We are almost at the end of 2018 – can you believe it? It is naturally the time of year when we reflect on the last 12 months, and set our goals for 2019.
If you haven’t quite met your goals for this year, now is the perfect time to reset for next year. And what better way to do so than in the form of a language challenge?
Why do a language challenge?
Language challenges are a great way to develop new habits, which is ultimately the best way to achieve your goals. I like language challenges because they offer what often feels like an easier way to start a new habit. When you know that you only have to stick to something for one week or one month, it doesn’t feel as hard to get the motivation to keep going.
I think it’s a great way to get back into language learning if you’ve had a break for whatever reason (sometimes a break can be more beneficial than we think). There is also a sense of community around people doing the challenge at the same time, especially on social media.
There are many types of language challenges out there. Some focus on developing a particular skill (eg. speaking), and some are more focused on exposing yourself to a language in some way every day. It’s worth having a look around to see if you can find a challenge that tackles one of your weak points.
You could always make up your own language challenge tailored to the skills/knowledge you want to work on. For example, you could set yourself a challenge to:
Learn x number of words
Watch x number of films/ episodes of a TV show
Speak for x minutes every day
Read x pages in your target language every day
How to make the most of your language challenge
Normally the first couple of days of a language challenge are super exciting, but as the reality of following the challenge hits it can be tricky actually complete them. These are some of the things that have really helped me with past language challenges:
Think about when you are going to dedicate time to complete the challenge
Have a think about the best time of day for you to dedicate to the challenge. It is very easy to start a challenge and then give up because you are too busy to actually finish! Take a look at your schedule and try to identify any so-called ‘dead time’ in your day, which could be spent more wisely on completing the challenge.
There are going to be certain days when you are busier than others. If there are any large events coming up, have an idea of how you might be able to work around it. There’s no harm in missing a day here and there should you not have the time – just add them on to the end of the challenge.
Think about what you want to achieve
This could simply be getting to the end of the challenge, which is absolutely fine!
Getting to the end of the challenge is can be the beginning of something bigger. I do think that pursuing a challenge is to bring about some sort of change in your way of thinking.
With languages, it could be something like getting the confidence to speak your target language, or getting a deeper understanding of the culture(s) that the language is connected. These are most likely going to be your motivators for actually getting to the end of the challenge.
Find a way to track your progress
I am really keen on tracking my progress with challenges in some way. This could be in the form of a bullet journal, crossing dates off in a calendar, or using an app. Having that visual representation of the challenge in front of you can be an extremely powerful thing for your motivation!
Keep in touch with others doing the challenge.
Social media hashtags provide a really good way of finding out how everyone else is doing. Sometimes it is that little extra push we get from seeing others in the same boat that helps you stay on track.
It is important to say that you shouldn’t compare yourself to others too much – ultimately your journey will be different from others, and there are some things that others may find easier than others and vice versa.
Even if you don’t quite make it to the end of the challenge, don’t beat yourself up. Always focus on the positives and if needed use the opportunity to think about approaching things differently next time.
List of Language Challenges
Here is a list of language challenges out there that I know of:
I know that the above list is only scratching the surface of the many challenges out there. If there are any cool language challenges you have come across, please let me know in the comments so that I can add them to the list!
Nami Ohara is a Japanese teacher based in Newfoundland, Canada. I discovered her videos some time ago and strongly recommend them to Japanese beginners.
I am a big fan of her videos which help introduce different aspects of Japanese culture and traditions. In these videos, two young children called Kyoko and Kenta ask their teacher (Ohara sensei) about the topic of the video.
The videos are all in Japanese but have furigana readings and English meanings for the vocabulary and phrases used in the videos. I think these are a great way to practice your Japanese listening and learn some new words at the same time. The speech of these videos is much more natural Japanese than what you might encounter in textbooks, so you get used to Japanese as it is actually spoken.
If you are studying towards the JLPT, then you might be interested in her JLPT listening practice videos. These are in the same format as the listening questions you will encounter in the final exam. She currently has listening practice videos for JLPT N5 up to and including N2.
Besides the JLPT specific videos, there are a number of listening quiz videos aimed at beginners too. Each video is based on a different theme such as nationality and age.
If you want to learn some children’s songs, there’s plenty to be found on the channel too!
Clearly, a lot of effort goes into her videos, and I hope that by posting about her channel more Japanese students will discover her content.
Japanese grammar explanations in simple Japanese: Sambon Juku
Akkie has a number of videos covering various topics relating to Japanese study. Most of his videos are explanations for different Japanese grammar points. Akkie’s videos are all in Japanese but he explains everything in a very clear manner and is very easy to understand.
If you are an upper beginner and above, I think you will find the grammar videos particularly useful. Having said that, videos on this channel all have subtitles in both English and Japanese. This means all Japanese learners can understand the explanations whilst getting some listening practice.
For example, the above video on the differences between は and が is wonderful and probably the best I have come across on this topic, summarising the key differences in usage with plenty of examples.
The channel also has a growing number of videos covering JLPT grammar points for levels N3, N2 and N1. If you like the channel Nihongo no Mori, then you will likely enjoy this series as well.
I always like to look at different explanations of the same grammar point. Sometimes the way one textbook or website describes things can be unclear, or not have enough example sentences to understand certain nuances.
JLPT videos only have Japanese subtitles, but there are normally two sets (one with kanji and kana, one with kana only) which allows you to find the readings for any words you want to look up.
It just so happens that the two channels I’ve covered today have JLPT specific content, but I really think anyone studying Japanese can find some value in the videos!
What are your favourite YouTube channels? Let me know in the comments!
I’ve posted before about keeping a journal in your target language as a way of practicing your writing skills. However, I’ve always struggled to think of things to write about in my journal. This struggle was the inspiration behind the Writing Challenge I did last November.
Fortunately, there is another language learning challenge that helps solve this problem: the NVA challenge!
What is the NVA challenge?
