How would you help a friend start learning Japanese?

Three of my friends have recently told me that they want to learn Japanese. I told them I’d write them up a quick guide to get them started. I’m reflecting on what that will look like.

I’d start with Tofugu’s Ridiculously-Detailed Guide. What follows is not a critique, but I have thoughts. I’m interested in your thoughts on my thoughts.

Of course, I tell you and would tell them that they can and should make their own adjustments to suit their needs and priorities.

  1. Unpopular opinion: handwriting is a crucial skill even if you never use it in the wild. I still write by hand on physical paper almost every day. In fact, I often use this Monotype page and try to imitate fonts.
  • When I’m writing, I’m stopping and thinking. When I’m writing radicals, I’m thinking about what makes up the kanji. When I’m writing words, I’m thinking about what makes up the sentence.
  • Observing stroke order has made me better at reading native handwriting.
  • This could be irrational, but practicing like a native speaker builds my confidence.

2. I disagree with this article’s decision to put kanji before katakana. But I do think the best time to start kanji is as soon as possible after getting kana down. EDIT: I misread the post, which does indeed emphasize teaching kana first. Please disregard.

  1. If I were building a practice routine, I’d make checklists of resources and sub-skills.
  • Resources: textbook; dictionary; native reading content; native listening content; flashcards; native speaker.
  • Sub-skills: reading; writing; speaking; listening; spaced repetition.
  • I would also think about two “modes” of learning: bottom-up (book learning) and top-down (immersion).
  1. I understand what the writer meant by, “When learning something new, you should already know 80% of it.” At the same time, immersion practice is a critical skill that I regret not starting years ago. I’d argue for both. For immersion, there is no understanding 80% right away. You have to let that incomprehensible speech wash over you until your ears pick it out.

  2. And as always, stay away from Duolingo.

EDIT: My bad; I meant to say I favor learning kana before kanji. That article put kanji before katakana, which was the thing I disagreed with. I thought the words backwards. It’s been that kind of day.

EDIT×2: Tofugu’s article did say to learn kana first; I misread it. Sorry!


I didn’t learn katakana right away and regretted it later. I would say you should learn both hiragana and katakana before anything else. They’re not that bad.


Im a grinder at heart so i memorised hiragana and katakana in less than a week and then went back at practised handwriting both of them. I used this site to memorise them:

They both have links to a website that you can practise recognition as well as worksheets. I found having hiragana and katakana under my belt aided significantly with early day learning resources (since they mostly have furigana anyway).

Dictionary > Google translate! Encourage looking up words in a dictionary and deciphering the sentence rather than just chucking the entire thing into google translate.

I think even a beginner can begin with watching simple slice of life anime etc. with japanese subtitles.

Or any multilingual learning platform for that matter :rofl:


I would definitely recommend hiragana and katakana first, because they fill out so much around kanji. When I was taking Japanese as an actual course they emphasized how katakana is typically used for loan words, but to be honest it gets used for a lot more than that (emphasis, names, kanji readings, onomatopoeia (which is way more prevalent in Japanese)). I’d say to get it down before kanji, because A) it may be helpful for kanji readings and B) it has a much smaller scope, so you can go over it and move on to kanji, rather than interrupting later kanji practice to circle back around.

Also, put some time into associated the correct sounds with the kana, since that’s really important to eventual speaking skills.


First, figure out why they want to learn Japanese.
Next, beg them to reconsider
Create a $500 a month program where you teach them the exact pronunciation of all kana.
Once finished, including the bonus Katakana course. Create a $10 a month program where you teach them pitch accent. Mind you, you still haven’t taught them any vocab.


Agreed, I can read kanji much faster than katakana and I’ve been reading it for about 2 years less. Even living in Japan for a few years, I still take ages to get through a lot of katakana words, so I really think it’s best to tackle it early on. Especially given how much vocab that instantly gives you access to, and how you can learn it in just a few days.


Echoing @Wantitled (and almost everyone else’s) opinion, they should learn ひらがな and カタカナ before doing anything else. Even if your initial Katakana usage is minimal, it’s only 46 characters. 46 characters that literally open up every loan-word in the Japanese language. Compare that to the 2,500 Kanji you would need to memorize and it’s a no brainer. It only takes a week for someone who has a little motivation which, to be frank, sounds like your friends have.

Agreed. Writing Kanji only makes recognizing them in the wild even easier. Even if you never truly learn how to produce them from scratch, I believe that the benefits to production as well as recognition are well worth the time investment of writing each Kanji you learn down a dozen or so times. Additionally, if you ever had any hope of using the language in Japan (most language learners do) you’d better learn to write the top 500 kanji. A native Japanese speaker would look at you funny if you wrote 私 as わたし.

