A newbie’s journey through Japanese #4: Understanding kanji

Minasan, konnichiwa! Mike desu. It’s been a while since my last post, and that is because life has gotten incredibly busy. My wife and I are expecting our first child in August, so as you might imagine, my Japanese studies have taken a backseat to trying to get everything ready for our new arrival. It’s an exciting time, but also one where free time is in very short supply.

So I’m going to steal away some time during my lunch break to write this post. It concerns an issue that every beginning Japanese student has to face at some point if he or she wants to move beyond the most basic understanding of the language. Yes, I’m talking about those incredibly complex, multifaceted and often infuriating Chinese characters called kanji.

The very first question one might have when confronting kanji is: Why? The Japanese already have two writing systems, hiragana and katakana, for any syllable that can be uttered in the language. Aren’t those enough to go around?

Well, you could technically write any Japanese sentence in nothing but kana. But, believe it or not, that can actually be more tiring (and more confusing) to read. That is because each kana only represents one syllable, whereas kanji can contain multiple syllables in them. For example, take the very simple word for teacher, “sensei.” If you were writing this in kana, it would take four kana in sequence: se, n, se, i. Meanwhile, it only takes two kanji (sen, sei). So already, you’ve doubled your reading speed.

Another advantage is immediately understanding the meaning from the characters. Kana mean nothing on their own; they’re just sounds. Meanwhile, kanji have their meanings built right in. This helps avoid mistakes with words that sound the same, such as “hana.” The word looks the same written in kana, but in kanji can mean either nose or flower depending on the character.

Kanji is starting to sound like an incredibly useful system, isn’t it? There are a few caveats, though:

First, just because you are reading faster does not necessarily mean you are writing faster. That is one of the quirks of Japanese. Using my earlier example, “sensei” in kana takes nine strokes to write. But in kanji, though it is only two characters, it takes 11 strokes. And that is a minor example. For instance, take the Japanese word for love, “ai.” In kana, it’s five strokes. In kanji, that lone character of “ai” takes 13 strokes.

The other big hurdle of kanji is that the characters often have multiple sounds associated with them. Specifically, kanji can have both on readings (which are based on the Chinese pronunciation of the character when that character was first absorbed into the Japanese language; it is not necessarily the same sound in modern Chinese) and kun readings (the native Japanese pronunciation).

What’s more, kanji can have multiple on and kun readings depending on context and whether or not the character is used in a name. There are a few rules of thumb to figure out the correct pronunciation to use. Often, when you see three or more kanji jammed together, the characters are going to take an on reading, and when you see the character by itself or with kana trailing off the end of it, it’s going to take a kun reading. But guess what? Those are not hard and fast rules. In fact, there are so many exceptions to them and irregular pronunciations that before long you will probably throw those rules out the window and most likely feel overwhelmed and lost.

However, there is hope. And that is this: Practice, practice, practice. Find ways to use kanji in daily life and write them out whenever you can (this is something I will get more into in a future post). The language probably seems completely arbitrary in its rules, but in that way, it is like pretty much any language.

For example, consider this: Comb, tomb, bomb. Or this:  Predict, indict.  There is nothing in the words themselves that tell you the pronunciations are drastically different. Non-native English speakers would see those words, their similar spellings, and probably think they all have similar sounds. But you know how different they are. How? From being exposed to them, practicing them, hearing them and using them. It’s the same with kanji. My feeling is, if you can master a language as arbitrary as English, you can do it again with Japanese.

As always, I am interested in what you have to say and your experiences as well. Are there any podcasts you recommend for learning about Japan and the Japanese language? Let me know.

Did you like this post? Click here to read more from our Guest Writer Mike.

A newbie’s journey through Japanese #3: All about Japanese podcasts

Hello again, everyone. Mike desu. Today I’m going to go over some of my favorite podcasts for practicing, hearing and learning the Japanese language, as well as learning more about Japan and Japanese culture in general. I am going to assume a few things in this post for the sake of simplicity: One, you have access to iTunes, and two, you are listening primarily to English-language podcasts and have an English-language account.  For many of the podcasts I am going to mention, it is as simple as typing in the name of a podcast in the iTunes Store search.

I like to  subscribe not only to language podcasts but culture podcasts about Japan. I believe in order to get a full understanding of Japanese, it is important to immerse yourself in the culture, history and news of Japan as well. Not only does this expose you to new words, phrases and ideas you might not otherwise discover, but it will also give you something to talk about if you ever plan on visiting the country or meet any native Japanese speakers.

