Kanji – Wanikani

An integral part of Japanese is Kanji, or the Chinese characters that are used in Japanese alongside the 2 alphabets and Romaji. You must learn Kanji – I highly recommend WaniKani, which is a flashcard site that runs you through most of the 常用 (Jyouyou) Kanji. Make studying Kanji a part of your daily routine – try and find small pockets of your day to do your lessons. I think WaniKani is the best example of an effective SRS methodology to study Kanji, but you can also find ‘free’ versions on apps like AnkiApp, but I still recommend WaniKani for its fantastic ease of use (there are fan-made mobile apps, in addition to the website itself).

*Goal: Sign up for Wanikani, study with it everyday (multiple times if possible) – to finish will take about 1-3 years depending largely on speed

Tae KIm’s Grammar Guide

A fantastic resource through and through, this free online guide does a fantastic job at (1) explaining Japanese in plain English and (2) giving you a great primer, and subsequently guide, on Japanese. I recommend reading it once through as the first “grammar” lesson you do, as it will set you up with some good base and foundation going into your first ‘real’ textbook. I like the physical guide (which I still carry and took copious notes in), but you can access all of the content for free online

*Goal: Read through Tae KIm’s Grammar Guide once through before starting Genki I below

Beginner Textbook – Genki I & II

Tae Kim’s guide is great, but in my opinion, is not quite comprehensive enough with guides and lessons to be a full replacement for a proper textbook. For that, the perennial favorite of many learners is the Genki Series, Genki I & II. (I personally used my school’s in-house developed textbook for the beginner level, Elementary Japanese, but I am not a huge fan of the layout, though it isn’t bad per-say – choosing a textbook does involve some level of personal preference). Start reading Genki I – do all of the lessons, run through each chapter, and read it thoroughly front and back. I recommend about 1-1.5 week(s) per lesson, which I maintain is a good amount of time per lesson even when you reach the intermediate / advanced level. Going any slower will just allow you to become complacent and lazy to your lessons, and maintaining some kind of intensity is key to try and replicate something like a ‘school-learning’ / class environment. 

*Goal: Start reading Genki I – progress ~1 chapter/week. Complete the accompanying workbooks/guides.


Vocabulary is a tough one, and even some number of years now into my study, I very often see new words and phrases I don’t know. I think there are generally 3 approaches you can take here (not all mutually exclusive)

  1. WankiKani (recommended) – WaniKani will teach you a lot of great vocabulary. Unfortunately, not all of it is very useful (see 一本木 in the earlier chapters) and attempts to rely on it exclusively will lead you to often use words you don’t full grasp the meaning of, or may be outdated and have very specific uses(that they teach you 自決 vs the contemporary 自殺 equivalent is another good example. Could you explain 世の中 vs. 社会? They both roughly mean “society” and are listed as such on WK. When unsure, I recommend looking up sample sentences. At least knowing random words that no one uses anymore will make you fun at parties! Haha) 

For this reason, I think WaniKani combined with lots of immersion and conversation with native speakers is critical, but all in all, a very viable approach which I took

*Benefits: efficient, straightforward, learn the Kanji alongside new words, SRS

*Drawbacks: you will learn many useless or out-of-context words and phrases, will take time to learn enough basic words to have a decent conversations, costs money

  1. Other SRS (using Genki textbook words) – WaniKani is certainly not the only way to learn vocab, nor the only viable SRS (spaced repetition) system that you can use. Putting all of your vocab from Genki I into an SRS app like Anki is a great option. That said, unlike with WaniKani, you will need to learn a lot of words in Hiragana – without knowing the Kanji, I argue you will only really know ‘half’ the word, since you can neither read or write it. 

*Benefits: free, pick up more useful words quicker, SRS

*Drawbacks: you can’t read the words themselves, not as user friendly

  1. The Brute Force Memorize Approach (using Genki textbook words) – similar to the prior option, but without using an app, you just drill yourself with flashcards etc using the words from Genki. I don’t recommend this approach, since it is not SRS so you are likely to forget words

*Benefits: free, may be better for some people

*Drawbacks: you can’t read many of the words themselves, you are likely to forget things, not SRS

Along with all 3 of these, immersion (reading or interacting with Japanese text, especially text made for native speakers) followed by looking up and logging words you don’t know, is a critical piece of picking up new words. Log new words – apps like “Japanese” in the App Store give you options to create lists and add words to them – I have a specific “List” where I log these new words

*Goal: Pick a way to memorize vocabulary, stick with it

Online Tutor

If you don’t have the option to take a class, I recommend getting an online Japanese tutor. There are plenty of sites offering very cheap tutoring lessons (~10-20 dollars per hour). I recommend this not necessarily to follow their lesson plans, or even to speak much with them at this point. Use this time, instead, like you would an Office Hour at a University. You will certainly have questions at the beginner stage. Log all of your questions together, and ask them at once during your session. This would also be a good time to get ‘homework help’ or corrections of the Genki Workbook pages you’ve done.

*Goal: Find a tutor, use it as ‘office hours’