If you want to start learning Japanese, or have already started and want to know what tools are out there to help you get to the next level, you’ve come to the right place!
These resources are organized into categories based on essential aspects of the Japanese language – aspects such as grammar, pronunciation, listening, and reading.
Many of these resources are free, and you can certainly learn a lot of Japanese for free! However, more extensive resources and especially resources that give you feedback will typically cost money. It’s important to be honest with yourself about what kinds of resources are most conducive to your learning. If you learn better with a physical textbook or with someone directing you, it’s worth it to invest in those things.
In order to look up new words, either as you come across them or as you think of words that you’d like to know in Japanese, a Japanese dictionary will serve you well.
Jisho is the most well-known Japanese dictionary, and other resources will sometimes integrate Jisho into their features, or vice-versa. (For example, each word with kanji says its “Wanikani level”. Wanikani is a kanji app that will be touched on later.) Jisho is a good dictionary and is especially helpful if you want to use it in conjunction with other resources. However, I personally find its navigation less intuitive and its features less complete than the dictionary apps.
Takoboto has both an app for android and a website. Both versions have useful features such as: definitions, example sentences, conjugations, and kanji stroke order. The definitions give more explanation than Google Translate, which is important for understanding the nuance of words; on top of that, the example sentences provide more context and demonstrate common grammar with those words.
The app version has additional features such as: kanji radicals (if you click on a kanji stroke order chart); listing upfront whether a word takes the particles が, を, な, or is a する verb; and favoriting a word so you can easily find it again.
For iOS users, the Imiwa? app has been highly recommended. It has similar features to the takoboto app, and even has animations for kanji stroke order.
While these browser extensions are not dictionaries, they are useful for quickly looking up any Japanese words you come across while on the internet: Rikaikun for Google Chrome and Yomichan for Firefox. Just turn on the extension and hover over a Japanese word, and it will provide the reading in hiragana and the definition.
Japanese has three “alphabets”, the most basic of which is hiragana. Most Japanese language resources, especially textbooks, will require you to be able to read hiragana. These resources will help you learn to read and write hiragana.
Tofugu is a group that was formed by Japanese learners, which means they understand personally what it’s like to learn Japanese. They provide picture associations to help you recognize hiragana more quickly. They also have many other Japanese language resources and articles.
For a picture of all the hiragana (and combinations of hiragana) to easily refer to when reading, this chart is useful. It is read from top to bottom, right to left (like traditional vertical Japanese writing). It also explains the vowel sounds, which are crucial for Japanese pronunciation.
For writing practice, you can use these free workbook sheets. If you’d like physical materials, try this book from Lilas Lingvo that includes vocabulary practice as you go, as well as removable flashcards.
While writing worksheets provide arrows to show you the stroke order, if you’d like to see someone actually writing the hiragana, check out this video. Since they are written in a calligraphy style, some are more stylized, but he goes slowly and clearly explains points to keep in mind when writing each of the characters. English subtitles are provided, but many people commented that through his clear red markings and repetition, they were surprisingly able to understand the explanations!
Katakana is typically learned after hiragana, and most resources reflect that. Katakana is mainly used for foreign language derived words, especially words based on English; by some estimates, around 90% of katakana words originally came from English!
Tofugu also has picture associations for katakana, although they assume you’ve first learned hiragana.
This chart includes all the katakana and their combinations for easy reference. Like the hiragana chart, it is read from top to bottom, right to left.
If you’d like to see real-time demonstrations of katakana handwriting, this video will help you. Although it was created by the same person as the hiragana video, explanations aren’t provided. However, you will hear the sounds pronounced by a native Japanese speaker. And it’s very beginner friendly!
Kanji are characters that have their origins in Chinese, and then were adapted for use in Japanese. Many people who come from a Western language background find kanji to be one of the most difficult parts of Japanese to learn.
Wanikani, developed by Tofugu, is perhaps the most popular way to learn kanji. Compared to some other kanji learning resources, they don’t just jump in to memorizing whole kanji; rather, they break them down into radicals. This is a much more effective way of learning kanji! (For an explanation of radicals, check out this article on the Wyzant Blog).
