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Learning Japanese - The Ultimate Guide For Beginners

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Japan is an island nation in East Asia. It is home to an estimated population of 127 million people with the third largest economy in the world. It is made up of 47 prefectures and its capital is Tokyo. The national sport is sumo but other sports are popular there like baseball, karate, volleyball, golf etc. Japan main staple diet is rice, rice is eaten with almost every meal in different forms.


Japanese is widely spoken in japan and there are several dialects. You learn how to speak and also how to write Japanese. The Japanese writing system is made up mainly of kanji, katakana and hiragana. Katakana and hiragana are syllabic kana and are used with kanji in writing Japanese. I’m sure you are wondering what kanji, hiragana and katakana are, you will soon find out.

Kanji are Chinese characters that were adopted into Japanese. Kanji is used in most Japanese text so it’s a must you learn it e.g. 厳, 田, 二. There are two systems of reading kanji; the On’yomi and the Kun’yomi.

The On-yomi is the Chinese way of reading kanji and it is used when there is not hiragana attached to the kanji. Kun-yomi is the Japanese way of reading kanji and it is used when hiragana is attached to kanji.

Japanese makes use of 5 vowels and 14 consonants which are used to make the 46 basic syllables used in both hiragana and katakana e.g. Bu, Fu, Chi. Letters in hiragana and katakana represent the sound of a syllable. Katakana is used for loan words (words or names from a foreign language). For example, coffee is written in katakana because it is a foreign word. It is written in katakana as this コーヒー and it is pronounced as “Ko-hi”.

Hiragana is used for native Japanese words. Each letter represents the sound of a syllable. For example, the syllable shi is written in hiragana as し . Hiragana is the simplest of all three writing systems and is learnt first by beginners, followed by Katakana and Kanji. Kanji to me is the hardest as one character can have several meanings.

There is also Romanized Japanese which is Japanese language written with Latin alphabets and is mostly used by foreigners learning Japanese to make it easier for them and it is called Romaji e.g. sumimasen, onegai.

Each of this writing styles support each other, you can use hiragana completely but on its own it is inefficient so it is added to kanji. Sometimes all three writing styles are present in the same word or sentence.


This sentence above combines hiragana, katakana and kanji together. English translation: I want to drink coffee. Romaji: Watashi wa kōhī o nomitaidesu

The English word I written in romaji, hiragana and katakana below Watashi – Romaji, わたし – Hiragana , **ワタシ **– Katakana

Japanese is different from English in several ways.

English uses the SVO system in which the subject comes before the verb which comes before the object. For example, I drink beer. The subject “I” comes before the verb “drink” which comes before the object “beer”. But in Japanese the SOV system is used, that is the subject comes before the object which comes before the verb. So, I drink beer in Japanese is Watashi wa bīru o nomimasu

If you translate that to English it becomes: I beer drink From the example above, you can see the object comes before the verb. Also unlike English language where there are three tenses, past, present and future. In Japanese there are only two; past and non-past. same tense is used for present and future. e.g. English: I go to school, I will go to school, I went to school In Japanese it is

Watashi wa gakkō ni ikimasu (I go to school)

Watashi wa ashita gakkō ni ikimasu (I will go to school tomorrow)

Watashi wa gakkō ni ikimashita (I went to school)

Ikimasu is a Japanese word which means “to go” and you notice that in the sentences above, the verb doesn’t change for the present and future action. But the Japanese word for tomorrow is added to show the action will take place in the future in the second sentence.

The past tense of ikimasu is ‘Ikimashita” and you can see it being used in the last sentence. It can also be ittekimashita which mean you went somewhere recently but let’s not dive too deep. So, as you can see unlike in English where the verb changes in past, present and future tense, in Japanese it doesn’t work that way.

In Japanese the verb stays the same even if the subject changes in most cases unlike in English language.

For example, in English you can say I go to church; she goes to church; they go to church

You can see how the verb keeps changing as the subjects change but in Japanese it doesn’t change.

