Yi Xiang

A Young Writer in Search of His Voice

How to Learn to Read Japanese in 3 Months

Language learning is hard, especially at the start. You struggle with all the foreign symbols and grammars, and the sheer amount of things you need to learn is enough to make you quit. Even if you could force yourself to keep learning, it seems it will be years before you can do anything useful with this language.

With a drastically different writing system and from a different culture, Japanese is certainly among the harder languages for English-speaking people.

But you can learn to read Japanese in 3 months.

I know it because I’ve done it.

My Story

I have tried to learn Japanese for at least 3 times before I finally nailed it. Each time, I gave up because I was overwhelmed by all the things that I have to memorize.

But during my last attempt, however, I succeeded. I picked up Anki, started memorizing all the kana, got grammar right, and started reading. 3 months later, I could read most Japanese texts, and I have went on to read several visual novels, which typically take 20 – 40 hours’ reading to finish.

Let me explain how this is possible.

You Only Need to Know 3,000 Words to Understand Almost Everything

When it comes to vocabulary, most people assume you need to know at least tens of thousands of words.

This is simply not true. In most languages, you only need to know 3,000 words to understand most of the text.

Equipped with 3,000 words, you definitely ain’t gonna feel the beauty of a language, or its nuances. But it’s more than enough to help you at least understand what an article is talking about. When I was learning English, I could understand books on programming even though I found around 15 unknown words in every single page. When I read Japanese, I could also understand what is happening in a story even if there are many unfamiliar words and I’m skimming.

Many people feel that they have to look up every word that they do not understand. I haven’t met anyone who read more than two books using this method. I, on the other hand, ditched dictionary out of laziness pretty early on when reading English books, and after 2 or 3 years, I was reading around one book a month. Now I could easily read hundreds of pages a day if I want to, and get headaches later for consuming too much information. Easy to tell which method works.

Of course, the more words you know, the better. But you only need to know a handful to start. There are plenty of interesting stories in Japanese that are easy to read. And I have read the difficult ones with a limited vocabulary. It’s a lot harder, but it’s doable.

Learn Grammar and Vocabulary Fast with SRS

Language learning is often a slow process. In China, every student has to learn English, and after 6 years, you know less than 3,000 words, you don’t know all the grammars, and you are expected to write articles as woefully long as 300 words.

With SRS (Spaced Repetition System)  , I learned katakana in a week, totally spending 2 hours, and all of Japanese grammar in about a month, totally spending less than 20 hours.

How is that possible?

When most people try to memorize things, they will review everything that they have learned regularly, say, once a week. This wastes a lot of time because 1) you’ll be reviewing what you have already memorized, 2) Regular reviews aren’t optimal.

You see, after learning something, you’ll be forgetting a lot at the beginning, and less and less as time goes on. We might forget half of what we learned the second day, and only a forth in a week after that. So a better strategy is to review more often for things that we have learned not long ago, and review less often for what we’ve learned a long time ago.

It could go like this: after you’ve learned a word, you review it the next day, then 3 days after that, then 7 days, then 2 weeks, then 1.5 month, then 3 month, etc.

It saves time and you’ll remember better.

One problem though: it’s hard to track everything you have learned, when you’re learning new things every day.

Enter the Spaced Repetition System: they’re computer software that will do all the tracking and calculation for you. You give them a list of things you want to remember, every day they give you a list of things to review, you review them and tell them how well you remembered it, then they’ll figure out when you should review it again.

Read a Hell Lot to Learn Faster and Better

When you want to learn a language, you need volume, you need exposure. You need to expose yourself to so much of this language that you hear hallucinations.

Such hallucination has happened to me at least twice, once after I’ve been reading Japanese for several hours straight, once after I started writing English.

Many people assume language learning is a logical process. You learn about a new grammar or word, and the next time you see it, you think in your head about what they mean, then translate the sentence to your native language. It’s not like that. You don’t analyze sentence structures when reading in your mother tongue, and you don’t do that when reading a foreign language.

When I read English, I don’t think about “this is argument clause, and this is adjunct clause”. I’m not even sure I know what a clause is. And I don’t need to. I understand English grammar in an intuitive way, just like you.

How do you gain that intuitive understanding when learning a new language? With volume. At first you need to learn grammars, not the weird names, but what they mean. Then by reading a lot, you’ll meet the same grammar again and again and again, until you just know what it means and no longer need to think about it.

Spend Several Hours on This Every Day

To learn to read Japanese in 3 months, the conventional method of three hours a week doesn’t work. You need 3 hours a day, minimal.

