Collin's Guide to Japanese Self-Study

Materials and Methods Summary

This file is a summary reference of particular materials, methods and exercises that I use to execute the strategies explained in my self-study guide. It will also cover suggestions made by other people, so if you have some, please send them to me at:
cmmcculley AT charter DOT net

This file will also cover intermediate level exercises not covered in the self-study guide.



Available from Houghton Mifflin.

  • Nakama 1
    Seiichi Makino, Yukiko Abe Hatasa, Kazumi Hatasa
    Houghton Mifflin, 1998
    ISBN 0-669-27583-2
  • Nakama 1 Workbook/Laboratory Manual
    Seiichi Makino, Yukiko Abe Hatasa, Kazumi Hatasa
    Houghton Mifflin, 1998
    ISBN 0-669-27585-9
  • Nakama 2 Seiichi Makino, Yukiko Abe Hatasa, Kazumi Hatasa
    Houghton Mifflin, 2000
    ISBN 0-669-28504-8
  • Nakama 2 Workbook/Laboratory Manual
    Seiichi Makino, Yukiko Abe Hatasa, Kazumi Hatasa
    Houghton Mifflin, 2000
    ISBN 0-669-28507-2
Nakama is really geared more to classroom study than to self-study, but is comprehensive whereas most self-study targeted books are not.

I allow 2 weeks per chapter. In practice I have gotten way behind on textbook work, but that's life.

Alternate Texts

In addition to Nakama, I use a book called "Colloquial Japanese" which progresses through a number of different lessons demonstrating sentence structures. The lessons are basically a set of example sentences and substitution and translation drill exercises. I'm using it just to pound in more good models. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it above other books you could get, but it is not a bad idea to have some variety in your textbook work. You could substitute a self-study book like "Japanese for Busy People".

Speaking and Listening Practice


First, make sure you have a good handle on Japanese pronunciation, and romanzation conventions that correspond to particular aspects of Japanese pronunciation. I will be working on a pronunciation guide in the near future.

Tape Programs

Pimsleur tape program (details soon).

Online Audio

In addition to announcer-based programs, try to find programs that feature a conversational exchange, so you can listen to how two or more people interact. Find programs with both male and female speakers.


  • Windows Media Player 7 has been the easiest source to use to locate Japanese talk radio programs, which often have conversive environments. Click to the radio tab, and search by language. You can sort by format and look for "News Radio" and "Talk Radio". I tend to listen to TBS, MBS, and Yomiuri News Stream most often.
  • Yomiuri News Stream
    This is Yomiuri's own site. You can also listen using Real Player.
  • FNN Headlines
    Most of these stories have the full text included, though for a beginner it might be premature to bother with trying to work through a large written passage.
  • Radio Japan


  • Listen even if you do not yet understand anything. Try to tune your ear to naturally spoken Japanese, pick out individual words and phrases, see if you can hear grammatical elements even though you don't know the content.
  • Keep JWPce or another dictionary capable program open as you listen and try to look up words you think you have identified just to see how successfully you are hearing words.
  • Intermediate. Capture streaming audio using a recording program such as Acoustica from AconAS. (You will have to have a sound card that allows recording whatever is going to the speakers). Transcribe all or portions of the recording, and then translate the transcription. Use your transcription to practice speaking, first alone, to get used to saying each sentence, then with the recording to match the native speed, rhythms, and intonation. You may have to break up the audio into pieces, or else use an audio program to play selected portions.



JFC Flashcard Program & JWPce Editor Program
Available at Glenn Rosenthal's page.

Japanese Learning Database and Vocabulary List
Right-click these links and "Save as".

Building a list

I recommend you build your own list adding words as you learn them. I have done a lot of work on my list figuring out the most common written forms, getting good glosses, matching glosses to parts of speech, and adding pitch accents. You can use my list as a cross reference to avoid having to repeat this work for your own list.

  • Add only words you have run across in "real life", that is, from your learning materials, from listening to audio sources, from reading the newsgroups, etc.
  • Place new words you don't know well on a separate list and drill them with JFC.
  • Use your "new words" list to do sentence exercises.

