So my goal with this post is to help you learn Japanese using only free resources because other lovely people like Leaf, are doing real good job using the Genki books, so do check out her posts here! Her first post is hilarious and brings lots of good points, so check it out, here.
Let’s assume you’re an absolute beginner. You’re new and fresh and you want to start learning the language, but you’re poor or don’t even know if you’d like it, and books sound expensive or not the type of thing you enjoy. There’s a barrage of information and you have no idea where to start or what do. Well I’ve gotchu boo, just take my hand and let’s start this trip!
As you all know I’m a big fan of Memrise, and why? Well they have kick-ass stuff for beginners/newcomers to languages, and they’ve newly added ones for Japanese! Japanese 1 teaches hiragana, beginner phrases, grammar and words, and even some kanji to wet your feet~! It has 17 levels total, and aside the first level, no dependency on romanji! You can find it here. Japanese 2 is a continuation, found here, as is 3, found here. After doing these three courses you’ll be set with solid foundations on the language~
If alternatively you don’t like Memrise or programs/websites, and prefer doing it on your own, there’s this post Tofugu made Hiragana and for Katakana, with pronunciations and mnemonic pictures. Tae Kim also did one here. To practice them there’s RealKana website here.
After that, unfortunately, you’re not yet ready to brave the marshlands and fight fiends to level up, rescuing the world. No, first you’ll need more. More power, more strength, more knowledge!
Thankfully, JLPT stuff has a lot of content available for it, so this JLPT N5 Vocabulary and Kanji, will be where you make the highest jump to the path to be fluent. Why the highest? Well, it’s going to jump forward your understanding along. Coupled with that, you should start reading Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide, he makes available a PDF for free too! Tae Kim also has a Complete Guide to Japanese, so check it out!
If you have trouble with Kanji, or want a smoother way to try to learn Kanji, I highly recommend you study the radicals. Memrise has a a few, I recommend Japanese Radicals, it’ll simplify learning kanji because they aren’t as daunting, you start being able to see all the little things that they’re built from.
If you don’t want to learn kanji with vocabulary, or vocabulary, and just want all the kanji in one spot, then I’ve got you too. Let’s be honest, JLPT means lots of vocabulary added, so the courses are pretty big, if you feel you first need to get accustomed to the kanji before jumping with both feet, there’s this course in Memrise, Joyo Kanji by Grade. Beware, it teaches in the order Japanese people learn, but only teaches from English Meaning to Kanji picture, so it isn’t teaching you the readings or vocabulary.
Now you have two options, or more really!, you can keep doing all the JLPT courses from N5 to N1 and then start immersing yourself, or the better alternative in my opinion, is when you feeling tired, bored or like you want to quit Japanese to jump to immersion and stop studying.
What does immersion mean? It means you surround yourself with things all in one language. For example, instead of watching YouTube in English, you find Japanese Youtubers and watch their content. You read Manga in Japanese, ditto for books, light novels. Instead of picking the English version of a game, you pick Japanese and play it. You can find a lot of ideas and posts about it if you just google Japanese Learning Immersion!
Now here’s the thing, you can’t throw yourself at everything that comes across you. There’s different difficulties depending on what you choose. Books and light novels are harder, there’s more kanji and there’s no furigana or help in any way. One of the best approaches is you find magazines/manga with furigana, and realize you have to look up on a dictionary each time you come across a word you don’t know or recognize, and sometimes it’ll be a lot and be exhausting. My pet rule: only look up a kanji/word if you see it repeatedly brought up/appearing. Does this mean you aren’t learning 100% of all the content? Yes, it does. But is it also helping you by not making you frustrated or burnout? Yes, it is!
Now this just my way of doing it, you do your own thing and you know your limits the best. It’s more of a “if you feel yourself overwhelmed, step back and go slow”, I do guarantee it’ll improve your Japanese a lot. I’m really bad at reading diagonally, so I decided to use…. Dumdumdum, otome games! /gasps What do you mean you already knew because it’s my slogan?! 😛
Otoge and games in general are really good because they’re voiced and so it helps you searching words up, and also train your ears to the language! While anime helps the hearing part, it doesn’t help the reading unless you jump some hoops and find Japanese subtitles.
Now I’m going to bring up: what if you don’t have money to import stuff because of the high importing fees? There’s several paths, actually!
One, you download a backup, use it, delete it and write it on your “to buy in the future”. Just so you know, it’s a true commitment, not a “feel less guilty/bullshitting others”. This was how I got into Danganronpa and then started buying the games when they came out for Vita and had some money! I will obviously not be linking any such thing here, the internet and google make it real easy /wink
Two, realize you don’t need fancy items or imports. There’s a bunch of lyrics websites where you can look up your fave Japanese songs, find the lyrics and read them. The really good thing about this is, you can copy and paste so it’s really easy to search on a dictionary! Recommended: Utaten, and Lyrical Nonsense. If you know others please kindly share with us, I’ll add them here too with a note on who recommended it! Line stickers are also good, just go to the Line shop, and browse for stickers you might want/like from series you want, and then try to translate them!
