Written by:
Sep 18, 2023

How to Learn Japanese in 6 Easy Steps: Guide for Beginners

With around 130 million speakers, Japanese is a fascinating language. What adds to the charm is its role in understanding diverse cultures and traditions. Whether for travel, fun, or business, even a basic grasp of Japanese is extremely important. Master the essentials and you’ll navigate signs, roads, and enjoy Japanese cuisine like a local. But what are the easiest ways to learn Japanese?

Our approach on how to learn Japanese for beginners is to start from scratch. Assume zero Japanese knowledge, and we’ll guide you through and show you the best ways to learn Japanese. Writing systems, basic expressions, useful Japanese learning apps and resources ー we've got you covered. You'll know what tools to use, when, and why. So, embark on this adventure with us! 

Table of contents

  1. How to Learn Japanese for Beginners: A short Introduction
  2. Understanding Writing Systems in Japanese Language
  3. Japanese Writing in Hiragana
  4. Japanese Writing in Katakana
  5. Japanese Writing in Kanji
  6. Japanese Writing in Rōmaji
  7. Simple Japanese Pronunciation Rules for Beginners
  8. 6 Easy Steps for Beginners to Learn Japanese Fast 
  9. Start with Japanese Pronunciation
  10. Learn Kana
  11. Learn Key Japanese Phrases
  12. Watch Anime in Japanese
  13. Chat with Japanese Natives
  14. Bonus Tip to Learn Japanese Fast for Beginners

How to Learn Japanese for Beginners: A short Introduction

Spoken by a diverse community of nearly 130 million people, Japanese is a captivating language that weaves together tradition, innovation, and cultural nuances. While it's the official language of Japan, its influence stretches far beyond its borders. Communities of Japanese speakers thrive in countries like Brazil, the United States, and even Peru, showcasing the global impact of this intricate language.

a person learning to read Japanese writings

Now, let's address the question many learners wonder about: how difficult is learning Japanese? Learning any new language requires dedication, effort and time, and Japanese is no exception. Its unique writing systems, hiragana, katakana, and kanji, add layers of complexity. 

But here's the thing: it's not an insurmountable task. With the right approach, resources, and a sprinkle of patience, you can embark on an exciting journey of mastering this language. So, get ready to dive into a world where characters, meanings, and sounds  create a linguistic roadmap for your journey that's both exciting and rewarding.

Understanding Writing Systems in Japanese Language

This might all sound good and easy, but the question of what I should learn in Japanese first might still not be 100% clear for you. 

As with every language acquisition, learning Japanese also starts with mastering good pronunciation. An excellent first step to that is to get yourself familiar with the writing systems. 

There are three (plus one) writing systems to write the Japanese language, each of these are composed of different characters. Let’s see what they’re made of, how to learn and use them. 

1. Japanese Writing in Hiragana

Hiragana is basically a Japanese syllabary, phonetic sound characters that formulate one Japanese writing system. This system of 46 characters is your key to unlock native words, so it's like learning ABC. 

The basic difference is that the alphabet puts individual letters and sounds together, on the other hand, a syllabary like hiragana and katakana turns syllables like “ka” or “ru” into single characters. So whenever you pronounce “na” or な it is always pronounced like a short “nah” no matter the context. 

Japanese Hiragana characters

Imagine it as your entrance ticket to understanding and being understood in Japan. From kids to language learners, everyone starts with hiragana, so this should also be your starting point on your linguistic journey. Don’t forget check out our hiragana learning guide!

2. Japanese Writing in Katakana

Learning katakana is going to be relatively easy if you've grasped hiragana! The sounds are the same, only the appearance differs a bit. Katakana rocks sharp angles while hiragana flows more cursive. For example, the syllable “ya” in hiragana is や, and in katakana, it's ヤ. Still sounds puzzling? Find further explanations on our katakana learning guide.

