In 2023 I attended KumoriCon in Portland, Oregon where I did a talk on “How to Teach Yourself Japanese” and “How to Teach Yourself Japanese Through Anime and Manga”.

These are talks I’ve done a number of times to help people of ALL levels improve how they learn Japanese so they can keep it up long-term. This is a summary of one of those talks!

You can read a summary of “How to Teach Yourself Japanese Through Anime and Manga” here!


The Four Key Elements of Teaching Yourself Japanese

How do you study Japanese efficiently and effectively in a way that works for you?

In order to achieve that you need to know,

  1. your goal(s) and limitations,
  2. how to make and manage time,
  3. how to study smarter, not harder,
  4. the importance of studying and using Japanese.


1. Know Your Goals (And Limitations)

Why do you want to study Japanese?

Your goals can help shape your learning.

There are four skills to learning a language, reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Understanding why you want to learn Japanese can influence what skills you focus on.

e.g. Want to be able to understand anime without subtitles? Study basic Japanese (at least JLPT N3 level), with a focus on listening.

e.g. Want to be to read manga? Study basic Japanese (at least JLPT N3 level) with a focus on kanji and reading.

e.g. Want to visit Japan? Study useful words and phrases for travel, with a focus on speaking.

Knowing you goals can keep you motivated.

If you feel demotivated, remind yourself why you’re learning. Focus on the future you can that do the things you want to be able to do.

Japanese is very difficult for English speakers. You might be studying elementary level Japanese for the first two to three years. You will hit roadblocks and plateaus, but keeping those goals in mind will help.

It’s also important to be aware that your goals can change over time.


What Are Your Limitations?

Knowing your goals is good, but it’s almost important to understand your own limitations as these also shape your learning.

You might have a full-time job, or school, a family, other hobbies, of even be neurodivergent.

I have a full time job, and dyslexia and ADHD, which have impacted my learning. But that doesn’t mean it’s been impossible to learn Japanese. It just took time.

Be aware of your commitments and even physical limitations and think…

Do you have the time and energy to spare?

If you don’t now, where can you make it?

Keep the answers to these questions realistic and re-adjust when things stop being realistic.


How Do You Keep Japanese Study “Realistic”?

To show you what I mean by keeping Japanese study “realistic”, I want to show you some math.

They say it takes 150 hours to learn beginners Japanese.

1 hour a week = 150 weeks / 37.5 months / 3 years+
2 hours a week (17-20 mins day) = 75 weeks / 18.75 months / 1.5 years+
3.5 hours a week (30 mins day) = 43 weeks / 10.75 months / less than 1 year

What about 1…2…3 hours a day? That means you can learn beginner Japanese in about 2 to 5 months, right?

Not necessarily!


Let me tell you a story…

8 years ago I decided to try the highest level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test.

I thought 3 months was enough time to learn 1000 kanji, 5000 vocabulary, and over 100 grammar patterns.

I studied for about 2-4 hours every. Single. Day.

That was on top of my school work.

Needless to say after a month…this happened.


I studied so hard I made myself physically sick, with headaches and nausea, and had to lie in bed for a few days to recover.

I didn’t study Japanese for eight months after, and I failed the exam.

This was not realistic.

Being unrealistic can lead to toxic productivity which can impact your long-term study.

You can study an hour or more a day if you have the time and energy, but you don’t need to.

You can always break that hour up into three 20 minute study sessions a day. That’s more than enough time to make solid progress in Japanese.

What’s most important isn’t how fast or how much you’re studying. It’s that you study at your own pace in your own way.

This is what it means to be realistic with Japanese study.

Everyone is different and it’s important to find what works for you.

How do you do that? First, by making and managing your time to study.


2. Make and Manage Your Time

Making Time

Study little and often

The trick to learning a language is to study little and often. 10-15 minutes of focused study a day is a lot more effective than 1 hour of focused study a week. You don’t even have to sit at a desk to study. You can easily do multiple mini-sessions in a day with apps and ebooks!

Find pockets of time

If you’re incredibly busy then you can do these short sessions in pockets of time. While you wait for someone, on your commute, when you’re cooking, or on the toilet. Why doom scroll when you could be studying?

