Learn Japanese Fast

3 months: Learning Japanese Fast

by Mitchell on January 9, 2012

So, I’ve been living in Japan for close to 5 months now and unfortunately haven’t picked up nearly as much of the language as I’d hoped. I’ve got the greetings down and can order simple food but anything past that (let alone a conversation) is out of the question. I thought that since I was living with a Japanese girl and working at a Japanese company the language would come naturally. That hasn’t been the case, so I’ve decided that some studying/learning might be a good idea.

I’ve come up with a plan to learn basic conversational Japanese in the next 3 months. I’ll be documenting my progress bi-weekly and sharing what works (and doesn’t work with all of you). The inspiration for this was partly an insistence by my place of employment and partly a post by Tim Ferriss with information on rapid language learning.

So, here’s my plan

Learning Japanese Master Plan Part 1:

Learning how to speak Japanese

- Memorize the 100 most common words (Approximately 50% of all written words in Japanese)
- podcasts for the commute
- Human Japanese app (iphone and computer)
- practicing on co-workers, housemate, randoms, etc.

Japanese Word Memorization

I’ve got a list of 100 words and a little mini notecard flashcard thingy. I’m writing the words in Japanese (roman and hiragana) on one side and in English on the other. My goal is to memorize 2 new words every day. This should take me just under a month and a half as I already know a few of the words on this list. Once I’ve got these down I’ll work on the 200-500 most common words which should bring me close to 80% basic Japanese comprehension.

Learn Japanese Podcasts

I’ve got a 30 minute commute to and from work 5 days a week.
This equates to an hour or so of potential learning time which I’ve thus-far been squandering playing angry birds and listening to Kanye Wests latest album.
I’ve found a few “Learn Japanese” Podcasts that I’m going to try out on my commute and see if I can get anything out of them.
I’ll report back on which ones are worth spending time with.

The podcasts I’ll be trying out initially:

Human Japanese (computer and iPhone app)

I picked up this iPod app a month or so before I came to Japan.
It’s a great app that teaches you Japanese in a very friendly manner.
I ended up buying the computer version as well so I can access it in its bigger screen glory. I’m planning on going through this app in much more detail than I did previously and using it to help me learn the basics. This will teach me word structure, how and when to use different phrases and how the language works and fits together

Practice Speaking Japanese

They say practice makes perfect so I’ll be practicing on co-workers, housemate, randoms, etc.
Since I’m living in Tokyo I’ll have plenty of opportunities to put my new found language skills to the test.

Learning Japanese Master Plan Part 2:

Learning Hiragana/Katakana/Kanji

As you are probably aware, Japanese words are not written using roman characters. This makes reading Japanese and learning new words somewhat more difficult. The fact that there are 3 different vocabularies in everyday use complicates things even further.
My plan is to learn Hiragana (used for writing Japanese words that don’t have a Kanji) and Katakana (used for writing foreign words) first with the help of the Human Japanese App and lots of practice and then tackle Kanji (based on Chinese characters and a huge biznatch) at a later date.

48 hiragana characters
51 katakana characters

To learn them all in 3 months means I’ll have to learn and master approximately 8 characters per week. Once you get going there are a number of similarities between the characters so this should be an attainable goal for me if I work hard at it.

I’m hoping that by publicly announcing this on the blog I’ll be motivated to keep at it. I’ll be posting every two weeks with a progress report with how I’m getting along and what’s working and not working.

Until Next Time,


p.s.Want to learn Japanese yourself? Join me on this quest to language domination. Leave a comment below saying you’re in or offer words of wisdom if you’ve already mastered Japanese (or any language other than your native tongue)

p.p.s. If you’re here from Stumbleupon, thumbs up XD

You guys are awesome! Check out some more great resources suggested by readers in the comments.

(Thanks John, checking these out now)

Interactive Flashcards (my co-worker used these to learn Hiragana in 3 hours!)- http://www.zompist.com/flash.html
Basic Phrases: http://www.learn-hiragana-katakana.com/japanese-phrases/ (Thanks Cookie!)
Hiragana Stories: http://life.ou.edu/stories/ (Thanks Kuros!)

Learn Japanese Website:
http://www.tofugu.com/  and http://www.textfugu.com/ (Thanks Devin!)