For a free kanji flashcard system, try Kanji Koohii. Kanji Koohii emphasizes using short stories based on a kanji’s shape to help you remember. Other users give their suggestions, or you can come up with your own mnemonic for remembering. The “dictionary” option also gives you common words that use the kanji. Unfortunately not all the kanji it presents (even early on) are commonly used, but you will be able to tell if that’s the case based on the dictionary entries.
This popular kanji textbook uses picture associations to help you remember the characters. Some associations are historically accurate to the origins of the kanji, and some were created from a modern lens. Either way, many people find much greater success trying to remember kanji with this kind of method, rather than just trying to memorize the strokes.
People who are deeply interested in the linguistic origins of kanji will enjoy looking up individual characters on Wiktionary. This website often provides the historical forms and definitions of the kanji (called “etymology”), as well as examples of its use in modern Japanese words and phrases.
If you just want a free resource that will point you in the right direction of which kanji would be most useful to study, I recommend JLPTStudy.net. The lists here were created for the purpose of studying for the JLPT, but are certainly good for learning commonly-used kanji that progress from simpler to more difficult. Clicking on a kanji will also display words that use the kanji. (The link provided is for the N5 kanji, which are the simplest, and the N2 kanji are the most difficult on the site.)
As for writing kanji, all of the Japanese dictionary options have stroke order charts, which you may find to be sufficient. However, if you want to see kanji written in real time, unfortunately there are too many to include in one video! You may have to seek out people who can both demonstrate how to write the kanji and point out pitfalls to avoid. A teacher or tutor will be your best bet.
Daily Japanese language exercises
Ideally, when you want to learn a foreign language you’ll practice at least a little bit every day. These following resources make it easy for you to practice that little bit, even in the midst of a busy schedule.
Duolingo features courses for a wide variety of languages, and has a free and premium version. It separates exercises into categories, such as “greetings” and “food”. Most of its exercises involve translating words or sentences between your native language and the language you’re learning. A common criticism of Duolingo is that some of the sentences are impractical, or even quite odd, but overall it’s an impressive resource, especially considering you can use it for free!
If you want something a bit more advanced than Duolingo, you can check out Lingodeer. Like Duolingo, Lingodeer separates its content into categories. However, Lingodeer is more specialized in East Asian languages, like Japanese and Korean. This specialization is beneficial because Asian languages are notorious for being more difficult to translate into English.
Rosetta Stone is a software that takes a different approach than many language resources. Its central principle is Dynamic Immersion. The idea is to immerse the learner in a target language, without giving directions in their native language, and foster learning through context. This mimics how children naturally learn language. When learning a language, it is inevitable that you’ll have to take the plunge and stop depending on your native language if you actually want to use the language you’re learning. Rosetta Stone helps you take that plunge.
Grammar is probably the most important topic you can learn in Japanese, or any language. If you understand a grammar pattern, you can adjust it by plugging in a variety of vocabulary, even vocabulary you look up on the spot.
Conversely, even if you memorize thousands of words, you won’t be able to communicate if you don’t know how to put them in sentences.
Japanese grammar has traditionally been learned through textbooks, and there’s good reasons why; textbooks are an easy way to get a long, systematic list of grammar, and they try to present items in an order that’s intuitive for beginners to learn.
The two most common textbooks for Japanese are Genki and Minna no Nihongo. They both not only cover grammar (although that is the main focus), but introduce relevant vocabulary in each chapter. It is recommended that you study hiragana and katakana first before starting either textbook. (They are both two-book series, so be aware of that when looking to purchase.)
Genki is more common for Japanese language instruction in the US, and Minna no Nihongo is more common for instruction within Japan. Genki’s main advantage over Minna no Nihongo is the English explanation located within the main textbook. Minna no Nihongo, on the other hand, is entirely in Japanese. You have to get a separate book for the English explanation.
That is also Minna no Nihongo’s advantage; it has explanations you can buy in many other languages, including Spanish, French, Chinese, and Vietnamese. This makes it easier for Japanese teachers to teach students of a variety of language backgrounds.
Which textbook you should choose will depend on your learning style (or whether you will learn Japanese in a formal setting, where the textbook will be decided for you). If you want more in-depth linguistic explanations in English, Genki will be right for you. If you already have some Japanese knowledge and want instruction that will give you more language immersion, with optional explanations in your language to help when something is unclear, you should choose Minna no Nihongo.