Drilling in JFC

  • The first (and maybe second) time you drill a new set of words, don't mark any wrong. Just show and study each word.
  • As you study a word (even on review), don't just match it to the English in your mind. Use the English gloss to bring up mental pictures of what the word represents -- as detailed as you can think of, and if possible an actual situation you find memorable -- and then apply the word in your mind to that object or situation.
    Example: For "urusai" (noisy, bothersome) you might think of yourself in an apartment with noisy neighbors. Picture yourself calling them "urusai", or associate the neighbors with the word "urusai" in your mind.
  • Say every word out loud, paying attention to vowel length, devoiced vowels, balancing stress on syllables, and correct pitch contour.
  • Simply reading does not promote permanent memory, so do not quickly reveal an answer you can't immediately get. Can you remember any part of it? What was the first syllable or sound? How many syllables did it have? What did it sound like approximately? Each time you dredge an almost-forgotten word from the depths of your memory, you forge a new connection to it that makes it easier to remember next time.
  • As each word comes up in drilling, think about how you might use it. Can you easily think of a sentence (even in English) that the word's meaning and nuance might correctly fit into? If not, pause your drilling and look up example sentences. Doing so not only helps you learn to use the word, it helps you remember it. See below for some ideas on where to find examples.
  • For new words, set JFC to show you all three types of vocabulary cards. For review words, generate only kanji and meaning cards, so you are always guessing the reading. This also cuts down the total number of cards for a speedier review drill.
  • Drill words, either new or review, in sets of 30 to 50. This will generate from 60-100 cards for review words and from 90-150 for new words. Set JFC to duplicate missed cards in the stack every 20 cards or so. This should provide sufficient review without growing the stack too fast (depending on how many you miss, of course). If you find yourself with too many cards and repeating words you think you've got, bail out and start over.
  • You can create review sets from your main word list using my JFC_Sifter utility. If you work a review set every day, and work your current "new" set for a week, you can maintain your current vocabulary and expand it by 30-50 words per week. That's up to 2600 words per year. As you internalize more and more Japanese grammar and vocabulary, your capacity to learn and retain new words will also grow.
  • As a beginner, never mark kanji cards wrong if you cannot guess the reading from the kanji, but do try to remember the reading from the kanji before revealing it. Only mark the card wrong if, after revealing the reading, you cannot guess the meaning. As you become more advanced, begin marking kanji cards wrong if you cannot remember the reading.

Vocabulary in Action

  • Maintain an internal monologue using Japanese as you go about your daily routine whenever you're doing something you don't need to concentrate on.
  • Try to describe the world surrounding you. What objects can you name? As you perform (or see performed) various actions, do you know verbs for them? What adjectives describe the things, people and situations around you?
  • As you progress, begin trying to construct grammatical sentences in your mind describing or commenting on the things you see and do.

Sources of Usage Examples

Glosses almost never give you a complete idea of how a word actually fits into the language. Always use example sentences to learn word usage and nuances. Here's how to go about finding them.

  • Learner's dictionary
    The very purpose of a learner's dictionary is to provide examples of how words are used. I use:
    Basic Japanese-English Dictionary
    The Japan Foundation, 1986
    ISBN 0-19-864328-4
  • Reverse lookup in an English-Japanese Dictionary
    A good E-J dictionary enumerates the meanings of an English word paying attention to nuances, and then matches corresponding Japanese words to those meanings and nuances, demonstrating them by examples. Often these will include examples of incorrect usages to avoid. There will be an index in the back that lets you start with a Japanese word and find all the English entries that correspond to it. The one I use is:
    Kodansha's Basic English-Japanese Dictionary
    Seiichi Makino, Seiichi Nakada, Mieko Ohso
    Kodansha International, Ltd., 1999 ISBN 4-7700-2628-5
  • WWWJDIC examples
    Jim Breen has recently added a set of more than 100,000 example sentences that can be cross-referenced from lookup results in WWWJDIC (click on the [EX] link when it appears next to a word). While this is an imperfect set (there are many duplications, mistakes, mistranslations, etc. which will take some time to correct), this is a very valuable resource. Often more than a dozen sentences will be returned, which, when read as a group, can clarify the usage of a word in your mind.
  • Google Language Tools
    Switch the language to find to "Japanese", and enter the word (its normal written Japanese form using the IME or by cut and paste from JWPce) into the search field. This will generally return a good number of real-life examples of the word in everyday usage. You can fall back on the dictionary capabilities of a program like JWPce, or machine translation such as Excite to help you make sense of what you find.
  • Kokugo jiten
    Harder to use for a beginner, but a kokugo jiten is essential to an intermediate student. The definition in Japanese lays out the meaning and nuances in black and white, and will often include examples. The Sanseido kokugo jiten (also including J-E and E-J dictionaries) is a valuable online resource.
  • Kenkyuusha J-E
    Kenkyusha's New Japanese-English Dictionary, 4e
    Koh Masuda, Editor in Chief
    Kenkyusha, 1974
    ISBN 4-7674-2025-3
    The Green Goddess often has a number of examples of usage for each entry, and in particular common phrases using a word. There are no furigana, however, so it may require some manual kanji lookups. Also, some of its usage may be slightly out of date.

