Ixrec Introduction




The Japanese language is awesome.

It also has one of the highest learning curves for (popular) modern languages, probably only rivaled by Chinese and English. It's especially hard for Westerners who don't know any Eastern languages already, since the way of thinking that Japanese relies on is just so alien to them.

At the same time, there are a lot of people, like me, who passionately consume one or more facets of Japan's pop culture (arguably a menagerie of worldwide cult hits). This translates into droves of people with a strong personal desire to learn the language.

So, I've been studying Japanese in one form or another for over five years now, and I've spent at least two of those years doing amateur translations of visual novels and trying to help others learn the language themselves.

Here are a few of my favorite things about Japanese as a language: It looks and sounds beautiful, it's extremely intuitive (once you're fluent), its lexicon has several precise but abstract words English lacks, there are countless ways of expressing one's mood or personality or relationship to others without rephrasing anything, and virtually anything can be left implied so you never have to mince words.

The corresponding downsides include an insane learning curve (half the pros I just listed are confusing as hell to most Westerners), a ton of homophones, and an incredibly high reliance on context.

Why this guide?

Most books intended to help someone learn a foreign language are quite useless. Often, this is because few people actually want to put in the time and effort to properly learn a language, so the only way to write a book that appeals to them is to present very simplisitic and incomplete material. Other times, it comes down to the fact that teaching a language is very hard to do, and cannot be taught the same way most school subjects are.

There are a number of serious but painfully common mistakes made as a result of trying to teach languages like an ordinary subject. The big one is that they never expect you to use a dictionary and "source material" (e.g., an actual book written in Japanese) to gain experience with the language. Instead, many classes and books will try to build your vocabulary using lists (often with misleadingly simple definitions) and teach you grammar via snowclones (e.g., "_ に _ を言う " means "to tell _ that _"), which can only ever hope to cover the simplest of sentences.

Of course, it doesn't have to be as bad as I made it sound in the last paragraph. Tae Kim's guide, for instance, does a pretty good job keeping these disadvantages to a minimum. Still, in my opinion, being newbie-friendly is worth sacrificing in order to provide information that's as close to being genuinely accurate and comprehensive as possible. And that's what I tried to do.

The upshot of this is that my guide expects you to put a lot of effort into studying Japanese, and in return you can trust it to never use any misleading simplifications or omit anything you need to know. In theory, this guide covers everything you need to know about Japanese, other than what you'll find in a dictionary or get a feel for just by reading for years yourself.

Some people absolutely love this approach. Others find it intimidating and might be better off using a guide like Tae Kim's until they feel more confident. It's absolutely fine if you want to do that, as long as you are aware that such guides cannot avoid some amount of oversimplification or incompleteness in order to be that approachable, so take their lists and/or explanations with a grain of salt. And of course, there's no reason you can't use my guide in conjunction with others.

Incidentally, my main goal for improving this guide in the future (aside from adding more random entries to Confusing Vocabulary ) is to try and make it a little more newbie-friendly without sacrificing the informational content. For this version, I've added some pages that dissect some source material for you, which should make things less intimidating.

How do I study Japanese using this guide?

Like most langauges, you must learn the Japanese alphabets (kana) first. There is absolutely no point attempting to do anything else until you have memorized them. As you might expect, reading the Alphabets page will help, since it contains a lot of other random information you ought to know in addition to simply what sound each kana corresponds to. It also has material on the kanji, but it's entirely up to you whether you want to study the kanji right after the kana or put them off for later (I expect most people will prefer to put them off for a while).

After that, you need to get a dictionary, some kind of source material, and a translation for it. First-timers should try using the source material dissections included in this guide, though I don't know how long those will last you. The meat of the guide is composed of these four pages: Grammar Part 1: Particles , Essential Vocabulary , Grammar Part 2: Conjugation and Grammar Part 3: Clauses . Start by reading as much of the first page as you can digest in one sitting, then look for the stuff it talked about in your chosen source material.

