Getting started with Japanese

Getting started learning Japanese with Kanshudo

Kanshudo's 20 Beginner Lessons are designed to help you get started successfully with Japanese. This guide will help you take your very first steps, and provides an overview of how the lessons are structured.
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For a comprehensive overview of all Kanshudo's features and functions and how they work together, see our guide How to use Kanshudo.
1. Are you an absolute beginner?
This introduction and the Kanshudo Beginner Lessons are designed to help you take your first steps with Japanese. If you do not yet know what hiragana, katakana or kanji are, study this introduction before taking your first lesson.
If you already know the hiragana, and you understand what kanji are, you are ready to start the lesson series. Skip to section 4 on using the lessons effectively, then dig in and take your first lesson!
2. Japanese: hiragana, katakana and kanji
Although you could in theory speak Japanese without knowing any hiragana, katakana or kanji, to read or write you will need some level of knowledge of all three. Practically, to function in Japan, or to read Japanese books or newspapers, or to communicate with Japanese people, mastering the written language is as important as learning to speak. Let's start with an overview of how written Japanese works.
Two alphabets: hiragana and katakana
Japanese uses two phonetic alphabets, the hiragana and katakana. Each of these alphabets contains about 50 symbols that represent the same 50 sounds, and each time you see a symbol, you can be sure it will be pronounced the same way. (This is an advantage of Japanese over English, where many letters may be pronounced in several different ways depending on context.) Some of the symbols can be combined and modified for a total of about 80 sounds. And that's it! Once you can reproduce those 80 sounds, you can correctly sound out any Japanese word.
Just like the English alphabet, any Japanese word can be 'spelled' using either alphabet. The only difference is that since Japanese has two alphabets, by custom, katakana is used to spell out words of 'foreign' origin, and hiragana is used for everything else.
Your first step with Japanese: hiragana
For a beginner, learning the hiragana is the most important first step you need to take. Although you can start the Beginner Lessons without knowing hiragana (since the first few lessons include 'romaji' - see the note below), you will not get the full benefit unless you learn hiragana. All the games and learning exercises, as well as the flashcards, require knowledge of hiragana.
So, if you do not yet know the hiragana, stop here and read our Introduction to the hiragana. Use the flashcards feature to create hiragana flashcards, and start learning them. With concentrated effort you should be able to master the hiragana in one to two weeks. You will have taken your first big step towards mastering Japanese! Note: you can either wait till you have finished learning the hiragana before starting the lessons, or you can get started in parallel. However, we don't recommend you study more than a few beginner lessons until you know most of the hiragana.
Soon (but not first): katakana
If you know hiragana but not katakana, we recommend you learn katakana soon. However, it's not necessary before starting the lessons. When you are ready, head over to Introduction to the katakana.
Writing Japanese with the English alphabet: romaji
There are several systems of writing Japanese with the English alphabet for non-readers of Japanese characters. The one used by Kanshudo is what we consider to be the most accurate and easy to understand - it is called 'Modified Hepburn'. The Hepburn style is the most common way to romanize Japanese, and it is easy to understand. For the most part, it is very literal - for example し becomes 'shi', あ becomes 'a' etc. Modified Hepburn improves on the original Hepburn by using the more easily-understood 'ō' for おう (instead of 'ou'), and 'o' for を (instead of 'wo'). Read more about Hepburn romanization ⇗ on Wikipedia.
The kanji
The Japanese kanji form the bulk of the characters used in Japanese writing. Originally imported from China, there are thousands of kanji, each with a distinct meaning. The Japanese government defines a set of 2136 characters, known as the Jōyō kanji or 'kanji in daily use'. Once you know these, you will be able to read the bulk of Japanese writing.
However, in fact it's much easier than that. The first 100 kanji you will learn in the Beginner Lessons are the most frequently used, and just like the letters 'e' and 't' in English, they occur many times more frequently than the rarer characters. As a result, once you have completed the Kanshudo Beginner Lessons, you will encounter kanji you know all the time, and you will be able to grasp the meaning of the Japanese you encounter in many situations (even if you don't know some of the characters).