Both textbooks also have accompanying workbooks you can purchase. Genki is more cost effective, only having one workbook. Minna no Nihongo has separate workbooks for general language quizzes, checking grammar, reading practice, and kanji (the kanji used in Genki is included in the main textbook). I recommend the workbooks as a good way to get more practice using new Japanese as you’re learning it.
Japanese grammar explanations
As you’re taking grammar quizzes or otherwise come across unfamiliar grammar, it’s not always easy to look through your textbook to find the grammar point. You might also feel that the textbook lacks sufficient explanation. That’s where these two sites come in.
If you look up “____ japanese grammar” (such as “から japanese grammar”), JLPT Sensei will likely be one of the first results. This site consistently gives the grammar patterns and clear explanations of the meaning, and perhaps most importantly provides many example sentences.
Maggie Sensei works similarly. It usually goes more in-depth with the explanations, and is also framed as being explained by a dog (the nominal “Maggie Sensei”) with accompanying pictures, if you enjoy some cuteness with your learning.
Particles are the short words that link parts of a sentence together. The closest equivalents to particles in English are prepositions, such as “in”, “at”, “with”, etc. Forgetting or mistaking which particle to use is one of the most common struggles for Japanese learners.
Tae Kim has written some great articles on different particles, including: topic particles, particles used with verbs, and noun-related particles. These will certainly get you started on trying to correctly use particles. However, mistakes with particles are inevitable, so you need a way to get feedback! (I would recommend Tae Kim’s guide in general, especially if you want to learn grammar on a budget.)
If you’re in doubt about which particle to use, one of the main things to do is reference example sentences. Takoboto has example sentences for almost every dictionary entry, especially if the word is common. The app version also writes in red whether a verb takes “を” or “が”.
You can also directly ask people which particle to use. The easiest way to do so is on HiNative. HiNative is a community of language learners – not just for Japanese – for asking and answering questions. If someone answers your question, you can see if they’re a highly rated member and whether others agree with their answer, so you can be more assured that the response is correct compared to asking in other forums.
Many students struggle with conjugations, which are essential building blocks in Japanese grammar. While you can always use Takoboto to look up a word and check its conjugations, it’s good to gain familiarity with them so you don’t have to look them up each time.
The “te-form” is an especially crucial conjugation, but also takes a while to master as the patterns aren’t obvious. Your standard textbooks will include a te-form chart, but My Japanese Notes lays the conjugations out clearly and touches on three of the main uses of the te-form. (For those studying from Genki, class 1 = u-verbs, class 2 = ru-verbs, and class 3 = irregular verbs.)
Once you have an idea of a conjugation’s patterns, it’s a good idea to test yourself. Steven Kraft created drills for the various conjugations, and you can click on whichever form you’d like to focus on practicing. Even if you don’t have a Japanese keyboard installed, you can type your answers in romaji and it will convert to hiragana. You can also adjust the settings so you can simultaneously practice multiple kinds of conjugations!
“Keigo” is the special formal mode of Japanese, including trading common words for unique keigo vocabulary. Both Genki or Minna no Nihongo textbooks include keigo charts. However, if you want a quick and more comprehensive resource you can refer to, and which includes side-by-side comparisons of “sonkeigo” and “kenjougo”, this article has a handy chart.
Something interesting about this website is: it’s all in Japanese! Since the chart is rather straightforward (although you may have to check some of the kanji), it should be accessible to anyone who is at the level of learning keigo, since that is somewhat advanced Japanese. If you’re also curious about the nuances of formal Japanese from a Japanese perspective and are a more advanced learner, the article proper is a good chance to challenge yourself with reading!
You can find plenty of reading material in Japanese online simply by going to Japanese websites. You can even go to the Japanese bookstore chain Kinokuniya which has expanded to the US. However, you likely want to start with easier material.
If you’ve been studying hiragana and want to check whether you can accurately identify them within context, the stories on Crunchy Nihongo will be a good helpful you. They include famous Japanese folktales like “Princess Kaguya” and “Momotaro”. If you click on a story, you’re given hiragana sentences line by line, and you can show the romaji in order for you to check your accuracy. This resource is solely intended to be a way to practice reading hiragana without necessarily understanding the content, so while translations are provided, no explanation is given as to why the sentence has that meaning.
