Blog post #1: Japanese language, a difficult language? - My take on it

Learning a language is a long and rocky journey, and you'll probably never be perfect in it. Once the initial enthusiasm wanes, it gets increasingly difficult to stay motivated, and many learners will experience a period of slow or no progress aka "language learning plateau" and eventually give up entirely.  My journey is no different, except I haven't faltered. Here in this blog, I will share my personal story about how I got started, which resources I am using, my goals, and my struggles.

The Japanese Language - A Short Introduction

The Japanese language, spoken by approximately 128 million people, is a member of the Japonic language family (Japanese-Ryukyuan language family) which also includes the Ryukyuan languages such as the Okinawan language. Known for its intricate writing system that combines three scripts (hiragana, katakana, and kanji), Japanese is rich in cultural nuances and historical influences. Japanese has borrowed extensively vocabulary from Chinese, English, and other languages over the centuries. Japanese grammar is characterized by its subject-object-verb sentence structure and an extensive system of honorifics, reflecting the importance of social hierarchies. From its melodic sound patterns to its complex honorific system, the Japanese language embodies the rich tapestry of Japan's vibrant culture. An honorable mention: For native speakers of English Japanese is ranked as a Category IV language which is the hardest category requiring ~24 months of intensive study vs 6-12 months in languages placed in lower categories such as Spanish, Dutch, or Swedish.

Top to bottom: hiragana, katakana, kanji

Writing system

The writing system of Japanese is a complex combination of three scripts: kanji, hiragana, and katakana. Kanji are characters borrowed from Chinese characters and represent whole words or concepts. Hiragana and katakana, on the other hand, are syllabic scripts unique to Japanese. Click on the image on the right to display the charts of each script.

Hiragana is primarily used for native Japanese words, verb endings, and grammatical particles. It consists of 46 basic characters, each representing a syllable. Hiragana is used in everyday writing and is considered essential for basic literacy in Japanese.

Katakana is similar to hiragana in structure but is used primarily for loanwords, foreign names, onomatopoeia, and emphasis. It also consists of 46 basic characters representing syllables. Katakana characters have a more angular appearance compared to the curvier shapes of hiragana. 

Kanji derive from thousands of Chinese characters, each representing a concept, word, or part of a word. Kanji characters can have multiple pronunciations and meanings depending on the context. Learning kanji is a significant challenge for Japanese learners as it requires memorizing a large number of characters. One would need to study about 2,000 characters in order to be able to read Japanese literature and newspapers without struggle. 


Japanese pronunciation tends to be fairly easy for native English speakers with the exception of some tricky sounds. It is a phonetic language which means you pronounce it as written (in romaji). Furthermore, Japanese is a rather monotone language with some high-low pitch distinction to signify questions or emphasis. 

On rare occasions, you will encounter words with pitch accents meaning a word will change meaning depending on intonation. For example, the word はし (hashi) can mean either chopsticks or bridge, depending on which vowel is stressed more when speaking. In that case, you will have to derive the meaning from the context of the conversation. But don't worry, it is easier than it sounds.

Some must-know survival phrases

こんにちは (Konnichiwa) Hello! 

さようなら (sayounara) Goodbye!

はい(hai) Yes

いいえ(iie) No

すみません・ごめんなさい (sumimasen/gomennasai) Excuse me/I'm sorry.

大丈夫です (Daijoubu desu) It's OK/No worries!

おはようございます/ (O hayou gozaimasu) Good morning!

こんばんは (Konbanwa) Good evening!

おげんきですか (O genki desu ka) How are you doing?

げんきです (Genki desu) I'm doing great!

ありがとうございます (Arigatou gozaimasu) Thank you very much!

どういたしまして (Dou itashimashite) You're welcome!

日本へ・にようこそ (Nihon he/ni youkoso) Welcome to Japan!

いらっしゃいませ (Irasshaimase) Welcome (store owner/staff will say this to you)

いただきます (Itadakimasu) Bon appetit! (lit. I humbly receive this meal)

トイレはどこですか (Toire wa doko desu ka) Where is the restroom/toilet?

