Updated November 19, 2023
If you want to learn Japanese, finding a good program is hard...
Which is surprising when there are almost 130 million people who speak Japanese in Japan and aboard. Not to mention Japanese culture has made inroads across the globe.
Many language education companies take their best Spanish and French program and more or less copy and paste Japanese phrases into it. Then they slap a "best way to learn Japanese fast" sticker on and sell it to new learners.
Converting a Spanish course into a French or Italian course wouldn't be that hard. It's easier learning a language closely related to your native one....in a way you have already have a head start But the truth is that, in linguistic terms, Japanese is its own language when compared to English.
Differences in grammar, no shared vocabulary with English, and a complex writing system all mean that if you're going to make a program for learning Japanese you really have to go the extra mile.
In this post:
First we'll discuss the four features of the language that a good Japanese course should cover: grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and writing.
Then we'll dive into our top list of programs to help you get started learning Japanese.
What is the best method to learn Japanese?
The best way to learn Japanese is to learn it holistically. Here's a quick list of the 3 important aspects of the language you'll need to learn to do that.
1) Good explanation of grammar
Japanese grammar is markedly different from English grammar. Some of the difficulties English speakers encounter with Japanese grammar include: a different word order (subject, verb, object, etc), implied words that are omitted, the absence of auxiliary verbs, verb tenses, and more.
The best courses strike a balance between exposing a learner to new material, and not exposing them to so much new gramma they lose their way while learning Japanese.
A solid understanding of grammar is a step by step process, and course material should reflect that.
It recognizes the levels of honorific language
One often overlook aspect of Japanese grammar is its honorific language.
The Japanese language has many levels of formality that affect which word forms you use and when. Words may change based on your relationship with the person you're talking to, or the context of the situation you're in.
While you can't pick up all the cultural nuances of the language directly from a program, a good one will at least introduce you to the different forms and give you a general idea of how to use them when speaking in Japan.
Some Japanese programs completely ignore the levels of formality and only teach you the most formal level of the language.
When you learn Japanese and start combining an understanding of grammar with a wider vocabulary your speaking abilities really start to take off. The best Japanese course will expose you to new vocabulary in the context of phrases, texts, or even conversations.
When you use the classic textbook approach to build your vocabulary, you’re simply memorizing the translations of Japanese words. It can be hard to recall new words during a conversation, not to mention route memorization in and of itself can get pretty dull.
If you learn Japanese words in the greater context of phrases and conversations you'll understand their meaning without necessarily having to translate them.
It also provides a broader picture of how the word(s) function in the language and make them easier to remember when you need them.
Why pronunciation is important
To learn a language fluently you can't overlook pronunciation. Pronunciation is one of the fundamental building blocks of learning Japanese.
When you can correctly speak Japanese sounds it will be much easier for you to 1) understand Japanese people and 2) remember new phrases. All too often students make the mistake of only memorizing sentences from textbooks or flashcards.
Thus to them, words are written symbols that they have to translate from English in their mind before they speak.
Knowing new words phonetically (while also learning them from text), helps you cut down on the translating students do in their head. This way a Japanese word isn’t just a written symbol, but also an audible (and thus memorable) sound.
This is why veteran language learners often recommend that you learn Japanese pronunciation at the start of your studies.
Best way to learn pronunciation
In any language good pronunciation starts with breaking down speech into individual syllables/sounds. In Japanese this is most easily done by learning hiragana (after all hiragana are designed to be read as individual syllables!).
The majority of your pronunciation work will be with hiragana, but even after you’re comfortable with the script you will have to practice imitating native speakers in order to master a Japanese accent.
4) It teaches written Japanese
The Japanese writing system is very complex, in fact it's one of the most complex writing systems in the world. Written Japanese combines two character systems: one that represents words (kanji) and one that represents syllables (kana).
Kana is broken into to two forms hiragana and katakana. Both essentially work as a Japanese phonetic alphabet with katakana being used for foreign loan words and hiragana used for native words.
Theoretically you could spell out any word or phrase exclusively in kana lettering. The only problems is that Japanese is written with no spaces in between words. That's where the kanji come in...
Written Japanese uses a combination of kanji and kana to express meaning. Learning kana isn't too bad. To the native English speakers it's just an odd looking alphabet.
The trouble comes in trying to learn kanji. Because they are logographic (they represent words or phrases), the only sure fire way to remember them is memorization.
