How did people learn Japanese before the internet?

Learning Japanese (as a native English speaker) is pretty hard - meaning learning to speak, understand, read and write. However, the internet and apps like WK make it much, much easier than it could be. If I think back to when I was at school (a long time ago…) then I don’t think I would have been able to do it. Apart from a few books there would have been no resources - no instant access to news, TV etc that allows me to hear Japanese every day. Reading would have been almost impossible. looking up Kanji you don’t know in a dictionary by checking for radicals or counting strokes sounds like a huge PTA. I think it is my lazy side but I struggle even with using my phone/google translate as it takes me a long time to get through one page. With just a physical dictionary it would be so slow I am not sure I would bother. Hats off to those before us that did learn the very hard way!


They burned kanji on turtle shells


There were not really many foreigners who were able to speak Japanese in the past. On the other hand no one bothered because there was no anime :thinking:


Japanese websites in the mid 00’s looked like complete arse too, so that was not fun even when dealing with the “easy” stuff.


Heh. There is that. I imagine they had to rely on sparse, incomplete, and inaccurate books, if they really did need to learn.


I tried learning Japanese before there was much on the internet - this would have been early 2000s. I bought some ‘teach yourself Japanese’ sort of books that I’ve since dug out again, and they were pretty terrible. I manage to learn Hiragana and Katakana from them so that was good, but as for teaching the language they weren’t a lot of use. For Kanji as well there was very little - I have a deck of flashcards, but it’s basically just ‘here’s 1,000 Kanji cards, learn them’.

I got a tutor for a while when I was at uni, but that didn’t last very long and she wasn’t that good - she was a fellow student looking to earn some money so she wasn’t a very experience teacher.

I would guess that most people who managed to learn were people who went to uni and studied it specifically. I always thought you needed to know some Japanese before studying it at degree, but apparently not, you can start from scratch and they basically do an immersion style course.


Yeah me too! I had the book Japanese for Dummies in 2003. Obviously the internet existed at this point, but I mainly used it for playing Neopets rather than a learning tool. The book was awful, it straight up said that hiragana was too hard to learn so don’t bother, everything was in romaji, and from what I remember it fairly devoid of exercises.


How could people reproduce before Tinder? :smiley:
The vast majority of people studying Japanese are not on WK. Studying on books is still a thing, that one could argue is also very effective as there are less distractions.
Internet has popularized the study of Japanese, so there are more people trying, and consequently more people succeeding. But there is no proof that the rate of success is any higher than in the past.


Good point. This was the NHK website in 1997:






Didn’t the last version make it worse? :joy:


I thought Tinder was for “practising” reproduction rather than actual reproduction…


Furigana and pain.

In other words, they probably studied kanji concurrently with whatever they were reading using furigana. Also maybe writing Kanji in the same order grade school students would do. RTK changed this, and you can even sort of learn a little how learning Japanese was like by reading its synopsis.


You’re tough guys. We had our nice looking websites in the West too. Remember geocities ?


Books, audio tapes and CDs, school, and dating a native Japanese person were all common ways that people still use today. The most difficult thing you listed would have been finding media in the language that you could read or watch. For example, in the states there is a premium cable channel called NGN (Nippon Golden Network) that you had to order to get access to just like HBO; so it wasn’t free but it broadcasts Japanese programs and news. In Hawaii, there is a block of time on a certain day on the KIKU station that broadcasts Japanese dramas, shows, news, and cartoons.


Long before we measured our worth in the eyes of strangers with Instagram likes, twas the visit counter at the bottom of your Geocities page that would set you heart aflame.

Has anyone got any of the pages from that 1800s learn Japanese book with bizarre pronunciation?


You mean the type of books where し was written as si instead shi and ち was written as ti instead of chi and つ was written as tu instead of tsu


I learned Japanese before the Internet, in the middle 1980s. I’m on wanikani now because my kanji ability was never solid, and because, several decades after returning to US from Japan, I want to regain my old fluency.

I studied two nights a week in a classroom setting for two years, using Beginning Japanese by Eleanor Harz Jorden. My teachers were Japanese and they were professional Japanese teachers, in Boston. That text is all in Romaji, which is one reason for my weak kanji. There were cassette tapes, and I played them in the car, mimicking them, while I commuted to work.

Then I did the nine week immersion program at Middlebury College. Residential, and you promise to use only Japanese. The first assignment was a short story by 星新一。The story was photocopied, and a bit smeary (several generations of copy?). I remember staying up all night looking up kanji in Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary. I believe I cried.

There were films at Middlebury, once/week. We studied an NHK tv drama, 我が麗しの友。There were cassette tapes. The class size was small (I was in third year; we had three Japanese teachers, all professional linguists, and nine students). Because we all lived together, there was plenty of conversation, not only with other students but also with the teachers, who were native japanese and professional Japanese teachers. The head of the Japanese summer program that year was Seiichi Makino, who is one of the authors of A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar.

Then I got a Monbusho scholarship and became a grad student at Hiroshima University. After a year at Hiroshima, I returned to the US just to do the Middlebury summer program again. I learned more in nine weeks at Middlebury than i did in one year in Japan.

Eventually I was good enough to do professional translation. I remember that my Nelson kanji dictionary became so worn out that I discarded it and bought a new copy. Many other dictionaries too, large and small, specialized. A 国語辞典 for high school students. A 広辞苑。Name dictionaries. ことわざdictionaries. Technical term dictionaries.

I made kanji flash cards. Tons and tons of them.

It’s really incredible how great the learning resources are today. I live in the US now, but I got a subscription to Kindle Unlimited with, and I can read lots of Japanese books for very little money. And because they are on my computer it’s super-easy to look things up. I use Calibre to remove DMA, convert the book to apple’s e-reader (, because the dictionary function is so much better than Kindle. Kindle doesn’t know how to look up Japanese words that are not in dictionary form; Apple does. Also, if I don’t remove DRM, my Kindle app can only be connected either to, or to When I switch, all my books from the other amazon are deleted and I have to download them again.

And I use an osx app named iText that lets me scan any area of the screen and convert it to text, including Japanese text. It uses google image processing to do that, and it costs a small amount to get unlimited use. I use it to be able to look up Japanese characters in manga, which are not drawn, so you can’t just copy the text.

I watch lots of J Dramas for free, some on amazon or netflix, some on

I have netflix configured to think my native language is Japanese; in that way, it offers me Japanese subtitles or dubbing for lots of films.


There was one I’ve seen posted around here that said “small” was “cheese eye” and had lots of helpful phrases about wanting to buy a horse.

Found a “learn the kana” book in a charity shop a few years ago published in 1997 which had “si” for し. I used it because it had writing practice sheets and just ignored everything else.


Wow, that’s the book! That was my first Japanese book. I don’t even think the teacher liked it. I didn’t have any tapes with it though. I went to a library and found Learn Japanese: New College Text by John Young that to me was so much easier. So in my classes I used the Jorden text but on my own I used the Young book. The Jorden book was so confusing because of the Nihon-Shiki romanization.

I also worked from probably the most popular phrase book on Japanese; Making Out in Japanese by Todd and Erika Geers. That book was so useful as a beginner.

Yea there are three different types of romanization. Nihon-Shiki writes it as si and Hepburn writes it as shi


That romanization is also valid by the way, it’s called Nihon-shiki romanization, though it’s more intended for Japanese people to use, as it’s based on logic instead of phonetics.