NVA stands for Noun-Verb-Adjective: each day, the challenge provides you with one noun, one verb and one adjective to write a text with. The words are normally of a similar theme or complement each other in some way, which makes it easy to think of at least one sentence. In addition, the words used are words you would commonly use.
My experiences with the NVA challenge so far
I’ve been doing the challenge myself for a few weeks and have found it very useful for building a daily writing habit.
I find that once I’ve actually written one sentence, it is much easier to write a couple more sentences. Even on days when I am busy, I have been able to write down at least one sentence. It’s become part of my daily routine to write just before I go to bed, which I find quite relaxing!
I certainly recommend this writing challenge, as I think it is very accessible no matter what your language level is. You might not find a word in your target language which corresponds directly to English, but that shouldn’t be your main focus.
With Japanese, I don’t force myself to use the exact translation of the words given in the challenge. Instead, I normally try to use a word which has a similar meaning. This also has the benefit of focusing your time on actually writing rather than looking up lots of lots of words in the dictionary.
Make sure to get your writing corrected
You can always get your sentences corrected on language exchange apps and websites such as Hello Talk, HiNative or Lang-8.Hello Talk and HiNative are best suited for sentences or short paragraphs. Lang-8 is better for longer texts (sadly Lang-8 is not accepting new memberships).
Knowing where to start with Japanese music can be a bit of a minefield. On top of that, finding songs you can study Japanese with is even harder. Or perhaps you often go to karaoke, but never know what songs to sing? Look no further – here is a list of 15 easy Japanese songs to get you started!
The songs on this list have been chosen because they are popular songs which also have simple Japanese lyrics. Similarly, I’ve tried to include a mix of older and newer songs.
I wanted to write this post to show the wide range of Japanese music. Sometimes I worry that it can be hard to see past the idol music sometimes! I hope that this list will be a helpful starting point for discovering all sorts of Japanese music.
1. 上を向いて歩こう by 坂本九 // Ue wo Muite Arukou by Kyu Sakamoto
This is the oldest song on the list but a definite classic. Known as “Sukiyaki” in English, this is one of the best selling singles of all time. I’m not sure why this is because it has no connection to the lyrics!
It is also one of the few foreign language songs to reach the top of the US Billboard Top 100 chart.
The upbeat sound of the song contrasts with the sadness of the lyrics. The song tells the story of a man who looks up and whistles to stop tears from falling. The lyrics are simple and repetitive, which makes it a great Japanese song to study with!
2. 世界に一つだけの花 by SMAP // Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana by SMAP
The recently disbanded boy band SMAP were very much a national institution, having a career spanning almost three decades. Besides music, the band’s members expanded into acting and hosted one of the most popular variety shows of all time, SMAPxSMAP.
Their biggest song (The One and Only Flower in the World) was released in 2003. It was an instant hit, selling over a million copies. The song’s simple lyrics and pacing make it a karaoke favourite even today.
3.手紙〜拝啓十五の君へ by アンジェラ・アキ // Tegami ~ Haikei juugo no kimi e by Angela Aki
This single by singer-songwriter Angela Aki was released in 2008. Originally featured in a NHK documentary, it became popular again after the March 11 tsunami disaster and is still heard at graduation time today.
I think it perfectly encapsulates what a lot of us would write a letter to our younger selves. It’s a song with a great message and certainly one to listen to when you’re feeling a bit down.
By the way, 拝啓 (はいけい/ haikei) is how you traditionally start off a letter in Japanese.
4. First Love by 宇多田ヒカル // Utada Hikaru – First Love
Utada Hikaru is one is Japan’s most famous contemporary artists – it was tricky to pick a song from her many albums.
First Love was Utada’s third single, taken from the album of the same name which went on to over seven million copies in Japan. That’s not bad considering she was just 16 years old at the time! This easy Japanese ballad has a mix of Japanese and English, and is likely to be a karaoke favourite.
5. PONPONPON by きゃりーぱみゅぱみゅ // PONPONPON by Kyary Pamyu Pamyu
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is the stage name of Kiriko Takemura. Takemura started as a blogger and model before entering the music industry. Her 2011 single PONPONPON was the first of her singles to become a viral hit.
The catchy beat is the invention of famed producer Yasutaka Nakata, who is also the creative force behind pop trio Perfume. The song and music video are the epitome of cute. Together with the simple lyrics, this is a very easy song to get stuck in your head (you have been warned!).
6. ありがとう by いきものがかり // Arigatou by Ikimonogakari
Ikimonogakari are a pop-rock band that have been around since 1999, although they are currently on hiatus. The band’s name refers to the group of children assigned the task of looking after plants and animals in Japanese primary schools.
Arigatou is a song they released in 2010 and is about treasuring a loved one. The lyrics are very sweet, and the tempo of the song makes it a good choice for singing at karaoke!
7. ORION by 中島美嘉 // Orion by Mika Nakashima
Mika Nakashima is a singer and actress from Kagoshima prefecture who debuted in 2001. As an actress, she is probably most famous for her role in the live-action adaptation of the shojo manga Nana.
Her single Orion was released in 2008 and is one of her many popular singles. In this song, Mika sings wistfully about a past love. The lyrics here are slow and not too difficult which makes it a nice song for Japanese learners.
8. リンダリンダ by ザ・ブルーハーツ // Linda Lindaby The Blue Hearts
The Blue Hearts were a punk rock band popular in the 80s and 90s. Linda Linda is one of their most popular singles and remains a karaoke favourite.
Originally released in 1987, the song was a key part of the film Linda Linda Linda (2005), where 4 high school girls form a band which covered several songs by The Blue Hearts.
9. 恋に落ちたら by Crystal Kay // Koi ni Ochitara by Crystal Kay
Crystal Kay is a singer hailing from Yokohama, who released her debut single at just 13 years old. Koi ni Ochitara was her seventeenth single released in 2005 and was the theme song for a drama of the same name. This pop ballad is probably the least well known on the list, but it has simple but sweet lyrics perfect for karaoke!
