How much Japanese should I realistically try to learn if I want to go by May?

If I get this remote job I’m interviewing for this week, I’m gonna try and save up to go vacation in Japan for about three weeks by end of April / beginning of May.

I’m only level 3 on wanikani and been trying to learn more basics with the Genki book as well as grammar with Tae Kim’s guide. This is on top of taking two hard math classes at University at the moment, which take a good chunk of my time (they’re senior level, theoretical and heavily proof-based). Plus with the job, I can expect to spend anywhere from 10-20hrs a week working from home.

I want to be able to at least speak the language somewhat by the time I go there - enough to ask for directions, like where is the bathroom, order food, check in at hotels, etc. I know realistically I won’t be able to read much kanji, but I know hiragana and katakana fairly well, albeit being a slow reader, so I can rely on furigana when it comes down to it.

I also plan on paying for wanikani monthly so I can keep doing the lessons.

How much Japanese do you guys think I can expect to realistically know in about two months?



I’d say N5 is doable.


A friend of mine just got back from Japan, knowing hardly any Japanese. Smartphone translator apps are awesome.

I’d focus on “phrasebook” vocabulary and “survival” Japanese-type listening, plus kanji for place names (so you can read train and subway maps).


Don’t stress it. Japan is very foreigner friendly.

Of course knowing Japanese may improve your experience but you can always come back to Japan when you are more proficient.

I was overjoyed to be able to read stuff in Japan when I visited around wk lvl 30 compared to my previous time when I only knew kana. But my first trip was also amazing. I had to pick places that explicitly advertised they had English speaking staff though. But even at around JLPT N3 I had to rely on English quite a lot.

Don’t expect to get super advanced in just a few months. Go through N5 grammar and study vocab relevant to your planned activities.

Vocab for transport and food will come in handy for sure.


This here may be the most important bit.

I did my first trip to Japan before I started learning Japanese, and we managed to get by with a phasebook, a few half-remembered things from anime, and charades - really, the biggest issue we had was when I mistakenly thought we’d missed the last train to our hotel on the night we arrived, and I was too afraid to try asking someone for confirmation, so we spent 10,000 yen on a taxi instead (this was before the age of smartphones, so I couldn’t just check Hyperdia for myself).

Anyway, point is, I quickly realised that while I could use the phrasebook to ask questions, I could never understand the answers I’d receive, so there was almost no point in using the phrasebook. So yeah, practice listening.


Thank you! This is really good advice.

Do you know of any resources (hopefully free) that I could use to practice listening?


1 Like

YouTube? Netflix?

Basically just listening to stuff. :slightly_smiling_face:

1 Like

I’d recommend two podcasts for that:

  1. Nihongo con Teppei for Beginners
  2. N5 episodes of JLPT Stories

I second this. Not to discourage you from learning all you can anyway, but starting from 0, a couple months isn’t a lot of time to really internalize a bunch of grammar (knowing them on paper is a different matter). That being said, you can get around quite a bit with just a lot of すみません and これをください.

When I spent 9 days there I hardly had a chance to use anything else except that one time when the police randomly searched me. :confused:


Its nice to be able to use some phrases and learning is rewarding by itself but I’d say don’t worry about it. When I went first time, I did’t know that much (still not great) and everything went just fine. You’d be fine without any English or Japanese I’d say, service culture is great, people are friendly and helpful and its very safe.


I just got back from Japan. We were in one spot for two weeks.
I actually stopped studying in August, when we started making plans. I figured that I would be experiencing Japan through the English language this time in any event, so I might as well just go with it.
I concentrated my studying time on really learning about the things that might interest me in Kyoto, and on understanding how to travel around the Kyoto region. This had a big payoff. We competently navigated and used the buses and subways with no smartphones.
In the end, I think this strategy worked very well. Signs are in English. Major businesses have competent English speakers. For anything else, coins in your hand and a menu and cash register requires no speech.

I ended up being delighted when I could understand and be understood. Most of this was just polite interaction speech: おはようございます and ありがとうございます and a little bow. But this goes a long way. We have made new friends.

We felt very safe and at home and welcomed there with very little Japanese language. (safer than where we live)


I’ve been to Japan 3 times. First with no Japanese at all. Second time with hiragana and kanji and level 3 wani kani and the last time with level 6 wk and Pimleurs (I had to reset wk after a long break).

Katakana is useful because you can read signs like ラメの and ビル and you can play guess-what-means. Knowing a little Kanji was fun and sometimes useful (肉、市 止) But the best for speaking and listening and for stuff like ordering at restaurants and asking directions was by far Pimsleur. Meant my accent was much better than it would have been too. It you do half an hour a day you can get pretty tourist Phrasebook fluent by the time you go.

