Japanese Study Tips for JET Participants

Prepared for the Toronto JET Pre-Departure Orientation (June 2001)

Why Study Japanese?

It can’t be emphasized enough that your understanding of Japan and its culture will not be complete without an understanding of the Japanese language. The better you understand the language, the better you will be able to make sense of your experiences in Japan.

If that is too nebulous a reason for you to start hunkering down to study, the most practical reason is that it will make your life easier. You are about to go from being a highly educated member of Canadian society, to an illiterate member of Japanese society (unless you have already studied Japanese). This is a difficult transition, but it can be made easier by taking a few basic steps before you leave Canada:

  1. Learn hiragana and katakana which are the two basic writing systems. They are also known as syllabaries or “kana”. Knowledge of the kana will help you to understand the sound patterns in Japanese.
  2. Learn how to introduce yourself. This includes your name, nationality, where you come from in Canada, what your hobbies are, etc.
  3. Try out your new phrases on a Japanese person. You will probably notice that Japanese people are very patient with your attempts to speak their language. This should encourage you to keep going.
  4. If you have time to learn more, start with the numbers from 1 to 100, colours, days of the week, months of the year, basic verbs/nouns/adjectives, sentence structure, verb conjugation, etc.

How to Study Japanese

There are as many ways to study Japanese as there are people in the world. Everyone uses a different system, and none is better than the other. The trick is that you have to find a way of studying that matches your learning style. If you are a methodical learner, you should find a methodical way of studying. If you are a more holistic learner, then find a holistic approach. For example, if you like to do things in order, perhaps try studying from a textbook. On the other hand, if you are more concerned with communication than grammar, find a language partner and set up exchange conversation lessons.

Ask the JETs and other foreigners in your area to recommend language schools, classes, or teachers. If you are not in a city center, there may not be any formal classes. In this case, you will have to either find a teacher or study on your own. Here are some common approaches to studying Japanese.

Private Study

If you are an extremely disciplined student, you may be able to buy a textbook, slog your way through it, and come out fluent. In my experience, this is not usually the case. Private study can kill hours in between teaching English classes, but I don’t recommend this as your only form of studying. Supplement it with at least some advice from a Japanese person. Textbook Japanese sounds as funny as textbook English.

Advantages: you decide what you want to study, and at what pace, doesn’t cost anything (other than the price of the textbook)
Disadvantages: can’t be sure that you are learning the correct forms for your gender, situation, etc., hard to stay motivated, especially if you become busy with other things in life

Language Exchange

Many JETs find success with this approach. The basic idea is that you find a compatible Japanese person and swap language lessons. For example, you teach English for an hour and the Japanese person teaches Japanese for an hour.

Advantages: you decide what you want to study, and at what pace, doesn’t cost anything
Disadvantages: your classes will only be as good as your partner (so spend the time and find a good partner/teacher), classes can become too casual for real learning


If you are lucky, you will be able to find someone who can tutor you. I highly recommend paying this person since that reinforces the teacher/student relationship and it makes the teacher feel equally responsible for your success. One recommendation: you should choose the textbook and outline the style of teaching that suits you best. If you don’t set down the “rules” from the start, you may end up with a “repeat-after-me” kind of class. Another recommendation: strictly define the timeline of the classes (i.e. once a week, on Wednesdays, at 5pm, for 10 weeks). This will mean that you can re-assess your situation at the end of the 10 weeks and make any necessary changes (new textbook, new method, new tutor, etc.).

Advantages: keeps you on track and studying since you are the only student in the class
Disadvantages: costs some money, can become tedious if the tutor is not well-informed of your learning style

Regular Group Classes – Non-profit organizations

If you live in a city, you may find that there are regular classes held at a central location (city hall, international association, etc.). These classes are generally inexpensive and are run regularly for the benefit of newcomers.

Advantages: generally quite cheap, learning with other people can be fun and motivating
Disadvantages: can be hard to find the right level since everyone is different, sometimes the classes are not very serious

Regular Group Classes – Business

Same as above, but likely to be more expensive and proportionately more serious.

Cram Courses

There are several schools that run programmes over the school holidays (August, December-January, March-April) and during Golden Week (April-May). Popular places for JETs include Kyoto, Hokkaido, and Akita, but you should do some research before committing to any of them. The Japanese Language School Guide (http://jls-guide.com/english/index.html) is a good starting point. You can also find a list at Worldwide Classroom (www.worldwide.edu/ci/japan/index.html).

Advantages: short-term intensive programmes speed up your learning
Disadvantages: if you don’t reinforce what you learned once the programme is over, you will be right back at square one


Correspondence courses are offered by CLAIR (course designed for JETs, you will be sent the information), Kumon (http://www.kumon.ne.jp/jpn), JETRO (http://www.jetro.go.jp), and NHK (www.nhk.or.jp/index-e.html). They are all quite different, so you will have to look them up on the internet for details.