Most language learning programs gloss over kanji completely, which puts new Japanese learners at a serious disadvantage when they get closer to an intermediate level of Japanese. Just imagine traveling to Japan and not be able to read!
Best way to learn Japanese (Our Top Picks)
1) Learn holistically with Rocket Japanese
Rocket Japanese is an online Japanese course built around recorded audio in the form of dialogues. The dialogues have English explanations help you learn the language in "chunks" or phrases versus individual words (this is great for learning to speak Japanese conversationally).
Vocabulary and grammar
Rocket Japanese offers two lesson tracks: one which focuses on grammar, and the other on vocabulary.
Students work through the two lesson tracks at the same time, so they can build out their grammar knowledge and vocabulary evenly.
The vocabulary lessons are called audio lessons, and use Japanese dialogues
Each lesson teaches the vocabulary used in the dialogue, so you can see how the vocabulary works in context.
The grammar centric lessons are called language & culture lessons, and break down the Japanese grammar behind a given text or phrases. These lessons also touch on various aspects of Japanese culture.
You can create flashcards of words from each lesson and study them using Rocket languages' spaced repetition flashcard system.
Pronunciation and speaking
Rocket Japanese is a good resource on pronunciation, as each audio lesson allows you to listen to the given dialogue as a whole, word by word, or even syllable by syllable.
This provides you with a great way to imitate Japanese speakers, develop your ear for the language, and overall improve your pronunciation.
Each lesson also provides users with audio playback for the conversation at different speeds so learners can practice their listening comprehension. Playback is also available for individual phrases so you can focus on initiating and hearing the correct pronunciation.
Rocket Japanese emphasizes more formal Japanese but does make a distinction between the various levels of politeness.
What really makes the program standout is that Rocket Japanese also has a hefty literacy component. Level 1 covers kana. Levels 2 and 3 focus on learning kanji. This includes videos on how to actually write the characters.
The emphasis on the writing system is the main reason Rocket Languages is our first pick. Most Japanese courses simply don't offer any help with writing or reading. The course's focus on conversational vocabulary will also help anyone wishing to speak Japanese.
Japanesepod101 is really closer to an app than a program. It's built around audio lessons just like Rocket Japanese.
The main difference is that Rocket Japanese is more structured and provides more resources for reading and writing overall.
Japanesepod101 is also a lot cheaper than Rocket Japanese.
Japanesepod101 is one of the most popular Japanese learning resources out there.
This is because at its price point it provides a ton of value. There are over 1,000 lessons on the site to help anyone from beginner to advanced learn Japanese.
Japanesepod101 provides well structured lessons around difficulty level and subject
Japanesepod101's podcast style lessons
The lessons are set up as podcast episodes and usually feature two hosts and a prerecorded conversation between real life native Japanese speakers.
The hosts do an excellent job of keeping the content engaging and they also explain grammar points and vocabulary pretty well too. They even shed light on Japanese culture and traditions.
The site features transcripts for each lessons in kanji, romaji, hiragana, and English. There is also a flashcard system for cementing your kanji knowledge.
Japanesepod101 teaches how to read Japanese and write it
Japanesepod101 provides entire lesson packs on how to read kana.
There’s well over 100 lessons available on learning kanji, and even a 25 lesson tract which is focused completely on how to write kanji.
When paired with the podcast transcripts these lessons are a great resource for learning how to read and write in Japanese.
3) Read and listen to Japanese with Pimsleur
Pimsleur's conversational approach
Pimsleur is a completely audio based approach to learning a foreign language, and is a great resource for anyone interested in speaking Japanese.
Each 30 minute audio lesson is built around a question-recall-response method that forces you to think and speak Japanese as if you were actually having a real conversation or practicing at a language exchange.
Pimsleur is designed so that you use a language and learn it at the same time.
The courses are highly structured, provide great practice, and will leave you with a working knowledge of the spoken language.
Pimsleur's focus on pronunciation and speaking
Pimsleur lessons focus a lot on pronunciation.
While the app always teaches phrases in the context of a conversation, new sounds are introduced to the learner by syllable so that he or she can practice mimicking the native speaker.
No other audio course I know of deals as thoroughly with pronunciation as Pimsleur does. It helps accelerate your learning and prepares you for real world conversations in Japan.
Pimsleur's reading lessons
The app also has reading lessons, which start off by teaching you to read hiragana phonetically.
At first no translation of the words is given (along with recorded audio of a native speaker reading the given word), this is so your brain can focus on the sounds produced by the letters.
