Recently I realized that it’s been almost a decade since I started to learn Japanese. In my Anki vocabulary trainer it says that during 2933 days I studied more than every second day:
Now, you could rightfully say that 2933 days divided by 365 days per year equals 8 years and not 10, but I did not use Anki right from the beginning. So, I think it’s fair to say that my whole language study journey amounts to almost one decade.
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While I had more and less active times, I continuously kept it up. It’s become a routine and an enjoyable hobby, and it’s also great to be able to talk to friends in their native language. While my level is way below what it could be, I’m very happy with that I learnt along the way, especially since many techniques are also helping me for learning Chinese, which is my most recent addition to the growing list of languages I want to speak.
What I found quite difficult during these many years of Japanese language study was not the lack of information, but rather the sheer amount of it: I was overwhelmed by great study resources and freely available material. Probably many people can relate with the experience that they keep discovering stuff, saving it “for later”, but then discovering even more and instead of focusing on a few resources and sticking with them, they digress and struggle to keep focus.
For this reason, I thought it would be helpful to show you my personal favourite resources for effective Japanese language and culture studies. I could include many more books, but I found that many of the printed material I bought over the years is very hard to get outside of Japan or only via second-hand stores. Hence in the following I’ll focus on more accessible material.
I’m subscribed to hundreds of blogs about Japan and Japanese language. While many of them became inactive over the years, some continue to be active and entertaining. The following are my top 3 blogs.
Japan Almanach: German blog about Japanese culture
This first resource is not so much about the Japanese language itself, but about Japanese culture and daily life. In my opinion this is as important as studying vocabulary and grammar because knowing the culture allows you to really understand the situational usage of words, phrases and behaviours.
Japan Almanach describes the daily experiences and thoughts of Matthias Reich, a German who lives in Japan for many years already. If you understand German, I highly recommend this blog for interesting insights that go beyond the usual stuff you would read on other “blogs about Japan”. For many topics you will also come across typical Japanese words used in the specific context, so you can also directly increase your vocabulary while reading.
Matthias is an experienced author, and you notice this when reading the articles, which are written in an entertaining and fast-paced, yet well-researched manner. He lives with his Japanese family, so you also will understand concepts of Japanese cram schools for school students or current political events that don’t make it into the major international news.
Japanese Rule of 7: Sarcastic, yet disturbingly accurate
This politically absolutely incorrect blog is written by Ken Seeroi who lives in Japan and knows its cultural idiosyncrasies in and out. The posts often – but not always – contain the words “alcohol” and “girls” which might not be the most relevant content when it comes to Japanese language and culture studies. On the other hand, the posts are written in such a hilarious way that they are a great distraction from whatever you are doing in that moment.
If you know a little bit about Japanese culture, you will notice that – while exaggerated – the details Ken describes are actually pretty accurate. While my Japanese friends did not find these posts so funny when I showed them, I feel that Ken indeed loves Japan, he just has a quite realistic instead of unrealistically romanticized view on the country. This kind of “demystification” is probably something most learners of Japanese language and culture will experience at some point.
Jeffrey Friedl’s Blog: Pro photography in Japan at its best
Jeffrey is a real IT guy, as you could already guess from his blog’s URL regex.info. Yet, he is also a master in photography and this makes his blog a pleasure to browse. His style of writing is very humble, and you can almost feel the Japanese influence he received after so many years of living in the country of the rising sun. While he seems to be less active on his blogs in recent months, it is not completely inactive and it’s also absolutely worthwhile to have a look into the archives full of beautiful photos from around Japan.
Of course, there are many printed resources on Japanese grammar, but here I want to show two online resources that are doing a great job in explaining the different concepts very clearly.
Maggie Sensei: Abundant grammar points from a dog’s perspective
To be totally honest, when I first saw this website with all its different colours, markups, and quirky dog pictures I doubted its quality. However, once you get used to the style (I guess you could describe it as “cute”…) it becomes obvious that the contents are top-notch. Not only does the website cover basically every single aspect of Japanese grammar you could ever have a question on, but it also explains them in such a clear and detailed fashion that I often resorted to this website when other resources – including printed books – left me with some questions.
Tofugu: Japanese from the perspective of a blowfish
“Fugu” is the Japanese word for blowfish and the theme of this website. I was hesitant to include it in my list because it is one of the culprits that led me astray: The website publishes a monthly list of “new resources” for Japanese language learners. While this is certainly great to have, it makes it hard to focus on and stick with a handful. Nevertheless, the blog posts are written in such a detailed and professional style that it would not be fair to ignore this high-quality resource.
