They say that Japanese is one of the hardest languages to learn for native English speakers due to the vast difference in the writing systems. But I’ve got a systematic approach that will help you learn how to read Japanese in 8 weeks or less!
Now let me preface this by saying you won’t be at a native adult’s level of literacy. That will take more time because you’ll need to learn thousands of words and many grammatical patterns.
But what this process will do for you are the following:
- Teach you the meanings of 2,200 kanji, and how to learn their readings.
- Teach you both kana systems – hiragana & katakana.
- Teach you enough grammar to understand basic Japanese.
- Get you actually reading native material!
I’ve designed this 5-step process with the total beginner in mind. So if you know absolutely nothing about Japanese, then this is perfect for you!
But if you’ve already been studying Japanese for some time, then you’re in luck because this entire process will be even faster for you!
Now let me just state right here and now that this first step is the longest, and the hardest part in the entire process. If you start to feel a little overwhelmed while reading it, don’t worry about it and just take it slow.
Once you complete the first step, the rest are easy!
Finally, go through each of the 5-Steps in this article and then check out the Resources section at the very end to find out where you can get the necessary materials to turn this plan into reality.
1. Learn The Meaning Of 50 New Kanji Each Day.
The word “kanji” in Japanese means “Chinese character” and that’s exactly what they are. Here are some examples:
犬 = Dog
日本 = Japan
自己紹介 = Self-introduction
Each kanji represents an idea (or meaning) and sometimes several. For example, the kanji 月 has the meaning of “moon” but can also mean “month” in certain contexts.
Sometimes a word is made up of just one kanji (like dog above) and other times it takes several kanji combined together (called “compounds”) in order to write the word.
In addition to their potential meanings, kanji can also have multiple readings, or pronunciations. The kanji is usually read a different way when it is used differently. Keeping with our example of 月 we can see that:
- 月 is read as “tsuki” when it means moon.
- 月 is read as “gatsu” when it means month.
Now, how many kanji are there in total? A bit over 50,000.
The good news is that you actually only need to learn a little over 2,000 (known as the “daily-use kanji”) in order to attain literacy with the language. Although, if you want to attend a Japanese university you’ll need to know closer to 3,000.
Knowing all of this, the sheer number of kanji combined with multiple possible meanings and readings, you can see why it takes the Japanese themselves years to learn kanji.
But you are going to take a different approach, one that will work quickly and get you reading the language right away.
As it turns out, you actually only need to know one (sometimes two) meanings of kanji in order to understand them 90% of the time.
That’s how you’re going to approach learning the 2,200 daily-use kanji: By memorizing a single meaning for each one.
What this will do is take one new piece of information (the kanji itself) and attach it to an existing piece of information that is already located in your long-term memory.
This is an incredibly powerful concept that almost no one talks about for language learning! Read it again if you didn’t catch it.
Take something new, and glue it to something you already know. It works way faster than trying to create several new pieces of information at once (i.e. the kanji, its many meanings and readings, common compounds that use it, etc.)
So now that you know what kanji are, and you also know the approach you will need to take in order to learn a lot of them in a short amount of time, how exactly should you go about doing it?
Get the book Remembering the Kanji, by James Heisig.
This game changing book will teach you a system of using your Imaginative Memory to create stories from the individual components of a kanji that will then naturally lead to you memorizing (and later recalling) the kanji’s meaning.
The book explains the exact process in vivid detail, so I won’t get into it too much here.
Using this book, you will be able to learn the meanings of 50 new kanji per day. Mic drop.
I personally learned anywhere from 25-90 new kanji per day when I used it myself. It took me about 30-minutes to learn and memorize 25 kanji, so your schedule of 50 a day will probably take about an hour.
Side Note: How Much Time Should You Study Each Day?
Now would be a good time for me to tell you that this entire schedule I am laying out is rather intensive.
I recommend that you spend 1-2 hours every day following this plan.
If you finished sooner than then, awesome!
But plan of devoting that amount of time for study every day.
This might mean giving up on one of your TV shows, or cutting back on video games, etc.
It really comes down to a values question: How important is learning to read Japanese to you?
Only you can answer that question honestly. But once you do answer it, be sure to commit 100% to it.
If you can’t do 1-2 hours, then aim for 30-60 minutes a day and just accept that it will take twice as long overall.
Still… learning to read Japanese in 16-weeks ain’t half bad!
Alright, back to the second part of Step-1:
Reviewing The Kanji.
You will also need to review kanji that you’ve already learned in order to keep strengthening the new memories as you progress. I suggest that you download the free software application Anki onto your computer.
(I’ll post a link to the website down in the resource section of this post!)
This is what’s known as a Spaced Repetition System (SRS), which is basically a fancy Flash Cards program.
The reason you want to use SRS is because it will push the kanji that are easy for you far out into the future, and review the ones you’re having trouble more often.
This way you only have to spend 10-20 minutes reviewing the stuff that needs it the most. It is a lifesaver once your “deck” gets into the hundreds, and then thousands of flash cards.