10. 涙そうそう by 夏川りみ // Nada Sou Sou by Rimi Natsukawa
Nada Sou Sou is an Okinawan phrase which means “large tears are falling”. In standard Japanese this would be 涙がポロポロこぼれ落ちる/ namida ga poroporokobore ochiru. The song tells the story of someone looking through a photo album of someone who has died.
The original song was performed by Ryoko Moriyama, but it is Rimi Natsukawa’s version released in 2001 that steadily became a hit. It was so popular that broadcaster TBS made two dramas and a film between 2005 and 2006. The song is sad but beautiful and certainly a Japanese song worth knowing about.
11. KARATE by BABYMETAL
Babymetal have a unique blend of metal and idol style music (now known as “kawaii metal”). Babymetal formed in 2010 and consists of three members: Suzuka and Moa. Since their formation, they have performed in many places around the world.
The group’s 2016 song Karate is from their second album Metal Resistance and is all about never giving up in difficult times. A lot of the main phrases are repeated and overall the lyrics are not too tricky. This is a definite crowd pleaser at karaoke!
12. Monster by 嵐// Monster by Arashi
I don’t think it is possible to escape Arashi, the five-piece boyband who have been together since 1999. Like SMAP, each member is involved in TV hosting and acting.
Released in 2010, Monster was the theme song for the drama adaptation of the manga Kaibutsu-kunwhich starred member Satoshi Ohno. The lyrics are straightforward – if you are in the mood for a Halloween pop song then this is for you.
13. Best Friend by Kiroro
Kiroro are a duo who released their first single in 1998. Both members Chiharu and Ayano are from Okinawa. However, the name of the band was actually inspired by words in the Ainu language after visiting Hokkaido.
The song Best Friend was released in 2001, and was the theme song for a drama called Churasan. It is a popular song to sing at graduations, as the song relate to appreciating close friends.
14. キセキ by Greeeen // Kiseki by Greeeen
Greeeen (the 4 e’s represent the four members of the group) are a pop-rock band originating from Fukushima prefecture. Kiseki was released in 2008 as the theme song for the baseball drama Rookies, and quickly became a bestseller.
The title kiseki has the dual meaning of 奇跡 (meaning “miracle”) and 軌跡 (meaning “path, track”), which is why it is written in katakana rather than kanji! The lyrics aren’t too difficult and emphasise how important it is to treasure each moment and to keep moving forward.
15. 恋するフォーチュンクッキー by AKB48 // Koi Suru Fortune Cookie by AKB48
[Note: there are options to have Japanese or English subtitles on the video!]
AKB48 are a massive girl group with several best-selling songs to their name. Named after the area in Tokyo where the group are based (Akihabara), the idol group is split into teams that hold performances there every day.
Released in 2013, the message of Koi Suru Fortune Cookie is to try positive about the future, because you never know what will happen tomorrow. I am not the biggest AKB48 fan but you cannot deny that this song is incredibly catchy, upbeat and has a fun dance to learn too!
So this turned out to be a very long post! It’s always good to have a shortlist of songs when going to karaoke. Hopefully this post has given you a few ideas (it was certainly fun writing this post). If in doubt, you can’t really go wrong with good old Disney songs in Japanese!
What is your favourite Japanese song? Let me know in the comments!
Today’s podcast recommendation is the Manga Sensei podcast, a podcast that offers great Japanese lessons in just 5 minutes each episode!
The podcast is hosted by John, the titular Manga Sensei.
About the Manga Sensei Podcast
Most of the Manga Sensei episodes are language-focused. Each of these episodes are short and focus on a different grammar point. Language focused episodes will provide an explanation of the grammar point, how to conjugate it and when it used. There are plenty of example sentences too.
In addition, the Manga Sensei podcast also has interviews with people who regularly use Japanese. Normally, the interviewees are people who live in Japan and/or write about Japan and the Japanese language. Previous guests include Youtuber Kemushichan and Tofugu.
Every now and then, John hosts episodes that focus on helpful language learning tips for Japanese (or any language). One of the episodes I particularly enjoyed is “Bridging the Gap between Intermediate and Advanced” (an episode from May 14, 2018).
Why I like the Manga Sensei podcast
One of the best things about the podcast is how much John sensei manages to cover in 5 minutes. I am impressed how each episode has detailed information on how grammar points are used, without it feeling too overwhelming.
With over 250 episodes, there is plenty of content to listen to. New episodes are also uploaded on a near daily basis!
The type of Japanese covered in the grammar episodes includes more informal speech. It is more natural than what you might get from a textbook.
In every episode, John comes across as an enthusiastic teacher who really wants everyone to do the very best with Japanese study. The Manga Sensei ethos is all about knowing you’ll make mistakes and doing it anyway, which I think is the best way to approach languages.
I find the interview episodes are really fun and perfect for when I need some study motivation!
One thing to note: the episodes have not been produced in order of grammar difficulty. You may find yourself searching around for a little while if there is a particular grammar point you are stuck on. Fortunately, if you are a beginner to intermediate Japanese learner, he has most likely covered the grammar point in an episode already.
Who I recommend the podcast for
I think that this podcast is good for anyone studying Japanese, as the grammar points covered range from the basics up to more sophisticated aspects of the language.
It is a great resource to complement Japanese classes or self-study. Hearing about the same grammar points explained in different ways helps to really deepen your understanding.
Where to find the podcast
You can find the episodes on the Manga Sensei website, or via any podcasting app, Spotify, iTunes or Soundcloud (just search for “Manga Sensei”).
The Manga Sensei website itself is a helpful resource
I definitely suggest checking out The Manga Sensei site. Short manga in Japanese is posted on the website each week.
I’d probably recommend these short manga to upper beginners (JLPT N4) as there is no furigana on the manga itself. However each panel comes with a vocabulary list and helpful notes on the Japanese used. If you are intending to read manga in Japanese at some point, these notes are pretty useful.
