This is the first of a three part series provided by one of our readers.  Stay tuned for Part II & III on the next couple of Thursdays!

I am avidly trying to learn Japanese.  I think that my “hobby” may be verging on an obsession.  I find myself desperately searching for yet another book or learning tool that will (surely) be the missing puzzle piece to unlocking this enigmatic language!  It goes without saying, however, that all of the textbooks in the world are of no use if I don’t make time to study.

Sadly, it is difficult for many of us to find time to learn Japanese.  Most of us lead busy lives with plenty of demands and responsibilities.  For some of us, committing to a formal Japanese class is not possible, due to time and/or financial constraints.  We need something flexible: a way of learning Japanese whether we have an hour or fifteen minutes to spend studying.

If you have a desire to learn Japanese on your own time, there are self-teaching options available to you at costs which are more manageable than the average price of a college course.  This series of articles will list and describe many options available for Japanese self-study, as well as note their strongest attributes and overall expense (or lackthereof).

So…why are you waiting?  Ganbatte!  がんばって! (Go for it)!

Self Taught workbooks

Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji Workbooks:

One of my favorite things to do in JUSCO is visit the bookstore.  Granted, I cannot read very much Japanese yet, but it is good practice to glance through the early readers.  And, secretly, I eye the Harry Potter books with longing and imagine how exciting it would be to read the Japanese translation…maybe someday many, many years down the road!

Eventually, I am catapulted back into reality, put these fantasies aside, and make my way over to the childrens’ workbooks.  The JUSCO bookstores have racks filled with these brightly-colored volumes, printed by familiar educational companies such as Kumon.  The purpose of these books is to teach Japanese writing: hiragana, katakana, and kanji.  However, it is recommended that hiragana be learned first because of how frequently it appears in written Japanese and its relative simplicity compared to kanji.

These workbooks are great tools for building vocabulary.  After learning the characters themselves, your newfound knowledge is solidified by applying them the vocabulary terms.  The best part is, you can infer the meaning of the Japanese word by the accompanying illustration.   I had a French teacher who forced us to make picture flashcards.  For example, if we were studying the word “cheval,” we were forbidden to write “horse” on the other side of the flashcard.  Why?  It was a matter of taking a 2-step approach to learning French.  Instead of studying “cheval,” translating this to the English word “horse,” then realizing a horse is a hoofed-creature, we went from “cheval” to immediately thinking of the hoofed-creature, no English translation required.  These books apply the same idea to learning Japanese.

At this point, you may be protesting.  “Wait!  Why should I bother with learning to read and write Japanese?  Listening comprehension and speaking should be enough for my daily life in Okinawa!”  There is a certain amount of truth to this.   However, if you happen to be a visual learner, as I am, listening to spoken Japanese isn’t enough to make the language stick.  For me, I must be able to see and listen to a language, as well as practice writing it, in order to learn.

“Okay…” you may be thinking, “but why not learn visually by practicing with romaji?”  Romaji can certainly work if you wish to focus on speaking and listening to Japanese only.  However, how many of us have been confronted with a menu in Japanese without (or only a few) pictures?  Or a crucial landmark road or shop sign in characters?  I certainly have!  A basic level of Japanese reading comprehension has helped me to understand just enough to avoid a dish I would not like and turn at the correct road.  Plus, many Japanese textbooks stress that, at minimum, learning hiragana and katakana will greatly improve your pronunciation.

A native-Japanese speaking friend helped me to pick out my first hiragana workbook.  She placed the book in my hands and said, with a shade of embarrassment, “this book is for 3-5 year olds.”  I laughed.  With Japanese, as with any language, we all have to start at the beginning and be content with our “baby-steps” progress!

On average, the books cost between 600-1,000 yen at JUSCO, depending on the content and level of difficulty.  One drawback to these workbooks is they will not teach you how to pronounce the syllables and character readings.  For that, you will need to check out an audio resource such as this YouTube video.

To further solidify the kana, you can purchase charts at Toys “R” Us and hang them up around the house.  Visions of hiragana dancing in our heads!


Coming Next:

Part II: Rosetta Stone vs Mango Languages

Part III:  Text


  1. I minored in Japanese in college years ago. But it didn’t mean a thing until I moved to Tokyo and and lived with a Japanese family for three years. Of course they spoke no English so I was forced into it…. Years later and after having to learn French for a duty station in West Africa and learn Italian for where we are now… I must admit Japanese is the most fun to learn… I still have so much to learn in Japanese and make it point to use the language. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it… wow, that sounds like a work out slogan… And now we’ll be returning to Okinawa this summer… I am feeling the pressure and excitement to start reading Kanji again. Keep studying everyone! I highly suggest watching Japanese dramas online and practice your phrases as much as you can. It will all come together.

  2. Learning a language isn’t THAT difficult, you make it sound like one of the most terrible tasks there can be to a man. If you start with this kind of spirit you will spend ages only learning, say, the kanas and feel contented with it, at which rythm you won’t have enough of a whole life to learn a single foreign language. Here is a good attitude : it is only another alphabet, you’re not a baby who takes 6 months to master an alphabet, it can be done in a few days if you go progressively and with focus, you don’t need more than a small hour a day. Of course you will forget some a bit later, but then you will check them again and every time it will be better memorized. It is not a good idea to make a mountain of it before having even begun.

  3. Thanks so much for this! My son has been learning Japanese at school, but we are going back to the states for a few months and I was hoping to get some of these workbooks to bring with us, but I didn’t know where to find them! Guess I’ll be headed to Jusco this week 🙂