Usage sets them apart too. Katakana is used to write foreign words, like brands and dishes, but also sounds that find no translation in Japanese. It's in the heart of Japanese life. If you are an English speaker, you're extra lucky! If you master katakana, countless English loanwords will ring a familiar bell. Say hello to サラダ "sarada"! Yes, you guessed it right, it means salad. 🥗

Japanese Katakana characters

3. Japanese Writing in Kanji

Having conquered hiragana and katakana (collectively called kana), now it's time to embrace kanji. These symbols are the backbone of the Japanese language, representing entire words and concepts.

Kanji stand alone or combine with kana to create words and ideas, even transforming into verbs. Their pronunciation varies based on connections with other kanji or kana, and that could be tricky. But don't worry, they actually make reading smoother.

Originating from China, kanji became a key script in Japanese. Each character carries its own meaning, functioning like ideograms. Combine them, and new words blossom. Picture "electricity" merging with "car" to mean "train". Thousands of characters exist, with around 2000-3000 needed to easily read a newspaper. An essential set of 2136 characters is dubbed "everyday kanji". You can learn more about studying kanji on our website, don’t miss it. 

Kanji paints nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verbs. But unlike Chinese, Japanese isn't solely kanji. Combined with hiragana and katakana, you’ll get what a real Japanese text would look like.

4. Japanese Writing in Rōmaji

Finally, meet rōmaji, a valuable addition to Japanese writing. Also known as the "romanization of Japanese," it’s a Latin script that spells out Japanese words for pronunciation. Although not an essential tool for daily conversation, rōmaji is the bridge between Japanese culture and the West, easing expressions like kimono (着物) and sushi (寿司) into our linguistic realm.

Simple Japanese Pronunciation Rules for Beginners

Understanding the Japanese sound system is vital as you embark on your Japanese language journey. The whole system is based on the "mora," the fundamental unit of sound in Japanese, each taking approximately the same time in spoken language. 

Think of a mora as a simple syllable, typically containing one vowel, occasionally preceded by a single consonant or a combination of consonants. For instance, “e” or “me” are single vowel and consonant + vowel mora, respectively.

Here are some key points for Japanese word pronunciation:

  • Consonants are always followed by vowels, unlike English, where consonants can follow other consonants. There's one exception – the letter “n” (ん).
  • Japanese lacks diphthongs, and the “r” sound is somewhat closer to “l”.
  • Double consonants are common, signifying a prolonged sound or a brief pause in speech.
  • Japanese speech typically lacks accent or stress but uses a pitch accent. Each mora may vary in pitch, not loudness or duration. Ensure even mora length and try to match Japanese intonation as you listen to native speakers.
  • Fully pronounce each vowel unless it should be devoiced. Avoid reducing vowels to an "uh" sound like in unstressed English syllables.

These fundamentals are ample for beginners, and as you practice speaking, keep these principles in mind to improve your pronunciation.

6 Easy Steps for Beginners to Learn Japanese Fast 

1. Start with Japanese Pronunciation

As we mentioned earlier, a great entry point for learning Japanese is getting familiar with the sounds and how to pronounce them. Whether you are a beginner, learning Japanese on your own, or learning Japanese online, this is the step you shouldn’t skip.  

But how, you might ask. Mastering the art of pronunciation in your language journey requires active engagement. While it's tempting to confine your studies to reading and listening, speaking the learned words and phrases aloud is essential. Remember, repetition is your ally. 

Pay heed to the rhythm and intonation, as they compose the "music" of the language. And don't overlook the nuances of tricky sounds; for instance, the Japanese "R" sound, a blend of L and R, might warrant extra attention.

It's common for one's native accent to seep into their newly acquired language, but a key strategy is to embrace Japanese phonetics wholeheartedly. Swiftly getting familiar with hiragana and katakana can facilitate adopting a Japanese-centric pronunciation. 

an open mouth

Regular practice, such as mimicking, shadowing, and self-recording, aids in refining your diction. Engaging with native speakers is invaluable; their guidance can help polish your intonation and accent.

In conversation, rely solely on the pronunciation you've grasped through practice and mimicry, forget  the influence of your mother tongue. 

