Learning Japanese With Kanji and Anime

How To Learn Japanese

Learning Japanese with Kanji and Anime

Learning any language is difficult in the beginning. But, I live in a country, South Africa, where people speak many languages and it is expected that you will at least speak two if not more languages.

So, I have learnt to speak a second language and well it was annoying but once you get to the point where you can understand 60% of what you hear or read it becomes a simple task.

In just a matter of time, really, you will master that language.

Japanese is different.

Not because it is magic or un-learnable but, it is difficult to get to that 60% level in Japanese.

But, I am there now.

Why, is it difficult?

Well the best way to lean a language is to read. And, European languages, and most others as well, all use simple alphabets and once you understand a few basic rule you can jump right.

The bar is low. To learn German or French all you need is a dictionary and pronunciation guide. In six months with some dedication you can be speaking okay German, in nine months you could be aggravating the French fluently.


To learn Japanese you need to learn three whole writing systems with more than 3000 characters. Hiragana Katakana and Kanji.

And, most of these characters have 2 or more different readings and several pronunciations.

So, to be able to simply read Japanese can take a very long time.

Do you need to read?

Some people can get by without reading. But, how do you look up a word if you can’t read it? How can you makes notes or just function in basic ways if you can’t read?

You can’t even watch Japanese YouTube because they use tons of writing in videos.

I did make some progress before I decided to learn to read Japanese.

It took years and I never got close to my goals of being able to comfortably understand Japanese TV, Anime and Songs.

I could only have very basic conversations and I now realize this was because my Japanese friends were talking to me like a child.

Or, really like an idiot.

After I learnt to read within a year I could watch anime, read manga and understand people much more easily.

I’m not perfect, my Japanese is still quite bad. But, compared to what it was I have made amazing progress.

What I have found over the years.

Of course I started with those “Teach Yourself Japanese In 30mins A Day” books. They had their uses and I did learn basic pronunciation from them and some grammar. But, they did not help me achieve any of my Japanese goals.

I could ask the time and where the train station was. But, I wanted to talk about robots and card games. I wanted to make puns and jokes. And. I couldn’t.

  1. Conventional wisdom

So, I asked people what I should do.

People said that I should take lessons.

So, I did. My school had a Japanese class you could take after school.

It was just me and one other person. We went to our Japanese teacher’s house after school and she taught us Hiragana, Katakana and basic grammar from Mina No Nihongo – a Japanese textbook from Japan.

Again, I did learn some things, for sure. But, nothing that made me feel like I was making progress.

Eventually I quit and left Japanese alone for a few years. Four years.

I still watched a lot of anime. I’m a geek after all.

Then in University I had the chance to go to Japan. I thought this is my chance I will be surrounded by Japanese people speaking Japanese all day.

It will be so easy to learn!

I was wrong.

I took lessons in Japanese at my university in Japan. I made Japanese friends. And, I became able to understand Japanese a little better.

Of all the foreign students I was better than most of the other “white guy contingent” but worse than all the other Asians also Russians are surprisingly good at Japanese.

And, I went home still unable to really understand Japanese.

Don’t get me wrong it was a great time just not for learning Japanese.

  1. What seems to actually work?

After, a few years of being back in South Africa I came across Anki again.

It is a flash card application for the computer and phones. I had used it before in school to learn for tests.

It is really great. You should use it if you are in school.

It really takes the stress out of learning history dates and math formulas.

But, people have also been using it for leaning Japanese. Some of these people are crazy.

They have dived into the deep end of optimal language learning methods. They will say they you need to stop speaking English. Only read Japanese books. Only watch Japanese TV. Listen to Japanese in your sleep!

You don’t need to go this far trust me.

But, they have done some good things for learning Japanese.

One young guy. Matt of Matt vs Japan on YouTube made a very useful suggestion.

As a disclaimer, apparently of late he has been engaging in some questionable and unethical business practices with some unsavory people.

However, this does not negate his advice and his Japanese language ability is truly amazing for an American who lives in The US.

He says:

  1. Learn to read Kanji(Japanese characters).
  2. Watch Japanese TV, Anime, or Movies with Japanese subtitles on. Note: not English Subtitles.
  3. Look up words that you don’t understand. And, grammar obviously.
  4. Make five to ten flash cards a day with these words in Anki.

Seemed reasonable, so I did it.

If you can read the subtitles in Japanese then it is easy to look up the words.

If you save them in Anki it will help you memorize them. Anki means memorize in Japanese by the way…

But, well let me tell you there is no hell like learning to read Kanji.

To do it I made Anki flash cards. I did about 25 a day.

I learnt the 3000 most common Kanji from Remembering The Kanji.

Anki helps you learn by showing you a flashcard every so often. If you pass the card it shows it to you less often. Once a week then once a month then once every few months and so on.

But, if you fail it, and I failed a lot of kanji cards, it shows it to you every day until you pass it.

You can download a premade deck. But, making your own makes it personal and writing and typing helps me remember.

Quickly, I had hundreds of Kanji cards to review a day. It took hours every day. I made new cards then I put then in my Kanji deck then I reviewed all my cards.

It was hell for 5 months.

My brain felt like it was on fire.

But, at the end of it I had a sense of achievement that I have never had before.

It takes Japanese kids 12 years to learn these Kanji. I did it in 5 months.

Of course, this just meant that I was at the beginning of learning Japanese but, well, after that hell everything seems easier.

And, not just learning Japanese. I feel more systematic more organized.

I feel more able to deal with stress.

I even applied these system to my health and have never been in better shape. If you can learn a language every day you can work out every day.

And, as I mentioned earlier I am making progress. Much faster than ever before.

I watch anime and Japanese TV every day now and it is enjoyable.

I can read, slowly, and manga and even some light novels.

It has really been a monumental shift in learning for me and I am glad I did it.

Please try it if you are serious about learning Japanese. Or, any other difficult language. Probably works great for Chinese as well.

  1. What really does not work.

Just winging it.

You can’t just pick up a language. If this was true everyone would get full marks in school language courses over the many years they study languages in them.

Textbooks are not a complete solution. They are an aid.

They will teach you grammar, interesting rules, and many other thing. Only you can teach yourself Japanese.

The Plan

You need a plan. For me reading and listening is the key to understanding.

This is how I did well in languages in school. I read every day. Even if I hated doing it for school.

And, after a while I was just able to teat that language like English. I never had to study for a language test in the last 4 years of High School because of this.

And, slowly Japanese is becoming like this to me.

I have integrated it into my routine and so my brain just has to learn it.

I never miss a day.

Some days are areal chore but life is not always fun.

It is just something I do and even if it feels like at times it is slow or even not working every few weeks or months I realize just how far I have come.

I hope this was helpful to anyone reading this.

Don’t give up.

You can listen to me speaking about this on my podcast here:

Written by Christopher Dean