Aside from that, the website’s blog has a number of posts on the Japanese language and culture. These posts expand upon a lot of the topics covered in the grammar episodes.
Have you tried this podcast? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!
Finding material in Japanese that is just right for you as a beginner to the language can be pretty tough. Fortunately, children’s stories are a good place to start learning from in any language and Japanese is no different.
Why use children’s stories to study Japanese?
Children’s stories are normally recommended for beginner language learners because:
The vocabulary and grammar used are limited and therefore simple.
Stories are designed to be fun and engaging without being too difficult to follow.
There are plenty of pictures to assist with the understanding of the story.
Sentences to be repetitive, which helps learners to identify common sentence structures.
They are short and therefore relatively quick to read.
On the other hand, there can be some unexpected difficulty with children’s stories. A lot of books for children have fantastical elements and are often not as straightforward as they seem. With Japanese, a lot of the children’s stories I have tried reading had lots of onomatopoeia. This is something rarely covered in beginner’s Japanese classes in my experience.
In addition, having sentences entirely in hiragana might look easier to tackle, but actually parsing the sentence can be tricky. Beginner’s Japanese textbooks are likely to put spaces in between hiragana words to avoid this issue. However, Japanese children’s books beyond those aimed at younger children will not have spaces.
Despite the potential difficulty, I still recommend children’s stories as the best way to get reading in Japanese. Children’s stories are widely available online for free, and there is bound to be a story that you enjoy.
Should I study Japanese stories or stories from other parts of the world?
In my opinion, the answer to this question is to study both!
It is easier to start off learning stories that you are already familiar with. You will be able to fill in any gaps in your language knowledge from context. Japanese versions of popular children’s stories such as Little Red Riding Hood (Japanese title: 赤ずきん) and Cinderella (Japanese title: シンデレラ) available to read through the resources listed further on in this post.
On the other hand, some of the most popular Japanese children’s stories include:
かぐやひめ/ kaguyahime – Princess Kaguya
いっすんぼうし/ issunboushi – The One Inch Samurai
ももたろう/ momotarou – Peach Boy Momotaro
Without prior knowledge of the stories, these will be harder to follow for Japanese learners. I recommend trying to read these stories (in Japanese or otherwise) if you can in any case. They provide an interesting insight into Japanese history and folklore and are often referenced in TV shows and other media.
I’ve put together a list of some of the best (mostly online) resources Japanese learners can use to study children’s stories below.
Listening resources for Japanese children’s stories
There’s a huge amount of Japanese children’s stories on Youtube. Searching terms related to children’s stories such as:
童話 どうわ/ Douwa – children’s stories
絵本 えほん/ Ehon – picture books
昔話 むかしばなし/ Mukashibanashi – folktales
おとぎ話 おとぎばなし/ Otogibanashi – fairytales
…will bring up children’s picture books and stories in Japanese.
One of my favourite youtube channels for Japanese children’s stories is called キッズボンボンTV (Kizzu Bon Bon TV). THis channel has many many videos covering popular stories with Japanese subtitles. There are no English subtitles but there are English versions available for most stories and relevant links are always in the description box.
There’s also a channel called Japanese Fairy Tales, which has Japanese audio and English subtitles on its selection of stories.
Beelinguapp is an audiobook app that has lots of traditional children’s stories from around the world in many languages including Japanese. The app highlights the sentence being read, which makes it easy to follow the audio.
I wouldn’t consider it to be the best resource for intensively reading children’s stories in Japanese. On the other hand, I do think that it works pretty well as an audiobook app. I’ve written a separate post reviewing this app if you are interested in learning more. Speaking of audiobooks…
Most children’s stories are available in the public domain, which means there are audiobooks available for free. Librivox is a website where you can get free audiobooks in many languages as well as Japanese. These audiobooks tend to be stories for which you can find the texts on Aozora Bunko.
Google Play has recently added a small selection of Japanese audiobooks for children to its catalogue. Examples of the audiobooks I have found include a series called いっしょに楽しむ にほんむかしばなし (issho ni tanoshimu nihon mukashibanashi), a series called エルマーのぼうけん (erumaa no bouken) and あなうさピータ (anausa piita – ie. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter in Japanese).
I haven’t been able to try any of these out for myself yet. I have listened to the free samples and they appear to be of pretty good quality. Costs range between £4 and £8 per audiobook.
Reading Resources for Japanese children’s stories
You can buy physical Japanese books from a variety of online stores, most of which I have outlined in my Tadoku post. The below list is focused on places to read Japanese stories online.
Tom has translated some of the most famous Japanese children’s stories as part of his own Japanese studies. Luckily for us, he shared them on his website for other Japanese learners to make use of. I recommend this site as it gives the furigana for any kanji used, has a vocabulary list for key phrases and breaks down the translation of each sentence.
There aren’t any English translations, so it is a good idea to start off with a story you are already familiar with. I recommend reading Hukumusume stories through the wonderful TangoRisto app, which makes looking up unknown words a breeze.
Aozora is a well known free resource that has a huge catalogue of children’s stories in Japanese. In order to find them on the website you need to click on 分野別リスト on the main page and then look for ”童話書” (children’s stories). From this page you can select ”９ 文学” to find the list of children’s literature, split by country of origin.
If you are looking for Japanese versions of a story you are familiar with, it is best to search for it in Wikipedia and then switch the page language to Japanese in order to find the Japanese title.
Obviously, there are many more Japanese stories that international ones on this website. I have written before about children’s stories by famous Japanese authors such as Niimi Nankichi, Ogawa Mimei and Yumeno Kyusaku which are particularly great choices for Japanese learners to use.
Amazon Kindle Store
I’ve singled out the Amazon Kindle store in this particular post as I have found the Amazon Kindle store in my country (the UK) has a collection of children’s books in Japanese, which can be purchased and read without any need to sign up to an Amazon JP account.
From the Kindle Store homepage in Amazon, go to ebooks in foreign languages section and select Japanese.