1 Like

D’oh, that’s what I meant to say and I had it backwards! I just edited the OP.

Before I started WaniKani, I remember my eyes would just make a beeline to the katakana. It was reassuring to know it was something I’d probably understand!

Yeah, I used to lean heavily on Google Translate and DeepL myself. I still use DeepL a lot, but now I try to at least mentally translate before I use it. That way I’m just checking work that I’ve already done.

It scares me to imagine how much income I’ve missed out on by doing hobbies for my own growth and enjoyment rather than monetizing my mediocrity.


I’ve helped a few people get started, and usually I start off by linking them to Tofugu’s guide and this guide, and I think I’ve linked Refold before as well. My first goal is to show people that there are different approaches for everything, so if they try one out and get discouraged, there are other options.

I do always recommend that people start with learning both hiragana and katakana. Mostly because I’m pretty convinced that if someone can memorize the kana, they are capable of learning the rest of the language, too, and often learning the kana is what makes them realize that they can actually do this.

Plus, it just makes your life so much easier with navigating other resources once you have that basic step down. I can’t speak for all beginner resources, but literally all of the ones I used had katakana and hiragana right from the very beginning. I also recommend people learn how to write at least the kana from the start.

I basically tell people that there are many methods out there for learning the kana, and it doesn’t really matter which one they pick.

After that, I think my basic recommendations to everyone are to find:

  1. some method of learning kanji (whether it’s through a textbook, WK, or just learning as you go with immersion)
  2. some method of learning very basic grammar (whether it’s through a textbook, Tae Kim, Japanese Ammo with Misa, LingoDeer, or any other source)
  3. some method of learning basic vocab (whether it’s through an Anki core deck or any other SRS, or just learning from a textbook list, or anything that’ll get you knowing roughly a couple thousand very common words)

I think once someone manages to get that far, they’re in pretty good shape to start actually using the language, and they’ll also be able to decide for themselves what specific paths they want to pursue next.

I also make sure to tell them about Yomichan and, which I think are beneficial resources to have even in the ultra beginner phase.

I’m actually currently trying to work on a guide right now that’s specifically aimed at Japanese pro wrestling fans who are learning the language primarily for プロレス. I’ve had so many friends who’ve either started learning the language because of wrestling, or who have wanted to learn the language because of wrestling, but are too intimidated to actually take that first step. That was once me! So my goal is to get people to feel like this is actually something that is doable.

A lot of the conventional advice for getting started with light novels, visual novels, manga, anime, or video games is also not advice that really applies to immersion with pro wrestling, so I’ve pretty much had to learn how to do it all myself the hard way. There’s no or jpdb or any other frequency lists for pro wrestling.

So I guess that is also something to keep in mind when advising someone, haha, because depending on what they want to do with Japanese, the conventional resources might be very lacking.


my only thing about the handwriting is to not necessarily base it off of fonts. japanese handwriting is very different than computer fonts. much like cursive in english, they have their own flourishes/shorthand for how kanji appear in handwriting.


That’s valid. I mostly just look at other fonts on like my fifth or sixth repetition. I’ve long since muscle-memorized kana and the most common radicals so I just try to find creative ways to keep from getting bored and brain-farting!

I wouldn’t. So many people say they want to learn Japanese, but ultimately do nothing about it. I’d offer suggestions, but I’m not gonna actively help unless they’ve shown serious intent.

Also, Duolingo really isn’t a bad way to get introduced to the language.


I agree with you, but I didn’t know there was anyone who thought kanji should be taught before Katakana… Katakana is 100x more useful. Especially if your friends want to travel to Japan someday - more than half of menus in more than half of restaurants are written with tons of katakana…


Since you value handwriting, you might find it useful to include the app Drops in your guidebook. It can be used at any level, but some of the first content is kana with the pronunciation and stroke order. they’re essentially flashcards and the only ones you write on are kana and kanji ones. The font they base theirs on is pretty awful, but it’s a good way to get started and used to the motions. After completing the kana, they could check out videos about how to write beautifully. I don’t think I would recommend it for kanji though because the mouth radical is taught wrong imo. Also, it’s 5-10 min of free practice daily, so I think it works well for not overwhelming learners and also keeping them from getting bored since it’s 5 min sessions.

I’m planning to write up an in-depth review of drops since I’m coming up on my 1 year usage anniversary.

1 Like

I don’t think anyone would argue that handwriting doesn’t have benefits, but for me the opportunity cost is just too massive. Not only do you need to be able to recall kanji instead of just recognizing them, you also need to be able to recall what words use which kanji. Yes, it reinforces your knowledge, but it also slows you down massively. Japanese is already a giant task and personally I’d rather spend every minute towards making immersion more comprehensible.
If anything, I wouldn’t start out making them hand write. Much like speaking I think it’s a skill that’s best picked up at an intermediate level if you have the interest.