これはいくらですか (Kore wa ikura desu ka) How much is this?

これをおねがいします (Kore o onegai shimasu) I'd like to have this, please.

いじょうです (Ijou desu) That is all!

おかいけいください (O kaikei kudasai) I'd like to have the check, please.

これは何ですか (Kore wa nan desu ka) What is this?

コンビニ (Konbini) Convenience store

How I Got Started

Initially, I had little interest in Japanese culture or language except for manga, anime, and video games. I naturally picked up some words and phrases here and there, and sometimes I also watched some TV programs on NHK World. But that's all. However, when I first set foot on Japanese soil, I was immediately captivated by magic that I couldn't explain in words. Maybe it just was the culture shock or the sheer excitement of a new experience in a foreign country: the delicious and fresh food, the punctual trains, the magnificent landmarks, the mysterious temples and shrines, funny and cute signs,  and the innocence and purity of its people. That feeling persists to this day. That feeling led to many more visits to the country and the beginning of my language-learning journey culminating into my move to Japan in November 2017. Every time I visit Japan, there is always something new to learn. Learning the language very well can provide you with access to a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the people, society, culture, and history.

How I Study

Nowadays, with access to a plethora of online learning materials, learning Japanese has never been easier. The most popular resources are YouTube videos, smartphone apps, websites, and social media (Instagram, TikTok, Facebook etc.). Of course, traditional in-person classes are still the best way to learn Japanese. In 2014, a year after my first visit to Japan, I formally started learning basic Japanese in an in-person class taught by an American expat who had lived in Japan for 19 years. However, if you have a busy life like most people, self-learning apps/websites are the way to go. In the following, I'm going to introduce three tools that I have used in the past and am currently using.


Yes, the old-fashioned way still works. However, IMHO, for faster progress books should be used in combination with a teacher (classroom or 1 on 1). Depending on your Japanese level there are different books to consider. 

Beginner to lower intermediate: 

"Genki: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese" is a popular textbook series designed for beginners learning the Japanese language. It offers a comprehensive and interactive approach to language learning, covering essential grammar, vocabulary, and kanji. The book features dialogues, vocabulary lists, grammar explanations, and various exercises to reinforce learning. With its gradual progression, it ensures a solid foundation in the language. The "Genki" series also incorporates cultural insights, providing learners with a deeper understanding of Japanese customs and traditions. It includes accompanying audio resources, such as CDs and online materials, to enhance listening and speaking skills. "Genki" is praised for its user-friendly format, clear explanations, and practical activities that encourage active engagement with the language. 

Overall, it is a valuable resource for beginners seeking to develop their Japanese language skills while gaining cultural knowledge. I used "Genki 1+2" when I took in-person classes back in 2014. It is a little pricey ($40-57 at Amazon), however, it gives you a solid foundation in the Japanese language and overall a good investment in yourself.

Upper intermediate to advanced

At some point, Genki is no longer helping you as you advance as it only teaches you the very basics. By then, you start hearing about the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) - the unofficial benchmark of your Japanese language skills - that might help you land a job in Japan (but that's a topic for another time). In order to efficiently prepare for this endeavor you better look into another series of books:

The "Kanzen Master". It is a comprehensive study guide series designed to help learners prepare for the JLPT in an efficient and effective manner. The series covers all levels of the JLPT, from N5 (beginner) to N1 (advanced). Each book focuses on specific aspects of the test, including vocabulary, grammar, reading comprehension, and listening skills. "Kanzen Master" provides detailed explanations, sample questions, and practice exercises to familiarize learners with the format and content of the JLPT. 

I myself study the N2 and N1 books as I plan to take the JLPT N2 and N1 in the near future. Most grammar expressions and vocabulary are actually useful in everyday speech and literature, while others seem outdated or very formal and are not easy to remember. The price range for each book of the Kanzen Master series is $16-23 (get it at Amazon), which I think is affordable and a good investment that may change your life in the future. With its emphasis on thorough preparation, "Kanzen Master" is a trusted resource for those aiming to achieve success in the JLPT and improve their overall Japanese language proficiency. 