For example

Watashi wa kōen ni ikimasu (I go to the park)

Kanojo wa kōen ni ikimasu (she goes to the park)

Kare wa kōen ni ikimasu (he goes to the park)

“Kanojo” means she, “kare” means he. The other parts of the sentence remain virtually the same i.e. koen ni ikimasu. This is because most verbs in japanese are regular verbs unlike English which has a lot of irregular verbs. The case of the irregular verbs falls under conjugation which is too deep to be talked about in this post.

Also, the Japanese letter は (hiragana) or ハ(katakana) can be confusing as it is sometimes pronounced as “ha” and sometimes pronounced as “wa”. So here is a tip, when it functions as a particle it is pronounced as wa. You also have to be mindful of particles used in Japanese, you must have noticed words like “wa”, “ni”, “o” in sentences in this post. Those are all particles which have different functions.

There are long and short vowels used in Japanese. The vowels with a dash above them are long vowels. For example, “ō”. They are important in pronunciation cause using short vowels in the place of long vowels can give a word a different meaning.

Japanese don’t put stress on words during pronunciation, each syllable in a word is pronounced with the same amount of stress as the other syllables.

Japanese also have a very polite way of speaking. They add “-masu” and “– desu” at the end of the words and sentences to make it polite. E.g. “Onegaishimasu” which means please but can just be “Onegai” in informal manner of speaking.

Most Japanese words don’t have plural forms. So you don’t have to stress yourself learning the plural form of a word and gender is also a factor in learning Japanese. The females tend to have higher intonation and the males pronounce sounds deeper. Some words are used mostly by females some words are used only by males. So, when learning Japanese this should also be taken into consideration.

This is just a post to show you the differences between English and Japanese and help you get started in learning Japanese. So now I’m going to list the apps and sites that I use to learn Japanese. Most of the apps can be gotten on google play store and iPhone app store Memrise: I started learning by using this app. The free plan is okay to use to learn although if you want to go further you can upgrade to the paid plan. They have different activities like difficult words, pronunciation, speed review, learn with locals and listening skills. My problem with this app is that it focused mainly on hiragana and kanji and didn’t really teach Japanese grammar in depth but it’s a great app for beginners.

Japanese pod 101: I recently discovered this site and it has been great. The lesson is given in audio and video format and are quite easy to understand. They start from the basics, explain the writing systems, grammar and culture quite well. They have a free lifetime plan but you can upgrade to their premium plans. You just need to sign up and you might get lucky and get one-month premium plan for one dollar like I did. They also have an app called Innovative Language which also has other languages.

Mondly Japanese: Another great app. It teaches the grammar aspect of Japanese quite well. The attractive feature is the chat bot which carries out conversations with you. It has free content and paid content but they offer 7-day free trials quite often.

Hello Talk: This is an app where you can converse with people all over the world that speak the language you want to learn. You just sign up and identify the language you speak and the language you want to learn and start chatting with people. I met several Japanese people on it and started practicing Japanese in real life conversations. Progress has been slow but it’s easier when you can practice what you are learning

Conversation exchange: Another site for meeting people who speak a language you are learning. It is completely free. Just sign up, meet people and start chatting. You can choose to chat through skype or Facebook.

Busuu: I’ve also heard this is a good app for learning Japanese but unfortunately when I tried it I found it a little too hard to understand so I moved on to simpler ones. I might go back to it when I get stronger in Japanese.

Here are some common Japanese words and their Hiragana and Romaji translations

  • I, me – Watashi – わたし
  • Good morning – Ohayougozaimasu – おはようございます
  • How are you? – Ogenkidesuka – おげんきですか
  • Excuse me – Sumimasen – すみません
  • Sorry – Gomennasai – ごめんなさい
  • Let’s eat – Itadakimasu – いただきます
  • Thank you – Arigatō – ありがとう
  • Yes – Hai – はい
  • No – Iie – いいえ

Japanese language can be quite complicated but it’s also fun. Since I started learning it I know for sure my brain has gotten sharper. I’m hoping one day I can travel to Japan and experience life over there.

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