Two notes: with google maps and google translate you don’t need any Japanese really except how to say please and thank you. You’re better off reading up on etiquette-type stuff - like not slouching in the counter while waiting or eating while walking etc. but it’s obviously heaps better the more you know.

I thought I’d do lots of Japanese study once I was in the country - but I didn’t. Too busy experiencing things to study - that’s why I had to drop back 3 levels.


I feel the etiquette stuff is pretty important, even to a foreigner. Talking on buses and subways is a whisper. I didn’t see anyone ever eating or drinking on the street. Part of the reason we made friends is that we handled ourselves in a polite manner. We waited a half hour, for when other passengers departed, to strike up a conversation with the professor reading an English language newspaper.

For a native English speaker, katakana was amazingly useful. Almost every sign has some katakana on it.


Unless you’re going somewhere particularly remote where there’s no English/usually no non-Japanese (so the residents have little to no interest in learning any English), it doesn’t really matter if you don’t know very basic Japanese (e.g. where is X/how do I X), because most Japanese you encounter will probably speak at least very basic English.

Learning these things at the start of your Japanese-learning is mostly just incidental to the fact that you need it as a building block.

If you want to keep your experience in Japan in Japanese, I would recommend learning highly contextual Japanese for what you plan on doing. For example, become as familiar as possible with how service is handled in restaurants, like what sort of terminology and phrasing they use. That includes the keigo/kenjougo phrases they are likely to use. Maybe you think this goes without saying, I feel like these are often things that people don’t come to grips with properly until they’re a bit further into their language study - so drilling them out specifically I think has merit. Personally I was already conversational before I really understood how to work eateries in Japan/understood everything the waiting staff was informing me of.
That said, you might still have to get English menus anyway because of all of the odd food names and kanji :wink:


Wow, all of these replies are super useful, thank you everyone!!

So from what I got:

  1. Learn mostly phrasebook and survival-type Japanese sentences
  2. Practice listening so I can actually understand at least basics when I get an answer to a question
  3. Vocab/terminology for the most relevant things, like transportation, food, and hotel
  4. Study up on Japanese manners and etiquette
  5. Spend time planning where I wanna go and understanding how to travel and navigate the places I choose to go to

I think this is a pretty helpful list! There are so many things I hadn’t considered, so I’m glad I asked here!

Thank you so much, everyone! :relaxed:

If anyone else has any more good tips, please continue dropping them in the comments and I’ll be sure to add them to my list!


Too short a time. Get a traveler phrase book, try to learn and understand the important phrases. If you understand the words, then you can remember and use them more correctly. But I would focus all my energy on survival Japanese due to the short time. Knowing those words will help more than any grammar or kanji at this point.

And Kana is good. You can always practice your kana a bit. Actually Katakana most, since those might be English loan words!


Japanese pod 101 has a lot of lessons for beginners, and many useful phrazes. Plus you get listening training :blush:


When I went the first time I knew no Japanese and got around fine. When I want last time, my most used grammar was ‘~てもいいですか’ ( - mostly asking if it was ok to take photos etc - which just helped me feel like I wasn’t being a rude Brit abroad. I’d suggest having a look at the Japanese for Busy People textbook (I’d just finished that before we went last time) and concentrating on the chapters that look most useful for your trip.


I agree with what everyone else has said, in particular not worrying too much! It’s useful to be able to ask where things are, how much something is, if you can have the bill, etc., but even that’s not essential.

If I had to pinpoint something I regretted not studying before I went, it was food terminology. Lots of places have English menus, but many do not, and you often have to go in and ask for it (whereas the Japanese menu might be displayed outside). The English menus are also very often a smaller subset of the whole menu, so you’re literally missing out by using one.

It’s very difficult to intuit a lot more than “I think this one contains meat” unless you know the actual words, and we spent a lot of time wandering around streets looking at different menus with me going “this looks like mostly a ramen place, maybe?” and so on.


I’d say basically none. :slight_smile:

I’m enjoying a trip to Japan right now, having been studying for close to 2 years. I’m happy to understand the bits and pieces I do, and pretty pleased with my reading ability (thanks WK!). I think I could form a decent variety of comprehensible sentences if I needed to, but I don’t – most people I’ve interacted with speak English better than I can speak Japanese. And since my comprehension level is probably similar to that of a three-year-old (or worse), I’d rather not invite an answer I can’t understand.

So I’ll second the advice of others. The basic niceties are probably all that you’ll want to use. Spend your time researching the places you want to go, and figure that your Japanese studies are a long-term investment – don’t expect much pay-off in May.