Fall is wrapping up, and the icy grip of winter is tightening. It’s time to sift through a new batch of Japanese learning resources from the autumn season that we liked best. Choose the ones you like, and study under a blanket as the days get shorter and colder.
Ryou Flashcards is a web app for learning and studying kanji and vocabulary words. The app contains more than 2,000 kanji and 8,000 vocabulary words, which you can study based on the JLPT level or the Japanese grade school level they appear in. You can also build your own study list using the “add to reviews” feature. The app features a spaced repetition system (SRS) and uses both multiple choice and written response format questions to help you review kanji meanings and readings.
As you work through a study list, the app keeps track of how many questions you’ve gotten right and displays your percentage of correct answers at the top of the screen. It doesn’t seem to indicate how much progress you’ve made through a list, nor does it seem to keep track of which items you’ve gotten right or wrong. Ryou Flashcards seems like a very useful way to review for the JLPT or practice kanji that you’ve already learned, but it doesn’t offer much in terms of learning kanji newly for the first time. Still, with its clean and simple design, it is a nice addition to your learning arsenal.
Platform: Web app
4989 American Life Podcast
Much different than public radio’s “This American Life” that you may know, this podcast is almost entirely in Japanese. The title, “4989” can be shortened and pronounced in Japanese as shukuhaku (宿泊), or lodging/living. Therefore, the name roughly translates to “Living Life in America.”
True to the name, the show is created by a Japanese woman who lives in California, named Utako. Her podcasts cover a wide array of topics covering special events, cultural differences, and unique experiences she’s had while living abroad. Perhaps geared more towards a Japanese audience interested in life abroad, it is also helpful for those of us studying Japanese. That being said, those from or interested in the United States will likely find it more relatable.
Each episode is around thirty minutes long. The target audience of non-native Japanese speakers would be intermediate to advanced level. Because of the content-matter, you’ll need to know more vocabulary words than a beginner would. Like all podcasts, you can slow it down to .75x if it’s too fast. The only downside is there aren’t any transcripts to go along with the podcasts, so if you don’t hear something correctly, you can’t double-check the notes.
Tokyo Alice is a new Amazon Original series that follows the life of shopaholic Tokyoite Fu and three of her old school friends turned housemates. Based on the manga series of the same name, it chronicles their daily ups and downs at work and in love.
Whether or not this is quality TV is debatable, but as a resource for practicing Japanese it has plenty to offer. The storylines are generally simple and easy to follow, even for learners with an intermediate level in Japanese. The language is the everyday, useful stuff that will serve you well, and there is very little by way of difficult accents or specialized vocabulary. The series also exposes you to a range of different situations, so you get to hear typical dialogues in a variety of professional and social settings. If you don’t mind a bit of cheesy TV, this series provides a fun way to practice Japanese listening skills, expressions, and vocabulary.
Platform: Amazon Prime
Cost: Prime Video subscription
Drops is a language learning app that isn’t specific to Japanese—in fact, it offers content on more than thirty different languages. It uses a word-to-image pairing strategy to help users memorize target words. Its primary focus is on vocabulary, with lessons organized by topic, such as food, weather, relationships, travel, sports, science, etc. For Japanese, it also offers kana learning lessons, which is where the app shines brightest, in our opinion. One feature that is particularly nice is the ability to “hide” or “learn” a particular study item. This allows the user to skip items that they already know and move on to new material. If you choose to learn an item, you have to work through a series of kana writing screens, which become harder as you go along. In addition to practicing how to write the kana, the app also tests you on your ability to read the characters. To this end, it uses both true/false and multiple choice type questions. The clean design and nicely scaffolded writing practice makes this app a good option for beginning language learners. Be warned though, you can only use the app for five minutes per day, unless you want to pay more of course!
This app has a pleasant design and is fun to use.
In addition to the kana and vocabulary practice that Drops offers for Japanese, the app was updated this fall to offer learning content for the Ainu language as well. In fact, this makes Drops the first ever digital platform for studying Ainu, which we think is pretty cool! In case you haven’t heard of it, the Ainu people are indigenous to Hokkaido and parts of Russia, and the Ainu language is severely endangered. We really like the fact that Drops has a focus on less-commonly-studied and endangered languages, including Ainu, Hawaiian, Maori, and Icelandic. If this piques your interest, definitely give it a download and learn some Ainu words! Overall, this app has a pleasant design and is fun to use. As it only covers kana and vocabulary, it is not a one-stop app for language learning, but it is a nice addition to your studies.
