simply don’t exist. There are no noun genders as in Romance language, and no bizarre sentence structures whose job it is to get the noun and verb as far apart in a sentence as possible as in German. You don’t need to consider whether a noun is a count or non-count noun, or whether it’s singular or plural unless it important to the context. Future and simple present tense are the same thing. You don’t even need to learn the names of the months, as they’re all just numbers (ichi, ni, san) with 月 gatsu tacked onto the end.

What Parts of Japanese Are Difficult?

There are some aspects of Japanese that took some getting used to, aside from the biggest differences, which was the writing system (two kana syllable systems and kanji characters) and the different word order (subject-object-verb instead of subject-verb-object as in English),

All sentences can be expressed in two ways: with more straightforward formal verbs (tabemasunomimasu), which are ostensibly what you’d say when addressing a teacher or business colleague; and informal verbs (taberu, nomu), which use shorter verbs that you’d use when talking to a friend or person younger than you, or when looking the word up in a dictionary. As a general rule, informal verbs are a bit more difficult to use because they have harder to recognize patterns. (The easiest-to-understand character in the history of anime is Koizumi from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, because he speaks such clear, formal Japanese.)

All language involves conjugations. In English, you have weird verb forms and helping verbs flying all over the place, but Japanese is an “agglutinative” language, which means information like present or past tense, passive voice or conditional is stored in the verb form.

Let’s look at some examples

  • 食べる taberu, to eat (informal or dictionary form), it would mean either [he/you/I] eats [habitually], or [he/you/I] will eat, tomorrow or at some point in the future.
  • 食べて tabete, the ‘te’ form, which is super useful. Used for requesting something (“please eat”), and also for joining verbs together.
  • 食べました tabemashita, ate (formal past tense).
  • 食べた tabeta, ate (informal past tense). These informal versions are harder to get down when studying because they sometimes have difficult to follow exceptions
  • 食べられる taberareru, to be eaten (passive voice). Passive is used a lot in Japanese, a country where it’s convenient to say “it’s been decided” rather than “John decided this, so it’s his fault if the idea turns out to be a bad one.”
  • 食べさせる tabesaseru, causal. To make eat, or to allow to eat.
  • 食べさせられる tabesaserareru, to be made/allowed to eat [by someone].

And so on. In retrospect, it’s no harder than mastering a Super Mario game by playing it repeatedly until you have it down. But it’s better done in some kind of program with an actual teacher to give you feedback, rather than through self-study.

Then there’s kanji. As I wrote in a post on how baby names work in Japanese, there are two ways to read any kanji in Japanese, using the original Japanese reading (called kunyomi), used for simpler and old-timey, down-to-earth words that are often poetic and beautiful; and the Chinese reading (called onyomi, the first syllable pronounced “own”), used for kanji combinations that express more advanced and scientific ideas. It’s the same mechanism that causes Anglo-Saxon words to usually be used with simpler concepts of farming and family, while French-origin words cover more complex concepts as well as military and science-related words. Chinese readings for characters are generally much easier to master than the more esoteric Japanese readings because there is generally one way to read them.

My wife was recently telling me about the local history of the rural neighborhood we live in, explaining that it used to be an area famous for 鍛冶屋 kajiya, a word I was unfamiliar with. It turned out to mean “blacksmith” which is one of those Japanese-reading words I’d never encountered. Similarly, I similarly didn’t know the word for anvil from Goblin Slayer because it’s a very “earthy” Japanese word we generally don’t come across outside of isekai anime.

Japanese Can Be a Vague Language

Vagueness is another famous feature of Japanese, and Japanese people are professionals when it comes to leaving information out of sentences. The subject, object, and grammatical particles are regularly omitted because they’re understood through the context. My wife will regularly say “Iku?” to mean, which means “[Shall you and I] go [to the restaurant we were discussing earlier for the purpose of eating]?” and I know from the context what she means. A lot of anime plots center around someone saying “I love…” but leaving the subject vague, so the other person is free to interpret it as being directed at himself, or at the cake the two happen to be eating currently.

Happily, when it comes to the vagueness built into Japanese, you get used to it. The best way to master how language flow works is to read a manga, which is always dialogue-based.