The best part is that you don’t even have to make the cards yourself!
Many people in the community have already created decks for Remembering the Kanji. You can simply download one of them for free and start using it for review right away.
As I mentioned earlier, this first step in the process is the hardest, and the longest.
By using Remembering the Kanji to learn 50 new kanji per day, and then spending some time with Anki reviewing the kanji you’ve previously learned, you will learn all 2,200 kanji in the book in just 44 days (right over 6 weeks!).
After that, you will breeze through the following steps and start reading native materials in two weeks or less!
2. Learn Both Hiragana And Katakana In A Few Days.
In addition to kanji, the Japanese language has two separate scripts that are completely phonetic. That means that each symbol represents a single sound, but no meaning!
How easy is that?!
The first script is called hiragana. It’s used to spell a lot of common words that aren’t typically written in kanji.
It’s also used frequently for the different grammatical structures that you will be learning in the next section.
Hiragana is usually the first part of Japan’s writing system that you learn, but I’ve actually saved it until this second step since it takes so much longer to learn all of the kanji.
I don’t want you to learn hiragana, and then not use it for six weeks as you tackle kanji. Make sense?
Once you’ve learned how to read the 46 basic hiragana symbols and then few more complicated ones, you will be using them immediately in the following steps.
This means that you don’t really need to implement any sort of review system because you are going to be using them for real, right away.
It took me about three days to learn hiragana by simply writing them out over and over again, but you can learn them all in a day or two by either writing them out like I did, or by using visual mnemonics to remember their pronunciation.
Visual mnemonics are similar to the imaginative stories you will use to learn kanji, but they are a little different since hiragana are super simple.
For example, the hiragana for the “KI” sound is き which kind of looks like a two-bladed key on a key ring. See it?
FYI: All hiragana are 1-4 strokes long, whereas the kanji that you’ll learn can go up into the 20s for stroke count.
Once you’ve learned hiragana, you will then move on immediately to katakana.
If hiragana were the “lower case letters” of the English alphabet, then katakana would be the “upper case letters.”
What I mean is that, both hiragana and katakana represent the exact same sounds, the just perform different functions.
Katakana is most often used for “loan words” that the Japanese language has adopted from other languages. It is also commonly used for the names of plants and animals. And sometimes an author will just go ahead and write a word in katakana because it looks “cool” compared to hiragana.
As for me, I learned katakana a day quicker than I learned hiragana because there are a lot of symbols that look nearly identical.
For example, the “KA” sound in hiragana is か and in katakana it is カ. You see the similarity?
You won’t encounter katakana as often as you will hiragana or kanji, but it’s still necessary to learn it in order to read Japanese.
Pretty much all beginner books on Japanese teach both hiragana and katakana right in the beginning.
This is great because you’ll need one of those beginner books for the next part, which is all about learning and understand the basic grammar patterns of Japanese.
3. Get A Beginner’s Book For Grammar.
By this point, you will know the meanings of 2,200 kanji and how to read both hiragana and katakana.
This is incredible for only 6-7 weeks of learning Japanese!
You should be very proud of what you’ve managed to accomplish so far, and excited for what lies ahead.
Now is the time to pick up a beginner’s book that will teach you some common vocabulary that you will encounter all the time, and also the grammar of the language.
There are a lot of good books that you can use, and I’ll give you my recommendation at the end.
Simply start at the beginning and work your way through the book, doing the drills and exercises at the each of each chapter to lock in what you went over.
The cool thing is that you will finally get to see how the kanji you’ve learned works in harmony with hiragana.
Just knowing kanji will tell you that:
- 寒 = Cold
But knowing both kanji AND hiragana will tell you that:
- 寒い = It is cold.
- 寒くない = It is not cold.
- 寒かった = It was cold.
- etc. and so on.
And of course you’ll see some words spelled in katakana which are usually nouns or verbs from other languages.
It’s important to note at this point that you don’t need to learn ALL Japanese grammar – that will take some time. This step is all about getting really good at the basics.
You want to build a solid foundation that will support the rest of your growth with the language.
If you’re still consistent with the 1-2 hours of study per day, you should be able to finish the beginner book in one week.
It is important to note that you don’t need to memorize EVERYTHING in the book. Just learn the information in the lessons, do the tests at the end of each chapter, and the move on.
The wonderful thing about the Japanese language is that the more you use it, the more you naturally review the basic things that you’ve previously learned.
You really only have to use SRS at the beginning for kanji since it’s unlikely that you will encounter all 2,200 every day.
On the other hand, by going through the basic Japanese book, you WILL use all the hiragana and basic grammar patterns.
Katakana doesn’t appear quite as much, but like I mentioned before there are a lot of similarities to hiragana so it should be okay.
Now you just need one thing to start reading Japanese: Actual Japanese books and manga!
4. Get Interesting Manga That Has Furigana.
Now it’s time to start reading actual Japanese books and manga that were intended for natives to read and enjoy.
