Category Archives: Basic Japanese

How Japanese Is Just Like English

japanese-is-like-englishOne thing that intimidates people about Japanese is how different it is from English.

Yet many of the supposedly “complex rules” of Japanese work just like English.

A lot of things that are presented by the textbooks as if they were strange and complex rules in fact work very similarly to English and are much more easily understood once one realizes that.

Of course Japanese is not related to English, but since both are essentially dialects of Universal Grammar, there are many fundamental similarities.

Let’s look today at a point that sometimes puzzles people – because it is explained so unintuitively in the standard textbooks: Japanese absolute and relative time expressions.

To に or not to に

We are told (correctly) that Japanese generally uses the particle に when speaking of an event taking place at an absolute time (say, 3pm or Friday the 22nd) but omits it when speaking of an event taking place at a time relative to the present (say, this morning or last week or tomorrow).

The way it is expressed in standard descriptions it sounds as if we have a rather abstract rule to memorize, but in fact all we have to remember is that it works the same way as English. In English we use a preposition for absolute time expressions but not relative ones.

Let’s look at some examples:

nigatsu itsuka ni jagaimo wo tabeta
I ate potatoes on the fifth of February

Sanji ni jagaimo wo tabeta
I ate potatoes at three o’clock


Kesa jagaimo wo tabeta
I ate potatoes this morning

Ashita jagaimo wo taberu
I will eat potatoes tomorrow

You see, English leaves out the preposition (in, on or at) for all relative time expressions, just as Japanese leaves out に for all relative time expressions. It is just the same, except that Japanese is simpler because it always uses に, while English uses in, on or at depending on the particular time expression.

Now that really is an abstract rule that you just have to learn. If you speak Japanese and want to use English time expressions correctly it is a little complicated.

But if you speak English and want to use Japanese time expressions correctly, all you have to do is just what you do in English. Where you use a preposition in English use に in Japanese. Where you leave the preposition out in English, leave the に out in Japanese.

It is as simple as that. I wonder why it is often made to seem more complicated.


How Difficult is Japanese?

how-difficult-is-JapanesePeople sometimes ask things like “How difficult is Japanese really? Would I be better off learning French?”

Japanese is notoriously listed by the US State Department as one of the world’s most difficult languages, taking the longest number of study hours to learn. Are they right? How difficult is Japanese?

The truth is that Japanese is not an inherently difficult language.

Its grammar is logical and almost completely regular. French, like other Latin languages, has pages of irregular verbs. Japanese has just two irregular verbs plus a very small number of other minor irregularities.

The grammar, and to an extent the vocabulary, is modular in a way that European languages are mostly not. From basic rules you can build more complex sentences relatively easily. And sentences that look scary at first usually resolve down to combinations of the basic patterns you learned in the first few lessons.

A lot of the difficulty of Japanese grammar is artificial, and created by the illogical and confusing way the textbooks teach it. Unlocking Japanese can really clear away many of the obstacles to learning the language.


The pronunciation system is simple and easy to learn. A few things, like the R-sound are a bit hard for English speakers, but you can be understood without getting it exactly right (even just pronouncing it like an L), unlike many languages where subtle differences of consonantal sound can change the meaning of a word.

Inherently Japanese is not difficult. But it is not at all related to English or other European languages. So if your first language is English, learning French can be likened to learning to play badminton when you already play tennis. Learning Japanese is like learning Kendo with tennis as your “native sport”.

And then there are the kanji. No arguing them away. They are beautiful and fascinating and they make Japanese vocabulary make real sense in a way that other languages do not without a deep study of etymology.

But learning them is definitely a long job.

So, would you be better off learning French? If you are seriously asking that question, then the answer is definitely yes. What I mean is that if you just want to “learn a language” and French is as good for your purposes as Japanese, then absolutely. You will find French much easier, especially in the early stages.

But, and I say this from experience, the easiest language is the language you love.

Truly learning any language is a labor of love. It takes dedication and real immersion. If you want to learn to “get by” in a language, it isn’t that difficult. If you want to truly learn it, you have to live it, at least with part of your life. And that is a big, time-consuming commitment to any language, however “easy” it is.

I didn’t give that time to French, Spanish or German, because although they interested me I did not love them. I certainly had no reason or desire to give any significant part of my life to them.

Japanese is the language I love. I want to spend my life with it. I want to read books in it, play games in it, talk to friends in it. My ultimate dream is to create beautiful stories in it. When I try to speak other languages (and I live in a non-English-speaking country) Japanese comes out. Japanese is where my heart is.