Many of the blog posts resonate very much with my own experience, for example the journey of switching between the many Japanese personal pronouns as you become more familiar with language and culture. I discussed many of the covered topics with my Japanese friends and while individual opinions of course differ, in general they confirmed that the contents are very accurate and even they learned new things from the abundant background information. There is also a podcast, which is a good companion for on-the-go studying, although for me personally the episodes tend to be a bit too long.
Dictionaries and books
I found that there are great differences in the quality between different online dictionaries, but if you studied Japanese for a while, I’m confident that you found the most well-known ones, which are popular for a good reason. While many teachers suggest that you should switch to a Japanese-Japanese dictionary once you reach a certain level, I still find a translation into English or German quite useful from time to time and hence prefer to list bilingual dictionaries here. If your level is high enough to understand explanations in Japanese, a simple Google search will most likely bring up great explanations for each specific word in question, be it on a forum, a dictionary, or a news website (the latter sometimes feature useful glossaries).
Jisho.org: User-friendly, exhaustive EN-JP dictionary
This is presumably one of the most famous Japanese-English dictionaries and I think it is well-deserved: The site is easy to use, has one of the most exhaustive word lists and great third-party integrations, for example with tatoeba.org to provide example sentences and show a word in a (more or less) realistic context.
The search algorithm is very strong in finding the basic form of a word that you might have entered in heavily conjugated form and it will tell you that the way you wrote it is for example “passive causative” etc. It is also exceptionally good in breaking down a whole sentence into its individual words (which is not so trivial because in Japanese there are no spaces between words) and properly translates them. Furigana is available across the search results for better readability, as are useful categorizations such as “vocabulary for Japanese Language Proficiency Test Level 2” etc.
Unknown kanji can be found using radical selection or you can also draw them by hand. Irregular kanjis that can be alternatively used to a more common one are also shown. Each verb has an inflection list attached (past, polite, imperative form, etc.). I could go on listing more of the awesome features, but long story short, I think this is the best English-Japanese dictionary available.
Wadoku.de: Japanese-German dictionary
For the German-speaking audience, WaDoku is a great alternative to Jisho. While I do not know which corpus is more abundant (my hunch would be that it’s Jisho.org), I did find some very colloquial, modern or local Japanese expressions translated on Wadoku, but not on Jisho.org. The interface of Wadoku is more old-school compared to Jisho.org and features are less abundant and less sophisticated. For example, I found that parsing a whole sentence and breaking it down into its individual components is – despite some fancy “morphological analysis tools” – less straightforward on Wadoku, so I would mainly recommend it for individual expressions.
Just as Jisho.org, Wadoku provides links to third-party websites such as tatoeba.org or the Japanese-Japanese dictionaries weblio.jp and kotobank.jp. Different than Jisho.org it does not directly display third-party search results on its own website, though. One of the most useful links in my opinion is the one to the German-Japanese kanji lexicon.
日本語総まとめ: Comprehensive preparation for JLPT
Now, first of all I must say that I don’t think the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) is a very good way to measure your Japanese level. It does not test writing or speaking and is solely based on multiple choice questions. However, if you learn a language for a while, you will have experienced drops in motivation, especially if you do not need to speak the language on a regular basis – or at all. Signing up for a test can hence be a good way to make you sit down and study. Also, for some reason Japanese companies and institutions often have a requirement for “N2 or above”, so even if your Japanese level is near-native, you’d still want to have a test certificate to get into that company or university.
Nihongo Soumatome is a well-known series which they usually also sell on any given JLPT examination venue. It will specifically and quite effectively lead you through all necessary topics for each test level. Compared to some other books the contents in this series also match more closely the experience in the real exam. Of course, this will only prepare you for the test, while many real world scenarios will still pose a considerable hurdle for you. I hence would not consider this book series a good resource to solely focus on, but a good accompanying resource specifically for your test preparation. Note that the listening practice also contains audio files, so the books actually also would fit for the next category below.
Media, Audio, Video
In this generically named category I’ll fit YouTube, podcasts and newspapers alike. I’m not a fan of manga or anime, but if this is your motivation to study Japanese, you will anyway know best which series or movies you like best.
