How to Learn Japanese Vocabulary

By  Natasha Henriksson  February 05, 2019

Always wanted to learn Japanese vocabulary but unsure of where to start or are searching for that magic trick that will help you boost your Japanese ability? Save weeks and maybe years on doing the research and learning by trial and error through our experiences. 

Table of Contents for This Guide

Here are the topics we will cover in this guide to help you learn vocabulary.

  1. Start with goal setting and reasonable and achievable goals.
  2. Now think about general and your own personal word usage frequency.
  3. How to quickly multiply your vocabulary with Kanji
  4. How to effectively learn vocabulary with a teacher.
  5. The best way to learn vocabulary.
  6. How to review vocabulary like a champ.

If you want an overview about how to learn Japanese, check out our article here. 

Start your Japanese adventure with vocabulary

Learning Japanese vocabulary is the most important component on how to learn Japanese. Words are the building blocks of language and serve as the foundation for your communication. This is an obvious statement, but becomes real when you actually experience it. The more words you add to your repertoire, the more you will be able to understand and the more you will be able to communicate complex emotions and thoughts.

Part 1 : Begin with Goal Setting

Japanese Learning Goals

Have you ever gotten into your car and started driving without any idea of where you were going? How long did that last? 2 hours? 4 hours? 5 minutes? These types of spontaneous adventures do not last usually last more than several hours if not several minutes.

Using this story as a reference, let’s apply the same idea to language learning. Spontaneous learning doesn’t tend to last long, unless you have goals and benchmarks to guide you. These points serve as indicators for your progress and keeps you motivated to continue learning.

The goal setting system and benchmarks thinking process used in video games can be applied to the real world to help us learn a language.

The goal setting system like the one used in video games can be applied to the real world to help us learn Japanese vocabulary. When you start a video game, there is a beginning and an end; there is no ambiguity or continuation. You start the game at level 1-1 and you finish the game at level 8-3. Unfortunately, the world outside of most games is not so black and white. There will never be a final level or boss in which you defeat.

In black and whites terms, you need to know 10,000 words to be fluent in a language and at least 2000 words to be conversational. This a completely arbitrary number and won’t be able to define your fluency, but using it as a benchmark is the closest indicator we have for reaching something like a level 3-2

This benchmark will serve us by providing guide posts on our Japanese adventure progress and is particularly useful for guiding your vocabulary studies.

For goals, I would recommend you setup your goals in this format

  • Goal 1 : 30 words
  • Goal 2: 100 words
  • Goal 3: 500 words
  • Goal 4 : 1000 words
  • Goal 5 : 2000 words

Part 2 : Learn Japanese Vocabulary through Frequency

Japanese word frequency

What are the 100 most common words in English? What are the 20 or 30 most frequent words that you use? Try make a list of it. I’ll take my friend for example. Based on my conversations with her, this is what I think her most frequent words on a daily basis would be to learn Japanese vocabulary.

  1. I
  2. You
  3. Me
  4. Food
  5. Perfect
  6. How
  7. What
  8. Who
  9. Why
  10. When
  11. Good
  12. Tired
  13. Chocolate
  14. Sorry
  15. Cost
  16. Where
  17. Hello
  18. Cold
  19. Hot
  20. Pretty

Would learning these words be too daunting? Probably not! That being said, you might not find it so exciting; however, these topics will become the foundation for your language building. I bet that you at least talk about the weather with someone once a day, maybe once a week at the minimum? Regardless, what matters is these kind of topics - food, weather, health - seep into our daily conversations. Whether you are aiming to become conversational or fluent, it is instrumental to take these first steps.

I want you to think about what words you most frequently use in a conversation. Then, like I did above, create a list with the top 30 of them. Next, translate them into Japanese and you have an excellent start to your vocabulary building them! Once you have memorized your list, try this list -  the 100 most frequently used words in Japanese - you’ll likely find many overlaps with your list.

When you are done with that, have fun researching your own decks and see if any fit what you are looking for! Here’s my recommendation - check out this Anki deck  of the most 2000 most frequent words used in Japanese.

Got that all down? Let me reiterate.

  1. Start your vocabulary journey by setting goals and benchmarks so you have achievements to look forward to.
  2. Create your most frequently used vocabulary list based on your daily conversation
  3. After you have memorized it, start a 100 most common word list
  4. Work your way up to whatever amount you are comfortable learning

Part 3 : Expand and Learn Japanese Vocabulary through Kanji

ESL Jobs in Japan - Japanese Reading

Have you learned about 300 - 500 words? If yes, continue reading on how learning Japanese characters will help you make the jump from 500 words to 2000 words. If not, please continue to the next section on the best way to learn vocabulary.

When one should start studying kanji is a hotly debated topic in the Japanese learning community. Some people believe you should put it off until you are proficient with Japanese, while others believe you should start as soon as possible. I’m with the latter - let me explain why.

In Japanese, the three alphabets are hiragana, katakana, and kanji - here are a few examples listed in their respective categories.

