Getting Started

In this article I provide a high level outlook for beginners based on my first year learning Japanese.

The first three steps in the mindset of Getting Things Done is capture, clarify and organise. I will capture a collection of information, clarify what this means and organise where I leave as a lesson to you, the reader, to reflect and then engage in the life long enjoyment of learning Japanese.

Areas of learning

  • Writing Systems - the three written ways of communicating Japanese.
  • Grammar - words to convey context and structure sentences. (ie. past and present or from and to)
  • Vocabulary - the words we use to communicate.
  • Modes of use - using our senses.

Writing Systems

  • Hiragana - ひらがな - phonetic lettering for Japanese words
  • Katakana - カタカナ - phonetic lettering for 'borrowed' foreign words
  • Kanji - 漢字 - logographic characters adopted from Chinese

For beginners there is romaji which is the usage of roman letters (a, b, c, etc.) representing sounds (phonetics). An example is the word for 'Thank You' which in romaji is arigatō and in Hiragana is ありがとう.

My suggestion, if you are using romaji to start, is to become comfortable with Kana (Hiragana and Katakana) as soon as possible and work towards being able to sound these systems without a great deal of thought - this will benefit you in the long run.

Next, there are foreign words which often will sound similar to the borrowed word. Lets take the word 'Coffee' as an example (romaji: Kōhī) and in Katakana is コーヒー. Another example is the word for 'Sports' which in Katakana is スポーツ and the romaji 'Supōtsu'.

The 103 N5 Kanji

School children in Japan learn Kyoiku Kanji in grades 1 through 6 where in grade 1 they learn 80 characters and the two readings (On'yomi and Kun'yomi). The list of kanji is similar to those found in the N5 test (the beginner test) with a few additions.

What we as new learners have to remember is that Japanese children learn 1,000 kanji over a period of 6 years - so there is no rush for us to work through the kanji in a month.

To start with Nihon Ichiban has an N5 Kanji exercise PDF showing radicals (basic building blocks of Kanji), stroke order (for writing), the meaning, On'yomi and Kun'yomi readings, words with this Kanji and a handy practice area for you to practice writing - for all 103 characters.

There is also the Memrise Jōyō Kanji by school Grade for all 2,136 characters in the 2010 Japanese Ministry of Education Kanji list. The course is split into groups of 40 Kanji and should you focus on the first 6 sections you will have good Kanji knowledge working towards a JLPT level of N4 (the 2nd JLPT test). I highly recommend this Memrise course as learning Kanji feels like a game, you get a score and a daily streak for 'playing' each day which helps to remove any feeling of boredom you may get if you were simply reading word lists.

Words (Vocabulary)

For the Japanese N5 test there are about 700 words to remember as well as 103 kanji characters. At first this may seem challenging though I have created a Google Sheet reducing the 700 words into smaller, organised, sets which I hope can be a useful training aid for use during your Japanese practice. I have listed the groupings below with how many words are in each to give us an idea of what we are working with.

  • 7 days of the week (Monday - Sunday)
  • 13 colours (ie. blue, red and green)
  • 44 places (ie. school, home and train station)
  • 110 nouns (ie. book, car and toilet)
  • verbs (ie. to sing, to run and to close)
  • 80 adjectives (ie. hot, loud and big)
  • 28 counters (similar to English 'a flock of sheep' or 'a school of fish')
  • 64 common grammar (ie. where, how much and this)
  • 15 directions (ie. left, up and behind)
  • 20 periods of time (ie. today, last year and day after tomorrow)


  • Past and Present Tense (ie. 'I did' and 'I done')
  • Positive and negative (ie. 'I did' and 'I didn't')
  • Conjugation (of nouns and adjectives)
  • Particles (ie. subject, with, and, from, to approximately or 'not so much')

Modes of use

  • Reading - textbooks, newspaper and online.
  • Understanding - the nuiance of a sentence (ie. I could have gone shopping but I have no money)
  • Listening - to the radio, a TV show or movie.
  • Speaking - to a native speaker on iTalki.
  • Writing - by hand with a pen or brush or choosing the correct Kanji on your phone or computer. 


Selection of references which I have found useful.




Cheat Sheets

TV Shows

Learning Words

A structured approach to covering the 700 words used at the N5 level.