Dogen’s Youtube Channel: Japanese phonetics and comedy in one
Chances are you know Dogen’s channel, as it has become quite popular in recent years. Kevin O’Donnell, the person behind the character “Dogen” impresses not only with excellent Japanese, but especially with a near-native pronunciation. He is one of the few Japanese language teachers who emphasize the importance of “pitch accent”: While Japanese “officially” does not have tones (as opposed to for example Mandarin Chinese), it is of course very important to find the right intonation if you want to sound like a native speaker. Apart from this otherwise hard to find content, Dogen also produces – in my opinion very funny – comedic YouTube videos about Japanese culture and Japanese language.
NHK News Web Easy: News in simple Japanese
The well-known Japan Broadcasting Corporation publishes every day some selected content in a simplified version. The website also offers additional features for Japanese language learners such as furigana reading aids and explanations for more complicated words. It’s a good start to slowly become familiar with “real world media”. I also found these articles a good foundation for discussion during language exchanges.
JapanesePod101: Podcasts, videos and customized learning paths
This resource might be well-known, but I still think the list would not be complete without mentioning such a high-quality site. It contains podcasts, videos, and gives you some direction on your autodidactic learning journey. Since dialogues are repeated in different speeds and come with an English translation, I found the audio lessons also quite suitable to listen to while being on the run or the road, respectively. The questions in the occasional “exams” do not always fit the suggested learning paths and there are some small errors and typos throughout the lessons, but the sheer amount of generally high-quality teaching material makes this a great resource to focus on.
Ha, the boon and bane of modern technology. So distracting yet so helpful for language learning. If you are not taking the absolute old-school road, you’d want to include some technological aid into your language learning endeavour. The selection is of course endless, but over the years I ended up spending most time using the following four “tools”, so I’d recommend you to give them a try.
Japanese language support for Anki: Flashcards with reading-aid
Of course you know Anki, because every Japanese language learner does. Hopefully you also know the Japanese language support, which automatically creates hiragana readings for your words and displays them as furigana above the sentence. The automatic conversion is not flawless, so you’d want to double-check the output. However, I found this add-on to be super helpful and also one of the most stable ones of all the Anki addons I tried.
Once you feel comfortable using Anki with Japanese language support, you might want to take things a bit further and add automatic text-to-speech to your cards. However, while I do use this extensively for my Mandarin flashcards (where accurate pronunciation, is still much more important than in Japanese), I could not yet find an addon without considerable inconveniences or glitches, so for now I won’t include any into my list.
Kanji Koohii: Ridiculous stories to memorize Japanese characters
This site did not see a lot of updates recently so I’m not sure if new learners of Japanese language will easily come across this website (as Google seems to prioritize frequently updated material). Luckily(?), age-old Japanese characters also do not change much, so this website to learn kanji remains very valuable.
You might have heard of the “Heisig method” where you come up with a story to remember the complicated Japanese characters. Such story should be as ridiculous as it could be, in order to make it stick in your hand long-term. While it’s fun to come up with stories on your own, you might simply not be able to always come up with a very good one. This website basically “crowdsources” great ideas for stories from the community and lets people upvote and downvote. Theoretically you could also use the built-in Kanji trainer to practice characters right on the side, but what I and many others did is to incorporate the stories instead in your own Anki decks. Such decks are also available for download from the Ankiweb repository (e.g. here or here).
Rikaichamp for Firefox: Instant mouseover translation
I was a big fan of the Perapera Japanese translator – until development ceased. I don’t know if the Rikaichamp addon is built upon the same code base, but fact is it looks basically identical. This is great because for me it’s perfect, so I like it just as it is. Once you turn on the addon, whatever Japanese word happens to be below your mouse cursor is instantly translated. With shortcuts you can copy some are all entries and for example easily transfer them to Anki.
Smart keywords for Firefox: Kick off translations inside your address bar
Not an addon but just a “normal” feature in Firefox, I wanted to mention it because I found that many people don’t know about it. So, imagine you want to translate “lighthouse” into Japanese. Of course, you can navigate to your favourite dictionary (see above), find the search bar and start your search. Or: Just type “j lighthouse” into the Firefox address bar and hit enter. Voilà: 灯台.
How it works? You defined “j” as shortcut for the dictionary search – of course works also with any other kind of search or website. The Mozilla knowledge-base explains step by step how to set it up. I use this all the time, having “jp” as keyword to search wadoku.de, “j” for jisho.org, “ep” for the English Wikipedia, “wp” for the German Wikipedia, and so on.
Let’s see what the next decade of language learning will bring. Keep it up!