Congratulations! You’ve done it! You learned to read Japanese in 8-weeks!
There’s just one little problem: You still need to learn thousands of new words and more advanced grammar in order to understand every single thing that you read!
Ugh… But wait! There’s a way around this: Get manga that is aimed at a younger audience.
By picking manga that is aimed at kids, you will get to enjoy a story that has some very important things:
- Pictures – You will be amazed at how much this helps comprehension of the dialog.
- Common words – You will already know the meaning of the kanji!
- Basic grammar – You will also know the basic grammar from the beginner’s book on Japanese.
- Furigana – This is small hiragana written above the kanji so you can learn the readings!
This last point is important since I had you ignore learning how to pronounce all 2,200 kanji during phase one.
Now you can attach a single new piece of information (the reading) to the kanji’s meaning which will be stored in your long-term memory at this point.
What this means is that you can continue to learn as you read and enjoy Japanese manga!
This is like having the best of both worlds. It’s what’s known as a “virtuous cycle” since you are combining learning and enjoyment, which both reinforce one another, which then makes you learn more and have MORE fun!
The secret is that, the only way to become a true life-long learner is to enjoy the process.
My whole goal in pushing you through this 8-week intensive process is to get you to this point as rapidly as possible so that you can have fun reading Japanese materials, and therefore learn more vocabulary and grammar during the process.
That idea of “learning as you go” takes us to the final step.
5. Learn New Words As You Encounter Them.
Remember how I said there were compound words comprised of two or more kanji? You might have noticed that we’ve ignored them up until this point. That was intentional.
You see, here’s how most people learn kanji:
The problem with learning this way is two-fold:
- It’s confusing since there is so much information presented all at once.
- It’s slow.
People who go this route generally learn 5 kanji per day, if they are dedicated!
That means they take OVER A YEAR to learn the 2,200 daily-use kanji!
Do you want to study for a year BEFORE you get to enjoy lots of Japanese books? I certainly didn’t when I began learning how to read Japanese.
“But Nick, people who use the other way learn all the different meanings and readings. Your way only teaches us a single meaning and we have to learn the reading as we encounter them!” -Some Critic
You’re right. And it’s designed that way.
Did you know that even though a kanji might have three meanings/readings, one of those meanings/readings will account for 90% of the kanji’s usage?
I don’t think it makes sense to spend a lot of time learning meanings/readings that you’ll only encounter once a month or once a year.
The process I have outlined will get you to the point where you can read Japanese in as little as two months. Then you can spend the next ten months actually reading Japanese and learning new meanings/readings of the kanji you encounter.
Does that make sense? Can you see why I’ve designed the process this way?
Do you want to know which words you should spend you time learning? The ones in the manga you’re reading.
I don’t want you to read that manga once. I want you to read it ten times. A hundred times!
This is how kids learn to read: By reading the same few books, over and over again, until they understand it and are ready to move on.
It’s going to be the same with you. Remember, you are like a kid right now – A Japanese kid! Though perhaps your understanding will be that of a 2-3 year old.
Still, when you consider that it only took you two months to get there, you gotta be impressed with yourself!
You should be.
At this point, all you have to do is keep reading Japanese every day, and look up the things that you don’t know when they occur. Rinse and repeat until fluency.
Resources and Putting It All Together.
So in order for this process to work, you will need five things:
- Remembering the Kanji (for learning kanji)
- Anki, for the computer (for reviewing kanji)
- A beginner’s book on Japanese (for learning basic grammar)
- A manga aimed primarily at children
- An online dictionary for quickly looking up new words in the manga.
I strongly recommend that you invest in getting yourself a physical copy of each of the books I’m going to recommend below and always put them somewhere in your room that you will see multiple times each day.
It’s very important in the beginning to establish the habit of regularly studying Japanese.
I said to study for 1-2 hours each day, but I didn’t say it had to be all in one sitting. It’s perfectly alright to break it up into smaller sessions throughout the day. Just be consistent.
Unfortunately if you have these study materials in digital format, it’s much more likely that you will fall into the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality and miss a day, which can very easily turn into two, and then snowball from there.
Nevertheless, I told you that I would provide you with specific recommendations for each, and now I shall:
- Remembering the Kanji (6th edition) by James W. Heisig.
- Anki (free) for the computer.
- Japanese from Zero! (6th edition) by George Trombley.
- Yotsubato! by Kiyohiki Azuma, or Dragonball by Akira Toriyama.
- Jisho (free) This is a great Japanese dictionary on the internet.
You now have a proven system for taking you from knowing nothing about the written part of Japanese, to being able to read and understand (for the most part) native Japanese material in just 8-weeks!
Once you’ve completed this process, it really is simply a matter of reading more and improving each and every day.
Finally, you have reached the point where you can read Japanese!
Help me get this message out there by sharing it with others. Then join the discussion by leaving a comment below! Thanks!
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: