How to Teach Yourself Japanese; My Experience

One of the key techniques to teaching yourself Japanese is to record everything. By recording your own progress in learning Japanese you will be able to give yourself the appropriate context regarding own journey and will be able to formulate a plan on how you may progress forward teaching yourself Japanese.

Which Japanese Textbook should you start with?

You should start with Genki 1! As I have said before, my undying love for this textbook has become somewhat of an inside joke with my friends and audience. There are a number of reasons why I recommend Genki 1, the primary one being the fantastic pacing and way it eases you into using the Japanese alphabets. It’s the only beginner’s textbook I’ve used, and the only beginner Japanese textbook I’ve ever needed. You can find Genki 1 at the link below;

GENKI I: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese (English and Japanese Edition)

How to teach yourself Japanese, Technique #1; Write everything down

The advice I always give to people when they ask me how they can improve their Japanese is to write everything down. Record…everything. And I really mean it. You saw a new word that you don’t know? Write it down! If you can’t write it down take a picture. Really though, a lot of people use special techniques to learn kanji, but I think that the best way to learn Japanese kanji is to use the same technique Japanese kids use when they’re going through primary education; A mystical, ancient secret!? The secret of writing down the kanji on a sheet of specialized kanji practice paper again, and again, and again. But you don?t need special kanji practice paper. I?ve got you covered! I sort of subconsciously developed a system for this over the course of teaching myself Japanese What you can do is take out a piece of notebook paper and write each kanji down over and over until you fill a line. Then underneath it, google an example sentence with that particular word, find an example from some Japanese person on google, and then write that example sentence under that. Rinse and repeat everyday, and make this a part of your daily routine. This actually became somewhat of a ritual for me, as I would write my lines daily while listening to podcasts or watching YouTube. The key is to commit the new kanji or vocabulary to your subconscious and muscle memory.

Here is a visual example below;

Here is an example of how to use the process of writing to reinforce important Japanese kanji and vocabulary in your mind

Adopting this habit into your daily routine will help you to retain information while maintaining the stamina necessary for the long-term study methods required for learning Japanese

How to teach yourself Japanese, Technique #2; Record everything you don’t know

This lead a lot of…incidents when I first moved to Japan

See, when I first moved to Japan, I made it my mission to absorb all of the information around me. One cannot truly absorb all of the information necessary for a fulfilling life by popping open the textbook for an hour at the end of the night. This was my philosophy. One must absorb their surroundings.

How I keep track of my progress learning Japanese

So one thing I have done consistently for the past 5 years or so that I have never seen anyone else do, is that I record any new vocabulary I come in contact to in daily lists. A few different Japanese dictionaries allow you to group words within the app by category, and then assign those categories to independent lists. Check the pictures below for a visual example of what I attempting to explain.

The Japanese dictionary I used and how I used it

The Japanese dictionary I use is pinned to the bottom right of my home screen. Do you want to know the name of the app? It’s “Japanese” (???) . So sneaky!

It was a pretty simple principle; if you don’t know it, record it, document, learn, and see if you still don’t know it next time. This became the pattern of my life, where the hunger for knowledge becomes a cycle that fuels you to become a more accountable version of yourself on a day-to-day basis.

But, like I said, this lead to some pretty ridiculous scenario’s…

How to teach yourself Japanese, Technique #3; Use your surroundings

I walked this street almost everyday in 2015. Photo taken in Shinsaibashi, Osaka.


One of these scenario’s was when I first moved here, and was determined to learn what it said in Japanese on all of the signs, packages, shirt’s, McDonald’s receipts… you name it!

One day I was waiting at the platform of the train station, scanning the area for new words I could plug into my glorious Japanese dictionary. Then, from the corner of my eye I could see a new sight to behold! A new sign next to the elevator to the ground floor.

Wow! Exciting!

And things were about to get even more exciting. All gung-ho and ready to absorb that tasty bit of Japanese vocabulary self-study material into my mind, I quickly whipped it out.

(I whipped out my phone)

Turned to a camera app, and took a picture of that new and shiny sign. It’s worth mentioning that Japan has a bit of a problem with sneak-photography or tousatsu (??) from sneaky perverts on the trains/ escalators etc, so every phone in Japan by law is required to play a loud shutter sound effect whenever somebody takes a photo , even if it’s on silent.

I took the picture of the sign, eager to my new find into my Japanese dictionary when I got home. And then I noticed all of the eyes around me…were on me…I could feel them…oh so cold and penetrating.

Well, It turns out I took a picture of a new sign was describing how to get to the new milk-lactation room on the 3rd floor! You know, the room specifically designed for women to prepare milk!

How could I be so careless, and insensitive to the demands of lactation area spatial-organization!

Graduation ceremony for my Japanese language school, taken March, 2016.

The funny thing is, I only realized this of course when I got home and deciphered the picture. In retrospect I wish I had kept that photo. The point here is studying your surroundings is probably one of the most practical and fun ways to learn Japanese, but it can get you into some pretty weird situations if you aren’t careful. Honestly though, a few months later and I would be snapping pictures of men’s underwear, pachinko parlor art, and 2-for-1 coupons for the local coco ichibanya curry house. I didn’t care! It might be a strange way to learn Japanese, but it was definitely memorable. Moral of the story; if you want to remember Japanese, give yourself some real-world context.

More resources to learn Japanese

If you are just getting started learning Japanese and are having a bit of a hard time getting started, I think you will really enjoy reading the guide I wrote below. Please check it out!

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