The Amazon UK store also has a children’s book section, making things even easier! Not all of the results tend to be 100% relevant so make sure to take advantage of any reviews you can find. Most books are £1-£3 each so are pretty cheap. Take advantage of reading a sample so that you can assess the quality of the ebook before making any purchases.
Graded readers aimed at Japanese schoolchildren are available which tend to cover popular stories, but may also be focused on non-fiction topics. These books are normally divided into difficulty according to elementary school years and come with furigana readings for any kanji used.
Popular series include １０分で読めるお話 (juppun de yomeru ohanashi) for fiction and なぜ？どうして？(naze? doushite?) which covers non-fiction topics.
I have the 2年生 version of １０分で読めるお話 as pictured above, which is a mixture of Japanese stories, non-Japanese stories and even a couple of poems. In addition to furigana, there are spaces between words and pictures every few pages to make the stories more manageable. This makes them good choices for those studying Japanese, even if it might take you a bit longer than 10 minutes to finish!
I would start with the 1年生 (ichinensei) stories aimed at Japanese children in their first year of elementary school. You can then work your way upfrom there if that is too easy for you. These books are available in both ebook and physical book format from places like Amazon and eBookJapan.
PIBO touts itself as an ‘all you can read’ app for Japanese children’s picture books. The app is entirely in Japanese but is super easy to use even if you do not know much Japanese yet.
From the main page of the app, you get a choice of a selection of children’s books which change on a daily basis. The free version of the app gives you access to read up to 3 books per day. These books range from children’s classics to contemporary stories.
PIBO promises high-quality picture books and this is certainly the case. Colours are vivid and bright, even on my mobile phone (it would be much better to read on a tablet of course). The stories are mostly aimed at children between the ages of 3 and 6. All of the stories I have read were entirely in hiragana with spaces between words. The great thing about PIBO is that all stories come with the option to listen to the audio which is also high quality and great for Japanese study.
The app is free to download from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store. A full subscription costs £3.89 a month, which gives you access to the full library of 300+ books but I think the free subscription is sufficient for those learning Japanese.
Moving on to more advanced stories
Once you’ve become comfortable with reading books aimed at younger children, consider looking into books aimed at older children and young adults. Series of books aimed at older elementary age children include 角川つばさ文庫 (kadokawatsubasa bunko) – these usually come with furigana over kanji used and are intended to be easy to read. A wide range of books are published under this label, including adapted versions of classic Japanese literature, foreign books/ films and original stories.
When tackling longer texts for the first time, consider reading translations of stories you are already familiar with to avoid getting overwhelmed with too much information. For example, the whole of the Harry Potter book series is available on the UK Amazon Kindle Store in Japanese.
There are also books aimed at Japanese children which can be appropriate for Japanese learners. 魔女の宅急便 (majo no takkyuubin – also known as Kiki’s Delivery Service) by Eiko Kadono is a popular children’s book that is fairly easy to follow. This is even easier if you are familiar with the Studio Ghibli film adaptation!
Other Japanese authors that I know of that write children’s and young adult fiction include Eto Mori, Hoshi Shinichi, Miyazawa Kenji, Mutsumi Ishii and Masamoto Nasu.
Just remember to read stuff you enjoy in Japanese
Otherwise, I suggest asking Japanese friends and thinking about what kinds of books you read in your native language. Then try to find something similar in Japanese. Websites like Bookwalker allow you to read samples, so make use of this as much as possible before choosing a book. Reading reviews on Amazon Japan is another method of testing your reading skills . You can also understand what to expect from a book before buying anything.
I follow the tadoku approach to reading in Japanese, so even if I get a book and don’t enjoy it, I just move on to something else.
I would really like to put together some posts on first novels in Japanese at some point to add here so watch this space!
This turned into a much longer post than I was expecting. I hope you find this post useful if you are looking to dive into children’s stories. If there is a resource that I have missed off this list, please let me know in the comments.
As I’ve covered in a previous post, Netflix can be a really great place for Japanese listening practice, with new shows and films being added all the time. Unfortunately, sorting through the Netflix site to find Japanese shows can be a bit tricky.
There’s quite a variety of Japanese dramas, anime and films on the platform. To give you an idea of what to watch next, here’s my list of some of the best shows to watch in terms of Japanese study, in no particular order:
僕だけがいない街 / Erased (Live Action Drama)
No. of Episodes: 12
Subtitles: Japanese and English available
NB: Anime is also available on Netflix
Satoru Fujinuma is a worker at a pizza shop who is also pursuing a career as a manga artist. Satoru also happens to have the strange ability to go back in time, known as ‘revival’. After finding his mother dead in their apartment, he ends up travelling 18 years in the past, just before the time of an attempted kidnap case which involved some of his classmates. Can he use this ability to change the past for the better, saving his mother and his classmates in the process?
This adaptation of a manga immediately draws you in and there are plenty of suspenseful moments to keep you hooked. Together with some cool special effects and strong acting performances particularly from the child actors, there is plenty to enjoy here. Having lived in Hokkaido, part of me loves this drama for partially being set there and portraying a part of Japan that isn’t often shown on screen.
Language difficulty: This is probably the easiest drama to understand on this list. The sentences tend to be short and mostly everyday language. The main characters are from Hokkaido, and some of the dialogue reflects this: examples include the ~べ(さ) ending, and the use of 「なした？」instead of 「どうした？」but aside from this is not too difficult to follow.
ファイナルファンタジーXIV: 光のお父さん / Final Fantasy XIV: Dad of Light (Drama)
No. of Episodes: 8
Subtitles: Japanese and English available
Just seeing the title of this drama on Netflix may not instantly appeal to some, but I wouldn’t let the strong gaming theme put you off.
The main character Akio Inaba has always struggled to communicate with his father, who has always put his career first. When his father suddenly resigns from his job, Akio takes the opportunity to buy his dad a Playstation 4 and a copy of the online game Final Fantasy 14. Akio hopes that he can use his character in the game called ‘Maidy’ to not only help his father with the game, but also to get to know his father better.