In addition, the kanji chosen for the Beginner Lessons correspond with the kanji you need to know for the first level (N5) of the JLPT, the Japanese Language Proficiency Test ⇗ . This is the standard test any serious student of Japanese takes, and is required for entry to Japanese university, or for government scholarships, as well as by some employers. When you have completed the Beginner Lessons, you will be ready to take the N5.
When you are interested in learning more about kanji, read our kanji overview.
Components and mnemonics
One of the key steps in learning kanji is realizing that almost all kanji are composed of one or more 'components'. Common components may be reused in hundreds of kanji. Once you know the most common components, it becomes easy to learn new kanji by thinking of them as combinations of components you already know. Kanshudo uses this technique extensively to help you learn kanji. Each kanji includes a 'mnemonic' - a simple sentence which links the meaning of the kanji you are learning with its components.
In the Beginner Lessons, we introduce you to the concept of mnemonics, and we include some very common components that are worth learning alongside the most common kanji.
To learn more about these concepts, read about the Kanshudo System and about components.
Grammar and vocabulary
The Beginner Lessons introduce you to about 200 beginner level words, as well as about 50 basic grammatical concepts. Both vocabulary and grammar are carefully chosen to be at the level included in the JLPT N5 exam (see above).
3. How the lessons are structured
The introductory slideshow
The slideshow contains the instructional part of the lesson. In this section, you are introduced to the five kanji in each lesson, along with the key readings for each.
Each kanji is presented with its key meaning and one or more readings. Almost all kanji have at least two readings, and some have ten or more. However, in the Beginner Lessons, we only present the most important readings for early learners.
On / kun readings
As you learn more Japanese, the distinction between 'on' (音) readings and 'kun' (訓) readings of kanji will become important. In general, on readings are used when a kanji is met in a word with other kanji, and kun readings are used when the kanji is combined with hiragana. In general in dictionaries (and elsewhere in Kanshudo), on readings are given in katakana, and kun readings in hiragana.
However, as a beginner, this distinction is not too important, and just creates additional frustration. So in the Beginner Lessons, we have presented all readings in hiragana. If you would like to see an illustration of this, compare the full Kanshudo entry for 人 (person) with the way it is presented in Beginner Lesson 1.
'Irregular' readings
In some cases, where a word that uses a kanji is important for a beginner, but the word uses an irregular reading of the kanji, or the word uses a reading you would not encounter as a beginner except in that particular word, we include the word in the kanji introduction. For example, when we present 人, we present the 'reading' ひとり (一人, one person). This is an irregular reading of 人, but an extremely common word, so it is best to learn this 'reading' by learning the word.
Example sentences
Each reading is introduced using one or more example sentences.
わたし  は  にほん人  です  。
わたし にほん人 です
わたし にほんじん です
I (topic marker) Japanese (person) is, am, are .
I am Japanese.
Each sentence is presented on either five or six lines: the Japanese, the Japanese separated into words, the reading of each word in hiragana, (in early lessons only) the reading in romaji, the English meaning of each word, and finally a natural English translation of the whole sentence.
Grammar points
Many readings are accompanied by 'grammar points' - short notes introducing critical grammatical constructions. Grammar points will often also include an example sentence.
X は Y です - X is Y
One of the most common patterns in Japanese is "X is Y". 「は」is the topic marker, placed immediately after the topic of the sentence.「です」is the ます (normal polite) form of the verb 'to be', so here it means 'is'.
すずき  さん  は  いい  人  です  。
すずき さん いい です
すずき さん いい ひと です
Suzuki (common surname) Mr, Mrs, Ms (topic marker) good person is, am, are .
Ms Suzuki is a nice person.
Drawing practice
Once you've read the lesson content, the next step is to practice drawing each kanji at least three times. Studies show that practicing writing kanji can increase your retention rate by four times compared to reading alone.
Select any kanji to begin, and just touch (if you're on a tablet or phone) or use your mouse to draw over the gray lines. Draw each stroke in sequence, beginning at the end with the number. The sequence may seem arbitrary at first, but it actually follows a few simple rules, and makes both drawing and remembering the kanji easier. If you want to see how the kanji is drawn, go back to the Slideshow and click 'Animate' next to the kanji.
