Going to language school is expensive. If you feel that you don’t have to go to Japan right away, another approach is learning on your own. On this page, you’ll find some on tools you can use for self-study. This list is by no means exhaustive, but should give you a good overview of useful material.
Textbooks are the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about language self-study. Of course, there are also textbooks for Japanese. Below, we introduce you to the most popular options.
“Genki: An Integrated in Elementary Japanese” is one of the most popular Japanese textbooks and used in many college Japanese courses. Working through the two volumes (Genki I and II) will take you from beginner to early intermediate level.
Explanations of grammar points are given in English and Japanese. For the first few chapters of Genki I, latin characters (romaji) are provided for word readings in the Japanese example sections. However, the books soon switches to all kana to encourage students to use and remember hiragana and kanakana. Kanji are introduced gradually according to the contents of the individual lessons.
Although Genki is very much suited for self-study, be aware that it was originally concepted for use in class settings. As such, there will be a few exercises per lesson that you can’t do on your own.
Genki costs around 60 USD per book.
Minna no Nihongo
Another popular book series, similarly used in many classrooms. The series covers beginner and intermediate level, with two books for each.
Minna no Nihongo’s main feature is that the base series is all in Japanese. As a total beginner, you’ll have to get a translated version of the book with grammar notes and work through both at the same time.
While other textbooks like Genki give you a bit of time to remember hiragana and katakana, you have to know all of them right from the start when using Minna no Nihongo.
The advantages of Minna no Nihongo are that the explanations and materials are more in-depth compared to other textbooks. Being confronted with all-Japanese texts right from the start might be hard at first but ultimately helps getting used to the language faster.
A single book from the Minna no Nihongo Series costs around 35 USD. If you factor in the price of the translation books, the series is in around the same price class as Genki.
Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese
Tae Kim’s Guide is not your typical textbook – instead, it’s an online guide to learning Japanese.
The guide is made up of two parts: The Complete Guide, and the Grammar Guide. As the respective titles imply, the former offers a more comprehensive look at all aspects of the Japanese language, while the latter focuses on grammar.
The main appeal of this option that it’s published under the Creative Commons license and thus completely free (unless you decide to get the paperback version of the grammar guide, which costs around 19 USD). Explanations are provided in English. Japanese example sentences come with vocabulary lists for the words used within them. The
The downside of this textbook option is that the guide was written by a non-native speaker and did not go through a professional editing process. Although the essential elements are there, you might find some of the content lacking, and there could be small mistakes here and there.
Nihongo So-Matome and Shin Kanzen Master
Unlike the books introduced above, these two series are not general introductions to the Japanese language, but practice books for the JLPT. Nihongo So-Matome starts at N5 level, while Shin Kanzen Master starts at N4.
The two series are similar in the sense that they introduce you to the main types of questions you’ll encounter in the JLPT. For each level, there is one book for each of the test sections (Vocabulary, Kanji, Reading, Listening).
The two series differ in the amount of content they introduce, their layout, the amount of exercises they provide and their use of English and Japanese.
The Shin Kanzen Master series is heavy on Japanese and keeps English translations and explanations to a minimum. On the flipside, it comes with a lot of exercise questions, vocabulary, grammar points, and other study material.
Nihongo So-Matome is lighter overall, featuring a “friendlier” layout with explanations in English, illustrations etc. It’s aimed at learners who are looking for a more casual learning pace. However, the amount of covered study material is smaller compared to the Shin Kansen Master series.
One Shin Kanzen Master workbook costs around 18 USD. The price point for one Nihongo So-Matome book is 25 USD. Five-book sets for both series both cost around 100 – 120 USD.
Aside from the traditional textbook, there’s also a wealth of digital tools and assistants out there on the internet. In this section, we introduce you to major apps and other software you might want to use.
Study Software and Apps
Services for Studying Vocabulary and Kanji
Memrise and Duolingo are best suited for complete beginners who want an easy first look at Japanese. However, once you enter the intermediate stage, they plummet in usefulness.
Anki is one of the most famous applications for Japanese learners. Anki allows you to create digital flashcards and review vocabulary on the fly.
The app employs a spaced repetition system. Words that you forgot will show up again the next day. On the other hand, words that you remembered will be shown only once every few days, or even weeks. That way, you make sure to review only the vocabulary that needs reviewing and improve your long-term memory.