Platform: Android and iOS
Cost: Free for basic version, different price levels for premium version
Nitpicking Kemushichan’s Japanese
This is just one video from a series of “nitpicking” videos from the YouTube channel Kaz’s Japanese 101 & Eigonodo, run by Kaz, a native Japanese-speaking teacher of Japanese and English. The channel itself has been around for years and has all kinds of material for both Japanese and English learners, and this series includes ten or so videos of Kaz evaluating the spoken Japanese of (very) proficient non-native speakers.
In this particular video, Kaz watches a video made by YouTuber KemushiChan (a.k.a. Loretta Scott) pausing frequently to comment on her Japanese. As with all of the speakers in this series, Loretta’s speaking level is so advanced that there are basically no grammar or vocabulary errors, so the majority of corrections concern pitch accent, vowel length, and double consonant sounds. Kaz also points out the particularly native-sounding moments in Loretta’s spoken Japanese, which is helpful if you’re looking for ways to make your own Japanese sound a bit more natural.
If you are an advanced speaker of Japanese, and you’re looking to gain some more insight into the little mistakes you might be making, you’re likely to find this video interesting. A lot of the corrections consist of Kaz simply repeating the incorrect pronunciation, followed by the correct version, and sometimes it would be nice to have some more explicit explanation of why it was wrong or unnatural. There is also a lot of English spoken, so it’s not immersive listening practice, but for anyone interested in a more analytical and theoretical approach, these videos are worthwhile.
While his indirect style and occasional hesitation regarding the validity of his own corrections might bother some, this is itself an interesting insight into the many different versions of Japanese spoken in various parts of Japan. While this video series probably isn’t for everyone, if you’re an advanced learner who gets a kick out of the minute evaluation of language, Kaz’s insightful comments and meticulous nitpicking might just help you to add the finishing touches to your own spoken Japanese.
Google Docs OCR
How many times have you wished you could take a handwritten or printed text and easily digitize it to look up words on your device? Well you’re in luck, because this dream is now a reality! OCR, or optical character recognition, is a technology that analyzes the structure of shapes and characters in an image file and pairs them with the letters and characters of various languages.
There are many different tools out there that use this technology, but we’d like to introduce the Google Docs method. It’s remarkably easy—get a Google account if you don’t already have one, then open Google Drive, upload the image you want to convert into digital text, and then open it with Google Docs. That’s it! Doing this will transform your handwritten notes into editable text, though the result is not always perfect. If the writing is too messy or too faint, the OCR may have trouble recognizing the characters—just like us humans!
That being said, it did a superb job when we ran our own conversion test. We uploaded an image with the sentence「トーフグの豆腐を食べたのは誰だ？」(Who ate Tofugu’s tofu?) in a typed and handwritten format, as well as the word 豆腐 (tofu) in handwritten cursive. As you can see in the image above, all of these formats were recognized and converted perfectly with the software! For some reason, Google Docs also recognized some text that wasn’t included in the original image though. Can you see small yellow text saying「¥29年1みたいですね!」? Is this some sort of secret message from Google? So strange…
Platform: Google Drive, Google Docs
Seth Clydesdale’s Genki Study Resources
If you’re a self-learner of Japanese, you might sometimes struggle with textbooks and materials that are designed for use in a classroom setting. Take the Genki textbook series for example—there are pair work exercises that are difficult to use if you’re working through the book by yourself. Well dear learner, there is a website that will ease your weary soul: Seth Clydesdale’s Genki Study Resources. These resources span the content of Genki I and II, as well as their associated workbooks. The site is very interactive, so even if you are in a classroom environment, these resources will allow you to interact with the content in a different way than your textbook allows for. For example, the listening practice exercises from the Genki workbooks are improved upon in this online format. The audio files that serve as the input for listening comprehension questions can be easily navigated to the relevant section for specific questions, as you can see in the image below.