Even though Akio and his father are rarely in the same scene together (as most of their interactions are via the game), you really get the sense that they do care about each other despite never properly putting it into words.
There are strong performances between the main characters, particularly the late Osugi Ren as Akio’s dad Mr. Inaba. Whilst a bit dysfunctional, their familial relationship comes across as very realistic and natural. As a result, the use of Final Fantasy 14 as a key part of the story doesn’t feel too forced and means you don’t have to be a fan of the game to enjoy this drama. The supporting characters are also entertaining and help to lighten the mood.
Language difficulty: Most of the language used is every day with the exception of some gaming/ fantasy terms. Some of the scenes in the drama take place in an office, so there is also an opportunity to hear polite language which contrasts with the more casual language used in the game. Having Japanese subtitles helps to make the drama more accessible to Japanese learners which is always a plus!
This drama is based on a manga by Shungicu Uchida. Chiyomi Horikiri is a high school student living in a small town in rural Japan. After going out in a storm one night, Chiyomi ends up being shrunk to only a few inches tall. She is discovered by her neighbour and childhood friend, Shunichi Minami, who has been unusually distant with her recently. Can she get their friendship back on track, and find a way to grow back to her normal size before her family and friends find out?
I wasn’t expecting to like this drama, but I was pleasantly surprised by how the relationship between the two main characters develops. The premise of the show is linked to the story of 一寸法師 (Issunboushi, the inch high samurai), a traditional Japanese children’s story.
Part fantasy, part school drama, the show manages to have a strange sense of realism despite its unusual premise. Whilst the performances by the two leads is strong, I really like the cast of supporting characters. In my opinion, they really help to balance the dramatic parts of the show with well-timed humour.
Language difficulty: Being a drama with mostly young people, this is another good drama to hear how young people talk to each other. Despite the rural setting, there aren’t any unusual dialects to deal with here. The drama mostly uses everyday language, so this is very accessible for students of Japanese.
深夜食堂 / Midnight Diner (Drama)
No. of Episodes: 10
Subtitles: Japanese and English available
This is another show adapted from the best selling manga. The main character, the runs a small diner in the back streets of Tokyo. This place is unusual in that it only operates between midnight and 7am, hence the title. Each episode is named after a dish available at the diner, and focuses on different patrons to the diner and their stories, with a special focus on the relationships around them.
There can be a lot of drama but the stories always end on a positive note, with tips on how to make the recipe from the title of the episode.
There is a really interesting mix of stories and characters in this series. Some examples include a man who is suddenly left to his son, a university professor who falls in love with a Korean woman, a girl who always knits a jumper for the person she has a crush on, and many more. The proprietor is mostly quiet but always lends a sympathetic ear and often offers quiet encouragement. You get the feeling that the diner provides a much-needed respite from the pressures of their lives in Tokyo.
Language difficulty: You will hear everyday language in the drama, which is made a bit easier by the availability of Japanese subtitles. Due to the nature of the show there is a variety of characters from different walks of life and so speak in various ways, so it is a useful series to watch for that reason.
Shinichi Kudo is a high school student who often works with the police to solve cases. After ingesting a poison which transforms him into a child, he begins working under the name Conan Edogawa and moves to live with his childhood friend, Ran Mouri. Ran’s father is a detective and so Conan often accompanies him on investigations, sometimes using tranquilizers and a voice changer to solve the case in Mr. Mouri’s place.
The Netflix selection of episodes come from much later in the anime adaptation of the long-running manga.
Although each episode follows a similar format, there is quite a variety in the types of cases. Conan will sometimes be with Ran, or his school friends when he gets caught up in a mystery – the supporting cast help to balance Conan’s serious attitude in getting the cases solved.
Some cases are resolved within one episode, although there are some which take two or three episodes, which helps keep the format fresh. There are often a few red herrings during the course of the case, but it all wraps up nicely by the end and is explained well.
Language difficulty: Despite being a mystery drama, the majority of the vocabulary is common everyday language. The background of each case is always explained in some detail, but in an easy to understand way.
和風総本化 / Japanese Style Originator (TV show)
No. of Episodes: 54
Subtitles: Japanese and English available
This TV show is all about Japanese culture, with a special emphasis on the cultures and traditions unique to Japan. Each episode is based on a certain theme, with a series of videos focusing on topics related to that theme. There is a panel of guests who watch and comment on the videos (if you’ve seen a Japanese panel-style show then you’ll know the drill here). Every so often there will be questions on the topics covered which the guests will have a go at answering.
Whether it be new vocabulary or the history of things you see in Japan every day, you are bound to learn something new from every episode. With 54 episodes which are usually at least an hour long, there is plenty to keep you watching. This is highly recommended for Japanese learners!
Language difficulty: Due to the nature of the show, there is a fair bit of uncommon vocabulary relating to Japanese culture but are explained by the narrator in a way that is easy to understand. In typical style for a Japanese TV show, there is often text on screen which will help you follow what is going on if you are only using Japanese subtitles/ no subtitles at all. The discussions between the guests on the show are fairly straightforward to follow too.
テラスハウス / Terrace House (TV show)
No. of Episodes: 54
Subtitles: Japanese and English available
Note: There are actually three seasons of this on Netflix: ‘Terrace House: Boys & Girls in the City’, ‘Terrace House: Aloha State’, which is set in Hawaii and ‘Terrace House: Opening New Doors’
Terrace House is a reality TV shows where a group of young strangers live together in a share house in Tokyo. The show observes their interactions and how relationships develop when put in such a situation. Each character has a different background and over the course of the show, we get to see where they work and play outside of the share house, which gives a better insight into their personality.
Clips from developments within the shared house are watched by a group of guests (a mixture of presenters and comedians). They share their opinions on the clips at various points through each episode, which normally sparks a lively discussion.