This post details all the tools and practices I use to learn Japanese in 3 months, all the steps I take, and after reading this post, you will be equipped with every you need to learn Japanese in a short time.

But do remember that my method is brutal.

It won’t be a pleasant experience. It will be challenging throughout, and getting harder as you progress.

But it also will be effective.

Are you up to the challenge?

Overview of The Steps

We have five steps.

In step one, you will learn the basics about Japanese. And by basics, I mean everything except remember 10,000 words.

You’ll be reading one book which, different from typical language textbooks that say too little in too many pages, will explain everything about Japanese grammars to you, even the slangs.

In step two, you will memorize the kana, which is like alphabet but a bit different.

In step three, you’ll start memorizing the grammars you’ve read in step one with the help of SRS.

After several weeks, you’ll be surprised at how you absorbed all this information so easily, and so fast.

In step four, you’ll start swallowing vocabularies, thousands of them.

Expect to spend at least 2 hours every day to fill your head with hundreds of new Japanese words. Your head will hurt. But hang in there.

In step five, you’ll start reading, a lot.

This step is as challenging as it is rewarding. On the one hand, you’ll struggle with every kana, and every kanji you’ve learned. On the other hand, even after reading just one book, you’ll find reading Japanese much easier, and much more enjoyable. You will cry in ecstasy: “I know Japanese!”

Be ready to spend like 5 hours a day reading for rapid progress. And trust me, it’s not as painful as it sounds. Read less if desire or necessary, but do expect to take longer to “I know Japanese!”

Step One: Get Your Textbook

The book you’ll be reading is Tae Kim’s Japanese Grammar Guide.

Click that link, it’ll take you directly to the book. You can read it online, for free.

Finish this book as fast as possible, preferably in one day. Don’t worry, it’s a short book. This book is a fun read, with no nonsense like stupid stories about a foreigner coming to work in Japan. This is not your typical textbook. It will throw everything you need to learn about Japanese grammar in your face, and before you understand one fully, there comes another.

This doesn’t mean this book is hard to read. Nope. It explains Japanese in plain English. It seems hard only because you’re a moron and can’t even understand English. (that’s a joke)

It’s hard because there’s a lot to learn, and Japanese is confusing at times.

That’s why you need to read this book for a second time, and a third time if necessary. You’re not expected to remember everything. Hell, you’re not expected to remember anything at all. But you’re expected to understand almost everything. Memorization comes later.

Step Two:  Kill the Kana

You need to get Anki(http://ankisrs.net/), the free SRS that we will be using. Learn to use it yourself, I’m a programmer, I have no idea how to teach people to use programs. (that’s a joke too)

You can learn how to use Anki here.

Then install the deck Katakana with stroke diagrams and audio and start using it.

(Note: all the Anki decks I used in 2014 are no long available, and those recommended in this post are the closest one I could find.)

From the moment you installed Anki, you’re expected to use it every day. And every time you close Anki, you should have zero dues. Do this no matter what. Do this every morning after getting out of bed. Anki is your religion now.

The deck I recommended will help you learn both Hiragana and Katakana. And by “learn”, I really just mean getting familiar with them and how they sound.

There’s about only a hundred of them and memorizing them is widely considered the first step to learning Japanese, a step which most don’t make it through.

But with the help of our lovely Anki-chan (You should understand what chan means after step one), you will master the kana, and you will feel like it’s as easy as getting dumped.

As a side effect, you’ll also get a feeling of “Holy shit, I’m really smart, I can do this!”

Step Three: Anki the Grammars

Download this deck and start studying it: Tae Kim’s Guide to Grammar (Recognition and Production). It has all the grammars that you learned in Tae Kim’s wonderful book.

It has about 800 cards, just a little more than the deck used in the previous step.

For this deck, you will study at least 50 new cards per day. Even including reviews, it should take less than 30 minutes a day. The burden is relatively light, so you should memorize almost everything in this deck perfectly.

50 new cards a day also makes sure that your progress is fast enough. It will take you 16 days to finish all the new cards, by the time your knowledge of the most common Japanese grammars should be solid. After another two weeks you should have memorized almost every single grammar in your textbook.

Do note that I say almost. Some grammars are hard to grasp, and even now I still can’t claim to understand everything. It doesn’t hinder my reading. You’ll be fine, too.

Step Four: Meet Vocabulary the Archenemy

You should start this step as soon as possible, ideally in the same time as you start step three. But you could wait for a couple of days.