Tadoku has a selection of free, easy-to-read kids books. Just click on any of the options and see how comfortable you feel reading! While the books do include kanji, they also have the furigana (the pronunciation of kanji written in hiragana).
NHK’s news site with simplified Japanese is one of the most popular places for learners to start trying to read Japanese. Each article automatically includes the furigana , although you can take it away if you’d like to challenge yourself.
Watanoc is a web magazine written in simple Japanese. The simpler articles are often framed as a conversation between friends, which makes the sentences easier to follow. If you’re a beginner, you’ll want to start with articles tagged with “N5”. (“N” plus a number refers to its JLPT level. The JLPT is explained in a later section.)
Hukumusume was originally designed as a place to find children’s stories for Japanese-speaking children. Therefore the Japanese is more authentic to native Japanese, while still being on a child’s level. The website may seem overwhelming if you don’t know where to start, but try clicking any of the options under まいにちの昔話.
The JLPT is the most common standardized test for Japanese. If you’re planning on working at a Japanese company or going to higher education in Japan, getting a JLPT certification will likely be necessary. It can also help you focus your studying and increase your motivation to aim for a specific JLPT level!
The JLPT is split into 5 levels, with 5 being the easiest and 1 being the most difficult. Grades are pass/fail, although letter grades are given for the different categories. (You can find a breakdown of the categories for each level here.)
If you choose either Genki or Minna no Nihongo and finish the two books in your series, your level should be somewhere between N4 and N3. However, you will likely have to study specifically for the JLPT (especially kanji and vocabulary) in order to pass either level.
JLPT practice questions
The official JLPT site has practice questions for each level. As they’re coming from the direct source, you can trust that they are reflective of the kinds of questions you’ll get. Unfortunately, they only have one quiz for each level.
JTest4You is the most comprehensive resource I’ve found for JLPT practice questions. They split up the quizzes by level and category, and answers can be found at the bottom. Some questions may be outdated or have typos, but it’s impressive for a free resource.
If you’d like more practice questions and in the format of a real JLPT test, you can purchase this book. I would highly recommend trying as many full practice tests as you can in as close an environment to the real test as you can – including doing so in one sitting with a bathroom break between sections. This will give you insight into how you will actually feel and perform during the real test, and you’ll be able to catch things that you need to work on.
To learn grammar points specific to each level of the JLPT, I recommend the TRY! series of textbooks. These textbooks are solely focused on grammar, although each chapter has reading passages in order to demonstrate the grammar points in context. Each point has explanations in both Japanese and English (and there are other language versions available). There are JLPT-style practice questions at the end of each chapter, which work well as review.
These books are great if you’ve finished both Genki/Minna no Nihongo books and want to take the next step; they span the entire N5-N1 range, so you can get into really advanced grammar!
My biggest personal struggle with the JLPT was the large amount of vocabulary they expected for each level. Unfortunately, if your goal is to pass the test, you can’t avoid having to remember many words, especially since a section of the test is dedicated to vocabulary.
The “Essential Vocabulary for the JLPT” series of books is the go-to for learning vocabulary. It separates vocabulary by category, making learning those words more intuitive. It’s also conscious of the kinds of vocabulary questions you may be asked. For the N2 level of the book, I found the sections focusing on particular compound words especially helpful. Those are less obvious words to study, yet are frequently featured in test questions. (For example, whether to use 人 vs. 家 vs. 者 vs. when referring to different kinds of people.)
Japanese listening resources
When most people learn a language, they want to be able to experience media in that language and/or have conversations. For either of those, listening is an essential skill.
Two beginner-friendly places to start are CosCom and the audio option given on simplified NHK articles. The speaker’s accent is native, but the sound is slowed down considerably to give you time to process each word. While not a bad place to start, keep in mind that Japanese people will typically speak at a much faster pace.
For learning applications based around listening, try Pimsleur and Japanese Pod. Pimsleur is reminiscent of old language-learning cassette tapes; while you are meant to interact by responding to the audio, it typically doesn’t require you to interact with the screen. Japanese Pod is so named because their lessons are often focused around podcast-style listening exercises. Many resources typically end around an intermediate level, so Japanese Pod’s advanced lessons stand out.
