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Learning Japanese

NOTE: I stopped learning Japanese in 2010, and my Japanese was never very good. When I went to Tokyo in 2006, my Japanese was good enough to ask directions, prices and other information without people replying in English. That's all.

That said, here's what I learned about learning Japanese.

  1. Writing system
  2. Suggestion: Learn through another language
  3. Learning materials
  4. Software
  5. Tests
  6. Writing Japanese documents on your computer (LaTeX, Emacs, etc.)


Writing system

The Japanese writing system is strange because it's split into a small set of simple phonetic symbols (hirigana and katakana, collectively called kana), plus a few thousand non-phonetic symbols (kanji). Learning the Japanese writing system probably takes as much time as learning the grammar and vocabulary, so it makes sense to learn the two together. Don't get a book that uses examples written in the latin alphabet. Always choose books that use kana from the start and which start using kanji as soon as possible.

Writing Japanese is much easier than reading it. To write it, you can look up the word in a dictionary and copy the symbol. To read Japanese, you first have to learn how to use a Japanese kanji dictionary, and each dictionary has it's own method of organising the characters.


Suggestion: learn through another language

Learning Japanese is a slow process and you'll spend months talking like a six-year-old saying that you like cake and apples, and that you ate a cake yesterday, on your own? No, with your friend! and that it was tasty, and that your friend is tall and has brown hair, and that your house is nice, and why is it nice? Because there are flowers!

Reading these things in English is a waste of your time, so if you want to practice another language that you have some knowledge of, then I recommend looking for books in that language for learning Japanese.

I'm trying to practice my French and Dutch, but there are almost no Dutch books for learning Japanese, so almost all of my books for learning Japanese are in French.


Learning materials

In English


Teach Yourself Beginners Japanese. I liked this book. I did the first 11 chapters before I went to Japan, and I'm very glad I did. I was able to ask directions, ask the price of things, ask for things in shops, etc.

Japanese For Busy People book I. I hate this book. The exercises are simply substitution drills. They're completely pointless and unhelpful. It's published by the "Association for Japanese-Language Teaching", so I guess people think it's there's something official about it or that it's a "real" japanese book. If you're really too busy to learn Japanese, I recommend Teach Yourself Beginners Japanese (also reviewed on this page).

Japanese For Busy People book II. This book has some nice ideas, but it has problems too. One nice idea is that it shows you the pronunciation of each kanji only once, so you are forced to learn the kanji. Problems include that it teaches the kanji in a very awkward order with very complex kanji in the first chapter. Another problem is that some of the exercises are too hard and most of the rest are too easy.

Dictionary and tutorial websites

In French


40 Leçons pour parler japonais. This is my favourite book. While teaching the grammar and vocabularly, it teaches hirigana, then katakana, then 60 kanji along the way. The 40 chapters are split into many small sections, of a page or half a page, so you can make progress even if you only have a few minutes.

Le Japonais en Manga. This is very good. It's made up of 30 chapters, each of which takes about an hour and a half. The exercise book, although it looks overpriced for it's size, is worth getting too.

Le Japonais en Manga: Tome 2. This book is spoiled by it's long chapters. While the 6-page chapters of the first book can be read while taking a bath or a lunch break, it's hard to find the time for the 10-page chapters of this book. I haven't gotten very far in this book.

Dictionary and tutorial websites

Japanese books with furigana and bilingual books

A friend recommended the poetry collections of Misuzu Kaneko: "She was active in the early 1900s and wrote poems for children. Her books, from various publishers, are available from online bookstores. The ones with childish pictures on the cover are likely to have furigana." And some bilingual manga comics: 'Sazae-san' and 'Granny Mischief' by Machiko Hasegawa and 'Doraemon' by Fujiko-Fujio.



There's plugin for GNU IceCat (and thus Firefox), with which you can roll your pointer over a kanji on a webpage and get the pronunciation information:

And there's a good flashcard program with Kanji:

Of course they're free software - I wouldn't suggest them otherwise.



I haven't done any of the tests, but I've looked into it a few times.

The main test is the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. This test can only be taken once a year, on the first Sunday of December. Most test centres require you to complete the registration process before September 26th. In 2008, allowed enrolment until October 10th.

As of 2008, there are four levels, with level 4 being the simplest. According to French Wikipedia's JLTP article, in 2009, in China and Japan, they'll add a July sitting for levels 1 and 2, and in 2010 they'll reformulate the system to have five levels, the new level having a difficulty somewhere between the current levels 2 and 3. The source cited for this info is a document in Japanese.

For foreigners wishing to study in Japan, most colleges rely on another test called the Examination for Japanese University Admission for International Students. This can be taken on two dates each year, but there are no testing centres in Europe, Africa, or the Americas.


Writing Japanese documents on your computer (LaTeX, Emacs, etc.)

During your learning, you'll probably want to make Japanese text files and PDF documents. After experimenting with a few document preparation systems, I decided LaTeX is the best technology to use, but it's certainly not easy. Here is what I have written on the subject:

And here are articles I've read by other people:

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