Advantages: generally not too expensive, good for keeping you motivated
Disadvantages: you have to be disciplined to keep up with the lessons, you must supplement the course with real interaction with Japanese people

Textbooks and Dictionaries

The number of Japanese language textbooks on the market has increased rapidly over the past few years. Some popular titles include Minna no Nihongo (or its more business-related cousin Shin Nihongo no Kiso), Japanese for Busy People, Japanese for Everyone, and a whole host of books that will help you learn hiragana, katakana, and kanji.

It’s probably best to wait until you get to Japan to buy any textbooks. The selection in Canada is quite limited, and the textbooks that you find here often use romaji (English letters) rather than kana. Once you get to Japan, you will have to make a trip to a large city with a bookstore that carries Japanese textbooks. There are three good locations in Tokyo:

If you can’t make it to a store, your best bet is to try the local international association or city hall. Often they have a small collection of textbooks in a library corner. Or ask local JETs and foreigners what books they use.

The thing to remember is that you can’t just buy (or order) any old textbook and hope that it does the trick. Language textbooks come in a variety of forms and it is best not to make any decisions until you have held the textbook in your hands and flipped through it a few times. Evaluate the book on the following criteria:

  • Level – Is the text at an appropriate level for you? Regardless of whether it is listed as beginner, intermediate, or advanced, does it suit you? Does it challenge you?
  • Language – Is the text mostly in Japanese or mostly in English? Is the Japanese written in romaji (bad) or kana (good)?
  • Tone – Is this text meant for adults, students, or children?
  • Layout – Do you care whether there are pictures? Colours? Lots of charts? No charts?
  • Organization – Does the text progress in a sensible fashion? Does the first chapter teach you what you want to learn right away, or do you have to wait until Chapter 15?
  • Target ability – Does the text focus on what you want to learn: conversation skills (speaking, listening) or more academic skills (writing, reading)?
  • Learning style – Does the text suit your learning style? Do you want it to focus on grammar? Vocabulary? Useful expressions?

It is important to remember that no text will be perfect, but you should try to find one that is as close as possible.

Once you have decided on a book, if you can’t get to a store, order the book through your local bookstore (a very common practice in Japan) or try Amazon in Japan at http://www.amazon.co.jp. The Amazon site is in Japanese only, so you will have to ask a Japanese friend to help you with it.


Once you get your Japanese up to a certain level, you may want to consider taking a test to prove that you are at that level. There are many tests, with many different criteria, so don’t rush in to the first one you hear about.

The Japanese Proficiency Test is held once a year, in December. If you miss that one, it can give you the feeling that you have missed the only opportunity to prove that you have, in fact, been studying during your time in Japan. However, there are a few other tests around to keep you on your toes the whole year round.

If this is your first time going to Japan and you have never studied Japanese, I would recommend studying for at least six months to one year before taking any tests. You have enough to worry about without having to cram Japanese sloppily into your head. Take your time and learn it right the first time around.

If you have been there for at least one year or if you studied Japanese seriously as a university-level course for at least one year, I would recommend Level 4 of the Japanese Proficiency Test, Level 10 of the Kanji Proficiency Test, or Level F of the J-TEST.

In my opinion, you shouldn’t set your sights to pass a test that you are not already almost ready to pass. Very few people actually have enough self-motivation to raise themselves up a level between the time they apply and the time they actually take the test. Try to think of the tests as a confirmation of what you already know, and not as a challenge to cram.

If you are Mr. or Ms. Mo Pera Pera, you might consider taking the Translation Test or the Interpreting Test. These tests are mainly for Japanese people, so they are probably the best tests to use as entries on your resume (if you are planning to pursue a career in translation or interpretation, that is).

If you would like to enter a Japanese university, you should climb the Japanese Proficiency Test ladder. If you would like to enter Japanese business, you should probably climb the JETRO Business Japanese Proficiency Test, JCAT or J-TEST ladder.

The Kanji Proficiency Test is a good way to give yourself small, achievable goals. The tests follow the same levels as Japanese schools (starting with the first grade of elementary school), so there are lots of level-appropriate textbooks, workbooks, readers, and dictionary to help you along the way. The same cannot be said for most of the other tests. Studying for the Kanji Test helps you learn not only kanji, but also vocabulary.

The Japanese Proficiency Test is still the most widely known and accepted test around. If you miss it this year, don’t wait until next November to start studying for the next one! There are also various speech, essay, and translation contests for foreigners throughout the year.

Nihongo Nouryoku Shiken (Japanese Proficiency Test)

Levels: 1-4 (1 is the highest)
Schedule: Offered once a year in December, applications are due in mid September
Cost: 500 yen for application form, 5000 yen to take test
Content: Kanji, Vocabulary, Listening, Reading Comprehension, Grammar
Contact: http://www.jees.or.jp/jlpt/en/ (in Japan) or http://momo.jpf.go.jp/jlpt/home.html (outside Japan)

Japanese Communication Ability Test (JCAT)

Schedule: Apply by mid-April or September, Tests in May and October
Cost: 4,200 yen
Content: Reading Test (75 min), Listening Test (45 min)
Contact: International Japanese Education Centre Tel: 03-3255-8123 Fax: 03-3255-8129 www.root.or.jp/ijec (web site in Japanese only)