In addition to a digital way to study the content in Genki, the website also offers a few interesting tools to further customize your studies. At the bottom of the main page, you’ll find a number of custom study tools, such as custom vocabulary practice. Using this tool, you can create your own list of vocabulary to study using the drag-and-drop matching format that is used throughout the Genki study materials. If you are using Genki to study Japanese, it is definitely worth your while to play around with the resources on this website.
NHK for School
Are you in need of some new, authentic learning material for your Japanese studies? Created by NHK, Japan’s national broadcasting organization, NHK for School is like an online school where you can study various subjects with relatively simple Japanese.
While these videos are made for native Japanese speakers, the language used in them is generally not too advanced.
On the home screen of the website, you will find programs on a variety of subjects, including Japanese literature, history, science, and sociology. These programs are constantly updated with new videos and materials. If the content on the main page does not match your Japanese level, click “TV Program” or “Short Video” at the top of the home screen. On these pages, you can select TV programs or short videos based on the Japanese school level that they are intended for. These range from different elementary school grades up through middle and high school, so you can definitely find content that fits your level of Japanese.
While these videos are made for native Japanese speakers, the language used in them is generally not too advanced, and most higher level kanji feature furigana readings. Each video also has a transcript. Transcripts do not always coincide with the narration, but you can review a lot of the vocabulary and grammar used in the video. These programs also have supplemental materials which help you test your comprehension. For example, the program「おはなしの国」, which introduces Japanese folk stories, has supplemental readings and comprehension quizzes for each section. If you’re in need of something new for your studies, give NHK for School a try!
Developer and Japanese learner Monique Murphy recently started a series of Japanese readers based on a simple concept. In their words:
Personally, I get a lot of mileage out of learning vocab out of context first and then “stumbling” upon it while reading.
And that’s exactly how you’re supposed to use the information laid out in this series of posts. Using different Japanese texts as a base (the first is a Japanese ghost story), Monique breaks down the vocabulary and grammar used in the text with kanji readings, English glosses, word frequency information, and links to grammar explanations. The idea here is that you spend some time studying the vocabulary and grammar (preferably in an SRS) before tackling the story. Once you’re ready to read, there’s also an English translation that includes notes on language use and culture so you can check your understanding of the text in a more meaningful way.
This is an excellent idea, and we hope to see more. There have been four more posts since the series began—plenty to feed your brain with grammar and vocabulary for quite some time.
The Naked Director
The Naked Director is a new Netflix series. It is based on a non-fiction novel about a man named Muranishi Toru, who became a pioneer of Japanese adult videos. This guy used to be a salesperson, but he changed his career when he realized people pay tons of money to buy sex. As you might assume, this TV show has quite a few explicit sex scenes. This may make you feel this show is not for you, but don’t judge a book by its cover! It may be too early to judge if you haven’t watched it yet.
Once you start watching this series, you’ll find this show is not just about sex. It focuses on the controversial life of Muranishi Toru, his decisions, struggles, success, and friendships with other characters. This TV show is very exciting as a drama and fun as a comedy. So if you are looking for a chance to learn Japanese through enjoyable TV shows, this one is worth a shot. You might feel the Japanese is fast, but you can learn many words and expressions that are used in everyday conversations.
Cost: Netflix subscription
Sega Genesis Mini
The Sega Genesis Mini was released this past fall as Sega’s contribution to the recent trend of top-shelf mini consoles featuring video gaming’s “greatest hits” from the 80s and 90s. This little machine has more than just a stellar library, excellent emulation, and faithful controllers—Sega went a step further and included a feature to the Genesis Mini that has not been seen in similar products: Japanese versions of every game.
By simply changing the language in the system settings, the entire interface changes, and all games become playable in that language. This is a great resource for Japanese learners who want to practice their reading skills with retro games.
Of course, the best reading practice will come from the text-heavy RPGs and action-RPGs like:
- Shining Force
- Phantasy Star IV
- Beyond Oasis
- Light Crusader
- Monster World IV
- Wonder Boy in Monster World
While those seven will be your best options, the rest of the games still provide varying amounts of Japanese text in between puzzle-solving and monster battles—especially text-medium games like Ecco the Dolphin, ToeJam & Earl, Comix Zone, and Dynamite Headdy.