You Get Used To It Learning Japanese

J-List’s Advice for Learning Japanese

Since I learned Japanese in a formal university setting, my general advice will be skewed in that direction. Except for the textbooks and kanji flashcards we stock on J-List (which are all excellent — I wouldn’t sell them if they weren’t something that would help you learn), I don’t have any specific advice about programs (online or offline), smartphone apps or online support communities, though if you know of any good ones, please put them in the comments below.

Here are some other random bits of advice on how to learn Japanese…

Avoid Romanized Japanese Textbooks

The bane of existence for a Japanese language learner is textbooks that don’t force you to learn through hiragana and katakana, the two-syllable writing systems. The reason is that, reading Romanized Japanese (that is, Japanese rendered in the Roman alphabet) will a) make you an idiot who can’t even read a sign for a ramen shop, and b) give you a terrible speaking accent.

I can tell when someone has learned Japanese through Romanized text way when they say words like 一万 ichi man, Japanese for 10,000. The 万 kanji is pronounced mahn (long vowel), not like the English word man (short vowel), but your brain will always apply the rules of English pronunciation to English letters. Another example of this would be foreigners who treat a final e sound on the end of a Japanese word as “silent e” when it must be pronounced.

Avoid Learning (to Write) Kanji

I learned kanji and regretted it. Specifically, I learned to write most or all of the 2,136 jōyō kanji, but forgot most of them because cell phones and the Internet showed up. Basically, everyone (even Japanese people) lose kanji writing skills in the technological world we live in today, and these days I rarely write more than my address by hand.

I believe that any current students should try, if possible, to learn kanji normally but focus on reading, writing kanji for the purpose of memorization and learning good kanji stroke skills, but avoid any pretense about mastering manual writing. A guy I work with managed to learn Japanese more or less perfectly while avoiding learning how to write kanji, which seems to me like the perfect approach. If you’re in a university program, they will probably be dinosaurs who insist on doing things the old way, but we can always hope they’ll eventually realize the world has changed.

Of course, I don’t really regret learning to write kanji. It gave me a deep understanding of Japanese language and culture, which is what I wanted to achieve. It also got me my wonderful wife, who I impressed by writing the character for ‘rose’ (薔薇) for her, a kanji so hard that Japanese can’t write it. She knew that any American who could do this must be worth getting to know better.

Understand How Your Brain Learns

The process of “learning” a new word or concept — which involves first encountering it, then transferring it from short-term memory to longer-term memory, then “testing” it repeatedly by recalling in different situations. This is actually a chemical thing, physical bonds that are created and reinforced, and if never recalled or used, discarded.

I learned early on that I learned best by initially copying the new vocabulary words in a new textbook lesson to paper five or ten times. You might learn best by preparing flashcards, or by building phonetic connections with other words, for example learning the word 死ぬ shinu through the phrase “She knew he was going to die.” Or that the Japanese word for “brain” is 脳 nou, pronounced like this:

This Is How I Learned Japanese Darth Vader

You’ll never forget this word as long as you live, right?

Instead of the word “learn” I prefer to use the term “internalize,” since that’s what it really is: the process of inserting and connecting a word inside your brain so that it’s fully wired and accessible. Imagine how it was when you learned the word senpai, a strange concept that sort of means “upperclassman” which crosses many areas of Japanese social life, but which you eventually came to understand after you saw it used in a dozen places and situations, and may be used to it yourself.

Embrace Sentence Patterns

I found I could make headway in my studies by treating sentences as defined expressions, like mathematics. Memorizing an example sentence, then once I was comfortable with that, swapping out the words with other ones, helped me a lot.

In the excellent film Arrival, a science fiction film about an alien encounter, language and time, Ian comments that Louise “approaches language like a mathematician.” I thought this was really cool, since this approach helped get me through my first years of Japanese classes.

Understand the Importance of Emotional Connections

In my article about raising kids bilingually through anime, I mentioned a teacher who did a cool thing for us, basically canceling class for the day and instead taught us to sing a famous Japanese song called Kampai, which is sung at weddings a lot. Rather than teach us a few new verb tenses or vocabulary words, she gave us the ability to form a connection with Japan that was much more meaningful and could open up doors for us when interacting with Japanese people (singing with them at a karaoke bar).

Be “8X”

This is my general advice about almost any aspect of life, and I thought of it all by myself, though a dude named Grant Cardone came up with his version too.