So how difficult is Japanese? In many ways it is one of the easier languages I would say, but there are significant barriers to entry. It does take dedication, but then so does any language.

If you love Japanese and want to give a part of your life to it, you will find it far easier than an “easier” language that you don’t love. I know I do.

If you don’t love it, you may well be better off with French.

How difficult is Japanese? A surprising note on kanji

I am currently in Japan on  a “no English” immersion adventure. This article was written in advance so that I could avoid using English.

However, something came up that is very relevant to this article and is a point no one seems to have noticed in discussions of the question of how difficult Japanese is.

Even people who like kanji “admit” that they make the language harder to learn. In the sense of raising the barrier to entry they do… but

I was recently helping a Japanese person in Japanese with English vocabulary, and we were also discussing Japanese vocabulary, all from a Japanese perspective. And what I realized is how much harder it is to learn English vocabulary, because there are no kanji.

Once you have overcome the initial hurdle of kanji – and I by no means know all the Joyo kanji yet – new words start to make sense.

If someone says a sound to me and tells me it means such-a-thing, I find it very hard to associate the sound with the meaning by brute force. People with very audial minds of a certain kind (mine is in some ways audial) may do better.

In the last day or two, for example, I have been told, just in the course of life, the words 保護色 hogoshoku, (animal) camouflage and 転回 tenkai, revolution. I had actually been wanting the word for animal camouflage recently as it happened. Attaching these meanings to the sounds would be a difficult task for me and would likely involve putting them in Anki and eventually getting to know them.

However, because of kanji, they were really very easy. The minute I heard 保護色 hogoshoku I knew what the kanji must be from other words – there was no need to look them up –  and it made perfect sense. Instead of “ah, so this random noise means this” I thought “Ah of course, so that’s how you say ‘(animal) camouflage’. That makes sense. I’ll know that now”. For 転回 tenkai, because it was on the fly, I actually made  a couple of brute-force audio-learning attempts (“what was that word for revolution again?”) Then I looked it up on my tablet, realized what the kanji were and had no further trouble. No need for Anki.

When considering the question “How difficult is Japanese?” One is apt to find it hard to dispute the State Department figures. After all, they are in the business of training people to speak languages, so they presumably know how many hours it takes to teach one language rather than another – so one might think.

But there is more to it than that. The State Department’s approach is highly functional, I would imagine. Their job is to get people functioning in a language in the sphere they need it in as fast as possible. A kind of up-market “fluent in three months” approach.

This will tend (as to a lesser, but still marked, extent does a University language course) to produce “run before you walk Japanese”. People who can’t do up their shoelaces in Japanese but can discuss the Economic Situation (or whatever they have been trained to do).

A 16-year-old native Japanese speaker has learned what amounts to an average of 6 words every day of her life. For really learning Japanese, rather than learning about it, or how to “function” in it, one needs a lot of vocabulary.

Kanji make the early stages more challenging, but if you are going all the way (as most State Department trainees, I imagine, are not), In the long run kanji is a wonderful investment that makes Japanese much easier.

Also, current methods of teaching Japanese grammar – including presumably those used by the State Department, make it much harder than it needs to be. This is because they teach Japanese by methods that were developed for teaching European languages, that just don’t fit the simpler and more logical structure of Japanese.

All this is explained in Unlocking Japanese, where you can learn in an evening the secrets that will allow you to understand Japanese Grammar from a Japanese perspective, rather than a European perspective which makes the language seem much more confusing than it really is and presents all kinds of grammatical rules and exceptions that you “just have to learn”.

In fact, once you know how the language really works you see that there are very few exceptions and that multiple “rules” and “things you just need to learn” boil down to a few simple and logical principles.


Note to sharp-eyed readers. Yes I did notice that the book on this page’s illustration is about the psychology of love, not about the Japanese language, but as you see, it is relevant to my theme!


Basic Japanese Grammar: How to learn it

basic Japanese Grammar
You learned basic Japanese Grammar without a teacher?

Basic Japanese Grammar is the key to learning Japanese online or anywhere else.

If you are learning Japanese online, we recommend immersion tactics like the Japanese-Subtitled Anime Method. Learning basic Japanese grammar and vocabulary won’t teach you the language. It will only teach you about the language.

To learn Japanese online (or anywhere) you need to use it, both passively and actively. Children don’t learn grammar by theory in their own language. They learn naturally and organically.

Can you do this? Yes. But you shouldn’t.