JETRO Business Japanese Proficiency Test

Levels: 1 to 3 (1 is highest) + Oral Communication
Schedule: Apply by mid-April, Test in June
Content: Levels 1-3 = Listening and Reading Comprehension
Contact: www.jetro.go.jp/it/e/bj/test.html

JETRO Oral Communication Test (JOCT)

You must pass Level 1 of the Business Proficiency Test before you can take the JOCT.
Contact: www.jetro.go.jp/it/e/bj/test.html

Nihon Kanji Nouryoku Kentei (Kanji Proficiency Test)

Levels: 1-10 with 1 as the highest, 10 is elementary school 1st grade
Schedule: Offered three times a year
Cost: Level 1 = 6000 yen, Pre-Level-1 = 5000 yen, Level 2 = 4000 yen, Levels 3 to 7 = 2000 yen, Levels 8 to 10 = 1500 yen
Content: Reading, writing kanji, identifying radicals, etc.
Contact: Nihon Kanji Nouryoku Kentei Kyoukai 075-391-7110 www.kentei.co.jp (web site in Japanese only)
Notes: Your Board of Education may know of a school that is holding the test in your area

JTEST Nikken (Test of Practical Japanese)

Levels: A to F (A is highest, F is equivalent of Japanese Proficiency Test Level 4)
Schedule: Offered 4 times a year
Cost: Levels A-D = 1900 yen, Levels E-F = 1100 yen
Content: Listening Comprehension (45 min), Reading Comprehension (70 min)
Contact: J-TEST Niken Jimukyoku / Nihongo Kentei Kyoukai Tel: 03-3368-8106 Fax: 03-3368-8107 www.jtest.org/jtest

Nihongo Tsuuyakusha Shiken (Interpretation Test)

Levels: 1-2
Schedule: Offered twice a year
Cost: 4,400 yen (2,500 yen for people who have already taken and passed the A test [J-TEST])
Content: A = Information about the Japanese Language — J-TEST (Test of Practical Japanese), B = Information about Japan — history, social studies, culture, C = Translation
Contact: J-TEST Nikken Jimukyoku / Nihongo Kentei Kyoukai Tel: 03-3368-8106 Fax: 03-3368-8107 www.jtest.org/jtest
Notes: Includes J-TEST

Tsuuyaku Ginou Test (Tsuuken) (Interpreting Test)

Levels: Professional Levels 1-2 (1 is highest), Volunteer Levels A-B (A is highest)
Schedule: Twice a year
Cost: Level 1 = 14000 yen, Level 2 = 10000 yen, Level A = 5500 yen, Level B = 3500 yen
Content: Step 1 = Writing, Common Knowledge, Current Events, Step 2 = Interpret an English speech, writing test
Contact: Nihongo Seishounen Ikusei Kyoukai 03-3209-4741

General Tips

No matter what method you choose to study Japanese, there are some basic truths that will help you along the way.

  • Start with learning the syllabaries (hiragana and katakana, known as “kana”). Do not rely on romaji (Japanese written with the English alphabet) as it will only impair your future learning potential. Do not use textbooks that use only romaji.
  • Get a good Japanese-English dictionary. Resist the urge to buy a romaji dictionary (one where the Japanese words are written in English letters). Initially it is harder to use the kana dictionaries, but it will do you good in the long run to get used to seeing Japanese in Japanese. For this reason, it is probably better to purchase the dictionary in Japan.
  • Surround yourself with Japanese even when you are not studying. Watch TV, listen to the radio, buy Japanese CDs, make Japanese friends, do a homestay, keep a small notebook for writing down new words, learn a Japanese song for karaoke, take up a hobby as much for the language as for the craft (ikebana, tea ceremony, pottery, martial arts, cooking)
  • DO NOT spend all your time with other foreigners! This is a direct route to having sloppy Japanese and lazy study methods.
  • Don’t be so anxious to “communicate” that you skip out on learning grammar properly. Getting a good foundation in grammar is the best way to start.
  • Set yourself a time limit for learning hiragana, katakana or kanji. If you study properly every day, you should be able to master both syllabaries within two weeks. Then all you have to do is practise!
  • All languages have systematic patterns. If you look for the patterns in a language, rather than trying to memorize chunks of distinct expressions, you will increase your learning speed and flexibility.
  • Most of us only have a chance to practise foreign languages in a classroom. While you are in Japan, you have the opportunity to practise every single day. Don’t waste this opportunity. Swallow your pride and just start talking.
  • If you progress to the stage where you want to learn kanji (characters that represent sounds and meanings), look for a systematic study method. Buy or make flash cards. If you are serious about learning kanji, buy an electronic dictionary (Canon Wordtank, Sony Data Diskman). They are quite expensive, so be sure you have to drive to study before you go out and buy a flashy piece of equipment to clutter up your desk. Attend Japanese calligraphy classes to practise writing.

Final Note

There is no magic way to learn languages. It doesn’t matter whether you are in a city or a village, whether you have studied Japanese before or not. The basic truth is that you have to study in some way to improve. It is hard work, and it will get frustrating at times, but if you keep at it, you will improve.