Habit stack

If you really struggle to find these pockets you can always habit stack. This is when you attach a new habit to an already established habit. Such as, brushing your teeth, and then studying kanji for 5 minutes.

A friend of time who has a full time job and family does “learning at 11” everyday after the kids have gone to bed.

Turning Japanese study into a habit really helps long-term!


Managing Time

Even if you study regularly or can find pockets or time, you might struggle to keep Japanese study up on a regular basis, or struggle to focus for a set amount of time. If that’s the case, you can use these techniques.

Use time trackers

Time trackers are great for keeping yourself accountable. These are apps which track how much time you spend on something.

I like to use Toggl, a general time tracker for work, but you can find other trackers such as Yeolpumta, which is specifically designed for studying.

Use the pomodoro technique

The pomodoro technique is another great way to focus your study. This is when you focus for 15 to 25 minutes with a 10 minute break.

I used this method at school to study 20 minutes of homework, 10 minute break, 20 minutes of Japanese, 10 minute break. Now I use pomodoro to alternate between reading in Japanese and studying it.

Use apps and programs with streak trackers

Another way to keep yourself accountable is by using study apps which track your streaks, how often and how many days in a row you study.

Apps like Lingodeer (Android / iOS), Bunpro (Android / iOS), KanjiStudy (Android), and Learn Japanese Kanji: Benkyō (iOS) do this.

Or you can track your own streaks using a calendar or diary.


Not all these time managing techniques will work for everyone. It’s good to experiment and find what works for you.


3. Study Smarter, Not Harder

When I started learning Japanese I only studied one hour a week with a Japanese teacher. I didn’t do homework, and never reviewed what I was learning in class. After a few years I did start studying out of class, but drilled vocabulary and kanji hoping they would stick. And I put off reading manga and books until I was “good enough”.

This meant I was often frustrated when I came across something that I knew I had studied but couldn’t remember the meaning. “I studied this, why don’t I know it?”.

This resulted in me being demotivated often, studying for 3-6 months and then stopping for 3-6 months.

These were not effective or efficient ways to study.

Which is why it’s important to study smarter, not harder.


How to Study Smart

Over my 17 (going on 18 years) of studying Japanese I learned that the most effective and efficient ways to study are,

  1. study little and often,
  2. use a variety of study methods,
  3. use memorization techniques (that work for you),
  4. take care to learn,
  5. study and use Japanese.


1. Study little and often

We already went over this, but studying little and often it important in order to get information into your long-term memory.

This is because you’re making connections in your brain and going over things you’ve learned with help strengthen those connections, meaning you will eventually be able to remember the information without looking it up. This builds up over time, leading to fluency.


2. Use a variety of study method

There are a lot of ways you can study Japanese. Of which can be broken down by the four core skills when learning a language, speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

It’s important to study materials which cover all four of these so you can get a balanced study experience.

As mentioned, if you have a goal in mind, then you might want to focus your efforts on one more than the others, but it still helps to use a variety of methods which can help you practice all four skills.

Here are some ways you can study and practice these skills.

Four core skills of learning Japanese, speaking, listening, writing, and read, with suggestions on how to study these. Talking to yourself, practicing with a teacher, using textbooks, speaking partner, anime, podcasts, movies, manga, novels, writing a diary.

Part of the journey is picking and choosing which of these work for you and which will help you reach your personal goal.


3. Memorization techniques

Whatever you choose to help you improve your Japanese skills, you need to know the lingo, and while rote memorization may work for some, it doesn’t for everyone. Which is why it’s important to know memorization techniques.

I always recommend using these memorization techniques,

  • flashcards and spaced repetition,
  • labeling,
  • mnemonics,
  • recall and tests.


Flashcards and spaced repetition

If you’ve looked at study techniques then you have probably come across the importance of spaced repetition in learning.

Flashcards work great for spaced repetition study. As soon as you start to forget a word or kanji or grammar, you review it. If you know it the space between your next review increases, if you don’t then the space decreases. This helps you focus on the things you don’t know and just touch up the things you do know.