If you’re more interested in Japanese movies or TV shows and want to improve your listening with those, I recommend checking your streaming service of choice. Netflix in particular features a large selection of Japanese media of all genres, and will frequently give a Japanese subtitle option. For more information about using and choosing media in order to learn Japanese, check out this Wyzant Blog article on self-immersion.
While you can have extensive knowledge in a language and may be able to read, write, and listen to it without direct feedback, this is not the case for speaking. You won’t know for sure if your pronunciation will be understood without that feedback.
Speechling is specifically focused on speaking and pronunciation. You first listen to native speakers say a sentence, then record yourself saying the same thing. The two versions are then played back, allowing you to easily compare your pronunciation. You can also request that coaches give you feedback on your pronunciation; this feature is unlimited for paid members.
Rosetta Stone gives instant feedback through its TruAccent technology. This cutting-edge AI technology compares your accent with millions of speakers, and its sensitivity can be adjusted according to your goals. For example, if you simply want to be understood, you can set the sensitivity lower; if you really want to challenge yourself to sound like a native speaker, you can set the sensitivity higher.
HiNative has an option to ask for others to check your pronunciation. People can send you their recordings as well, so you can hear from multiple native speakers. They may not give you much explanation on how to improve your pronunciation, however.
You can also check your pronunciation when speaking directly with someone. The next section will give you ways to talk directly to people.
Resources for practicing speaking in Japanese
To become conversational in Japanese, you will have to find people to speak with.
It’s a good idea to check out whether there are Japanese groups near you so you can get plugged into a community. The website Meetup is designed so people with similar interests can, well, meet up. A group will give a description and list their own events, and that will let you know what to expect. Groups can vary greatly in level and how rigorous they are with using Japanese. Unfortunately, depending on your location you may not be able to find a group that suits you.
Fortunately, there are resources you can use from any location. These two following resources also have the option to meet up, but your choices are more vast if you do online.
Participating in language exchange is a great way to find a language partner and make friends. Two great sites for that are Conversation Exchange and Mixxer. Both allow for a comfortable level of privacy, since your profile won’t display your real name or picture – unless you want it to. The information that is displayed in the profiles is more relevant to making connections, such as hobbies, city/country, and age.
Neither site has a built-in video call capability, so after you’ve messaged and made a connection with someone, you’ll have to arrange calls on services such as Skype, Zoom, or Line (Line is the most popular messaging app in Japan).
You may feel a bit nervous about talking with strangers, and this is understandable. You may be flooded with messages when you first sign up, which can be overwhelming. Also, judging by the number of profiles that say they’re not interested in romantic relationships, you may come across people who have different intentions than you. I’ve personally used Conversation Exchange and haven’t had any issues with it; rather, I’ve really enjoyed my experiences with the people I’ve connected to! If the idea still makes you nervous, or you don’t feel ready to take the plunge yet and have full conversations in Japanese, practicing with a tutor is a great option.
There are many benefits to working with a Japanese tutor. One of the biggest is the level of customization. You can tell a tutor what your goals are, and you’ll be able to specifically work towards those in your sessions. Another large benefit is that you typically work one-on-one. The tutor will get to know your strengths and weaknesses, and yourself, personally.
Setting regular tutoring appointments also helps with accountability. While some apps or programs on this page will send you email reminders to study, the more personal connection is usually more effective in motivating someone to keep up with their studies.
You can, of course, also get many of these benefits by learning in a formal classroom setting. Learning along with other students and at a pace you can’t adjust is great for accountability; however, there is a definite trade-off with customization. Formal classes may be too large of a time commitment for your situation, and you may be stuck learning at a faster or slower pace than you’d prefer. Also, while you definitely can foster a relationship with your teachers and classmates, it’s less guaranteed – you’ll have to be more proactive to do so.
There are many, many other Japanese language resources out there, but this list should have given you plenty to work with to start. It has possibly even pointed you towards important aspects of Japanese that you were less familiar with! This list is long for good reason – there are many facets to Japanese – but it’s understandable if it appears overwhelming. If you’d like to work with a Japanese tutor who can help filter the important information and give you direction, I and many other great tutors can be found on Wyzant. Ganbatte!