This is definitely a guilty pleasure for me: as with any reality TV show, the longer you watch the more you become invested in what happens to them. I find it fascinating to observe how the dynamics change when new people join the show. I also find it interesting to see how the guests who comment on the show differ in their opinions on the developments in each episode.
Language difficulty: If you are looking for a show where young people speak Japanese as you would hear it on an everyday basis, this is the show for you. Everyone speaks in a casual way and mostly use everyday language. The availability of Japanese subtitles makes a bit easier to adjust to the casual language if you have trouble catching what is said.
おくりびと / Departures (Film)
Film length: 125 mins
Subtitles: English available
The main character Daigo finds himself having to move back to his hometown in Yamagata Prefecture when he loses his job as a cellist in Tokyo. He manages to find a highly paid role, which happens to be preparing the deceased for funerals. He keeps this new job a secret from those around him, including his wife Mika, due to the stigma surrounding his new line of work. Whilst he struggles at first, he soon finds himself getting used to the intricate processes of the 納棺 (のうかん/ encoffining ritual).
We very much learn about the 納棺 process as Daigo does, having taken the job without knowing anything about it. You can tell that there was a lot of effort spent on portraying this ritual in a respectful way and it does not surprise me that the film led to a revival of this increasingly rare ritual. One thing I didn’t expect before watching おくりびと is that despite the theme of the film, there are some funny moments too. I think the main actor does a great job of conveying the mix of emotions he experiences having moved back to his hometown.
Language difficulty: With the exception of some funeral related terms and the Yamagata dialect, it is generally everyday language used in the film. The funeral related terms are explained as these terms are mostly new to the main character.
**Update – I believe that Departures may not be on Netflix anymore (at least in the UK). Therefore I am adding one more show that I have really enjoyed since first writing this post.
アグレッシブ列子 / Aggretsuko (Anime)
No. of episodes: 10
Subtitles: Japanese and English available
Retsuko, a red panda, is a typical twenty-something who works in an accounting department of a Japanese firm. She doesn’t like her job and finds her coworkers and boss particularly annoying, and longs for something different. She lets out her true emotions by singing death metal songs at karaoke in the evenings.
I didn’t really know what to expect before watching this. All I knew is that Aggretsuko was a Sanrio character, and all of the Sanrio characters I knew (ie. Hello Kitty) were super cute – “How was this going to translate into a show aimed at adults?” I thought. Having finished the series (and now on my second viewing), I am happy to report that Aggretsuko is incredibly entertaining to watch.
Aggretsuko has a great mix of humour and commentary on working life. Retsuko isn’t really sure what she truly wants in life, but through the situations she finds herself in during the series, she begins to form a better idea of what that might be.
The supporting characters are varied and you will no doubt have encountered some of the personalities at some point in your life. At the same time, by the end of the series each of these characters are shown to be much more nuanced compared to when they are first introduced.
I think that every adult watching this who has worked in an office will find this particularly relatable. At the same time, it provides an insight into Japanese working culture and societal expectations especially towards women. I believe that there is a second series in production and I cannot wait to see it!
Language difficulty: As a Netflix original show, you have access to Japanese and English subtitles. The Netflix trailer gives you a pretty good idea of the language you will encounter in this series. The way in which some characters speak may be hard to catch, but the actual dialogue is not too complicated (although casual in tone). I think that even beginners will be able to follow some of the dialogue, so I definitely encourage Japanese readers to watch!
This ended up being a much longer post than I was expecting, but I hope you find something interesting to watch if you are a Japanese learner with a Netflix subscription. Are there any shows that you would include on your own list? Please let me know in the comments!
The protagonist Ichigo Amano is a 14-year-old who, on merit of her extraordinary sense of taste, is admitted to the prestigious Saint Marie Academy. Unfortunately, she has no experience of actually cooking the delicacies she enjoys so much, unlike her highly gifted classmates. The manga follows Ichigo on her journey to becoming a pastry chef, making friends and learning a lot of important lessons along the way.
As you might expect from the shoujo genre, this manga is strong on the themes of never giving up, following your dreams and the power of friendships. This makes for a wholesome and enjoyable read, with a nice moral behind it. I recommend reading it when you are having a bit of a tough time with something and need some motivation.
In terms of language, I would put this at around JLPT N4 level. Aside from some French culinary terms, this manga is full of everyday vocabulary and expressions. I have not found Yumeiro Patissiere to be too heavy on slang or casual language in general. Together with the fact that furigana is provided, this shouldn’t be too difficult for upper beginners to try reading.
There is also an anime adaptation which can be found on Crunchyroll or YouTube – if you can follow the Japanese used in this, you will have no problem with the manga it is based on.
The cost of learning with textbooks can be a barrier to those who are just starting to learn Japanese. However, there are plenty of online Japanese resources which are great no matter what your budget is.
Most people are told that in order to study Japanese they should make their way through Genki textbooks 1 and 2. There is of course nothing wrong with this method (it is tried and tested after all).
Unfortunately Genki books are not cheap at around £40 (over $50) for the textbook. This doesn’t include the costs of additional materials such as the workbooks either! So if your funds are limited, buying a Genki is not an affordable option for people studying on their own.
Online Japanese Resources to the rescue!
On the other hand, the internet is packed with online Japanese resources that are actually pretty good! So I thought it would be a good idea to introduce some websites to help those looking to study Japanese without a textbook. When I think back to the Japanese language classes I have attended, textbooks were never used so I definitely think it is possible to self-study without using a textbook.
Having said that, I believe textbooks are useful because they provide a methodical framework in which to work your way through learning the basics of a language. Online resources do not always provide this same framework to follow, which can make it difficult to know what to study next. Fortunately, most of the ones I mention in the below list do not have this issue.
I recommend looking at grammar lists for the beginner level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT for short). Even if you aren’t planning on sitting the exam, you can get a feel for essential grammar and vocabulary. If you are new to Japanese your focus should be on essential words and phrases, sentence structure and how particles work. Check out my How to start learning Japanese page to get some further ideas and resources.