As for general studies, I think I followed the tofugu guide relatively closely when I started out first, except that I started grammar way earlier. Wasn’t for me. I’m not sure if I’d do WaniKani again either. Maybe until lvl 10 to get an easy introduction into kanji?
I don’t 100% agree with everything in there, but if I had to start over I’d probably follow the refold guide :person_shrugging:


I would say that paper dictionaries are less useful. Having an ebook format textbook with searchable text might be beneficial, but for most word lookups in any language I feel like most people do web lookups. I can see a pocket dictionary being marginally useful for a tourist. I haven’t owned an English dictionary for some time but I’m getting by just fine without it thanks to the web.

A kanji dictionary may be useful though.

As for order, I do agree that you should learn both kana before kanji, because a lot of resources list the On readings in katakana.

I think if you are giving a brand new learner advice and you are telling them not to use Duo, you should give them another noob friendly app to ease them into it. It’s true that in retrospect we can see the fastest way to learn Japanese, but for a new learner that isn’t overly obsessed with speed so much as having fun learning, they should work in something that may not provide optimal gains but sets a low bar for measuring improvement.

1 Like

I’d be interested to read that!

That’s a fair point. My first few years were in the structure of high school and college. That was the most double-edged of swords. Among other things, it did get me used to handwriting where studying on my own wouldn’t have.

Now that you mention it, I don’t think I ever handwrite Japanese purely from memory. My main handwriting practice is leeches, and I always have Jisho open. Writing my most difficult kanji/words by hand seems to help when nothing else does. I wouldn’t recommend it in a memorization/spaced repetition context either. I think of it as more of an ad-hoc study technique.

I used Spahn-Hadamitzky in college. I loved that thing. I still have it, in fact!

For late beginner learners and beyond, I’d strongly recommend the Dictionaries of Basic/Intermediate/Advanced Japanese Grammar and 日本語文型辞典 (interestingly, a native speaker recommended this one because they found it useful for their own language!). I don’t know of any electronic versions, but I sure wish they existed.

I agree. In fact, I was lowkey hoping for more suggestions for such apps to mention to my friends!

My big issue with Duolingo is that its structure inculcates all the infamous beginner bad habits. I’ve tinkered with the Japanese course for a while. I’ve seen a lot of sloppiness around は/が. The voice playback mixes on’yomi and kun’yomi a lot too. I’ve also gotten a lot of things marked wrong that shouldn’t have been, in both directions.

1 Like

I do think it’s worth memorizing the kana, but agreed about not recommending memorizing how to write kanji, unless you have a particular need for it.

I get the most value out of having practiced writing kanji enough that I have a very solid understanding of stroke order (and therefore can easily look up unknown kanji by drawing them with the IME pad instead of having to search by radical or other, slower methods), and I have a much easier time reading handwriting because I understand how kanji are constructed.

I do appreciate at least being able to take physical notes, though, because writing by hand is beneficial for your memory, and also I like to be able to copy down Japanese quotes in my journal, and write the name of the manga I’m reading in my planner, and all of that.

Part of why I recommend that everyone learns how to write at least the kana is because unlike learning kanji, learning the kana will be only a tiny sliver of your Japanese journey, and I feel like it’s just such a foundational skill, you might as well learn it so that you can build on it later.

All of my friends who put it off are basically scared to learn how to write Japanese at all because their reading ability is so far above their writing ability, they don’t want to take the time to learn now. And every single one of them struggles a lot more with reading kanji and looking up unknown kanji than I do.

I just feel like learning at least the fundamentals of writing has a lot of benefits, only some of which might be readily apparent. And it’s not that much of a time sink to learn just the basics.


If you could gather up a decent-sized collection of interview transcripts/articles/etc I guess you could feed them into jpdb’s “create deck from text” feature. Though where it didn’t know the words it would run in to trouble, and there’s no “share a deck with a friend” feature afaik, so it’s only like 80% of the way to something helpful :-/


I’m assuming you are talking about kanji handwriting here, sorry if I’m off on that. I did learn how to write kana and continue to maintain the skill.

Kanji though… I feel like it’s such a situational thing.
Would I be able to better recognize handwriting if I studied the basics of writing kanji? Probably.
Have I ever been in a situation where I couldn’t figure out handwriting but really needed to? Nope.
Since I am only reading digitally, kanji in general is such a non-issue I’m not even sure individual kanji study is worth it anymore.
I just don’t see the need to take time off the things that are holding me back to improve on the kanji front :person_shrugging: