Posted by: changheuk | June 11, 2009


Last update: September 4, 2009 – added a bit of tips, and changed a bit of stuff

Japanese is one of my goals to master fluently in the next few years. Taken from a post that I have written elsewhere a few months ago, it summarizes the quickest, cheapest (free) way to learn Japanese. Most of it is from AllJapaneseAllTheTime, just shortened Khatzumoto’s ideologies.

Here we go:

I am now taking up the task again of resuming my Japanese studies, which are done purely on my own time, but which I am willing to put a lot of devotion to.

I have recently come across a site that sparked and refueled my interests again: All Japanese All The Time. The site’s author, Khatzumoto, managed to learn fluent Japanese in 18 months from scratch, without much previous experience, without classes, and subsequently score an interview in Japan as a software engineer.

There is an abundant amount of information on that site, and for those who don’t feel well reading so much information at a time, I will be trying to summarize the key points here (thought I’m a rather unorganized kind of writer, but bear with me).

I. Overview

The above is Khatzumoto’s overview diagram/flow chart of how he does his Japanese studying.

PRINCIPLES IN SHORT (the what-the-hell-do-I-do-anyway? list)

1. Learn Kanji/kana first using a SRS program (explained below) such as Anki, skip if you’re Chinese and you know your Hanzi well enough

2. Do everything you would normally do in Japanese – complete immersion, and then:

3. Put sentences of Japanese into your SRS program – this is mainly stuff you don’t know, sentences with grammatical functions you aren’t familiar with, etc.

4. Don’t worry about not getting to speak – all you really need is input, input, and more input, but if you have Japanese friends, that is definitely a plus

5. Try to watch something without subtitles all the time, unless you’re looking to really understand what is going on and don’t wanna miss out.

6. Keep going until you are fluent, but KEEP IT FUN – screw classes (I know more grammar and Kanji than friends taking the language in post-secondary) and textbooks, and ditch something if it is not fun


– to properly learn Japanese, you have to spend as much time as you can “in” Japanese; this includes things such as the shows you watch, the things you read, the music you listen to, the people you talk to, the sites you visit, and as far as to your brain’s internal monologue

– SRS (more explained below): spaced repetition system; what this is is a devised method of memorizing large quantities of information, such as vocabulary, using a flash caard system, and making you review them at certain intervals of time so you will never forget them

– learn the 2046 general use kanji from Remember the Kanji, Part I, by James Heisig; input the stuff you learn into your SRS routine – I am Chinese and I know most of the Kanji I see, so I have skipped this part due to laziness

important: Khatzumoto recommends doing Kanji before everything, and certainly before grammar (grammar only works after you’ve spent enough time in the language, and does not work well if you learn it before you actually spend time in the language – I actually started off reading Tae Kim’s Japanese guide, and it didn’t work out… but now I am actually finding it helpful, since I’ve seen most of the things mentioned); speaking from MY own experience, I have spent a lot of time in verb conjugations, particles, and such, but it is hard to properly interpret a sentence, since I have not read much Japanese to get the feel of the parts of speech, etc… so NO GRAMMAR… yet

– try something like 15-20 a day at least (try to learn them under 6 months)

– memorize all the hiragana and katakana and learn to read them fluently (being able to do this benefits greatly, trust me); you don’t have to be able to write them all out, as I have forgotten half my katakana, but I can definitely read anything you throw at me, and that’s good enough for me

– learn 10,000 gramatically correct Japanese sentences (Khatzumoto learned ~7500 in the 18-month period, but that’s still okay)

  • learn the sentence as a whole instead of the individual words, and understand them instead of translating them
  • do not try to learn so much grammar rules to understand the sentence, it is unnecessary, and unpractical

– don’t get into the thinking that Japanese is a super hard language, it is definitely learnable through a finite amount of time – you just have to make sure the process of learning it is fun!

– don’t sweat too much if you aren’t understanding the material you are working with (news, dramas, manga, anime, etc.) it will eventually make sense with enough perserverance (hell I don’t understand much either, but keep at it… “grit” 😉

– practice is mandatory… not only in Japanese, but in whatever you do; take this quote:

In a study of 20-year-old violinists by Ericsson and colleagues, the best group (judged by conservatory teachers) averaged 10,000 hours of deliberate practice…It’s the same story in surgery, insurance sales, and virtually every sport. More deliberate practice equals better performance.

Yep, 10,000 hours.

[Practice] regularly, not sporadically. Occasional practice does not work.