Reading and Writing

Learning Kana

  • DO NOT delay learning kana once you start Japanese. Taking full advantage of learning materials depends on it.
  • The typical learning order is hiragana then katakana.
  • Buy or create flash cards and drill recognition.
  • Get a good workbook and learn to write them.
    One such is the first volume of A Guide to Writing Kanji and Kana by Hadamitzky & Spahn (ISBN 0-8048-1685-9).
  • Make your own box paper (or buy coarse-grid graph paper) and write each character many times.
  • As you write or drill kana, say the pronunciation of the character to reinforce it.
  • When ready, put your sources away and write the entire set of hiragana or katakana in gojuuon order. This will give you a very good idea of which ones you don't know well enough yet.
  • If possible, find someone knowledgeable to critique your writing.
  • Find a Macintosh and use "Kana Lab", available from the main Japanese page.

Learning Kanji

  • Software. I have written and continue to develop a drill program for kanji called KanjiLab.
    Another choice is Kanji Gold.
  • Work on writing. As with kana, kanji will only really be cemented in your mind as you learn to write them, because only in this activity will you have an internalized picture of what strokes are where in each one.
    1. Learn writing in the context of reading. The Bojinsha series is ideal:
      • Basic Kanji Book, Volume 1
        Bojinsha Co., Ltd.
        ISBN 4-89358-091-4
      • Basic Kanji Book, Volume 2 Bojinsha Co., Ltd.
        ISBN 4-89358-119-8
      • Intermediate Kanji Book, Volume 1 Bojinsha Co., Ltd.
        ISBN 4-89358-356-5
      In this series, kanji are learned in the context of vocabulary and grammatical sentences, which is the most effective way to retain them and learn to read Japanese, as opposed to just knowing a bunch of unrelated kanji. One problem with the Bojinsha is they don't clearly indicate strokes direction (i.e. where does the pen start from) so if you aren't comfortable with stroke rules, have another reference on hand. Another minor difficulty is that there is no answer key, so you may need to check other sources to make sure that you have answered the exercises correctly.
    2. Writing workbooks.
      • A Guide to Writing Kanji and Kana, Book 1
        Wolfgang Hadamitzky and Mark Spahn
        Tuttle Language Library, 1991
        ISBN 0-8048-1685-9
      • A Guide to Writing Kanji and Kana, Book 2
        Wolfgang Hadamitzky and Mark Spahn
        Tuttle Language Library, 1991
        ISBN 0-8048-1686-7
      These books present kanji with word examples in a self-consistent order (i.e. only using kanji you have learned so far), provide meanings, readings, stroke order diagrams (including stroke direction), a few examples to trace over, and space to practice writing. In practical terms you could gather what you needed from other sources, create your own practice paper, and skip these books, but I find them useful to have around.
  • Learn while drilling vocabulary
    Let JFC generate all three kinds of flashcards for the words on your list in your normal vocabulary drilling (you may want to omit kana cards in review drilling). When you run up against a kanji flashcard, try to guess it. If you can't, reveal the kana. As a beginner, only mark it wrong if you can't get the meaning from the kana, but always study the kanji before moving on and try to match the kanji to the word in your mind. Use the "get info" feature in JFC to look at the meanings and readings of each kanji. Notice if the compound is using "on" or "kun" readings. Say the reading of the compound while associating in your mind which part of the reading belongs to each kanji. When you feel your studies have progressed enough, begin marking kanji cards wrong when you can't get the reading.

Kanji Reference Materials

Once you start up on kanji, I'd recommend having handy:

The Kodansha Kanji Learner's Dictionary
Jack Halpern
Kodansha International, 1999
ISBN 4-7700-2335-9

Even for a beginner, unknown kanji are pretty easy to find in it because it is arranged by SKIP code, which it teaches you how to use.

There are other learners references, some of which are more complete. I will list some soon.

Verbs and Adjectives

The first hurdle in learning Japanese verb conjugations is just getting the mechanical rules under your belt to produce the conjugations, and knowing roughly what each verb form means and how it is used. The method that worked best for me in this regard is that presented in:

Japanese Verbs and Essentials of Grammar
Rita L. Lampkin
Passport Books, 1995
ISBN 0-8442-8406-8

This book is now out of print, however.

