Japanese Learning Resources

24 November 2013 at 18:35 (Random Randomness) (, , , )

Here’s a list of the resources I use/have used to study Japanese and my thoughts on them. Listed in the order that I first used them.

Japanese from Zero! Book 1 (George Trombley and Yukari Takenaka)

– Takes you through hiragana gradually.
– Doubles up as a workbook to reinforce learning.
– Teaches in a way that you will remember.

– I found the learning rate too slow. Not many sentence constructions were introduced and I eventually got bored of it.
– Too much emphasis on polite form — some of us need to learn the plain form, too!
– I would have preferred to learn how to construct verbs earlier on. Unfortunately, that comes towards the end of the book, and then they only teach you godan verbs (i.e. -u verbs) conjugated to polite present tense, so I was under the false impression that 見る (miru) would actually conjugate to 見ります (mirimasu), because they didn’t explain -ru verbs at all (or indeed acknowledge there were two groups of verbs).
– Goes into numbers almost straight away. You are just presented with a long list and told to memorise them. Hardly a good way to learn.
– Not really a con, but… My Japanese friend was quite offended and more than slightly baffled at the part that said hiragana was invented because women were thought to be too stupid to learn kanji. She said she had no idea where they got that idea from. To be honest, I’ve heard that belief be both confirmed and refuted, so who knows.

I found it too slow (I’m the type of person who would rather launch straight into the grammar) and of limited use. Also, at £15+ per book, you’re gonna be shelling out a lot. Still, if you are the type of person who prefers a more gentle learning experience, this may be just the series for you.

Let’s Learn Kanji (Yasuko Kosaka Mitamura and Joyce Mitamura)

– Goes through all the radicals systematically to make your kanji study more efficient.
– Provides space to practise.
– Covers common kanji.

– Very few stroke orders are (probably?) incorrect. I have found 2 so far: risshin-ben (as in 性) and kanarazu (必) have stroke orders different from any other source I’ve seen. Naru (成る) is also wrong. In any case, 3 out of a few hundred isn’t too bad. I only found these out when Tadashii Kanji Kakitori-kun kept marking me wrong. I’ll update this post if I find any more.
– Organises kanji by stroke number. One the one hand, this makes things easier to look up, on the other hand, it makes things harder if you are studying by Jouyou level, because many jouyou kanji are not listed on the main kanji learning pages, and are written under the heading of one of its components (e.g. 学 is a Jouyou level 1 kanji, but not listed under its own heading). This means you are missing out on vocabulary you should be picking up at the early stages.
– The test sentences, where you have to write the furigana, don’t make sense. What I mean is, the kanji they ask you to transliterate are not even the kanji you just learned. It seems they want you to learn all the complex example kanji you saw when learning the radicals and components. This is counter-intuitive.

I do really like this book. Despite its failings, this is the only learning reference I have that actually teaches radicals and components BEFORE learning actual kanji. It makes things a heck of a lot easier. It is a bit pricey at about £16, but you get your money’s worth and it also doubles up as a great sketchbook (!).

Barron’s Japanese Grammar

– Goes through essential grammar systematically and thoroughly.
– Pocket-sized and good price.
– Good layout and presentation

– Entirely in romaji. Very annoying for those of us who have already progressed to kanji.
– Like many other books, neglects the plain form a lot.
– As for colloquial speech, forget it.
– The index is just ridiculous. How hard would it have been to include, you know, the PAGE NUMBERS? I use the index to find the page I want, not the freaking chapter. That’s what contents pages are for!

A nice little book and you get a lot for the price. The romaji is annoying, but there is just enough space to write the kana and kanji next to/underneath. Again, too much emphasis on polite forms, but that is typical. You’ll learn a lot of grammar quickly with this.

zKanji (zkanji.sourceforge.net)

– One-stop reference for kanji and vocabulary.
– Handwriting recognition is pretty reliable. Handwritten input also makes it really easy to look up kanji that you don’t know the readings of.
– Shows stroke order, similar and related kanji.
– Type in a conjugated verb/adjective and it will pull up the dictionary form.
– You can compile lists and set up tests to aid your learning.
– It’s free.

– I really don’t think there are any.

It’s a free dictionary and learning tool in one. It even includes colloquial terms. Get this program. Now.

正しい漢字書き取りくん (Tadashii Kanji Kakitori-Kun), Nintendo DS

– Teaches all the kanji by Jouyou level.
– Has both a learning mode and a testing mode.
– Teaches and enforces correct stroke order.
– Grades how well you write the kanji, as well as getting the stroke order right.

– It’s written for a Japanese audience, so you’re going to have to do a lot of fiddling around to work out what’s what.
– Readings are written on a separate menu from the kanji practice page, which makes things a bit longer. The reading should be on the same screen.
– Tests miss out some of the readings, so when you come across them in later levels, you may not recognise them, since they weren’t drummed into you.

A bit of button bashing and it doesn’t take too long to work out how it works. I won’t forget the feeling of triumph when I got 100% for the first time in Jouyou 1. A good learning tool if you know where to get it.

My Japanese Coach, Nintendo DS

– Good for picking up vocabulary — this game finally taught me numbers and days of the week.