Just like the principles of SRS.

And last but not least…

…talent has little or nothing to do with greatness…It’s nice to believe that if you find the field where you’re naturally gifted, you’ll be great from day one, but it doesn’t happen. There’s no evidence of high-level performance without experience or practice.

– don’t take long breaks from the language, it will break your momentum and set you back to where you were before, if not further back; the important point is that Japanese has to remain the dominating “activity” that you commit to everyday

– Khatzumoto’s analogy: learning a language is like boiling water – if you keep turning the fire off, it will never boil (fluency will never be reached); once you reach fluency however, you can input less “thermal energy” to keep it at where it is at… but before that, the process must not stop

– if you find yourself not doing enough practice everyday, try timeboxing – it is a great organizational method

– be ready to change your plans to suit your own personal needs, but the ultimate goal is to master the language

– the one more rule: remember how easy it is to say “just one more game” or “just 10 more minutes” or “just one more level” when you were addicted to some game? Why not apply to Japanese too? “Just one more Kanji” or “just one more SRS rep” would work quite nicely with your goals

– not every living second has to be spend in actively learning or memorizing Japanese – at most a couple of hours is okay. You can spend the other time just passively listening to it or absorbing it, no need to actually engage in the language

– it might be rather discouraging to know that you learned one word, yet there are thousands of vocabulary and Kanji out there, for which you have no knowledge of… but on the bright side, just get down to work, stop thinking about how much you don’t know but how much you know instead, and soon it will gradually become easier and easier for you to learn as your base knowledge knows more, and the amount of unknowns decreases (for now, you’ll have to admit you suck)

– again, whatever you do, look for a Japanese version of it (movies, books, anime, and the list goes on). Believe that you only know one language, and that is Japanese… and stop thinking about your own inferiority, just believe you are fluent (or close to fluent)

Here are some examples of environment changes you can take to make your environment Japanese:

1. Movies (Japanese-dubbed/subbed)

2. Music

3. TV (Keyhole!)

4. Radio

5. Computer/Internet (visit Japanese sites, set your default language to Japanese)

6. Friends (this is a hard one for me :P)

7. Your brain (internal monologue)

8. School (take notes in Japanese)

Some of these sound rather extreme, but more or less gives you an idea of what you need to do to actually become fluent in your desired amount of time. The main point is, pretend you’re a baby and that your environment is Japanese 24/7, that is how you learn a language in such a short amount of time. If you got more ideas of transforming your environment, by all means do it!

– if you get bored or a burned out doing Japanese, try thinking of more “fun stuff” that you can do… such as watching things you like, but in Japanese (anime); though it isn’t good to have English subtitles, a little won’t hurt – just get used to listening to the language

– if you feel that you lack any sort of fluency after a while of studying, try looking up a new language – listen to it, see how much you understand. I won’t be amazed if you feel that compared to this new language, you feel that you actually understand at least a bit of Japanese…


spaced repetition system: a method to help you remember everything as long you review regularly and make good use of the tool; not only does it work well with Japanese, it works with any other form of rote memorization, because it constantly reviews what you’ve learned so that you won’t forget it

– SRS is conducted with flash cards, and you are given a question or some word and you have to see if you remember the meaning or answer – you don’t actually answer it, but you rate yourself from 0-5 on how well you knew the answer; depending on this answer, the flash card will reappear based on how easy you thought the question was

– recommended SRS programs are Anki (I use this), Khatzumemo (now called Surusu I believe, check out AJATT to find out), or Mnemosync


– Khatzumoto recommends learning all the Kanji from the book Remember the Kanji vol. 1 by James Heisig first – the writing and recognizing the character itself, not the pronounciations

– Kana (Hiragana, Katakana) can be learned after, but I find it no harm to memorize it immediately – learn how to read it, so that you can start skimming through some Japanese instead of relying on Romanji

– if you are born Chinese like me, you can afford to skip most of the Kanji, as you might know a lot of them already and what they mean. It would still be good review to see what you might not know


Input > Output: it has been proved that input of a language (reading, listening) is more important than output (speaking, writing), simply because a normal person usually reads, listens, and absorbs information in the language a lot more than he is writing and communicating. With enough input, you can easily output it back out; it is also more important to understand others more than to make yourself understood

– get to learn around 10,000 sentences – this may seem like a lot, but you don’t have to memorize them; just be sure to be able to do the following:

  • be able to read the sentence without the help of furigana
  • know the meaning, as well as every word in the sentence
  • be able to write it out at will

However, this does not mean you need to translate it, because it is unnecessary to do so, as there is no universally correct translation, and you might end up developing bad habits. To develop good Japanese, you must imitate it.