I have written up a form of this method and have including these and other verb inflections and constructions on my Verb Notes pages.

I have also written an inflection program for conjugation and reverse conjugation of Japanese verbs and adjecives called J_Inflect.

Verb and Adjective Conjugation Flashcards

  • Create a set of flashcards for verb forms. This can also be done for adjectives, though you will find adjectives to be far more straightforward. On one side put the name of the inflection case (if there is one), an indication of the politeness level, whether it is affirmative or negative, and a stand-in translation (such as "probably did not [do]"). If you want to simplify, you really only need the stand-in translation and politeness level indication. On the other side put the rules for its production. You can use something similar to what I have in my Verb Notes for that purpose. You may also wish to include a few examples.
  • Create a list of verbs (drawn from your vocabulary list).
  • Go down the list one verb at a time, deal out a random card and perform the requisite conjugation (only if the verb would make sense in that form, otherwise choose a different verb).
  • Next, try to think of some simple sentence that might use that verb form. If needed, find a sample sentence that demonstrates that form using a different verb.
  • You can combine this with your vocabulary drilling. Whenever you come across a verb, deal out a card and do the inflection. If the verb won't work in that form, pick a different card.

Sentence Construction & Grammar Acquisition

You must not only study grammatical constructions, but internalize them by actively producing Japanese utterances. Find an appropriate book on grammar, and as you learn constructions from those books, begin formulating sentences based on those patterns. There are several excellent books to do this with:

  • A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Sentence Patterns
    Naoko Chino
    Kodansha International, 2000
    ISBN 4-7700-2608-0
  • A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar
    Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui
    The Japan Times, 1989
    ISBN 4-7890-0454-6
  • A Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar
    Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui
    The Japan Times, 1995
    ISBN 4-7890-0775-8
  • Power Japanese: All About Particles
    Naoko Chino
    Kodansha International, 1991
    ISBN 0-87011-954-0
  • Power Japanese: Basic Connections: Making Your Japanese Flow
    Kakuko Shoji
    Kodansha International, 1997
    ISBN 4-7700-1968-8

Almost everything in the Power Japanese series is good stuff. Here are some additional tips for this exercise:

  • Use your vocabulary list to seed you with words and ideas to make sentences from.
  • After you write out sentences, always say them aloud. Also, say the sentences without looking at the writing, concentrating on the meaning of what you are saying.
  • In addition to writing sentences and then saying them, it is very important to try constructing sentences orally without having your eyes on paper. Get a word or two from your list to give you ideas if you can't think of any, but then look away and speak.

Other Materials

You can see all of the books I've collected thus far here. Remember that cultural reading is important, too.

Often, if you can't find something locally or on Amazon, particularly material published in Japan (ISBN starts with 4), Sasuga Books will either carry it or be able to import it for you. Kinokuniya is another source. If you are in a city with a large enough Japanese population, you may have local stores. They have an online presence, but the interface is Japanese only. Amazon's Japan division is another possible source, but, again, the interface is only in Japanese. Other bookstores in the US is Asahiya and Book Off

Back-issues of the now folded Mangajin magazine are an excellent manga-based study aid. They also have two books of collected material. The first is unavailable (you'll have to do an out-of-print search or else look for someone selling a copy), the second may be available here.

Usenet newsgroups provide a great resource for a learner who otherwise does not have access to someone who can answer their questions. The following two will be of the most interest.

  • sci.lang.japan
    Discussions of the Japanese language, from beginner and intermediate level questions all the way to complex linguistic aspects. Denizens are usually responsive and helpful to humbly phrased questions that demonstrate that the asker is a serious student who has done as much of their own work as they could.
    A newsgroup generally inhabited by expats currently living in or who have formerly lived in Japan, some Japanese, and those, like myself, living vicariously through them. As often as not the discussions have nothing to do with Japan, are ribald, banal or childish, but there is an undercurrent of real life experience which often provides valuable insights on living in Japan. It is also a rich source of Japanese vocabulary (sprinkled liberally through the English), some of it very practical, some of it best not uttered in mixed company.
Unfortunately, soc.culture.japan is a cesspool of rants and nonsense (one might say the same of, but at least the latter is entertaining), and soc.culture.japan.moderated is mostly uninhabited. Don't forget that you can use Google to find archived posts dealing with many topics that have been discussed in the past.

Have some feedback? Send it to:
cmmcculley AT charter DOT net

To the Japanese Language & Culture Page

Collin McCulley
cmmcculley AT charter DOT net
Last updated July 6, 2003.