English-language podcasts


The podcast I listen to the most for learning Japanese is JapanesePod101. Obviously, JapanesePod101 is far from the only podcast out there for learning Japanese. But it is the one I personally find the most useful. What I love about this podcast and website is the way it tackles Japanese from both grammatical and cultural perspectives. I also enjoy the repartee between the members of the cast; it almost feels like you’re spending time with friends, albeit friends with an excellent command of Japanese.

The learning levels are categorized by Absolute Beginner, Newbie, Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced. This allows people to quickly find the level at which they are most comfortable and explore at their own pace. However, the difficulty of the lessons can vary widely. Occasionally it feels like the podcast team has skipped whole lessons and jumped ahead to harder material in the space of one podcast, though this is not so much the case with newer episodes. There are plenty of side treks too, into things like Japanese children’s songs, culture, grammatical particles and idiomatic phrases, which are great for increasing fluency.

An important disclaimer: Though it is free to listen to the newest episodes of the podcast as they come out, for all intents and purposes, JapanesePod101 is not free. I pay a small fee each month to have access to all the lessons and PDFs of lesson notes. However, without access to the older material and the lesson notes, you are receiving a heavily curtailed learning experience.

Finally, for all that I love about this podcast, JapanesePod101 is not great for learning kanji. There are PDFs associated with each lesson that break down the meaning of any kanji used in the dialog, but stroke orders and the different readings are rarely explored. Additionally, the kanji is based on what you would see if you typed kanji on a computer, which is often subtly different than what someone will write by hand. (the same is true for kana — compare handwritten hiragana ‘sa’ and ‘ki’ to the same characters on a computer) The best way to learn the kanji, in my opinion, is to look it up here on Nihongo Ichiban and practice along with the stroke order animations.

A Short History of Japan

Hosted by an Australian teacher, A Short History of Japan is both informative and entertaining. The host obviously loves talking about Japanese history, and his exuberance is contagious. When I initially subscribed to this podcast for a test-run, I half-expected a dry and terse rundown of the most important highlights of Japanese history, similar to a professor, nearing tenure, reeling off facts and figures by rote to a lecture hall packed with university students barely able to keep their eyes open.

No way. This podcast is full of energy. It’s lively, witty and manages to humanize ancient history. Like any great story, the history explored in this podcast is full of heroes, villains, lovers and charlatans. You will hear about benevolence, double-crosses, family mutinies, bloody battles, backroom dealings and noble pursuits. And all of it is true. I feel less like I’m learning about history and more like I’m listening to the script of a great movie or television drama. I cannot recommend this podcast enough.

Japan Talk

I consider Japan Talk the modern-day corollary of A Short History of Japan. The host of this show also genuinely loves talking about his chosen subject: The latest news from around Japan from the perspective of an expatriate. Similar to A Short History, the podcast also explores great successes and great failures, winners and losers, politicians and regular people. All from the standpoint of recent news.

This show is a great antidote to cultural stereotypes of every Japanese man, woman and child being stoic, silent and eternally respectful. Japan has a population of more than 127 million people; it is unfair (and culturally ignorant) to apply a blanket statement to such a diverse population. In fact, the news out of Japan can be just be lively and controversial as anything you hear elsewhere. The one downside of this podcast is updates have become sporadic of late. I include this show in the hopes that it will start coming out on a regular basis again.

Tokyo Podcast

Tokyo Podcast  is a recent addition to my library. The host is Canadian-born, having moved to Japan after residing in Thailand for several years. As of this writing, the show is still in its infancy; it only launched three months ago. However, even in that short time, I find this podcast valuable and insightful. The host is apparently excellent at networking, because unlike the other podcasts I have mentioned so far, he regularly features guests on his program. They can range from people who know the inner workings of the Japanese cell phone business to those who offer tours of historic Japanese castles. I love the variety of viewpoints and experience, and it gives an intimate, patchwork impression of Tokyo and Japan.

Japanese-language podcasts

I find it very helpful to listen to Japanese-language podcasts. While I definitely do not understand everything — or even most — of what is said, these podcasts have helped with both my pronunciation and my vocabulary. For example, if you are still learning how to say the months and days in Japanese, you will quickly absorb their pronunciations when you are listening to Japanese podcasts that start the show by listing the current date. Also, if you hear a phrase thrown around often enough (“chotto matte!”) you will probably learn it even before you fully understand it. Listening to Japanese podcasts are also a great way to benchmark your progress. Maybe one week, a podcast will seem almost unintelligible. Then, after a few weeks of studying, you return to find you understand more of the words and grammar.