– as you might have guessed, all these sentences go into your SRS

– by seeing and understanding a lot of sentences, you get much more “feel” for the language, as well as you will passively know when to use what kind of readings for the Kanji

– these are some of Khatzumoto’s examples of how to enter sentences into SRS:




これ は(わ) れい・ぶん です。

This [as for] example-sentence is. (PL3)

*This is an example sentence.




お・まえ は(わ) なに・もの だ





– just like the example above, you might want to eventually resort to Japanese answers only, to help yourself improve and adapt faster to the language

– more examples of Khatzumoto’s newly deployed method of sentence-SRS-ing


くさなぎ もとこ

しんちょう:ひゃくろくじゅうはち せんち

こうあん きゅう か の じっしつてき りーだー。








なかやま ひろゆき

Instead of entering the original written form of the sentence, you can enter the hiragana form, and see if you know how to read/write it back out.

The second example is for names, as there are many different ways to write a name of a given pronounciation.

– other ways: have the front side of the flashcard containing an audio of the sentence, then proceed to repeat the sentence out loud yourself and write it out

where to get the sentences from?

a) dictionaries (I use Kanji Sonomama for DS, you can write Kanji or Kana in and it gives you detailed explainations in both languages and examples and all that… and even better is it also contains Chinese to Japanese, and more… check it out yourself, totally worth buying a DS (and flashcart) for, compared to those electronic dictionaries which are twice the price), or and any other online dictionary site with sample sentences

b) Fuji News Network’s online newscast

c) Yomiuri Online’s online podcasts

d) Dramas, TV shows, radio

e) Manga, books, newspapers

f) Anything else you can think of 🙂

g) Wakan has a sentence example database, I use that, as well as Jisho

– some important things you should learn in the early stages:

1. Demonstrative pronouns (this, that, there)

2. Interrogative pronouns (who, what, when, where)

3. Indefinite pronouns (someone, something, somewhere)

4. Prepositions (in, on, to, from)

5. Conjunctions (and, but)

6. Conditional, hypothetical forms of verbs and adjectives

– only put the sentences you are interested into your SRS. If you can withstand boredom to an extent, then you should put in all the sentences that seem important and might come up frequently; otherwise, no, you don’t have to put in everything you see (though if you do and then crunch it all down, then you’ll get fluent faster)

– try to keep your sentences short and simple

– try looking up words you already know in a Japanese-Japanese dictionary

Links worth checking out in addition to all this:

What Smart Students Know

Do It Now

The Memory Book

10 Tips for College Students

Graduating College in 3 Semesters


These are the tools I use.

Anki for SRS.

Wakan, occasionally Jisho, occasionally Kanji Sonomama blah blah something on Nintendo DS for dictionary.

Rikai-chan, a dictionary plugin for Firefox that lets you see the hiragana reading and meaning of Japanese just by placing your mouse over it. This has got to be my most recommended tool, very very helpful.

Keyhole TV for my live raw input – I watch TBS mostly, you can also check out Terebi Tokyo, Fuji TV

I listen to Japanese music on the car only – I like 東方神起 (Tohoshinki – they are Korean but have since been the most Japanized foreign group ever in history) mostly, but that’s all personal taste.

I bought some manga and books too, but… my comprehension is still a bit low for that.


It is still helpful to get yourself started on a textbook (just a helping hand) or something like JapanesePod101 first when you are a pure beginner, just to learn stuff like… Konnichiwa, Sayonara, Domo, Arigatou Gozaimasu, Oyasumi Nasai… basic stuff like that.

The textbook I used is called Japanese for Everyone, since Danny Choo, one of the most popular foreign bloggers in Japan, used it too.

If you’re finding your stuff boring… here’s some recommendations…

Manga – Naruto, Bleach, I”s, Gantz, Monster (some are violent)

Anime – same as above, and I also really really liked Gurren Lagann and K-ON

Movies – Sinking of Japan, Honey and Clover, Death Note

Drama – I like anything starring Kimura Takuya

You might not find them without subtitles… but then just try to not look anyways lol :).

If you’re Chinese like me, it helps to sort of… guess readings of words sometimes, because the pronounciation has a faint but consistent similarity, something like Cantonese -> Mandarin, except a bit more distant. Words like 簡単, 高温 sound quite similar…



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