Your goal is to go through 6k Japanese words. Yes, 6,000, and no I don’t think it will be a problem. Because unlike Grammar, you are not supposed to memorize anything at all. You just need to become familiar with some of them so that when you see them again in text, you’ll have a vague impression.

Culminating vocabularies out of context is hardly effective. In plain English, memorizing a big fat list of words doesn’t work.

Firstly, you forget.

Secondly, you don’t learn words this way. Words are learned in sentences, in stories, where they are charged with emotion and come to life with colorful characters and their even more colorful interactions.

You won’t understand “fuck” by knowing it as “intercourse, could also be used as an insult”. However, you will have a very good understanding of this word by watching an angry man shouting “fuck you” to another.

Thirdly, you are remembering translations, and translating in your head is an unforgivable sin in language learning.

When using one language, there should be no translating in your head. You understand a language in that language. When using English, you don’t think about how fuck means intercourse, fuck is fuck. When using Japanese, you don’t think about how kuso means shit, kuso is kuso.

English explanations of Japanese words are training wheels. They help you get started. After all, when you don’t know Japanese, you don’t know what kuso means. But you are supposed to figure out and understand this word in context, after you learned that it means shit. And no, you don’t understand a word by just knowing its meaning. That would be like knowing “negro” means black without knowing it means hate.

Then why do you have to go over 6k Japanese words? Why not start reading immediately and just look up any unfamiliar words? Well, because there simply will be too many unfamiliar words. Without knowing some Japanese words, you’ll have trouble finding where a word starts and ends.

Unlike English, in Japanese there is no space separating two words. You need to figure that out yourself, and you can’t figure anything out if the whole sentence is Greek to you.

You also need a minimal vocabulary so that you don’t have to look up ten thousand words just to read a single page. It’s very painful and makes you wonder why the hell you are learning this language in the first place.

Sure, the whole process of learning Japanese is painfully painful, but most of the time it’s also painfully rewarding, and challengingly fun. You’re either swallowing gigabytes of information (ankiing) or using that information (reading). It’s like killing a dragon right after you’ve barely finished your training, and the dragon has seventy five attack skills and nineteen stages, each with different attack patterns and weaknesses. Oh, and did I mention that you have 100 skills that you have to use carefully?

But dictionaries… They’re like a desk job, answering phones, or running half the world to deliver a pizza that makes you 5 cents. It’s just boring, and makes you want to kill yourself. And it breaks the flow.

Do use them when necessary though… Unknown words ain’t gonna learn themselves, and unless you’re Holmes, deducing their meanings from context can only get you so far, and you’ll often be wrong.

Enough with the why. Let’s get to how.

The plan is simple. Download a huge Anki Japanese vocabulary deck and go through them as fast as possible. Again, don’t bother memorizing every single one of them. Getting familiar with many of them is good enough.

Here’s the deck you need: Core 10K + Pics + Aud.

Only use 6000 words, and remember to suspend all production cards. (Click browse, enter “deck:Core 10K + Pics + Aud” “Card:Production”, click search, ctrl+a, suspend.)

I suggest you study 200 new cards a day, and set no limits for reviews. That’s the settings I used and it works for me.

The reviews are gonna pile up very fast. Get prepared to spend at least 2 hours on this deck daily.

It will be extremely painful, but you know what? I went with 10k words. I don’t think it’s worth the effort, but I do want to tell you this, whenever you think it’s hard, remember that it’s harder for me and I’ve made it through. It’s doable.

Step Five: Start Reading

As soon as you’ve studied 3,000 words, you can start reading, and congratulations, you now know Japanese.

What? You want more? Okay. Fine.

I should have said this before, but I’ll say it again, you can start reading native material (materials intended for native speakers) way sooner than you think.

This should apply to every language.

I started reading English in middle school. I knew at most 1,500 words, and there were definitely a lot of grammar not taught in my textbooks. Yet I read English books just fine, and these are books on programming, filled with alien terminologies like Unix operating system, memory management, and concurrency problems.

You might think you’re not ready, but you are. You don’t need to memorize another 10k vocabulary, you don’t need to read through Tae Kim’s book once again, and you definitely don’t need to read those stupid easy NHK news for foreigners that come with a nice mouse-over dictionary.

Look. It’s like sex. You don’t need to watch another damn porn or buy some lube, you just need to take it in, fully. It will hurt, but only for a while, then it’s happy fucking hours.

Just give it a shot, it’ll blow your mind.