Why? Isn’t it the best way? Yes it is. But you still shouldn’t.

Why not? Because it takes thousands of hours and true immersion. That is why pseudo-immersion methods like Rosetta Stone don’t work.

People imagine that small children learn language quickly. They don’t. Think of how long they are “studying”. Almost every waking hour for years before they become “fluent”.

Also, small children have the massive advantage of not already knowing another language. You need something to make up for this. And since you have the disadvantage of knowing another language, you should leverage its (lesser) compensating advantages. The main, and only significant, one of those is your ability to learn grammar.

Grammar is a quick and dirty shortcut. But you should use it. It is going to help you enormously when you start to actually learn Japanese online by immersion methods.

How to Learn Basic Japanese Grammar Online

Assuming you are not in a class, how do you learn basic Japanese grammar, and what do you need to learn? Let’s walk you through how we did it:

1. Get a guide to basic Japanese grammar. This can be one of the standard textbooks  I would say the best are Genki 1 and 2. If you don’t have money to spend, you can use Tae Kim’s Japanese Grammar Guide; it’s free and very good.

2: Get the Inside Secrets! Official grammars are necessary, but in some areas they set you on the wrong path and make grammar seem much harder than it really is. I strongly recommend getting Unlocking Japanese, which does just what the title says! Yes, it’s our book, but it came out of seeing how seriously misled most students get by some aspects of official grammar and what problems that creates later on. It’s only a small book and quite cheap, but it will really make Japanese far easier to understand. Take a look at it now!


3. Get the Cheat Sheet! Download the Nihonshock basic Japanese grammar cheat sheet. It’s free (unlike the other Nihonshock products) and it is a work of genius. Get it, print it, laminate it and keep it with you at all times. It gives you the whole of basic Japanese grammar in one two-sided sheet (plus kana and basic kanji). At first it won’t all make sense, but as you learn grammar you can use it as a quick-check reference and brush-up learning tool all the time.

4. What about exercises? Textbooks have a lot of drill exercises. If they suit you you can use them. I didn’t (I never went to school and don’t understand exercises). Also you don’t have anyone to correct them. But you might need to drill some grammar points, notably verb and adjective conjugations. The Japan Times has a barebones but really excellent system of random quizzes on everything that really needs drilling. We don’t recommend a lot of time on drills. You should plunge into Japanese subtitled anime from pretty early. But you do need to get those conjugations firm and the Japan Times quizzes will cover that.

Note that on some browsers you may need to change the character encoding to Shift-JIS in order to see the quiz text. If you don’t like the technical stuff just use Firefox which handles it automatically and is the best Browser for serious Japanese learners anyway, because of Rikaisama.

Also, read and re-read Unlocking Japanese, it is short but it will leave you knowing how things like Japanese particles, adjectives and tenses really work. Actually understanding in depth the is far better for your memory than brute-force drill-learning. And for some reason the textbooks never tell you these things.

But remember: What is going to make Japanese grammar stick in your long-term memory and become instinctive is not artificial exercises, but real encounters and use of it in anime, books conversation etc.

3. At what stage can I start learning Japanese, not just learning about it?

How dedicated are you? I started the anime method around the end of Genki 1. Did I have enough grammar by then? No. Not to understand everything, but enough to just barely manage. I watched Karigraushi no Arietty and it took hours. But I really loved it. I was moved to tears by Japanese words for the first time.

Let’s be frank. The anime method is not easy in the early days and you have to be pretty dedicated to use it, even if you leave it a bit longer. Any method of learning Japanese is tough unless you are prepared to learn at a snail’s pace and only know about Japanese at the end of it. If you want to do immersion you have to be ready to ganbaru.

Look, I’m a Precure/Ninja. Just tell me the mission. How much do I need to know?

OK, hero (and I mean hero). You need to know:

(Preferably some basic kanji)

The basic particles: wa, ga, wo, ni, he, to, de, mo, ka, no
Plain present
Plain past (-ta form)
Plain negative
Plain past negative
-te form
Masu form
Adjectives present, past, negative, past negative

All this is on your cheat sheet (you do have it printed and laminated, hero?) You won’t learn it from there but it will be your friend and companion once you have learned it. Keep Unlocking Japanese by your side too. It will help you to know what is really going on in the sentences you hear.

With this and some vocabulary and a huge machete (in the form of Jisho and a willingness to research phrases you don’t understand) you can start slogging through some simple subtitled anime. You will have to let some things go.