Here is a list of various online Japanese resources that I think learners can work through like a regular textbook. You could also use this as supplementary material to a textbook or class that you are already studying with.
Tae Kim – Probably the most well known on the list and for a good reason. Tae Kim’s website offers a comprehensive introduction to Japanese. It also tries to take a different approach to a lot of textbooks. It is being updated all the time too.
Imabi – This is a great place to start if Tae Kim isn’t for you. This online grammar guide starts from the beginning of learning Japanese right up to advanced level. The website is split into beginner, intermediate and advanced conten. Each level is split into a number of lessons, enabling you to work your way through the website just like a textbook. Best of all this is entirely free – needless to say, this is a must visit resource!
Erin’s Challenge – if you’re a visual learner you may find supplementing your study with this website useful. Erin’s Challenge is a website put together by the Japan Foundation. The website has a series of videos featuring Erin, who becomes a school exchange student in Japan. Each short video covers a different topic as she gets used to her new life in Japan. These also have explanations of key grammar points and phrases used which you can then test yourself on.
Marugoto – The Japan Foundation website has a number of free online courses aimed at those self-studying Japanese called Marugoto. Different courses with suit different learners depending on your goal. If you aim is to build practical communication skills in Japanese then I recommend the ‘Katsudoo’ course. However if you want to study Japanese in more depth then choose the ‘Katsudoo & Rikai’ course.
Human Japanese – Whilst not free in its entirety, the ‘lite’ version of this app is free. Fortunately the free content gives a pretty good indication of the app’s approach to learning Japanese. I’ve written a separate post reviewing this app as I think it is worth the cost of entry for complete beginners to Japanese.
Lingodeer – this (free!) app is more like Duolingo in style. You follow a series of lessons covering different aspects of vocabulary and grammar. Having said that, it covers topics in a way that makes it very accessible for Japanese learners. You can then follow up the lessons with some of the sites below to reinforce your understanding of the content. It also does a pretty good job of testing you on the content of the lessons in different ways, which is really important when self-studying.
It’s always good to have somewhere else to check out grammar explanations if they are not making sense straight away. Here’s a list of online Japanese resources you might find useful:
Jgram – I think of Jgram as a database of Japanese grammar points which the community contributes to. You can search for grammar points by the (old) JLPT levels or use the search function to look up something specific. Each entry has notes and example sentences which is helpful for getting a new perspective on a grammar point.
Maggie Sensei – Everything on the website is presented in a really fun and easy to digest way. As well as explanations of grammar points, you will also find posts on aspects of Japanese culture. I also like that vocabulary is listed by theme rather than difficulty.
Wasabi – Wasabi’s online grammar reference is similar to Tae Kim in layout and style. I think Wasabi’s guide is particularly good for learning to distinguish between grammar points which have similar English meanings.
Japanistry – The Japanistry grammar guide works quite similarly to the Tae Kim guide but is a great reference site for the foundations of Japanese grammar.
日本語の森 (Nihongo no Mori) – This YouTube channel has lots of videos on grammar points aimed at all levels of Japanese learners. The playlist that I’ve linked to called ‘Ekubo Basic Japanese Lessons’ starts from the very beginning, but there are a number of playlists focused on different levels of the JLPT.
Worksheets and Quizzes
MLC Japanese – full of handy printable worksheets and quizzes. There is a lot of content for JLPT N5 & N4 in particular, but you can find study plans and JLPT material for the upper levels (old levels level 2 and level 1).
Memrise – has a number of electronic flashcard decks, including decks on the main textbooks including Genki, Tae Kim’s guide and the JLPT.
Japanesetest4you – This is an all round useful website for learners, with grammar and vocabulary lists for each level of the JLPT. You can practice a bunch of mock questions online.
JPDrills – JPDrills is pretty new to the game, but from what I’ve seen is pretty good. Access to the full website requires a subscription, but you can sign up to practice a bunch of Japanese questions for free. This is a helpful resource if you are working towards the JLPT.
The above are all websites that I have tried and thought could be useful for other learners. If you are looking for even more online Japanese resources, check out my Japanese Resource Masterpost!
The Bilingual NY Learn Japanese podcast (not to be confused with the Bilingual News Podcast!) is a regular podcast covering the latest news articles in Japanese. Inspired by the Bilingual News Podcast, the articles covered are given in Japanese, followed up with an explanation in English.
I believe the format has changed somewhat recently, but I am basing this review on the most recent format as described below which I think works well.
The articles covered are usually from NHK News Web Easy, so if you make use of this website already, then this podcast is a nice companion resource. Each episode focuses on one article in depth. The article is first read out in full in Japanese, then English definitions are given before a line by line English translation by Ben, the presenter.
This is then followed up by a more difficult version of the same story, normally an article taken from one of the main newspapers. I think this is a great idea for showing the difference in style between the kinds of articles you find on NHK Easy as opposed to actual Japanese newspapers, as there is often a difference in formality which affects the vocabulary and grammar you come across.
At about 10-15 minutes each, the episode length is not as long as the other Bilingual News Podcast. However, given the structure of each podcast episode, I think this works quite well to study from in short bursts.
At the end of the podcast, there is a segment on English to Japanese translation practice. I didn’t really like this part as the sentences and vocabulary unrelated to the article itself. It was also pronounced by the presenter who is a non-native speaker, which some people may not like. This is a minor negative as it is only a couple of minutes long and of course, easily skippable.
Overall I do like this podcast for when I have less time to listen to the Bilingual News Podcast. There is a certain level of assumed knowledge in terms of vocabulary and grammar, so I would recommend this for upper beginner to intermediate learners. If the Bilingual News Podcast is a bit beyond your current level, I recommend giving this podcast a try instead.
You can find the episodes on Soundcloud, iTunes or on a podcasting app of your choice.
Looking for another Japanese podcast in simpler Japanese? I have also covered the wonderful News in Easy Japanese podcast which you may also be interested in 🙂
Have you tried out this podcast? Do you like it? Let me know in the comments!