How I’m studying Japanese

I’ve talked with a few people now about the tools I’m using to study Japanese — the last conversation convinced me it’s high time I made a post about it all.

First of All — Why?

Yes, I live in the middle of America, and no, I don’t plan on working in Tokyo any time soon. Do I plan to travel there? Well, yes, I’d like to, but you certainly don’t have to study Japanese to do that.

Mostly I’m studying because I’ve always enjoyed language. Like a lot of Americans, I studied Romantic and Germanic languages in high school and college. For the most part, a lot translates easily from English — sentence structure, basic grammar ideas, and let’s not forget that the fucking alphabet is the same.

Japanese is a language that developed apart from Western influence (until of course WWII, when a lot of ideas seemed to have been swapped both ways), and it is fascinating to understand how a language evolved in such a completely different way. It’s also a very visual language, which is fun to roll with. I’ve been loving it for about a year now.

My Japanese Study Structure

A couple years ago, I stumbled across Tofugu, a Japanese culture site written in English. It covers all sorts of topics: food, travel, religion, history, some pop culture, etiquette, and on and on. I followed the blog for a while before I dove into their money-making side: the language study.

Tofugu has a lot of free materials, which is handy for getting a vague idea of how deep the rabbit hole goes before you invest in spelunking gear. I plowed through a lot of the free material before I put any money in (and yo, it’s not a lot, especially when you compare it to a formal language class).

Let me walk you through the route I took with Tofugu’s material.

The alphabets

Japanese has three alphabets (some will tell you there are four, but they’re including romaji, which is the Roman alphabet. Which, fuck that, it’s not a fourth Japanese alphabet, and I will tell you why later):

  • Hiragana: simple characters that correspond to the syllables/sounds of Japanese
  • Katakana: simpler characters that correspond to the same syllables/sounds as hiragana
  • Kanji: complex characters stolen/borrowed from Chinese that illustrate concepts or ideas, rather than a particular sound

For hiragana, I used Learn Hiragana: The Ultimate Guide. It’s free and will take you no time.

For katakana, I used Learn Katakana: The Ultimate Guide. It is also free and took me just a bit longer.

For kanji, I am still using (and will probably never make it through, because a “decent” education is 2,000 kanji) WaniKani. I’m pretty sure you can try it free for a month, but DON’T try it until you’ve mastered hiragana and katakana. You will waste your month.

For grammar, I’m using TextFugu. You can try out Season 1 for free, though I think it does overlap some hiragana and katakana lessons. There will also be a new textbook in the future at some point, and I’m not sure what the upgrade policy will be.

Now, let’s answer the question that you’re probably asking as an English speaker with one tidy alphabet (filled with letters that change their sounds all over the place and break rules constantly, so don’t get superior).

Why do we need three alphabets?

Why do we need all three? I asked that too, especially when I learned hiragana in a couple days. IT IS SO FUCKING EASY. There are 46 of them, and they all make the same sounds all the time guaranteed. Mostly guaranteed, because in language nothing is guaranteed, you poor sod. Still, if you see the character し, you know it will always be pronounced like the English “she.” Neat.

Katakana is similar. It takes the same sounds/syllables and just associates them with slightly simpler characters. They usually look kind of alike though (か in hiragana corresponds to カ in katakana, for example, and they are both pronounced “ka”).

But you still need all three alphabets because they all do different things for the language.

Hiragana is attached to kanji for conjugation (simple explanation, don’t kill me if you’re a linguistic snob). So 歩 is the kanji that illustrates the idea “walk.” You can take that idea and add hiragana to it in order to make it a verb: 歩きます, “to walk” or 歩きました, “walked.” It adds versatility and grammar. (Incidentally, those are both the polite forms and pronounced “arukimas” and “arukimashta,” if you’re curious.)

You’ll also sometimes see hiragana in small text above kanji. That’s because kanji can have different pronunciations depending on the contest of the sentence. Incidentally, by itself, 歩 is pronounced “ho,” but you’ll notice when it’s with hiragana it becomes “aru.”

There are lots of things that affect a kanji’s pronunciation: what other kanji it’s paired with, what hiragana comes after it, and probably lots of other reasons I have no idea about. The tiny hiragana (or “furigana”) tells you how to pronounce the kanji in that context. But the more sophisticated the text, the less you’ll see furigana because, at a certain point, you’re supposed to know this stuff already. You’ll see furigana a lot in comics, for example.

But you still need the kanji (even if you have to cheat a little with tiny furigana clues for pronunciation) because they tell you what the central idea of the word is. For example, 五 (five) and 午 (noon) are both pronounced as ご or “go.” You need the kanji character to tell you which ご you’re talking about.

And katakana? Katakana is used mostly to denote foreign words, foreign words that have been adopted into Japanese, or onomatopoeia. ピンク is my current favorite. It’s the word for “pink” and is pronounced “pinku.” So think of katakana as kind of sort of like italics.

Which brings me to romaji and why it’s useless. Let’s go back to ご as an example. It is pronounced as “go” and written as such in romaji. However 号 (number) is pronounced ごう or “gou” which sounds to English ears just like “go,” unless you’re very very good with your ears in a foreign language. And you’re not. So while the romaji should be “gou,” you might end up writing it as “go,” and no one will know what you’re talking about at all. Not that they would anyway, because there are a million meanings associated with the sound “go,” which is why we need kanji.


So that’s how I’m studying Japanese.