There are lots of Japanese learning apps that already include spaced repetitions in their programming.

  • Bunpro (website, Android, iOS)
  • Bunpo (Android and iOS)

Or you can go with good old custom made flashcards with Anki or paper.

Anki can be a little difficult to get into, but it’s really great how versatile it is. It’s my go-to flashcard app and I use it on a daily basis.



Another memorizing technique you can use is labeling. LABEL EVERYTHING!

When I started learning Japanese I labeled my bookshelf, books, TV, door…everything.

I also put vocabulary and kanji on the walls of my bedroom, with the kanji reading and meaning on the back.

This is great because every time you walk through a room and you see a label you can say the word out loud, or try to remember the kanji meaning and reading, then flip the card up to see if you got it right or not.

I think spaced repetition is more effective, but this is a fun way to study.



A mnemonic is a device that assists in remembering something. Like the order of North, South, East, and West by using the mnemonic “Never eat soggy waffles.”

For Japanese, for example, the word for “to eat” is “taberu”, which you could use mnemonic “I’m going to eat at the taberu / table.”

I struggled for ages to remember the word for “eyelids” which is “mabuta”, so I came up with this mnemonic “Ma buta (my pig) has eyelids.”

Mnemonics aren’t for everyone but I find they work great for people like me who cant instantly memorize vocabulary.


Recall and Tests

Finally, one of the best methods for memorization is to recall and test yourself.

If you’re studying Japanese at school then you’ll probably get this with quizzes and tests, but if you’re teaching yourself Japanese then you want to make sure you test yourself regularly.

You can do with by trying to recall what you studied at the end or start of the day.

Or you can use practice tests and drill books. There are lots for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) which you can use even if you don’t intent to take the exam.

Or, if you’re studying with a teacher, have them test you.


4. Take care to learn

When you’re learning Japanese you will make mistakes. And that’s okay! Making mistakes is really important when learning something new.

In the wise words of Jake the Dog, “sucking at something is the start of getting kinda good at it”

Now, when you make a mistake instead of beating yourself up, think,

  • Why do I keep getting this wrong?
  • What do I keep mistaking it for?
  • How can I distinguish/remember this?

When I learning I would get “keiken” “experience” confused. So when I kept getting it wrong during my flashcard studies I stopped and thought about why I was getting it wrong and spent a few extra seconds to go “kei ken” “keiken”.

Mnemonics can also help in these situations.

Now, learning vocabulary and kanji and grammar are all well and good, but along with studying you also want to use your Japanese.


5. Study and use Japanese

This is incredibly important because Japanese is a language, and languages are tools that humans use to communicate, whether it’s through speech, audio, images, and the written word.

You might think you need to know advanced Japanese before you can start using Japanese, but honestly you can start using it right away.

Let’s take another look at those four core skills for language learning and how you can practice them by using them.

  • Graded Readers (Tadoku, White Rabbit Press, etc.)
  • Manga
  • Light novels
  • Novels

*Natively is a great resource for finding manga, light novels, and novels for learners of different Japanese levels. See a review of Natively here: Find and Track Japanese Books with Natively

  • Podcasts
  • Anime
  • Drama & Movies
  • Audiobooks
  • YouTube
  • Shadowing
  • Talking to yourself
  • Teacher
  • Speaking partner

You want to try and use the language just as much, if not more than how much you study it.

So if you study for 20 minutes a day, then watch anime for an hour, it will help you solidify the language faster.

Of course there are some tricks to this, such as using materials (anime, manga, graded readers, etc.) which are at your level or overlap with topics you’re learning. This increases the chance that things you studied will appear in what you’re using.


Summary (AKA How to Plan Your Japanese Study)

1. Work out your long-term goal.

2. Work out how much time you have.
(Where can you realistically make time? What will help keep you on track?)

3. Research resources and study methods that you think will work best for your learning style/goal.

4. Build the habit to study on a regular basis.
(Even a few minutes a day is better than none!)

5. Use and engage with Japanese on a regular basis.
(Watching anime counts.)


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