Intially, this means looking for particles in random sentences and figuring out how they're being used. You will not be able to understand the vast majority of the text, but that's fine. Just look up some of the words in the simpler sentences, try to identify the particles around them, guess what they're doing, and compare against the translation to see how much you got right.

The idea is that after a while, you get a feel for basic particles, so then you can move on to reading material further in the guide, then trying to apply those new ideas to the source material again. After a few weeks, you should be starting to look at common pronouns and transition words. After a few months, you should be looking primarily at verb forms. After several months, you should have very little trouble with simple sentences and be focusing your efforts on ones with multiple clauses. This process is definitely slow at first, but over time you'll be amazed at how much your fluency accelerates.

Moreover, if you ever want to learn any language, you will have to do something like this eventually. There's no way around that. However, there are a lot of resources you can use to get a "headstart" on grasping certain aspects of the language. For instance, Rosetta Stone is a good headstart for understanding the particles (and some basic vocabulary), and Heisig's Remembering the Kanji is a good headstart for mnemonically memorizing kanji shapes and meanings. Using stuff like this can be a very good idea, as long as you're aware that they are only headstarts and should never be treated as authoritative references or teaching methods (in particular, anyone who thinks that you can use RtK to "learn all the kanji" is deluded).

The other pages in the guide are all some kind of supplement with no particular order or structure, and it really doesn't matter when you read them or what you do with them. But do check them out at some point.

Source Material

“Source material” is a term I use to refer to anything created in a given language, by a native speaker of that language, and intended for use by other native speakers of that language. Depending on your location, budget, and attitudes towards legality, you may wish to travel to a Japantown and buy something in person, mail order something online, or download/pirate stuff from the internet. This guide and I will always assume you are attempting to read Japanese source material on a regular basis (regardless of how much of it you can actually understand). Important things to keep in mind when choosing your first source material (that isn't part of this guide):

For most people I know, the ideal first source material will be a manga series serialized in the Shonen Jump magazine.

Introduction to the Three Japanese Alphabets

One of the most unique aspects of the Japanese language is that it can use up to three different alphabets at the same time. I think it's worth giving you at least a skeletal understanding of the way they interact before making you seriously study them.

The three Japanese alphabets are called hiragana, katakana and kanji. The kana (hiragana and katakana together) are phonograms, just like the English alphabet. The kanji are ideograms, and are in many ways analogous to Greek and Latin roots in English.

There are 71 hiragana, 71 katakana, and between 2,000 and 50,000 kanji depending on who you ask. Hiragana and katakana have a perfect one-to-one relationship (i.e., every hiragana has one corresponding katakana which represents the same sound, and vice versa). Hiragana are used constantly, so they will be your first priority. Katakana are used primarily for loanwords and miscellaneous aesthetic purposes, so they're less common. Kanji are used most of the time, although technically they're always optional, so conventions on whether to write a word in kanji or hiragana vary significantly. Also, there are several words which have no kanji.

Most words are written one of three ways: kana only, kanji only, or kanji followed by hiragana. In the third case, the hiragana that follow are called okurigana. Kanji, as ideograms, tend to embody the meaning of a word, while the exact word being used may be specified and then inflected using okurigana.

Here are two short sample sentences:

Sentences: こ の 文 は サ ン プ ル で す 深 く 考 え な い で 下 さ い
Hiragana: こ の は で す く え な い で さ い
Katakana: サ ン プ ル
Kanji: 文 深 考 下
Romaji: ko no bun wa sa m pu ru de su fuka ku kanga e na i de kuda sa i

Sentences: この 文 は サンプル です 深く 考えないで下さい

Romaji: kono bun wa sampuru desu. fukaku kangaenaidekudasai.

Translation: These are sample sentences. Please don't think deeply about them.