2. Learn Kana

We can’t emphasize this enough, but first, you have to opt for learning hiragana and mastering katakana as your stepping stones, leaving rōmaji for later. If you're feeling adventurous, you can start playing around with kanji as well. With this approach, your pursuit for clear Japanese articulation will surely thrive.

Both hiragana and katakana represent the 46 sounds in the Japanese language, so learning how to write, read and pronounce these is the most essential part of your Japanese language journey.

When starting your kana studies, take care with difficult sounds and pay extra attention to vowel sounds, as they’re the foundation of the Japanese language. If you get those right, the rest will come naturally.

3. Learn Key Japanese Phrases

If your initial goal is to communicate in Japanese, vocabulary is another important step in your language learning journey. As any other new language, Japanese vocabulary will also require you to spend a good amount of time daily to ace the language. Here are two methods you can use to learn Japanese vocabulary:

  • Spaced repetition is a proven learning method that helps you to memorize things within a reasonable time. It targets your long-term memory and helps your mind to actively recall the new information. This technique includes repeated testing that helps your mind to boost memorization, retention and comprehension. 

Language learning apps, like Language Drops, use spaced repetition as their main tool to help you memorize Japanese vocabulary in a shorter amount of time. You can also practice whenever and wherever you want, with online and offline modes both available. 

  • During your studies with Drops, you’ll find useful phrases and terms that you want to learn no matter what. Once you've found these, you need to collect them. Mark them as your “favorite” or put them in your Word Collection, and Drops will make sure you’ll be tested on these frequently and actively. This will make memorizing them a breeze!
two people talking and let each other know they are listening

To get you excited about your upcoming journey, here are a few Japanese expressions you can learn by yourself that will get you started and help you navigate through a casual Japanese conversation.

  • Hi! こんにちは。: “konnichiwa” is a common greeting used during daytime hours, mainly from 11am to 5pm. It literally translates to "it's a day," derived from an old phrase meaning "the day is clear." It's a neutral, casual term, suitable for most social situations. You can use 'こんにちは' to greet Japanese friends, colleagues, or even strangers in stores or on the street. But depending on the context and formality of the situation, certain Japanese greetings will be more appropriate than others. Check out 13 ways to say “Hi” in Japanese

  • Thank you for hosting me! お邪魔します。: "ojama shimasu" is a polite phrase used when entering someone's home in Japan. It literally translates to "I will be a disturbance," reflecting the culture's emphasis on respect and humility. You can use this phrase to show politeness and understanding of Japanese etiquette. It's typically used after the host invites you in, and before you step inside. 

  • Words said before meals いただきます。:”itadakimasu" is a phrase used in Japan before eating a meal. It translates to "I humbly receive" and is a way of showing appreciation for the food. It's similar to saying "bon appétit" or "let's eat" in English. It's a fun, cultural practice that shows respect for the effort and resources that went into preparing the meal. As a Japanese learner、 using "いただきます" before meals can help you immerse yourself in Japanese etiquette.

  • Thank you for the meal! ご馳走様でした。:”gochisōsama deshita” is a polite phrase used after eating to express gratitude towards the person who prepared the meal. It's a way to show appreciation not just for the food, but also for the effort and care that went into making it. This phrase is often used in both casual and formal settings. It's a good habit to adopt as a language learner, as it shows respect and understanding of Japanese culture.

If you are eager to learn more Japanese phrases by yourself, check out our post on how to say goodbye in Japanese in 9 easy ways. Curious to know more? Take a look at the 100+ essential Japanese words and phrases to describe unique Japanese traditions and customs.

4. Watch Anime in Japanese

The world of anime, a cultural sensation, can significantly help your language pursuit. This visually appealing animated media provides a unique insight into Japanese culture and language. So integrating various media like anime and manga into your learning can boost motivation and infuse cultural insights.

Yet, while anime offers a dynamic learning opportunity, it's not a magic spell either. Think of it as a supplemental tool, enhancing your studies rather than a language instructor. As you gain proficiency beyond basics, consider introducing anime into your learning regimen. 

cute anime show on tv

Note-taking during viewing is essential. Write down new words and expressions for later exploration. Engaging with subtitled anime can help with listening comprehension, especially aiding kanji understanding.