  1. あいえおう Hiragana
  2. アイエオウ Katakana
  3. 方位絵尾卯 Kanji

Typically, everyone begins with hiragana. In comparison to English, it would be like learning your ABC’s. Most people move onto katakana next. Katakana is used for foreign words which have been imported into Japanese. For example, the word ra-ki is read as ra-ki, and the ENglish translation is lucky. Try saying it outloud if you don’t get it immediately.

The last thing people learn is kanji. A kanji is a logo-graph and depending on the use of the kanji, it has numerous ways it can be read. By the time Japanese students have graduated from compulsory education, they will have learnt how to read and 2,136 kanji.

So a lot of people believe because of the complicated nature of kanji, you should leave learning it to when you are at a higher level. However, what I believe, is that if you study kanji at the start, you’ll be on a head start to Japanese fluency.

For example, let’s look at this kanji:

This kanji is always used in relation to food. By itself it can be read as しょく(shoku).  This is one of the possible readings, but let’s just focus on it for now.

Just with this knowledge, you already have access to these new words

  1. 食       shoku - food
  2. 飲食 inshoku - eating and drinking
  3. 和食    washoku - Japanese food
  4. 洋食    youshoku - Western food
  5. 食堂 shokudou - Dining hall

It’s pretty cool, right!

As I will touch on below, the brain learns with context. If you establish that 食 and anything related to it will be about food, you have already created a link which will make it much more simple to retain information.

Part 4 : Learn Japanese Vocabulary with a Teacher

Happy Japanese Language Student in Tokyo

So we have covered ways to study by yourself, but what are some benefits to studying vocabulary with a teacher?

Receiving Corrections

  • Are you using the vocabulary in a natural way?
  • Is the grammar pattern you are using it correct or not?

These are things that you will not know on your own and is a large service that a Japanese teacher can provide you. Please note that some Japanese teachers with good intentions may not give you corrections, so if this is the case for you and you consider it important, let them know that you would like to know when you are not using the language in a natural way.

Additional Practice

  • Struggling with certain grammar patterns or expressions?
  • Need more practice to make it more natural?

With a Japanese teacher, you can practice to learn Japanese vocabulary or expressions over and over again. Additionally, you can be ambitious and try substituting new words or using the new vocabulary in new and more complex way with your teacher and they way you are using the words are natural - meaning that do other Japanese use that word in the same way and context. 

Learning the Right Word

blog - vocabulary - situation translations
  • Does the dictionary offer 5 different word translations?
  • Not sure if you are using the right word?

I think the picture above explains this point perfectly and I do not need to go into too much detail to explain the concept of choosing the right word. In the case above, there are 24 words that can be used as a replacement for the word situation and using the wrong word may confused the other person.

For example, how you use the jijyou (situation) is not the same as the word jitai (situation). To make an overly complex joke there are different situations where you use the word situation in Japanese - sorry!

If you study with a Japanese teachers they can give you corrections, but you can also ask them what is the right word to use in what situation.


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Part 5 : The Best Way to Learn Japanese Vocabulary

There are many methods to learn Japanese vocabulary and you’ll probably have to find your preferred way through trial and error. To help you out, here are our best recommendations below and if you are looking for cool words to know, check out our friends at self-taught Japanese.

Learn Japanese vocabulary through Flashcards

You know I’m going to say it - learn Japanese through flashcards. The system is popular for a reason. The concept is simple, and you can easily create them using paper or online. Sites like Anki and Memrise enable you to create your own decks on your phone or computer, you will always have the cards with you. Think you don’t have time to review? Nothing can stop you from practicing on your commute or even in a long line at the grocery store and 10 - 15 minutes a day is enough for beginner level students.

Anki and Memrise also host user-created word lists which you can download. I’ve found that if you are interested in subject, chances are someone has already created a deck for it. As well, if you are studying with a well-known textbook, you will almost certainly find that someone has uploaded companion flashcards to the text.

Learn Japanese Vocabulary through Media

Learn Japanese - Pokemon

Anime, video games, movies, tv shows - these are all enjoyable ways to pick up new vocabulary.

Let’s take Pokemon for example. If you want to pick up new words through video games, Pokemon is the perfect for beginners. The game is targeted for children so the vocab and grammar is relatively easy. As you play the game, note down the words you don’t understand and create a flashcard deck using them. Every time you play, go over the flashcard. Words are usually repeated in Pokemon games, so by the time you beat the game what you’ve studied will be cemented in your mind.

Other visual medias include Youtube, like this channel for example: Udon Classroom. Videos like his cement the targeted word in your head with silly mnemonic devices.

Learn Japanese Vocabulary with Twitter

Alongside LINE, Twitter is one of the most popular social media sites in Japan. Twitter is great to learn Japanese vocabulary because the language used is so varied, you’ll probably pick up words you hadn't even thought of to add to your vocabulary list. There are also a lot of accounts specifically focused on learning Japanese. Like ones which post a new word everyday.