There’s also websites sharing Japanese Children Stories, with helpful translations on the bottom, like Traditional Japanese Children’s Stories, which will give you lots of reading material all for free. It’s mostly kana, and very few kanji, so it’ll really help boost your vocab and get used to the language!
Three, buy a digital copy without those importing fees. We’re luckily in a world going slowly digitally and making said digital content available to purchase everywhere. You can make a Japanese account on PSN and buy games from there, there’s also manga and books/light novel websites to buy those digitally. Now to do this you’ll need debit/credit cards or paypal, also money ofc 😛 FYI: Vita is NOT region locked, nor is PS3/4/PSP. Nintendo is REGION LOCKED.
- Manga Library, all out of print manga in here and it’s completely free to download these! It does have premium and paid content too. Has its own reader app too.
- Mangabox, is an app that allows you to read manga for free on android and iOS.
- CDJapan (affiliated link), has ebooks too, in case you didn’t know!, that link is directly linking to their ebooks section~, they have their own reader called Neowing, allows paypal payments.
- EbookJapan, which has its own reader called ebi Reader and has NO REGION LOCKs.
- BookWalker, owned by Kadokawa and they sell their mangas in Epub format, hooray~, they accept Paypal.
- Honto, you need to make a Japanese iTunes account but it does have its own reader app~.
- Amazon.JP, the reason why I’m not listing it in Digital is because you need a PROXY, VPN, or such other fusses to buy. Those aren’t needed when buying physical tho.
CDJapan Books (affiliate link)
- Yes Asia
Kaizora has a guide for Honto: How to Sign Up for Honto.
JapaneseTease has a good post about Download Digital Manga in Japanese, involving Honto, so do check it out too!
Elee0228 from DeviantArt did this guide for EbookJapan registering and buying.
BookWalker itself has a guide on How to Purchase Books on BOOKWALKER JP Store, so give it a read!
Fourth, you buy it either way by saving up money. Good websites to buy physical games, importing, without super expensive prices or importing fees are:
- AmiAmi, website in English, allows paypal payments.
- Nippon Yasan, website in English, accepts paypal and others.
- Play Asia (affiliate link) website in English, accepts Paypal and others.
- CDJapan (affiliate link), website in English, accepts paypal and others.
There’s not much else I can help with aside saying you’re going to experience frustration, and feeling like you want to quit, and you’ll need to put time into this, but not as much as you think. If you’re super committed or driven/passionate, you can reach N1 in one year. You can learn all the Joyo Kanji in less than a year. You can become proficient enough to game exclusively in Japanese in a year. It all boils down to: how much time you are putting in it, and all the hard work and perseverance to see it through.
Japanese is just like any other language, if you don’t try or put time into it, you aren’t going to learn it even if it’s the number one easiest language to learn.
If you feel overwhelmed by all the options for content available online, digitally and physically, of where to start your immersion, then go with your tastes.
Do you love shoujo or shounen? Lots of shoujo/shounen magazines (most of them) have furigana because they’re for middle schoolers, yay!
Shojo – Nakayoshi, serialized Sailor Moon, Mermaid Melody, Magic Knight Rayearth, CardCaptor Sakura, Hell Girl, and others. Ribon, serialized Marmalade Boy, Full Moon o Sagashite, and others. For more shojo magazines, click here.
Shonen – Weekly Shōnen Magazine, serialized Baby Steps, Ace of Diamond, Days, Fairy Tail, Hajime no Ippo, The Knight in the Area, Ashita no Joe, Great Teacher Onizuka, Love Hina, Get Backers, Samurai Deeper Kyo, Air Gear, and way too many others, just click on the link to see all of them xDDD;. Weekly Shōnen Jump, everyone knows Jump, serialized Death Note, Prince of Tennis, Naruto, Bleach, still serializes One Piece, and others. For more shonen magazines, click here.
Do you prefer more mature content like it is found in Josei/Seinen? Well, there’s no furigana, but if it’s a series you truly love, if you go slowly you’ll get through it, just believe!
99% of games don’t have furigana, but they usually compensate that by having voices, so if you’re a big gaming aficionado, go play that otome/galge/visual novel you love. It’s harder to search if it’s a monologue, or the content is high in difficulty, so if you find yourself deflated by it, try easier games. Doesn’t have to be Pokémon levels of easy, in fact that will defeat the purpose if you’re trying to improve and brush up on kanji. Actually, any kana-only works will be hell if you already learnt kanji, kanji makes everything easier, seriously! There’s too many words with the same reading that unless you understand the context, you won’t know if they mean bridge or chopsticks :”D
If you do want to to play in JP but still feel daunted, programs that take the text from the games and let you copy and paste to search, are helpful. Some are AGTH, JSparser, VNR. Some of these have additional tools that give a machine translation of the game, beware that using it as a clutch isn’t going to help you in the long run.
Was this helpful? Tbh I don’t even know it myself, I feel like I rambled like crazy and made no sense haha
Tried my best to impart what I’ve figured out from googling, and trying to learn the language :’D
If you have any additional advice, feel free to leave it on comments, since I’m still learning myself!