Even though the Genesis Mini offers a rare and eclectic mix of Japanese games with emulation incredibly close to the original hardware, it can’t be ignored that reading pixelated kanji and kana can be an acquired skill. Even those who grew up with games like these are now accustomed to computer and phone screens that display Japanese characters in incredible detail. Pixelated fonts can take some getting used to, so anticipate that roadblock as you dive into your gaming-related Japanese practice.
Overall, this is one of the better (maybe the best) mini console system released so far, and the Japanese option makes the handful of text-heavy games worth the price for Japanese learners who are also fans of retro games.
Platform: Mini Console
日本語文法演習 ことがらの関係を表す表現 ―複文― 改訂版
The more you struggle to understand something, the more memorable it becomes.
This book is a great workbook for advanced learners. It provides a lot of exercises that compare similar grammatical items that connect two sentences, such as 時 (when) and 〜たら (when/if).
The book is designed for you to discover and understand grammar rules and nuances of use through practicing and interacting with the grammar, rather than just reading an explanation. Each section starts with a simple warm-up quiz, followed by slightly more challenging questions. Then it gives you a simple and concise explanation of the grammar, without diving into the nitty-gritty details. After that, it offers more exercise about the items to help you deepen your understanding.
If you are looking for a well-explained grammar textbook, this isn’t for you. They give you key points, but you are the one who deepens your understanding through problem-solving by yourself. According to neuroscience, the more you struggle to understand something, the more memorable it becomes. So give it a try if you’re up for the challenge!
Japanese Vocab Test
If you want to find out approximately how many Japanese words you know, the freely available Japanese Vocab Test is for you.
It tests your vocabulary using a two-step system. First, it displays fifty words ranging from extremely easy to extremely hard. Your task is to select the words you know, and then using those words as data, the website generates a second test of one hundred words that correspond to your level, based on its own algorithm. After the second test, it estimates your vocabulary size.
Although the results are not exact, this method (Paul Nation’s Vocabulary Size Test) is known to be a fairly accurate method of testing vocabulary size. What’s more, it has two word lists to choose from, Wikipedia (〜43,000 words) and Core 10K (〜9,400 words). Advanced learners can choose to test their knowledge based on the Wikipedia list, and beginners can use the Core 10K list to focus their test on more commonly used words.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is your vocabulary knowledge. Still, taking this test periodically will offer you a good way to check in on your progress. In any case, it’s a fun challenge, so give it a shot!
Learn Japanese with Manga
Learn Japanese with Manga is a YouTube channel where you can learn vocabulary and grammar used in different Japanese comic books. The videos are made by a Japanese YouTuber, Naoto. He introduces different selections of comic books which target learners of different Japanese levels. The titles of each video indicate the level of the Japanese taught in the video.
In each episode, the list of vocabulary that Naoto covers appears on the left side of the screen. This list includes English translations and kanji readings, as well as the manga page number and location of the page where each word comes from. Naoto explains not only the meanings of the words used in the comic books, but also how to use these words in real life conversations. He also teaches different expressions and vocabulary that have the same meaning as the ones used in the comic books. Naoto mostly speaks Japanese in the video, but each video includes Japanese subtitles as well, making the videos accessible even if you struggle with listening.
You might wonder if you need to purchase comic books to study with his videos, and the answer is no! Naoto provides a link to the trial reading of the comic book introduced in each video. There is also a link to his website, where you can find the transcript and word list used in each episode. If you are a manga lover, we highly recommend you subscribe to this channel.
Platform: YouTube Video
The Complete Guide to Japanese Kanji
This book is a dictionary of the 2,136 jōyō (everyday use) kanji, all labeled with their JLPT level. It provides not only meanings, readings, and uses but also short etymologies and quick mnemonics for each kanji. (Etymology is the origin and development of a kanji, and a mnemonic is a short story that helps you memorize the kanji.)
If you are looking for a textbook with stroke order and various example sentences to practice writing or using kanji, this isn’t the right book for you. However, if you are willing to learn the background of kanji to supplement your memory and knowledge, look no further than this book.