Finally, Japanese podcasts are invaluable for learning how to actually speak the language. Often, in spoken Japanese, vowels are slurred together or dropped entirely, the “n” consonant can sound more like someone saying “ng” and consonants that end in “u” rarely sound like the way English-speakers would pronounce  a u. All of these nuances would be difficult to explain in a textbook, but they are right there, to listen to over and over again, in a podcast.

There are hundreds of podcasts available in Japanese, just like there are in English. However, finding these podcasts can be difficult, especially if you are unable to type kanji or kana on your computer when doing searches. One way around this is to go into your iTunes account and switch your home region to Japan. This will show you all the podcasts available, but I do not really like this method; the moment you click on anything other than a podcast, a warning will pop up saying you cannot buy anything without a Japanese credit card, and you will immediately be returned to your previous region. I prefer a different method for finding Japanese language podcasts, and while it does not give me access to everything available, it gives me a nice slice of podcasts.

The easiest method, by far, is to type “Japanese” into your iTunes search. That is how I found several Japanese-language podcasts through the English-language iTunes storefront.


Produced by SBS Radio, “Japanese” is the bare-bones name for a news podcast geared toward Japanese speakers in Australia. What I like about this podcast is the length (averaging 10-15 minutes an episode) and its variety of content.  In one episode, the host may interview circus performers. Another week, he may talk to organizers for a charity fundraiser or discuss the date of an important anniversary in world history. Whatever the subject, each episode is perfect for concentrated listening.

Japanese Classical Literature at Bedtime

Since this podcast deals with classical literature, I am certain there are many archaic phrases and grammatical constructions that may not be directly applicable to modern-day Japanese language learning. That said, this series is still a pleasure to listen to. The podcast features a female host whose voice is calm, soothing and perfectly suited to reading bite-sized excerpts from Japanese literature.

Other podcasts

Finally, there are several podcasts I listen to that are hard to find unless you know the correct terms to search. Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS), Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK), Iwate Broadcasting Company (IBC) and Nikkei Inc. are among the Japanese broadcasting and journalistic companies that offer podcasts. The easiest way to find these in iTunes is simply to search for TBS, NHK, IBC and Nikkei respectively. You will find that there are a huge number of podcasts available from just these companies. The ones I listen to regularly are Nikkei Trendy and Iyaa Maitta Maitta (which you cannot search for directly by name, you need to look under IBC and find the podcast with an icon of an older Japan man and woman laughing).

When searching for Japanese podcasts, you will see links to additional Japanese-language podcasts under the “Listeners also subscribed to” category. It creates a wonderful snowball effect, until soon you might find yourself following more Japanese podcasts than English ones. However, do not let yourself become overwhelmed or burned out. Do not let it become a chore. Just explore and play around.

As always, I am interested in what you have to say and your experiences as well. Are there any podcasts you recommend for learning about Japan and the Japanese language? Let me know.

Did you like this post? Click here to read more from our Guest Writer Mike.

A newbie’s journey through Japanese: Step 1 — Learn the kana

Mina-san, ohayou gozaimasu! Mike desu. Welcome to my second post about learning the Japanese language from the standpoint of an absolute beginner. Today I am going to cover a very, very basic step of learning Japanese. It is so essential that it should be a no-brainer. Yet I often see questions posted to online forums about translating even the most elementary phrases (like ohayou gozaimasu) from these most basic of Japanese writing systems.

I am talking, of course, about the kana, specifically the hiragana and katakana systems. These two writing systems should be your lifeblood when first learning the language. They are not only the keys to help you learn Japanese at a faster rate; they also set the fundamentals that will give you the study habits you need to eventually tackle the kanji. In fact, if you can get yourself in a good rhythm with your studying, you will start finding yourself using at least the most basic kanji (such as the characters for numbers, days and months) at least as often as the kana. It all starts here.

Japanese can often feel unfair to the beginner. A case in point is learning the kana. Before I started using the Internet as my primary source for learning the characters, I bought “Let’s Learn Hiragana” by Yasuko Kosaka Mitamura off of Amazon.com. (It is a great first purchase if you want a formalized way of learning hiragana, with lots of drills and exercises to keep your memory sharp. The downside is you will not understand, just by reading, how to pronounce characters like “tsu” and “fu” correctly.)