You should spend at least 3 hours a day reading, which means within a month, you should read as much as a moderate sized novel.

At first, you’ll struggle with using everything you’ve learned on Anki, and you’ll feel very stupid when trying hard to recall how this kana is pronounced and what that word means. In Anki, you might be able to recall the answer in less than a second, but when reading, you’ll spend maybe 5 seconds to remember the same thing.

This is normal. Your brain is not used to reading Japanese, yet. You have some intelligent understanding of the components of this language, you just need to train your brain to use these knowledges intuitively, which is exactly reading a lot is gonna accomplish.

The challenge is as significant as the progress you will make. After you’ve finished one novel or two, you will be able to read Japanese comfortably.

But what you read is as important as the effort you put into it. Materials with too many complicated words will simply be too difficult for you to learn anything from it. Materials intended for language learning, on the other hand, will bore the hell out of you and are too short. Manga won’t work too since it has too little text.

The ideal material should be easy to read and reasonably long.

If you don’t mind visual novels, I recommend Tokeijikake no Ley Line(時計仕掛けのレイライン). It has a very good story, features very likeable characters, and is very easy to understand. At first you might find the story too common, but wait until you get to the ending. It will blow your mind and you’ll be eager to try the next game in the trilogy.

Many stories succeed at creating an eye-catching opening, but closing the story in a satisfying way is much more difficult. The Leyline series, however, do answer most of the questions and solve most of the conflicts in its endings. You will feel that the characters do deserve their happily ever after, because they have struggled, physically, emotionally, and authentically, instead of just sailing away from an exploding island.

And the main heroine is one of my favorite heroines too.

You might have some problems getting your hands on one. Try finding websites that would buy things from Japanese websites and sail them to you. I remember having seen one, but couldn’t find it again.

If you aren’t interested in visual novels, you’re on your own. Try finding something that you want to read and doesn’t have too many difficult words, and you’ll be fine.

Note: Drop Anki When It Becomes Unnecessary

With a deck as large as 6k, Anki will throw hundreds of cards for you to review daily for a very long time. It will take hours of your time, and after several months, it won’t be worth it.

Just stop doing it when you feel it’s not benefiting you any more.


Step One

Get Tae Kim’s Japanese Grammar Guide and read it twice or more.

Step Two

Download Anki and the deck Katakana with stroke diagrams and audio. Start using it every day.

Start this step when you know what kanakana and hirakana mean.

Step Three

Download this Anki Deck and start studying it. You should finish at least 50 new cards a day.

Start this step after you’ve finished reading Tae Kim’s book and studying all new cards in your kana deck.

Step Four

Download this vocabulary deck, suspend all the production cards, and use only 6000 cards in it. Try to study as many new cards a day as you can. I suggest starting at 200.

The goal is not to memorize them all, but to become familiar with some of them. You should just skim through the cards.

Start this step as soon as you start step three. You can delay it for a few days.

Step Five

Start reading easier native materials. You need to find stuffs that you enjoy, and it has to be at least as long as a book.

My recommendation is: Tokeijikake no Ley Line(時計仕掛けのレイライン) , a visual novel trilogy.

Final Words: Don’t Buy into Your Excuses

When I tell people how I learned languages, the most common response is, I am smarter than them, I am different, so this method works only for me, it’s impossible for them to do the same.

Maybe you are thinking about the same thing, maybe you are telling yourself, “There is no way I can learn language like him. Look, this guy writes better English than me and he doesn’t even live in an English speaking country! He is talented, but I am just average.”

I like people telling me I’m smart, but I know you are just finding excuses for not trying.

If you’re willing to try, your reasoning would be completely different: “this guy reads a lot and he reads in two foreign languages, while most language learning advices are from people who travel and focus on conversation. Heck, I just want to read, I would listen to this guy. Plus, if he could learn English this well, he must know more about language learning than most.”

Don’t buy into your excuses.


  • Kevin
    April 28, 2016 at 11:31 pm

    Hello young men,
    I have one question. I am not Chinese, or Taiwanese. So, how could I learn Kanji as fast as possible? This is my problem.
    Could you help me

    • May 2, 2016 at 2:44 pm

      Try this Anki deck: https://ankiweb.net/shared/info/215365929, it has around 3k common Kanji and the ordering seems to be reasonable too. If I don’t know any kanji at all, I would study this deck (recognition only), for like 50 new cards a day, after I’ve learned 1k kanji, I’d start reading a lot. Also, you could try writing some of them down, might help you memorize better and/or be familiar with them.