Personally, we like learning the history of kanji. It’s fun to learn how the kanji was originally invented and gradually turned into its current shape. We also believe it helps with memorization. It helps you identify the component and understand why it’s there. If you are like us, you’ll find this book a pack of great information and fun to read!
Coto Academy: Top 50 YouTube Channels to Learn Japanese!
It’s definitely worth bookmarking so you can keep checking them out for new YouTube resources.
There are many useful YouTube channels to learn Japanese out there. While you can explore these channels and find the one that fits your interests, you can also use this expansive list of the top fifty YouTube channels to learn Japanese to help you find the best YouTube channels for your Japanese practice. This list was created by Coto Japanese Academy, which is a language school in Tokyo, and launched on their website in October 2019.
They introduce fifty different YouTube channels by categorizing them into three groups: videos made by Japanese teachers, videos made by vloggers, and videos featuring Japanese culture. Each YouTube channel is introduced with a short description and screenshots. There is also a link to the YouTube channel, so you can quickly go to YouTube and check out these videos for yourself. Their list currently has fifty channels, but they are planning to update their list periodically. It’s definitely worth bookmarking so you can keep checking them out for new YouTube resources.
The Best Practice Tests for the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test N3
The Japan Times Publishing is known for excellent Japanese learning materials, most notably the Genki series of textbooks. Recently, they released The Best Practice Tests for the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test N3, which includes three high-quality tests!
According to the Japan Times, questions and answers were “rigorously selected,” and given their track record, you can believe it. There is even an mp3 zip download for the listening section—a welcome departure from the now-outdated-and-clunky CDs that usually accompany Japanese learning materials. But what sets this collection apart from other practice tests is the included answer sheet with commentary. This goes beyond just giving you the right answer—you also get detailed information about why something is right. For example, in the reading comprehension sections, the commentaries point out context sentences around the “target area” that you should focus on. This goes a long way toward helping you increase your knowledge and develop strategies for the next practice test (not to mention the real one).
These tests are highly recommended for those setting their sights on N3. If you follow the book’s timeframes, methods, and scoring sheets for each of the three tests, you should be able to level-up three times before the big day!
Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories (Season 2)
The feel-good, food-lovers series is back for round two! Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories is set in the same late-night izakaya, with the original chef “master” we all love. As the introduction tells you, his job starts when most people are rushing to get home.
One might assume that the people roaming the streets and grabbing dinner at 2:00 a.m. in Tokyo are quite quirky, and true to this nature, his customers are no different. Many have quite the backstory, such as the orphan-turned-actor who meets his mom at the diner, or the former fake-marriage swindler who falls in love with another former con-artist. The master is always there to listen and give his two cents when he feels it’s best.
Through watching this series, you’ll also learn about different dishes that are served at izakaya. Some of these items include plum onigiri, curry ramen, and sweet rolled omelette. You’ll be dying to try these plates by the end.
With ten short episodes (each about twenty-five minutes), you can binge the series pretty quickly. It has some content that seems geared for a more adult audience, but for the most part it is pretty light and tame.
Cost: Netflix subscription
This is the Japanese YouTube channel made by KhanAcademy, a non-profit organization that aims to provide a quality education for free to people all over the world via short videos on a range of subjects. Though less well-stocked than the KhanAcademy YouTube channels in some other languages, you can find a selection of videos on math, science, and art. If you’re interested in any of these subject areas, this channel is a good way to practice Japanese whilst also learning something else at the same time.
The Japanese is clearly articulated, well-paced, and standard, though the vocabulary is necessarily specialized at times, and the language level advanced. Japanese subtitles are available to help with comprehension and give you some reading practice to boot, and all of the videos are based on the original English versions, so you can always cheat and check out that version if you’re having trouble following!
Japanese Zero to Hero Audio-Visual
Zero to Hero is an education site that helps students study Japanese and other languages with a variety of tools like dictionaries, machine translation, and “audio-visual” tools. The audio-visual section connects to YouTube videos in Japanese and lays out subtitles and English translations in a sidebar next to the video. As the video plays, it scrolls through the transcript, which you can go through and study at your own speed.
No other tool we’ve seen so far gives you the ability to scroll through video transcripts like this.