{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Xand January 11, 2012 at 2:36 am

I have been studying Japanese for 6 years now, and have lived in Japan for over a year. My advice is learn Japanese like you were running a marathon, not a sprint. I have 6 years down and about 10 to go before I could ever get near to even getting “80%” (which is NOT 500 words) of the language. It is a bunch of memorization, but not just vocab and grammar, the context/usage of each word and phrase as well. 少しずつ習った方がいいと思います (Learning little by little is best.)


Mitchell January 11, 2012 at 3:36 am

Hey Xand,
Thanks for the comment and the advice!
This is definitely something I plan on working on over the next few years. I’m hoping that this 3 month intense learning period will give me a good grasp of the basics and set me up for continued Japanese learning.

Thanks for pointing out my mistake re: 80% of Japanese.
What I meant to say was that these 500 common words would give me approximately 80% comprehension of basic spoken Japanese. I’ve edited the post to reflect that.

Thanks again!



Kuros January 11, 2012 at 3:46 am

Baka gaijin.


anonymous January 19, 2012 at 1:10 am

Seriously? “Baka” is definitely derogatory and “gaijin” implies that you’re also racist. How about we not to use ad hominem attacks?


Bitto February 26, 2012 at 7:50 pm

anata wa honto ni baka de. zakennayo.


Kuros January 11, 2012 at 3:57 am

Also, you can learn all the kanas in 3 days, a week max.
Yeah, it’s just as easy.

Seriously, don’t do that of ’8 a week’. Is way to slow. Make it 10 – 20 a day. Then read some manga with only kanas. I would give you to download raw scans, but hey, you are in moon land, buy some.
Practice with this http://life.ou.edu/stories/ , some tales with only hiragana.


Mitchell January 11, 2012 at 4:02 am

Thanks Kuros!
My co-worker told me he learned Hiragana in a couple of hours and I was blown away. I’ve started practicing with these flashcards http://www.zompist.com/flash.html
So far so good.
Thanks again!


Amy January 11, 2012 at 6:49 am

I took 3 years in High school and a semester in college. And I still feel like I don’t know anything. I just this weekend decided I was going to re-study my Japanese. It helped that a friend of mine, who also took the Japanese classes in high school with me, was also my co-worker. We would greet and talk to each other in Japanese at work. Though I would get stuck and have to say “Gomen, wakarimasen” >.<

Anyways! Let's do this!! XD


Mitchell January 12, 2012 at 1:41 am

Yay! Someone is joining me. Hi Amy :)
Looks like you’ve got quite a headstart on me. I’ll do my best to get up to speed as quickly as possible. Ganbatte!!


John January 12, 2012 at 3:34 pm

Good luck with this. If I could recommend a good podcast I’ve used, try http://learnjapanesepod.com/
There are a ton of podcasts for free, newsletters and some other stuff. Kind of fun.

Can’t wait to see how you do.


Mitchell January 13, 2012 at 2:26 am

Cheers for that John!
I’ll give them a go and report back :)


Cookie January 12, 2012 at 4:48 pm

DUDE – in the same boat as you – cept I’m an english teacher (of course) – and I’ve been in Tokyo for 6 months now…


That might help. Human Japanese is AMAZING. I’m planning to do a few language swaps with friends too (meet at a cafe/bar – 1/2 an hour english/half an hour Japanese)…maybe that will help?


Mitchell January 13, 2012 at 2:30 am

Woooah. Crazy!
Thanks for those phrases, will bust some of them out today.
Loving the language swap idea as well. You think craigslist would be a good place to line that up? I’m sure hitting the bar and asking random hotties to teach me their language would work as well.


Devin January 12, 2012 at 8:01 pm

I’ve been, ever so slowly, learning 日本語 over several years, and had all but given up until finding a website called Tofugu.com, which is kind of like the front page for an excellent Japanese language site called Textfugu.com. The best part about this site is… it works! I’ve learned more in a month on that site than the entire 5+ years prior to finding it. And to make the site even better; the creator offers the first chapter or 2 (Hiragana and Katakana) Free!

As far as the whole Kana learning; yes, you can learn it in less than a week. For me, it took about 3 days to learn Hiragana, then only 1 additional day to learn ALL of Katakana (since it’s essentially the same thing with a couple exceptions). The hard one is the Kanji, since you need to know roughly 2000 to be considered “fluent”. Anyway, check out textfugu.com sometime… they do a great job of setting you up for success as well, so you might have a couple lessons that don’t even go over any 日本語 to get through first, but they’ll help you keep focused on your studies.



Mitchell January 13, 2012 at 3:20 am

Nice! Both those sites look great. Will check them out in more detail tonight when I get home. Thanks!