The words written only in hiragana here are pretty easy. この means “this/these,” and です is a polite way of ending a sentence. The katakana word サンプル is a simple loanword, exactly as easy as the romaji make it look. The first kanji here— 文 —is representing the word “bun (sentence)” by itself. When you're more familiar with common particles (see document 2b), it will be naturally obvious to you that the letter は is a particle (marking the subject of the sentence) rather than okurigana, and thus that 文 is meant to be read alone. The second kanji— 深 —is the beginning of the word 深い fukai (deep). The い i has been changed to く ku to indicate a change from adjective to adverb. Again, once you're more familiar with this sort of thing, it will be naturally obvious that the く is okurigana for 深 . The third kanji— 考 —is the beginning of the word 考える kangaeru (to think), which has been heavily conjugated (see document 3). The ない indicates a negative form (“don't”), the で indicates a connective form allowing more to be added, and the 下さい is an additional form meaning “please.” Notice that it also starts with a kanji but has a few okurigana.

Hopefully this now makes at least some vague conceptual sense.

Assorted External Resources

Tae Kim's Guide to Japanese:

Tae Kim

Just about the only universally loved, recommended and distributed Japanese grammar guide on the internet. Matching its usefulness (if not style) is my long-term goal with this guide. Also, his opinions tend to clash with mine on a regular basis, so have fun comparing.


Learn Kana in two days

This document provides instructions on how to learn hiragana and katakana.

Goo dictionary:


Probably the best free electronic Japanese dictionary out there, though you need to be decent at Japanese (probably Conversational to Literary Fluency) in order to use it in the first place.



An online dictionary using edict, but with more entries than most. If JWPce's dictionary doesn't know a word, try searching for it here next.


Firefox addons

Firefox extension. Essentially a mouseover Japanese dictionary. It can even deinflect words to a limited extent. Many people believe this is either a godsend or a crutch.

Furigana Inserter:


Another firefox extension. Adds furigana to kanji on Japanese webpages. Can also look up words.



Kanji/character dictionary for Japanese or Chinese, along with options to create flashcards and vocabulary lists, plus machine translate or add furigana to text.

The New Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary:

The New Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary

The only Japanese to English kanji dictionary I know of that makes you look up the characters using radicals, which I believe is a must for any serious learner. This is the one I used intensely when I was learning the language.

Version History

v2.3 (07/27/2012) - I added some new pages with "BDT dissections" of source material (manga from j-comi), converted the four sections of example sentence tables in the main guide to the BDT format (thanks to Rinali for this suggestion), and revised the intro/contents/etc pages accordingly. Also added the -garu form to Conjugation.html (I could've sworn I'd done that before...), and added primitive backend hit counters so I can see which pages get more visits from now on.

v2.2 (06/16/2012) - The main addition is an Old Japanese page (far better than the 5/28 draft) which covers all the same topics as the main guide, but in the context of old japanese. The Persistent Kogo section in AGT has been revised accordingly. I also broke up the miscellaneous conjugation details section, distributing its information into other sections where it fit better, and made the html code a lot less bloated. Minor additions include: -i sokoneru compound verb, どうせ / _すればどう / _したらどう , 余地 yochi, かかる kakaru, the pronouns お主 and 先方 , and some col tags to prevent tables from linebreaking where they shouldn't. And as usual I made several minor corrections or rephrasings.

05/28/2012 - Added a very, very rough draft of some notes on old Japanese.

03/22/2012 - Fixed a huge mistake in the conjugation chart (the command form of くる was listed as これ for some reason).

02/18/2012 - Added explicit mention of ""negative adverb" -naku form" to Grammar Part 2: Conjugation.

v2.1 (02/02/2012) - Heavily revised the Introduction, added a Downloadable Version page, minor revisions to Grammar Part I: Particles (the biggest one was mentioning SVO/SOV at the top), even more minor revisions to Miscellaneous Clause-Related Issues (mostly, I added a paragraph before the subheadings), and a handful of corrections to various pages.

01/26/2012 - Added Tenses In Subordinate Clauses section to Grammar Part 3: Clauses.

01/23/2012 - Added 割り切る warikiru to Confusing Vocabulary.

01/08/2012 - Added 贅沢 zeitaku to Confusing Vocabulary.

v2.0 - Converted the guide to html and uploaded it to the website. During this process, I completely reorganized the guide as a whole, including the supplementary pages, merged/deleted/added a number of small sections, converted the Microsoft Word tables into html tables, and added html-style tables of contents to each page.