Remember, your Japanese learning adventure encompasses both structured study and immersive experiences like anime, manga or j-pop, harmonizing for a richer grasp of language and culture.

Now, let's explore some excellent anime choices to kickstart your Japanese learning journey.

  • Doraemon: This timeless series revolves around Nobita, a young boy facing typical childhood challenges like school, family and friendships. But it comes with a twist! A magical earless cat robot named Doraemon becomes his guardian and friend. The language in this anime is straightforward, using everyday words that’s helpful to learners of all levels. Doraemon is not only beloved but also considered a cultural icon in Japan, making it an ideal starting point.

  • Shirokuma Cafe: Who can resist a bunch of animals engaging in everyday chit chat about their lives? This anime is famous for its extensive dialogue, mirroring real daily Japanese conversations. While starting with subtitles is recommended, more advanced learners may experiment with toggling subtitles on and off to test their comprehension.

  • Anpanman: Anpanman, an adored children's character, is based on a familiar snack: anpan (あんぱん), bread filled with sweet red bean paste. Anpanman's simple stories and dialogues, aimed at children aged 0 to 4, are an excellent choice for Japanese language beginners. Plus, you'll get insights into Japan's unique bakery culture, from melonpan (メロンパン) to currypan (カレーパン), found in local bakeries and supermarkets across the country.

While these anime selections offer engaging language learning opportunities, remember that they are just one part of your learning journey, and consistent practice is key to mastering Japanese.

5. Chat with Japanese Natives

Strengthening your speaking skills ー regardless of your level ー can be easily enriched by focusing on listening practices. As you immerse yourself in real Japanese conversations, your ears become finely tuned to the pronunciation, rhythms and tone of the language.

Look for local opportunities to connect with native Japanese speakers. Universities often host gatherings, and you can discover these events through some easy online searches. While private lessons are available, university classes can provide cost-effective alternatives, sometimes costing less than private instruction. You can also  contact university instructors or senior students who might also offer private lessons.

person smiling and respectfully bowing

For those who live in a region with larger Japanese communities, meet-ups are an excellent opportunity as well. These events facilitate connections with Japanese individuals, and offer opportunities for language exchange with native speakers. Whether you're in a bustling city or a more remote location, exploring meetup websites can help you find local gatherings dedicated to Japanese culture and language exchange.

Surprisingly, social media can serve as a valuable platform for practicing Japanese too. Instead of only sharing content, view it as a tool to find Japanese friends. Use hashtags related to your interests to connect with like-minded individuals. Connecting with others who share similar interests provides a natural foundation for easy communication. Also, watching live streams or short videos helps with acclimating your ears to native Japanese speech.

Bonus Tip to Learn Japanese Fast for Beginners

If you're taking the first step, and you are looking for an easy way to learn Japanese, give Drops a try. Language learning should be engaging and fun, and Drops understands this well. Our app adds a playful touch, turning your journey into an enjoyable adventure with gamified challenges and review tools to maintain your learning streaks.

We know that mastering a language involves not only reading and writing but also confident speaking. Drops recognizes the importance of accurate pronunciation and provides native speaker audio recordings for you. With Drops, you can immerse yourself in native pronunciation, imitate speakers, and refine your accent and intonation, choosing between Yoko and Ichiro, our resident native speakers.

Language and culture go hand in hand, and Drops takes you beyond vocabulary, inviting you to explore Japanese customs, traditions, and other cultural delicacies with topics like Visiting your Host Family, In a Japanese Cafe or I’m an Otaku, providing a holistic learning experience and helping you learn Japanese faster. Learn Japanese with our Uniquely Japanese topics now!

Learning a language is even more rewarding when shared, and Drops fosters a community of language enthusiasts, allowing you to connect, share progress, stories, and seek assistance from fellow Japanese learners.

Want to try out a fun and effective way of learning more words and greetings in Japanese? Try Drops!

Zita Palik is a Hungary based Language Content Manager and an 80's music maniac.

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