Matthew January 13, 2012 at 2:16 am

I feel the same, i have 3 years going on 4 of Japanese in high school yet even now i still feel like i know vary little, worst is the Japanese class has thinned a bit as people started losing interest or gave up on the class, now my teacher realizes i don’t know as much as he wanted me and the rest of the class (8 people) to know. Now i got to step up on my studying. i might have to look into your method.


Mitchell January 13, 2012 at 2:34 am

Hey Matthew,
Keep at it!
I’m sure you know waaay more than you think you do.


Paul January 13, 2012 at 12:04 pm

Hi Mitchell,

It’s great that you’re committed to learning Japanese! I’m sure you know many expats who have lived in Japan for 10 years and still can neither speak nor read the language. As a language teacher and speaker of Japanese let me give you some tips:

1. Make 100% sure your electronic dictionary is easy to use and most importantly, fast, so you can use it all the time. Consider getting a denshijishou, which is probably faster and more accurate than any app dictionary on a phone. Definitely don’t rely on a paper dictionary which is so slow that you will never use it. You want to be able to be walking down the street, see a word on a sign, and look it up quickly without too much trouble.

2. Sign up for a class that meets, ideally, 2-3 hours a week. The focused practice and instant feedback you’ll get in a class will benefit you more than dozens of hours studying by yourself. It will also show you what you need to learn and in what order, and allow you to practice with other people who are at the same level of the language as you.

3. After a few months of class when you can begin to read authentic material, look for manga with “furigana” — small kana above the kanji that tell you how to pronounce the kanji. This helps greatly with looking up the meanings of the words, and allows you to ask other people about the meaning (so you can yell to your girlfriend, “hey, what does “genjitsu” mean?” instead of “Hey can you stop what you’re doing and come look at this kanji compound and tell me what it means??” )

4. When you talk to Japanese people for practice, after you use an expression which you’re not sure is correct (in its grammar or vocabulary), you need to ask them if it’s correct or not. Unlike the speakers of many other languages (ahem, French), Japanese people usually don’t try to correct your Japanese even if it’s wrong, so you can inadvertently be “practicing” a grammatically incorrect expression dozens of times without knowing it’s wrong, or even offensive! (it’s happened to me!)

Hope that’s not too much to keep in mind, and good luck!


Lars January 13, 2012 at 3:22 pm

Paul, now I just have to know what this offensive “grammatically incorrect expression” was that you unknowingly used dozens of times. xD


Mitchell January 16, 2012 at 12:46 pm

Thanks so much!
Great to get a teachers input.
Will be picking up a denshijishou ASAP and will start working on your other suggestions as well.


Catherine January 16, 2012 at 4:56 am

Good luck to you! I’ve taken 3 semesters of Japanese and am about to begin the 4th one this week… even though I study my butt off and get a lot of advice from my Japanese boyfriend, as Xand said it is a marathon effort. Definitely practicing and getting help from your Japanese associates will help a lot, since they can teach you some of the social rules inherent to the Japanese language. Some advice from an admittedly inexperienced speaker:

1. get away from using romanized Japanese as fast as possible. If you can, learn your kana BEFORE you get into grammar and while doing your first vocabulary. If you allow yourself to use romaji you won’t read kana even if it’s there and it will hurt your progress. Another site I don’t think anyone mentioned yet that I used to help me practice was http://www.realkana.com/.

2. You’re right that kanji is pretty nuts, but for when you decide to begin tackling it, use a dictionary that has a radical index. Radicals are the individual symbols that compose each kanji. There’s only a couple hundred of them at most, they have their own meanings assigned and they are used in every single kanji. It will help a lot with recognition so the kanji begin to look like more than just random strokes and you can use the radical meanings to memorize the kanji meanings as well.

3. Try to emulate your coworkers’ or newscasters’ speech rather than average street conversation or anime at first. The latter two are casual speech and so they often leave out certain parts of speech that are important (and difficult) for foreigners to master, as well as using different verb conjugations. Err on the side of formal, as being stiff to your friends is more forgivable than being inappropriately casual to someone who merits respect.

がんばってください! (Do your best!)


Mitchell January 18, 2012 at 2:38 am

Hey Catherine!
Thanks so much for the tips.
I’ve started using Real Kana and it’s really helping me.
Because I have to actually type it in (as opposed to say it in my head) I find I remember it a lot better. Hoping to master the kana in the next week or two and then cut off the romanized japanese learning altogether.
thanks again!