There are multiple pre-built decks that you can download and use right away. You can also customize your learning routine by adding your own cards to existing decks, or create decks from scratch.
WaniKani is an online application and spaced repetition system for learning kanji. It’s based on the same mnemonic approach as Heisig’s “Remembering the Kanji,” but comes in a more modern format.
Dictionary Apps and Websites
No matter whether you’re a complete beginner or already know some Japanese, a good dictionary is always necessary. Another advantage of learning Japanese in the 21st century is that you don’t need to get heavy paper books or electronic dictionaries (Denshi Jisho) anymore.
There are a multitude of free Japanese dictionary apps available for iOS and Android. Below, there’s a small selection:
- imiwa? (iOS)
- Nihongo (iOS)
- Takoboto (Android)
- Aedict (Android)
- gSho (Android)
- Japanese (iOS / Android)
Another option are online dictionaries. Here’s a list of the major options:
Once you enter the intermediate level, you can start using Japanese-Japanese dictionaries in addition to the English-Japanese ones.
English-Japanese dictionaries are a great tool, but sometimes Japanese-Japanese dictionaries give more insight into the nuances of a word. Also, by looking up Japanese words in Japanese, you also increase your level of immersion. It helps you to prevent “translating” between languages in your head, which is important prerequisite for fluency.
In addition to input (memorizing words, grammar and kanji), it’s also important to practice your output: Using what you learned by writing and speaking in Japanese. The major Japanese exams like the JLPT don’t test for these skills, but they’re essential if you want to work in Japan.
When you’re not in Japan, it can be hard to practice output effectively – especially if you don’t have a teacher that can point out your mistakes.
Of course, your progress will be fastest if you find a teacher online. However, the internet offers some free options that allows you to test your Japanese and have it checked by native speakers:
In addition to “proper” practice. Exposing yourself to Japanese media increases your degree of immersion and keeps language learning fun.
In terms of what kinds of media you use, the sky’s the limit – anime, podcasts, games, blogs, social media, manga, news, novels, or even business books (however, availability of certain media from abroad can be an issue).
In general, you should stick to content that you personally enjoy and that matches your language level (or is slightly above your current language level). That way, you’ll learn faster, and you won’t be frustrated with content that is too hard for you.
To give you a well-rounded understanding of spoken (or written) Japanese, it’s also important to consume a wide variety of media. If your goal is to work in Japan, relying only on anime or games is bound to lead to some blind spots in your vocabulary.
Manga, Novels and Other Books
The main benefit of manga, novels and other books is that they allow you to truly progress at your own pace. Reading your first longer texts in Japanese might take you a while, but it doesn’t require you to rewind or figure out some actor’s half-mumbled dialogue.
For your first Japanese manga or books, it’s best to aim for content aimed at younger audiences (think children in elementary school).
Movies and Anime, and TV dramas
Anime is probably the “gateway medium” for foreigners with an interest in Japan. Even if you’re not studying Japanese (yet), you might already be watching some. To use anime for Japanese practice, try turning off the subtitles, or taking notes of new vocabulary or phrases while watching.
If anime is not your thing, you can try Japanese movies or TV shows. The latter used to be hard to come by, but in the recent years a number of streaming services have picked up series like Alice in Borderland or Terrace House.
Radio and Podcasts
Nowadays, most major radio services in Japan are digital. Technically, that means that they should be available from anywhere in the world. However, because of copyright regulations, some of them – including the biggest radio app Radiko – limit their services to Japan.
Luckily, there are still some options for listeners from abroad. The app Radiocloud – available for both iOS and Android – gives you access to a wide variety of Japanese radio programs in the form of podcasts (but you can’t listen live).
For live listening, you can tune into Japan’s public broadcaster NHK or individual local radio stations.
While radio programs are typically produced for a Japanese audience, many podcasts are aimed at learners, which makes them easier to pick up during the early stages of language learning. They come in a wide variety from “broadcast lesson” style to free talk about news or everyday topics. Below, you can find a few recommendations.
Lesson-Style (English/Japanese mix)
Freestyle (Mostly Japanese)
- News in Slow Japanese
- The Real Japanese Podcast
- Let’s Learn Japanese from Small Talk!
- Let’s Talk in Japanese!
- 4989 American Life