Learn Japanese

Is Japanese hard to learn? Yes and no!

One question that I’m asked all the time is whether Japanese is a difficult language to learn. My instinctual answer would be to say that it’s easy, but I’m 11+ years invested in the language already. Well I would say that wouldn’t I? 😀 However, I do truly believe that anyone can learn Japanese with a little time and effort.

Speaking Japanese is easier than you might think

Unlike say, Chinese or Thai, Japanese has no tones. The great thing about Japanese is that you can immediately use a new word and everyone will understand you. Try that with Chinese or even Korean!

In fact, Japanese is such a sound poor language that can be challenging for Japanese people to listen to and understand foreign languages. There’s just a lot less there in terms of sounds and that makes your job easier.

Learning to speak conversational Japanese is actually comparable to any other language. The vocabulary used between friends and family is rather limited. Basic grammar is easy once you get the hang of its inherent differentness. If you put in the effort on a daily basis, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be conversational in a matter of months of living in Japan.

Another easy aspect of Japanese is the shyness of the locals with regards to English. In my experience, Japanese people are embarrassed to use English so your efforts to learn the language will be warmly welcomed (unlike the Germans in Germany who always want to speak English!).

How long did it take me to learn Japanese?

In my case, it took about 6 months to reach a decent level of spoken Japanese. My approach was extremely simple. I bought a ton of language courses and Japanese textbooks as well as socialising with Japanese people wherever I met them. No boring language classes! The results naturally followed and it was an extremely fun process. Definitely one of the best periods of my life so far. Of course, I was still making tons of mistakes but I was usually understood.

Reading and writing are a very different beast

While I maintain that learning to speak Japanese is straightforward, reading is pretty difficult. Very difficult, even. To read Japanese, you must master 1000s of Chinese characters (known as the kanji). Further, and to make matters worse, there are multiple ways to pronounce any given kanji so it’s a long old road to literacy. It’s not my intention to scare you away here. Again, if you commit to studying the written language and put the necessary time in then you will make significant progress.

But I won’t sugarcoat it. It will you take a lot of time and effort to become literate. To paraphrase Barry Farber, when it comes to Japanese you should make speaking your hare and reading your tortoise.

Business Japanese is a distinct language of its own

Business Japanese is a hard slog











Now let’s assume that you can converse with and text your Japanese friends with ease. You’ve even learned enough kanji to the extent where you’re able to read some pretty tricky texts too. So have you made it? Not just yet!

If you plan on ever working in the Japanese business world then there’s still a long way to go. You can be very functional in casual Japanese and yet useless in a business context. Go listen in on a business meeting in Japanese and feel your confidence drain away into nothing.

I think it’s not exaggerating to state that business Japanese is a distinct language of its own. It bears little resemblance to what’s commonly spoken in the bars or at home. This is of course down to politeness and technical terms to some extent, but many words are actually completely different.

When Japanese university students graduate and start their first proper jobs in the real world, they have to study business Japanese. That is, how to speak on the phone with customers, write business emails and so on.

Back when I was working for a Japanese IT company, I still remember observing a young coworker’s first week on the job. He got constantly chewed out by his older sempai for his choice of wording on the phone. On Monday he was fresh and keen. By Friday, the poor kid was almost in tears! This strict treatment continued for months until he apparently reached a level of eloquence deemed acceptable. It’s amazing to me that almost 2 decades in school doesn’t prepare Japanese students for the business world, but I suppose the state of modern education in Asia is another post for another day.

For foreigners, mistakes will be tolerated and indeed expected. However, understanding what’s going on around you will be vital to your job success in Japan. If you are at the stage of considering a career in Japan, I recommend looking into the Business Japanese Proficiency Test (BJPT). Certification is highly prized by Japanese employers so make sure you have some evidence of your language proficiency.


After some consideration, I would say that Japanese is an easy language to start out in. Conversation comes quickly if you study enough and put yourself out there. However, reaching an advanced level in Japanese is a difficult mission. It’s certainly not mission impossible but it will require some serious dedication and a long process. Perhaps all languages are that way to some extent, but Japanese is deep. Despite now working as a freelance Japanese translator, I still learn something new every day. On that note, I wish you the best of luck with your studies!

What were your experiences of learning Japanese? Did you find it easy or otherwise? Let me know in the comments below!

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Yang January 11, 2017 at 6:06 pm

For me Japanese was not too hard. But I am a Chinese/English bilingual so maybe it was easier for me. ^^

Roman June 25, 2017 at 6:33 pm

I really like this “yes and no” answer. When someone says that Japanese is easy to encourage others to start studying it, I feel a little bit down because of my 1.5 year invested in the language. On the other hand, it’s definitely not true that Japanese is incredibly hard. Maybe some people have easier time with foreign languages than me, but I consider every foreign language a challenge, but not an impossible one.
Japanese in particular has simple pronunciation, very logical although unusual for a Indo-European language native grammar and a very tricky writing system. Also, the closer the language you study is to the language or languages you are proficient in, the faster you’ll learn all the necessary vocabulary. To sum it up, Japanese is not incredibly difficult but challenging enough and most certainly takes very very long to study.

Ariki November 29, 2017 at 4:43 pm

This post is funny, sincere and accurate, but also slightly deceiving. Japanese grammar is easy and, if you get into, kind of structured. At first. Then, being the Japanese an empathic language, it gets insane cause it tend to communicate not only the message but also the feelings with which it is expressed. Luckily most of the advanced pattern are very rarely used in the everyday. Kanji are, in my opinion the easiest part. They have reading (ON and KUN) and rules – that as every language have a tons of exceptions. Nevertheless Japanese is a very complicated language for the reason you implicitly stated: Japanese has 3/4 (if you are a woman 5/6) diversified registers that are, in the worst cases, totally different among them. True the “survival” level can be mastered in no time and Japanese people gap in English will grant you abundance of chances to use the language but the people, for the basically different idea of social relations/ socialization, will be rarely really “parenting” you through the language learning process (something that happens very easily in China, USA, Italy..), ergo you will be likely doing thousands of times the SAME identical conversations with different people, learning not very much. I said parenting because that is considered one of the 5 essential “tool” to master a language quickly by Chris Lonsdale. What I consider very hard in Japanese is the use of the vocabulary, in the sense that is not as difficult to understand and remember some expression as much as it is to properly use it. Once a Japanese professor pointed at her head and said to me and my classmates “is not difficult to talk like a Japanese.. but we consider almost impossible for a foreigner to THINK like one.”

François January 29, 2018 at 1:29 pm

I wholeheartedly agree with this post.

Some additions from personal experience:
Daily Japanese uses only limited vocabulary, so it’s indeed not so difficult to get to conversational level. I would even say daily Japanese is quite poor in word diversity & depth.

But business settings, books, even manga (if you dig out of Jump publications) will use a very, very much more extended vocabulary that, as pointed by the author here, means daily new words popping out even after 14 years of study & daily use in my case (living in Japan, Japanese wife & job in a Japanese company).
Latest examples: 頓服、垣間見る、朗報、おぞい、強靭、水嵩、謗る・・・ definitely not daily words, but nothing so extravagant either that I wouldn’t cross the equivalent in English or French every now & then. (i.e. wouldn’t take 14 years)

Another point: After a while, learning kanji help grow your vocabulary immensely. It’s an advantage over alphabet: when you see a word you don’t know, but know the kanji of, you might immediately understand the meaning (with more or less accuracy). Works with Chinese, too.
Example: I could kind of guess the meaning of the above 朗報 and 強靭 also I had never seen those words before, because I know the kanji they’re made from.


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