Here are some of our recommended Twitter accounts to follow: -

Part 6 : When in Doubt, Review.

So we have covered the importance of vocabulary, where is a good place to start, and the 3 different alphabets of Japanese. Now, what is the best way to learn it?

Image from Wikipedia

Ever seen this? This is the forgetting curve. It is a visualization of the hypothesis in the decline of memory over time. The hypothesis was created by Hermann Ebbinghaus represented by this equation. For a better definition, here’s good ol’ Wiki:

Ebbinghaus hypothesized that the speed of forgetting depends on a number of factors such as the difficulty of the learned material (e.g. how meaningful it is), its representation and physiological factors such as stress and sleep. He further hypothesized that the basal forgetting rate differs little between individuals. He concluded that the difference in performance (e.g. at school) can be explained by mnemonic representation skills.”

So basically the how well you learn something depends on many different factors such as how easy the information was to comprehend and if you were stressed or tired that day. Ebbinghaus also gathered that the rate which someone forgets information does not vary much between people. He finished his hypothesize with the idea that the thing that separates how quickly you can memorize something depends on mnemonic representation skills (which I will go into below.)

He went on to come up with these methods with he believed will help combat the learning curve: better memory repetition and repetition based on active recall. One of the most popular ways to improve memory repetition is by is using a mnemonics device. Mnemonic devices are techniques which aid your ability to remember something by associating the information you are learning with an image, a sentence, or a word. Everyone uses mnemonic devices, even if they are not aware of this. Acronyms are one example, and so are rhymes.

Here is an example

  • 目 = eye - it kind of looks like an eye right?
  • 貝 = shellfish looks like an eye with legs

To incorporate the latter into your training by the use of SRS (Spaced Repetition Systems). The system is very effective because it reminds you of a piece of information right before you are about to forget it. Anki (one of the programs I mentioned above) utilizes this system. For best results, you should aim to study in daily small chunks. Even five minutes a day is better than a two hour cramming session. Rather than the total amount of time you spend learning It is the frequency that counts!

Bonus Tip 1 : Learn Japanese Vocabulary through context

Another tip to help your learn Japanese vocabulary is try adding some context to the words when you study them. Our brains don’t register input as an individual item but instead connects it to another piece of information to create a neural pathway. It sounds tricky but it really just means that your brain creating context for easier memorization.

In general, Japanese is a highly contextual (learn more about that here) and sometimes subjects won't be referred to in conversations because it will be assumed that you already know what they are talking about. 

To put this into practice, next time you study, learn your targeted word in addition to an example sentence.This is especially helpful if you are taking a word from a source material such as a newspaper or tv show. Try this: let’s say you are reading the newspaper in the language you are learning and come across a word you don’t know. Look up the definition of the word, study it, and then finish reading the sentence. Then, reread the line and try to recall the definition of the word; do this until you are confident. The goal is to have to meaning of the word become instinct to you, just as it would if you were reading something in your native language.

Here is how I do it. Since I like reading Japanese articles online, I would pick one I wouldn’t mind staring at for a while (let’s use this one as an example). As I go along, and when I find a sentence I don’t comprehend, I’ll review it and pick out the word I don’t understand. In this article, I found myself stumped when I came to this sentence:

かつてアップルは、ニッチ熱烈なファン ── 主にアーティスト、ミュージシャン 、そして筆者のようなMacおたく ── に熱く愛される”

I’ve highlighted the word I didn’t understand in red. I understand the context of the sentence but if I were to get that one word, I think it would all come together. So i’ll drag it into my favorite online Japanese dictionary (right here) and find the definition.

Alright, now I know what it means. Without rechecking, I’ll go over the sentence again and try to get the meaning in my head. If I screw up, i’ll just start again until it comes naturally. To make sure it sticks, i’ll add to word to my flashcard decks so I can continue studying it even when the article is long forgotten.

Bonus Tip 2 : Yomichan / Rikaikun

Two useful extension for all Japanese learners: rikaikun and yomichan. When you have either installed, you can hover over Japanese words and the definition will hover over the word.

If you use Mozilla Firefox, the equivalent to rikaikun is a download called rikaichan and yomichan has the same name for mozilla.

Final Remarks to Learn Japanese Vocabulary

If I could boil this article down into one sentence, I would say the trick to learn Japanese vocabulary is not the amount of hours you spend studying, but the amount of days you spend reviewing. For those who like to cram their studies similar to how students cram before finals, think about something you learned six months ago and how much of it do you remember now? The trick is frequency of usage like making sentences, quiz yourself, write it down repeatedly; whatever it takes to use the language become proficient. Daily practice takes a lot of discipline but the end results are always worth. Focus on how much you have learnt rather than where you are not. Remember, language learning is a marathon, not a race. To prevent burnout, start with something on your level and then work your way up. You might not be satisfied with the short-term progress but it will pay off in the long run.

Happy Student John

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