– Stroke order is totally messed up. There is no excuse for the stupid mistakes made in hiragana and katakana stroke order. And how on Earth can they think yama (山) is written with 4 strokes? How hard would it have been for them to get even one native speaker to playtest this? Not only is incorrect stroke order taught, it is often enforced. (For lulz, please look up what they have done with katakana ワ.) Whether you think stroke order is important or not is irrelevant. Fact is, there IS a correct stroke order, and this game should teach this correct stroke order. Apparently, even on the iPhone re-release, these mistakes were not corrected. This is seriously sloppy work on their part.
– Needs proofreading: at one point, the script confuses the English word “to” with hiragana と. Really?
– Teaching of grammar is patchy and not reinforced with the games, which mostly concentrate on vocabulary.
– Speaking of vocabulary, you’d think the most common words would be introduced first, but they actually bring in some really obscure words early on.
– Do people really use the word “otaku” for “you” when being polite? From what I’ve heard, this is considered very old fashioned and only used by old ladies. Every other source I’ve seen says to leave out the pronoun altogether if it can be helped, and to use [name]-san, or “anata”, when it can’t.

This is like Peggyzonepaycrap-level stuff. There is no excuse for such shoddy work. The freeware creators who program out of love make much higher quality programs than this. Avoid.

Tae Kim’s Guide to Japanese Grammar

– Available in printed book form for purchase, or free at guidetojapanese.org. Website also has practice questions, though the purchased book does not.
– Goes through all the essential grammar in an easy-to-understand way.
– Acknowledges that many of us want to learn and use the plain form – finally!
– Explains many uses that are left out of textbooks – including colloquial speech.
– Uses kana and kanji instead of romaji.

– A few things are left out (e.g. the “regrettable” passive isn’t covered in the book).
– Lessons not as systematically presented as they are in the Barron’s guide (e.g. one chapter will deal with verbs, then you switch to particles, then adjectives, then verbs again, etc).
– It’s a big book.

Whether you buy the book, print out the free pdf e-book or use the web pages, you’ll gain a new understanding of the way Japanese works — and learn a lot of the things conventional textbooks think you don’t need to learn. Definitely worth your while.

Obenkyo, Blackberry Playbook

– Free app.
– You can organise kanji by either JLPT level or Jouyou level.
– Shows meaning, readings, stroke order and related vocabulary for each kanji.
– Various tests for kana, kanji, particles and vocabulary. Tests your ability to both write and recognise. Tests are also customisable, so you can test how well you know meanings or readings, or both.
– As an added bonus, it also includes Tae Kim’s grammar guide.

– Handwriting recognition isn’t reliable. But incorrectly marked answers can be overridden.
– Not so much in the way of learning. Something like Tadashii’s practice mode would be nice.
– The white colour scheme tends to crash the app.

Get iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiittttt!

Nazotte Oboeru Otona no Kanji Renshuu Kaiteiban, Nintendo DS

– I’ve only started using this, but I like that it covers the Jouyou kanji in bite-size chunks, unlike Tadashii, which wants you to learn the whole level in one go.
– Tests some of the readings that Tadashii leaves out (I’d forgotten that 目 is also read as モク).

– Like Tadashii, this is aimed at a Japanese audience.
– Since the point of this game is to learn kanji, it makes no sense that all the menus are full of kanji. Unlike Tadashii, it does not even write the furigana over it. It took a lot longer to figure out what all the menu buttons did than it did with Tadashii.
– Handwriting recognition isn’t as good as Tadashii. No matter how carefully I write 円, for example, it just will not recognise it 9/10 times. Sometimes, I just give up.

I haven’t used this much, but I’ve found it a nice learning aid — as soon as I could figure out how to use it. I like the smaller learning chunks, although I find Tadashii more intuitive.

Maggie-Sensei (http://maggiesensei.com/)

– Lots of grammar, with plenty of examples.
– Covers aspects that Tae Kim’s guide leaves out.
– Very helpful webmaster.
– For those who don’t like kanji, romaji reading is given underneath each example sentence.
– マギー先生は、とてもかわいいね?

– None that I know.

I prefer books, so I don’t use this as often as I could, but what I have learnt has been very useful. And Yukari-san was really helpful explaining the use of じゃなきゃ so I finally understand
it! If Yukari-san would only make a dead tree version of this book, my library would be complete!.

BONUS – Rikai-chan and family

This is a Firefox addon that pulls up the reading and meanings of kanji when you hover over them. Get it here: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/rikaichan/

That’s it for now! Hope my reviews have been useful to you!



  1. T to the JAM said,

    What is your overall of the overalls though.. what’s the ultimate recommendation?

    • Silver Arrows said,

      Read the post again. Slowly, this time :p

    • W. Brown said,

      Happy Birthday.
      If you wanna talk, mail me – if you don’t thats fine too 🙂

      • Silver Arrows said,

        Aww, you remembered my birthday. Please pretend you forgot my age though :p

    • W. Brown said,

      Well, I’m 21 (clearly), so if I do the math…

      if ya don’t wanna mail me, I understand 🙂

  2. Miriam said,

    the hiragana was invented for women, your source is right. they thought that the women were too dumb to learn the kanjis. even if your japanese friend doesn’t like it 🙂

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