You can also wait till you know everything on the cheat sheet. I didn’t. Whether you do or not you should be continuing to learn basic grammar. You need the other conjugations (you can probably manage without causative-passive. By the time it becomes an issue it will be logically obvious anyway) and the other things in the basic Japanese grammar texts.

You may be starting to learn a lot of this ad hoc by watching and looking things up. I found that by the time I got to Genki 2, as I came to each lesson I already knew more of it than I didn’t. I was mostly using it as a grammar checklist.

Are you having problems? Need help? Any questions? Did I miss anything? Use the comment form below.

More on Japanese Grammar→


I and Na Adjectives: What the textbooks don’t tell you

Enpitsu ga akai. The pencil is red and it writes its own “is”

Like most of Japanese grammar, i and na-adjectives are simple, logical and beautiful. As far as I have seen (and I don’t claim to have seen everything) introductions to grammar do not explain them very clearly.

In a way I can see why. Their aim is to “cut to the chase” and tell you how to use them in practice. The trouble is, to my way of thinking, that this cutting-to-the-chase leaves the impression of a bundle of random quirky “facts” that you have to learn, rather than a complete, clear and beautiful system.

This in turn makes it harder to learn to use them correctly by instinct.

So let me tell you what I think everyone should know from day one of using i and na adjectives (but please use this in conjunction with a conventional explanation of their actual use if you aren’t familiar with it).

1. Na adjectives are essentially nouns. They work like nouns. That is why they need “na” (I’ll explain that bit in a moment).

2. I adjectives are close cousins of verbs. They conjugate like verbs. Na adjectives don’t because nouns don’t conjugate.

3. The “is” function is built into i adjectives. Kirei (na adjective) means “pretty” (or “prettiness”). But utsukushii (i adjective) does not mean “beautiful”, it means “is beautiful”. I put this in red because it is so important.

Now something happens from lesson one that tends to throw this important point into confusion. We learn:

Hana ga kirei desu (“the flower is pretty”: na-adj)

Hana ga akai desu (“the flower is red”: i-adj)

So don’t the two kinds of adjective work identically? Don’t they both require desu?

No, they don’t. The desu on kirei is grammatically necessary. The desu on akai is only used to make the sentence desu/masu polite level. It serves no grammatical function.

That is why, in plain form, we say:

Hana ga kirei da

Hana ga akai

Hana ga akai is the grammatically complete and proper way to say it. Hana ga kirei needs da.

And now that you know this, you are ready for the next important fact.

4. Na is a form of da. “So that is why na adjectives need na! Why didn’t anyone mention that?” You exclaim. So did I.

Connecting two i or na-adjectives

So, when you connect two verb-like i-adjectives, what do you do? You do just what you do when you connect verbs to something. You put them into te-form.

chiisakute kawaii = “is small and cute” (note that converting the final い i to く ku is the “glue” that holds conjugations onto i-adjectives).

And what do you do with na adjectives? Exactly the same thing.

But you can’t conjugate nouns or noun-like adjectives. No. And that is why na adjectives need na/da/desu. And that does conjugate to te-form.

The te-form of da/desu is de. So:

Kirei de yuumei da “is pretty and famous”.

I think I spent about a month wondering why the de particle was used in such an unpredictable way here. Of course, this de is not the de particle. It is the te-form of that same na/da/desu that always has to appear after a na-adjective.

As you see, the process is identical. chiisai means “is small”. To make kirei mean “is pretty” (rather than just “pretty”, or really something closer to “prettiness”) you have to add na/da. Both are then put into te-form:

chiisai chiisakute

kirei na kirei de.

Naturally you can join an i-adjective to a na-adjective, or a naadjective to an i-adjective, just so long as you use the appropriate te-form as the connector for the first one.

These are the things I wish I had known right from the start, so I am giving them to you. I hope they make this aspect of Japanese feel clearer, easier and more kirei for you just as they did for me.

One last point that can cause a little confusion. You will sometimes see the words ookii (big) and chiisai (small) used with the final i replaced by na. These are the only two adjectives that are commonly used as both i and na adjectives (though occasionally others can be too). The effect of the na-form is to make them feel a little more childlike and story-bookish. As in the children’s song Ookina kuri no ki no shita de “Under the big chestnut tree”.

Upside-down Japanese: How the textbooks teach you wrongly→

This article comes from Unlocking Japanese, if you would like to learn how not only adjectives but most of Japanese is far easier clearer and more logical than the textbooks ever tell you, get your copy now!