After about a month of study, and constant rewriting of the characters into a large notebook whenever I had a free moment, I finally had the hiragana down. Alright, I thought, 46 characters memorized, plus the different voicings and the contracted forms like kyo, gyu, etc.! I can do this! Then I saw there was another whole set to learn with katakana, for the exact same sounds! (Hiragana is usually used in native words, while katakana is mostly used in foreign or loanwords.) Suddenly, my big achievement seemed very small. Especially when I realized the quirks of these writing systems, such as the katakana for “sa” looking very close to the hiragana for “se,” and the katakana that resemble smiley faces (“shi” and “tsu”) looking almost identical.

There is no easy way around this, except by drilling the kana over and over again until you have it down. Yes, there are little tricks you can pick up. For example, the two lines for “shi” that make up what look like eyes in a smiley face are on the “side,” (both “shi” and “side” begin with s) whereas the two eyes in “tsu” begin on the “top” (both “tsu” and “top” begin with t). Other than those mnemonic devices, however, you are pretty much on your own.

You may think this is a very difficult task, but if you keep at it, you will master them. The best way to learn is to start following Japanese blogs, Twitter accounts, etc. To help me become comfortable with the kana and some of the basic kanji, I created a list on Twitter to follow lots of Japanese accounts that seemed interesting to me. Do I understand everything that is said on these accounts? Absolutely not. I think I might comprehend about 2 percent of what is written, especially with the liberal use of much more advanced kanji. But it is a great way to practice (and to learn new words if you have a dictionary handy). Here is the link. I hope you find it useful, too. Feel free to comment with some of the links you find helpful for learning the language.

The most important thing I can say about learning Japanese is to wean yourself off of romaji immediately. It is fine to use in a pinch, such as when I opened this post by writing “Ohayou gozaimasu.” But really, the best way to learn Japanese is to discard romaji from your learning as quickly as you can and replace it with kana and kanji. Plunging yourself into the deep end by following Japanese Twitter accounts is one great way to accomplish this. Do not let romaji be your crutch.

Next time, I will talk more about another extremely important step in learning Japanese — listening to native speakers talk. I will share some information on the Japanese podcasts I listen to and what they have taught me so far. Mata ne!

A newbie’s journey through Japanese

Konnichiwa. Mike desu. I am a relatively new student to Japanese, having only begun learning the language this past March. I cannot believe that eight months have gone by since I first picked up a book on learning hiragana. In some ways, I feel like I have much more than eight months’ worth of information stored in my brain. I have already learned hiragana, katakana, about 50 kanji (though I am admittedly shaky on some of the readings) and a couple counters, along with some basic vocabulary, sentence structures and grammar patterns. Yet even with that much memorized, even with that much practice, I doubt I could even understand half of what came out of the mouth of a first-grader in Japan.

Japanese, to this native English speaker, seems incredibly complex, labyrinthine and fascinating. It feels like a topic where you could study for 10 years and still have plenty to learn. Some might find that intimidating. In some ways it is. There are plenty of nights when I scratch kanji into a notebook while balancing kanji reference books in my lap, trying to remember the different readings and proper stroke orders, feeling completely overwhelmed. However, it is also a challenge I am more than willing to take on.

I began wanting to learn Japanese when I started replaying the old Nintendo games of my youth. I heard whispers on the Internet that many of the games I had grown up loving were actually bastardized North American localizations where much of the original Japanese content was lost. That was part of my reason for learning, so that someday I could play the games unaltered and understand them fully. The other deciding factor was the earthquake and tsunami earlier this year. Seeing the raw video footage and photos from that disaster, I realized I was not only watching a historic event of great trauma and tragedy; I was also confronting my own ignorance of a language that more than 130 million people know and use daily.

In this new blog, I hope to share some of my methods as an absolute beginner for learning this one-of-a-kind language. They include some pretty obvious techniques like tackling hiragana and katakana immediately, so you can wean yourself off of romaji. However, I also use some methods that might not seem like first steps for a newbie. I’m talking about things like following Japanese Twitter accounts, watching Japanese-only content on YouTube, and listening to many different podcasts where Japanese is the only language spoken.

If you are just starting out with the language, you might think these methods are next to useless because so much will be incomprehensible. But believe me, the sooner you can start immersing yourself, the better. You’ll be surprised what you can pick up just by opening yourself up to all the different ways to see, read, hear and react to Japanese.

I will offer some specific examples in a future post. Until then, thank you for reading. Feel free to leave a comment detailing your own journey into the language. I would love to hear about your experiences, as we all continue on this journey together into fluency.