Japanese Pod 101

Japanese Pod 101 is one of the best Japanese language teaching websites for self-learners in my opinion. The main mode of learning is through dialogues and podcasts which you can pause anytime and review the transcript for a better learning experience. The explanations given for each topic/grammar point/vocabulary are easy to understand and help you memorize. The platform has a vast collection of audio lessons, videos, and workbooks all of which can be downloaded as well. The difficulty level of the lessons ranges from beginner to advanced, allowing you to select your appropriate level to start learning. Should you aim to take the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) you can try the preparation lessons/courses also provided on the platform. Additionally, the creators also have free excellent and in-depth content on their YouTube channel.

Interested? Click here to sign up for a free lifetime account. If you want to become fluent faster, you can sign up for a paid membership plan (3 plans available). Depending on the plan you choose, you may gain access to all resources including a personal teacher.

Japanese lessons in Japan

In-person lessons are still one of the most effective ways to learn a new language. Personally, this is also my preferred method as I am a notorious slacker when it comes to self-learning. While living in Kyoto, I attended a Japanese language class offered by the local YWCA every Saturday afternoon after work (Yes, I also worked on Saturdays!). You can enroll according to your language level. They will test your level before starting class. I was placed in a more advanced class where the focus was on reading short essays and newspaper articles (tough life :/). However, my teacher was very patient and always let us interrupt whenever there was trouble. I felt like I was back in high school again. A good piece of advice from my teacher was to read the text out loud to better memorize new vocabulary. I keep using this technique to this day. Overall. it was a small and fun where everyone got to know each other, and sometimes we even went to lunch together.


Classroom lessons and books can only bring you up to a beginner or intermediate level. In order to advance, you have to take matters into your own hands which means listening, reading, and learning new vocabulary as much as/whenever possible. Obviously, you can more read books, newspaper articles, and novels and watch movies. In the era of technology, you can comfortably do this on your laptop or phone using specialized apps. Personally, the only apps I use are Anki (暗記), a powerful and customizable flashcard app, and Yomiuri Shimbun (読売新聞), a major Japanese newspaper. I use them both in combination. When I encounter unknown vocabulary while reading an article on the Yomiuri Shinbun, I save it on Anki and study it as needed. Sometime later I will resume listening to podcasts on Japanese Pod 101. 

My Goals

As a language enthusiast, it is no surprise that I want to be fluent in every language I am studying. This is no different from learning Japanese. At the beginning of my language-learning journey, I just wanted to study enough to get by whenever I was traveling to Japan and to watch anime without subtitles (lol). As I am improving over time, I am constantly setting the bar higher, especially after having lived in Japan for some time. It is an open secret that I am seeking to return there sometime in the future to once more live my dream and gain a deeper appreciation for the Japanese culture and its people. Therefore, gaining the highest level of proficiency is key to navigating easily and flourishing in all aspects of life in Japan. For starters obtaining the JLPT N2 is an important first step, as it gives you access to a much broader job market (most sectors require N2). Although Japanese language skills are not required in STEM (I am a scientist!), it will give you an edge when applying for jobs in general. After passing the N2 level (or also possibly N1), I will not stop there: I want to use my Japanese language skills in my professional life: being able to write articles, and give presentations/lectures in Japanese at work and scientific conferences as well as in everyday life.

In summary, getting started is relatively easy as there is a plethora of resources on the internet, in-person or online classes, smartphone apps etc. The real challenge IMHO is maintaining your motivation, constantly setting goals, and having the discipline to keep going. Studying a language is not a destination, it is a journey, a long and rocky one. However, after a few years of continuous study, whether slow or fast progress, you can give yourself a pat on your back, as you will have noticed how much you have improved over the years. 頑張ってね!