Back in the day, computers had CD-ROM drives, and one of the things customers would do decide whether they were okay with a 2X CD-ROM drive, or if they want to splurge on an 8X one that could record the data off a CD in 8X the speed.

So I decided to be “8X” when learning Japanese, which involved

  • going to my Japanese class every day
  • doing my assigned homework
  • finding a manga I wanted to read in Japanese (Maison Ikkoku and Orange Road)
  • watching anime, but engaging my brain while doing so
  • getting into Japanese dramas
  • helping Japanese friends with their homework in exchange for help with mine
  • challenging myself to recite every number I saw in Japanese when we were learning numbers
  • transcribing songs I wanted to sing at karaoke someday
  • actually going to karaoke and singing the songs, which was fun, gave me positive feedback and aided memorization hugely.

The idea is, try eight different things and see what works. If a few of them don’t seem to be doing you any good, discard them and try some new things. This is also the method I use for weight loss and health management.

There are always good ideas you can try. One friend of mine read all his manga digitally, but with the Japanese language pages followed by the English pages, so he could read it once in Japanese then check his understanding. What a great idea!

Get Obsessive. Get a Rival.

Depending on your goals, don’t be afraid to get obsessive. Doing something for an hour a week and expecting results is for chumps.

Another trick I used was to focus on a rival who was slightly better than me at Japanese, first a senpai from university, then a Chinese friend. I was determined to get a higher JLPT score on the test than both and used that as my motivation provider. I don’t think either person noticed I was using them to motivate myself.

Use the JLPT

The Japanese Language Proficiency Test is the main test for learning Japanese, which is given in December and July inside Japan and in various cities around the world. It has five levels, level N5 (the easiest, requiring basic reading and vocabulary) all the way to N1 (which is required if you’re applying to attend a Japanese university). The test includes reading, vocabulary and listening comprehension, but no actual writing, and at the more difficult levels, is slightly skewed towards academic Japanese, in a similar way to the TOEFL test for English learners. It’s structured so you have a fighting chance to go up one level per year, depending on your study environment.

We stock JLPT study books on J-List.

Use Anime/Manga/Dramas, but Do It Wisely

Obviously, immersing yourself in the Japanese language through anime, manga comics or interesting TV dramas is a great idea. Just understand the limitations. In my own case, I learned way too much Japanese from Fist of the North Star, and talked a bit too much like Kenshiro for a while. Learning Japanese from the Yakuza game series, which potentially awesome, is also not a great idea.

In general, a mixed approach is probably best. Certainly, you should embrace live-action dramas and movies in addition to other forms of pop culture.

Embrace Those Errors

It’s impossible to not learn from one’s errors, so embrace them. I remember I once hitchhiked up to northern Japan. I was trying to buy a flashlight so I could read at night, but the English word フラッシュライト wasn’t a word anyone up there knew. The word I needed to use was 懐中電灯 kaichuu-dentou, and my frustration at not knowing this word when I needed it guaranteed that I’d never forget it.

Avoid ‘Gariben.’

The Japanese are masters at studying, and many study for half their lives until the age of 24. A lot of them study for the purpose of studying, without realizing that there’s no possible reason to study if you’re not going to use the language to improve your life or make friends or have experiences. If you find yourself studying for the purpose of studying (called ガリ勉 gariben in Japanese), maybe try to re-think your approach, and make sure you’re going doing things that your future self will thank you for today.

Is it Harder or Easier Learning Japanese Now?

Is it harder or easier to learn Japanese now, compared with when I was doing it, 30 years ago? In a lot of ways it’s harder because you can consume manga and anime in English, whereas if I wanted to learn to read Touch, the legendary baseball manga, I had to do it in Japanese.

That said, there are a lot of useful tools that exist now. Online dictionaries. Podcasts. The ability to use tools like Twitter to interact in Japanese in a low-stress way. And cool communities you could join, like fan-subbing groups, to get useful experience.

Other Language Hacks

Googling around for this article, I came across this post on 42 Japanese learning hacks. I don’t agree with all the points, some of the suggestions are awesome.


Got any questions about how I learned Japanese that I can help you with? Ask us on Twitter!

About the author

Peter Payne

I live in Japan and I run J-List, an anime shop famous for shimapan and Tentacle Grape. I love being able to bring Japanese culture to the world.