Gradually you will start reading for meaning, and you will start to see vocabulary from the audio lessons you’ve already completed.
After hiragana, katakana and kanji are also introduced.
Pimsleur lets you access all 5 levels of their courses for $14.95 a month.
They also offer a 1 week free trial of their courses so you can test them out before you pay.
4) Learn basic Japanese with Duolingo
Duolingo is usually one of the first courses we recommend for foreign language learning. It's effective and fun to use. But there are some things to note about their Japanese course
There's some kanji used in Duolingo, but mostly you will be using hiragana.
Because of the complexity of the Japanese language a successful completion of the course should put you at around an A2.
Most Duolingo courses get you to around a B1 in a foreign language.
Katakana also makes an appearance but is sort casually mixed into the lessons with hiragana.
One Problem with Duolingo
One of the bigger problems Duolingo’s Japanese course has, is that it often doesn't differentiate between hiragana, katakana, and kanji; nor does it help learners understand how each script fits into the Japanese writing system as a whole.
Initially you will learn Japanese fast enough, but after the basics, things can get a little confusing.
Finer points of grammar and sentence structures are never explained, and users can walk away from lessons unclear on how exactly a certain phrase or sentence functions grammatically.
With weaknesses aside, Duolingo is an easily accessible app that follows a freemium model.
Duolingo as a potential review tool
It definitely shouldn’t be your standalone course, and probably shouldn’t be the only way you practice the language.
That being said it makes a fun review tool and can expose users to foundational vocabulary and grammar.
Still, the company has gone through great lengths to do the language justice. The app is free so it's definitely worth trying out!
5) Watch Japanese TV and Movies with Fluentu
Fluentu is a site/app created to help you learn a language through native videos. With FluentU you can use in site flashcards, captions, and games to learn vocabulary in context while watching TV shows, movies, commercials, Japanese music, and more.
It's a great way to practice listening and to learn vocabulary, all while exposing yourself to culture.
Fluentu isn't structured enough to be used as a stand alone course (that's the main reason it's number 5 on our list). It's best used as a supplement alongside a course as a part of your study routine.
Using FluentU to learn vocabulary
FluentU’s real strength is vocabulary acquisition, and it's a fun tool for anyone studying Japanese.
Still the app is unique and is a great way to practice what you know and learn vocabulary along the way.
6) Leap into learning with LingoDeer
Lingodeer looks and feels a bit like Duolingo, with short, fun lessons and lots of easy rewards. It has an edge over Duolingo when it comes to learning Japanese, though, because this program is designed especially to teach Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.
This means it does not have the common problem of the cookie-cutter model that works well for a European Language but not so well for Japanese.
Grammar and honorifics
The lessons in LingoDeer focus on activities, like matching games or fill-in-the-blank. But if you select the option for “learning tips,” you will actually find quite a lot of information about grammar and honorifics. These pair with each lesson and review segment. In fact, you may find it helpful to start with the learning tip and then move on to the fun activities.
Lingodeer itself claims to offer all the grammar and sentence structure you need to reach CEFR level B1, which is roughly where most beginner textbooks or app-based courses reach.
Reading and writing
Lingodeer has a special segment to teach you how to write 100 kanji characters. As you may recall, this is a bit rare, because many programs focus just on hiragana and don’t teach the logographic kanji system at all!
This is called the “Character Drill” within Lingodeer, and it teaches you the construction of each character.
Lingodeer offers really good sound effects and recordings by native speakers in the sample audio you listen to during the lessons. It also features speech recognition software to let you test out your pronunciation. This tool does not work perfectly, but it will encourage you to practice speaking out loud.
Busuu provides a learning plan built around the CEFR levels, helpful for anyone studying for a language proficiency exam or just someone who really wants to track fluency progress.
The program works better for European languages than it does for Asian languages, unfortunately, but it can still offer a structured introduction to Japanese for a beginner.
One of the good things about Busuu is that it lets you take a placement test to begin at your own knowledge point in terms of grammar and vocabulary. It also uses a slow progression that builds on each previous lesson to help you develop your skills in a logical way.
One advantage Busuu offers is that it has a lively and active social forum built into its program. This gives you a chance to engage with other language learners, find potential conversation partners, or just ask questions about grammar or something linguistic you don’t understand.
Busuu also uses good audio recordings. This is important because pausing and repeating a word or phrase will help you develop your own pronunciation skills.