Kanshudo will keep track of the strokes you draw, and when you reach the target the counter next to each kanji will be incremented. You need to get each of the five kanji to 3 to complete the exercise. Note: status is not stored, so complete the drawing exercise in one go! When you've completed a kanji, or if you make a mistake, just click the Clear button (or select the kanji again) to empty the display.
Learning games
Each lesson comes with five phenomenal learning games, which are both great fun and very effective at helping you retain the kanji and vocab. Play your favorites, and try to play them all!
Kanji Match
Drag each kanji over its corresponding meaning. Kanji shown are from the current lesson and all previous lessons. Match each kanji from the current lesson at least once to win.
Reading Match
Select the reading for the kanji or word surrounded by the gray square. Complete each sentence in the lesson to win.
Sentence Builder
Drag words in order to build the Japanese sentence matching the English provided. Complete each sentence in the lesson to win.
Word Match
Drag each word over its corresponding meaning. Match each word from the current lesson at least once to win.
Sentence Complete
Drag kanji into the blanks in the sentence. Complete each sentence in the current lesson to win.
Kanshudo provides a built-in flashcard system which works well on both mobile devices and full-sized screens. Kanshudo flashcards use the spaced repetition algorithm used in Anki. For more information on flashcards, read How to use spaced repetition flashcards to study Japanese . Flashcards are optional - they're not required to complete lessons. However, we highly recommend you create cards for each lesson and use them for study and practice.
Lesson status and completing a lesson
Lesson status is tracked automatically by the system. Each time you complete a slideshow, you earn 20%. The drawing practice earns you another 20%. You then earn a further 20% for the first three games you complete. Once you hit 100%, the lesson is completed. You can continue to play the games, and to use any other features of each lesson, even once it's completed.
4. Using the lessons effectively
Play the games!
Kanshudo's Beginner Lessons are designed to be fun and engaging. Many scientific studies have found that games help you learn faster - both by keeping up your motivation, and by introducing words and concepts to you in different ways. So play the games! Play them as often as you can. When you have a spare five minutes, play a game for a current or recent lesson.
Don't get discouraged
Learning a language takes time. If you are over 5 years old (!), you have probably already heard many times that it is much harder for adults to learn languages. In fact, this is misleading. As adults, we expect to be able to take on new challenges very quickly. As a child, it took you 10-15 years to master your native language! You can learn Japanese much faster than that if you are willing to work at it. So don't be discouraged if you feel you are not making progress. Steady progress is invisible at first, but gradually adds up to mastery!
Complete levels before moving on
As much as possible, try to complete a lesson before you move to the next. This will help you with motivation, since you will feel you are accomplishing something, but it will also help to ensure you master the concepts before moving on to the next topic.
Get help and support
If you are stuck, or need any help, reach out to us. Our goal is to help you learn Japanese as quickly and effectively as possible, and we will try to support you however we can.
5. Moving beyond the Beginner Lessons
Kanshudo is designed to help you master written Japanese and the kanji, and we have tools, lessons, games and many other benefits that can help you at all levels.
Plus, every activity on Kanshudo earns you Study Points , which count towards free Pro access! The Kanji Wheel and your personalized Kanji Mastery Score tracks your progress from the day you start using Kanshudo, and provides intelligent study recommendations.
Once you've completed the Beginner Lessons, it would be a great idea to refresh your memory by doing a Challenge for each of the kanji covered. The Kanshudo Challenge is the most effective way we have found for learning a specific kanji - to read more about Kanshudo Challenge, see our detailed how to guide.
Your next step will probably be to take our more advanced lesson series, the 53 Stages of the Kanshudo. You'll also want to take the Quiz regularly to check your progress. For more tips on putting in place an effective study program, read our step-by-step guide, How to master the kanji.
And of course you can use Kanshudo to search - start with Quick search, or if you are interested in specific results, use Kanji search, Word search or Example search. It would be a great idea to work steadily through our Grammar reference library.
Kanshudo is your AI Japanese tutor, and your constant companion on the road to mastery of the Japanese language. To get started learning Japanese, just follow the study recommendations on your Dashboard. You can use Quick search (accessible using the icon at the top of every page) to look up any Japanese word, kanji or grammar point, as well as to find anything on Kanshudo quickly. For an overview, take the tour.