You can search for videos, or browse by topic or JLPT level. The video’s subtitles and their English translations are auto-generated, the same as you’ll see if you watch the video on YouTube. But with the added ability to scroll through and interact with the transcript and see side-by-side English translations, it’s much easier to study. There’s even a built-in, interactive hover dictionary, though it doesn’t recognize word groupings or give definitions as well as something like the Rikai extension. If you want to peruse the script without playing the video, you can do that too. Click any line, and the timeline will skip to that portion.
Though this is a helpful tool, there are some drawbacks. The furigana generated by the site is often wrong, so it’s better to turn it off in the settings. As we said before, the subtitles and English translations are auto-generated. Google’s speech-to-text abilities are pretty strong, but the same can’t always be said for their Japanese-to-English translations, so keep this in mind when studying.
Despite the drawbacks, there is a lot of potential here. No other tool we’ve seen so far gives you the ability to scroll through video transcripts like this, and students who need language shadowing material will find this site useful.
Available as a mobile app communication service, this program allows users to speak with Japanese AI robots (yes, robots are replacing humans). Each character has their own set of unique qualities such as a profession, hobbies, and even an image of what they look like. If you’re someone who feels uncomfortable or dislikes face-to-face interaction with another person, this could be the app for you.
Similar to a verbal instant messaging system, holding down the voice recording button while speaking will cause it to type out what you are saying. The AI will respond to you if it can recognize your sentence. There are some suggestions on how to reply to the character. We noticed however that if you deviate too far from these suggestions, the bot will not be able to understand you.
Similar to other programs, there is a placement test in the beginning that asks about your speaking and reading ability. As you progress through conversations, you will be granted points and awards. There are also language-related notes that appear during the conversations.
This app was recommended to us by Kinetic Meow. There are one, three, six, and twelve-month subscription options.
If you like your learning to come with a good dose of gamification and cute anime characters, then kawaii日本語 might be the Japanese learning app you’re looking for. Released in 2016, it receives frequent updates and the support is very responsive, typically replying to messages within a few hours. A lot of work has clearly gone into this app, which is available in English, German, and Spanish, and while there are occasional mistakes in the English, the overall quality is good.
While kawaii日本語 is free and the ads are relatively unobtrusive, you may want to consider getting the paid version to avoid them and gain other advantages such as the ability to download lessons ahead of time. This is an advantage if your Internet connection isn’t the fastest around.
The app uses a storyline to guide you through a whole range of lessons, starting with ones to teach you hiragana and katakana and then graduating on to basic grammar, kanji, vocabulary, and more. The storyline probably won’t interest everyone and the music can be distracting, but if that’s the case, you can simply skip the storyline pop-ups and turn off the music in the settings. Besides the lessons, there are games in the “arcade” to help you practice the points you’ve learned. kawaii日本語 does rely on multiple choice to a large extent and may not be the most effective way to learn Japanese. But it looks nice and is fun and fairly intuitive to use with an impressive amount of content for a free app.
Platform: iOS and Android
LangCorrect was released as the new Lang-8 alternative at the end of October. For those of you missing the learning style of Lang-8, this could be for you. Lang-8 was used to share writing posts and have them corrected by others to see what mistakes were made. Although some things have been changed around, the basic idea is the same.
After setting up an account, you can write an entry in the language(s) you are trying to target. Sentence-by-sentence, native speakers can check your writing to see what needs to be edited. They can leave comments, like your post, and even add you as a friend. Of course, in return, you can edit others’ posts that are written in your native language. Sharing is caring.
KANATEST is a great web app for learners who want to practice reading hiragana and katakana. The goal is to write the correct romaji reading for as many kana as possible within a sixty-second time limit. The design is clear and simple: green kana are those that you got right, red kana are those that you got wrong, and the blue kana indicates which character you are currently working on. Once you complete a round, your score is kept at the bottom of the screen so you can try to beat your previous score in an additional round. The fast pace and pleasant design makes this a fun way to practice reading kana. It is probably best for people who have already learned all the hiragana and katakana characters, but want to increase their reading speed.
Platform: Web app
That’s all for this edition. Thanks for reading! If you discover any new Japanese learning resources, send us a message at [email protected] or on Twitter @tofugu. Even if it’s just new to you, send it our way. We’re always on the lookout for quality resources. See you for the winter edition!