Not enough writing
Busuu does offer some attempt at teaching kanji, but the lessons seem sporadic and not always accurate. This seems to hold true for other Asian languages like Chinese as well. Perhaps over time, the app will develop to better represent non-European languages!
While not a learning course per se, Tofugu can provide a wonderful supplement to your core Japanese learning program because it dives deep into teaching characters and grammar. This website offers a grammar hub, a database of Japanese learning resources including recommended books for learning Kanji, and a podcast.
The Grammar Hub lets you select what topic you want to explore, such as the Japanese verb Conjugation. From there, you can select from a list of links taking you to more specific information, like Godan vs Ichidan verbs.
Each link takes you to an informative but easy-to-understand blog article about that topic. You will find lots of charts and examples using hiragana and kanji to help you understand the concepts, too! The intuitive online format makes the website easier to use than a traditional textbook, but it honestly provides equally in-depth grammar explanations.
Tofugu does not really serve as a vocabulary-learning tool. It focuses more on learning characters and understanding grammar. It also has some emphasis on Japanese culture, especially through the podcast.
Pronunciation via Podcast
You can choose to listen to Tofugu podcast episodes on Spotify, Soundcloud, or Apple Podcasts. The podcast is extensive and covers complex grammar issues like how to use particles, fun topics like different kinds of stories in Japanese culture, travel tips, and much more!
One thing to note is that these are not structured audio lessons like you would find in JapanesePod101. They are a supplemental, interesting resource for a Japanese learner, but they will not take you through the basics of learning Japanese one step at a time.
However, they will give you a peek into Japanese culture and grammar which can help your learning process a lot. Plus, the sample Japanese dialogues and phrases will help you develop your ear for Japanese pronunciation.
8) Japanese Uncovered
If you dread the thought of sitting through a class, reading a textbook, or completing one more boring matching exercise in a language app, you may need to take a more innovative approach to learning Japanese. In that case, you may want to consider learning Japanese through the lens of a story.
Storylearning’s Japanese Uncovered online course is based on the concept that humans communicate using narratives. This means that using a story can help you understand a new language more easily.
The online course consists of 20 chapters. Each chapter includes a segment of an ongoing story, and multiple lessons on grammar, culture, speaking practice, and more that build on the elements of the story.
This online course does have a really high price tag compared to many other programs, which is one reason it is ranked lower on the list. But it is quite comprehensive and can take you from beginner to intermediate Japanese if you complete all the lessons ad activities.
Great grammar focus
Storylearning includes a lesson on grammar in every chapter of the 100-hour course. The lessons usually include a video presentation from a professional Japanese tutor, followed by activities and review options for you to practice what you learned.
The grammar focuses on something you will have noticed in the chapter of the ongoing story that you just heard and read too!
One of the ways you know this course was designed specifically to teach Japanese, rather than as a cookie-cutter copy of another language, is that it includes lessons on honorifics in every chapter. You will find this super thorough and helpful!
Lots of literacy focus
Every chapter in the program includes a lesson on literacy. Early on, the literacy lessons used Romaji, which is a Romanized way of writing Japanese. Then you move into hiragana and even some kanji by the end of the course. Since this is not an app, there is no cool feature where you can try writing characters on the screen, but you will learn the basics at least.
The big weakness of Japanese Uncovered is that it does not give you a lot of pronunciation guidance. Because it is an online course and not an app, you don’t get any fancy speech recognition software. The “speaking activities” in each chapter are just text encouraging you to say words and phrases out loud.
7) A not so honorable mention: Rosetta Stone
You may have noticed that our list didn't include the most popular brand name in language learning. This is because the Rosetta Stone Japanese course falls terribly short of being effective. We don't recommend it for anyone who wants to learn Japanese fast.
Rosetta Stone Japanese method is not the best way to learn Japanese
The method of the course was pretty much lifted from their Spanish course and doesn't really cover much of the complexities and common difficulties of the Japanese language. There's virtually no information on Kanji, and there are no explanations whatsoever to help you learn grammar.
This is because Rosetta Stone uses a no translation method, meaning that their courses offer no translation or explanations in English. Their courses are entirely in the target language (thus their Spanish course is entirely in Spanish, Japanese in Japanese, etc.).
Such a method can work well for languages which are similar to English, but with Japanese being so distant from English in just about all aspects, the Rosetta Stone method does little to help users learn Japanese.
The course can work if you want to learn basic phrases, but its shortcomings and somewhat high price tag prevent it from being in our list.