Aristotles Muse January 16, 2012 at 9:12 am

I used the iPhone app “Hiragana light”. it’s a very nice flash card program for hiragana. Unfortunately, the katakana version isn’t free. However, once hiragana is down, it’s similarities to katakana make it much easier. Hiragana is where to focus, and this app is the best I’ve found.


Jessica Carey January 16, 2012 at 3:42 pm

hi! i also only know a tiny bit of japanese, and I just wanted to share another site with you– learn-japanese.info I don’t think it’s updated anymore but they have some great printable charts and stuff, that’s where I learned hiragana from! good luck!


Mitchell January 18, 2012 at 2:36 am

Thanks for sharing that site.
Will definitely be printing some stuff out and adorning my walls with it.


タオ チューン January 17, 2012 at 3:36 am

I’m learning Japanese by my own ways, I created a lot of gadgets or flash cards for learning at this address http://languages.services.officelive.com, I also have a Twitter account to connect with Japanese friends to communicate with. smart.fm and livemocha.com are also some good sites for you to learn Japanese.


tori January 17, 2012 at 8:36 am

I am going to attempt to join you on this quest to learn a good deal of Japanese in the next three months. I plan to study a lot all year long. Right now I know about half of the kana (collectively) and about 100 kanji. I started learning kanji first.

I practice using flash cards and study on and off with my friend. I keep loosing the note books that I start to practice in so I am starting a new one today (that I wont loose!).

I carry my flash cards in my purse and practice in line at the store, when I am at the buss stop/on the buss. I find it helpful to hole punch my flash cards and keep them on rings, that way they are always together and do not get separated.

I listen to Japanese learning language CD’s too.

Besides Japanese, which I want to learn more of, I know English (of course) and a good deal of French.


Mitchell January 18, 2012 at 2:35 am

Yaaay! Welcome :)
I’ve got some hole punchy flash cards as well.
Need to start using them more though.

Good Luck!


Hayden January 19, 2012 at 7:07 pm

I’ve been learning Japanese for the last month or so, I’ve been using Pimsleur Audio tapes and making notes, but with nothing to compare them to I can’t really suggest them. I’ll definitely be using some of these tips though! Thanks :)


Tanya January 20, 2012 at 2:32 am

I’ve been a Nihon-ophile for years now and have just recently decided to book a trip for this fall. I have Pimsleur’s Japanese discs/booklets, which I started years ago but never finished. Now with the motivation of actually traveling to Japan later this year on the horizon, it’s time to get back on it!! Thanks for the additional motivation and for sharing the tools you will be using. Definitely going to get that iPhone app and start brushing up on the bus. Yay!


Nicole Dubill February 23, 2012 at 6:58 pm

I am fourteen years old and just started to learn Hirigana. I love learning this easy writing system but am fearful for Kanji. My parents have been to Japan twice and have picked up a lot of their customs to bring home to me. I am planning to travel to Japan once I get out of college…(I know…Im planning WAY ahead of myself)…With all my violin solos, homework, and hockey I find I have very little time to study Japanese. Hopefully this summer I will be able to focus a lot more on this complicated language…anyways, thanks for the tips!
~Nicole Dubill,14


Troy March 4, 2012 at 12:21 am

I am not very smart but i think i might have a reallly freaking good idea you can use.

If you were to learn the 500 most common words and simultaneously, or basically put the freaking letter kanji on the same flash card, on the same card you could probably not have to learn as much of REDOING the later learning for that annoying Kanji but that’s just my shallow annoyance level speaking

Hope you like it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Troy :)


Daniel March 5, 2012 at 7:05 pm

I can reccomend http://www.worddive.com for learning Japanese words.. I found it is a very fast way to learn words, it works with your visual memory which is good.

I will go to Japan in May for 6 months, also finding it hard to start learning Japanese.. Anyway its kind of fun!
Good Luck!!


Nero March 17, 2012 at 1:48 am

Hey there,

I am also currently learning Japanese an am still at a beginners level. I have had lessons one or twice a week for half a year now and am jsut starting with the Kanji. I know it’s diccicult, but ganbatte! I am very interested in how you get on and if maybe I can get some inspiration from that. How did you end up in Japan? :)


Mitchell March 31, 2012 at 1:35 am

@Troy That is a great idea! Kanji frustrates me to no end.

@Daniel Thank you! I will check that out. Get in touch when you get to Japan and we’ll go for a beer.

@Nero Thanks for the encouragement! My arrival in Japan is a bit of a long story which I will save for another day.


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