Is Japanese Hard to Learn? No, Here are 7 Reasons Why

Genki textbook on desk

Dr. Midori Inagaki, Professor of Japanese Language at iCLA By Dr. Midori Inagaki, Japanese Language Program lecturer at iCLA,

Mr. Masahiro Toma, Director of Language Learning and Acquisition Program at iCLA and Mr. Masahiro Toma, Director of Language Learning and Acquisition Program at iCLA

One of the enduringly popular 2nd languages to learn is Japanese. With the amazing amount of cultural content Japan has produced it is little wonder why many people want to go beyond the subtitles, really dig into the source content and become fluent speakers of Japanese themselves. You’ve no doubt been told however, by someone quoting an apocryphal CIA World Handbook or US Foreign Service source that Japanese is one of the hardest languages to learn. The authors think that reputation is somewhat undeserved. In this article we’re going to lay out why Japanese is easier to learn than you think, and that getting fluent should be one of your aims if you’re going to study in Japan.

Is Japanese Hard to Learn?

Student's Hiragana work

Let’s break down why Japanese has a reputation as a hard language to learn. The major complaint is the writing systems. You no doubt already know that Japanese has four writing systems, romaji, katakana, hiragana, and kanji. We can discount romaji as you should stop using it and move to writing only in hiragana, katakana and kanji almost immediately. 

You might already think there’s no way you could memorise two different sets of characters for hiragana and katakana and 2000+ kanji on top of that. It sounds like a lot, but you already possess the capacity to learn visual signs and signals, you’ve been doing it since birth. There are also hacks around it (e.g. Heisig’s excellent “Remembering the Kana/Kanji” series, Spaced Repetition Software (SRS) apps for your phone, ipod etc such as Anki and Skritter.) that can get you reading and writing Japanese in a relatively short space of time. Trust me, you certainly won’t need 12 years of Japanese schooling to learn to read all the kanji.

You may also find the grammar different, with the typical English sentence of “Subject, Verb, Object” coming out as “Subject, Object, Verb”. In many cases there might not even be a subject and you’ll have to work it out from context. 

The hard truth is that all languages are difficult to learn, especially if your opportunities to produce the language are limited. Learning a language takes the discipline to stick to a study routine, and the fearlessness to make horrendous mistakes (often in front of strangers) over and over again until you start getting it right. 

Some narrow-minded visitors and long-term residents in Japan bemoan the low level of English spoken by the Japanese populace and can sometimes be heard wondering out loud how the average Japanese person received six years of English classes in Junior and High School and still can’t speak English fluently. No doubt some of these same people came out of a UK High School not speaking fluent French or German, or a US high school not fluent in Spanish. Lest we forget all the non-fluent Canadian French speakers outside of Quebec. From these examples we know that schooling alone will not make you fluent in a language. You need the intrinsic motivation to study and the opportunity to produce the language yourself, to play and be creative with it. That is the path to fluency.

Studying in Japan is a great way to increase your opportunities to speak Japanese, but simply coming to Japan and thinking that you’ll learn by osmosis is not a great strategy. Immersion is not the key. Creating opportunities for organically producing the language yourself is. Too many people come to Japan to study Japanese but create an almost impenetrable mother tongue bubble around themselves, which is all too easy to do these days with the raft of streaming services, podcasts, YouTube and other online content available. They then go on to complain that their Japanese is not improving, and that Japanese is too difficult a language to learn. Those that have come here, learnt Japanese from scratch and attained a level of fluency would beg to differ, and taking a leaf from their book and putting yourself out there could be your first step in gaining fluency too.

With that out of the way, let’s dive into some reasons why Japanese might not be as difficult to learn as you’ve been led to believe. 

7 Reasons Why Japanese is Not Difficult to Learn.

iCLA Student writing Japanese Calligraphy

1. The Sound

First cab off the rank, the lack of phonemes. Japanese only has 46 distinct sounds for you to master. On top of this, Japanese is not a tonal language like Mandarin, Thai or Vietnamese. Some people like to say that Japanese is a flat language, but naturally Japanese people do use tone of voice to express emotion and some words with the same spelling will have the stress on different syllables. As with many things in life, context is key. Rest assured though that mastering the pronunciation of each phoneme is relatively easy. Coming from speaking English you will also find the vowel sounds easy to master. As a final bonus, none of the tongue gymnastics required in English are necessary to speak Japanese.

One last point on the sound of Japanese is that if you come here and make an effort to get outside your English-speaking bubble, you’ll be surrounded by it. It is true that the average Japanese person doesn’t speak much English, and some people are shy of making mistakes. Unlike some countries where people are very keen to get a free English lesson by striking up a conversation with a foreigner, Japanese people are a bit more reserved. That said, they are generally friendly and really appreciate someone making the effort to learn their language. So don’t be afraid to bust out that new grammar point and vocab you’ve been studying. You might even make a new friend in the process.  

“I found it really helpful to surround myself and actively listen to Japanese media such as the news, radio, anime, dramas, etc. Even if you just have it in the background I think your brain will subconsciously pick it up and you’ll be able to pronounce the sounds in Japanese more naturally.” Ashley – 4th year student at iCLA

2. Japanglish

Japanese has always had a unique way of dealing with loan words from other cultures. They even went so far as to create an entirely new writing system to deal with them called katakana. In the advent of Web 2.0 there has been an explosion of new loan words and business Japanese is particularly rife with them. The upside of all this is that if you can’t quite remember the Japanese word for something, there might just be a katakana-ized loan word that will do the trick!

“The Japanese language is brimming with words it borrowed from English, and while pronunciation changed a bit in the process of assimilation, you can still get your Japanese friend to understand concepts buy stating them in English, but with Japanese accent, like “horaa” instead of “horror”, or “oobaawaaku” instead of “overwork”. Once you grasp how certain English sounds are transferred to Japanese (and it takes maybe a couple of hours?), you will master the art of using Japanglish.” Anastasiia – 3rd Year student from iCLA

3. No gender difference and no plural ‘s’

Learners of Romance or Germanic languages may rejoice to hear that upon starting their Japanese language journey, they will never again have to remember if a chair is feminine, masculine, or neutral. Japanese verbs are not gendered, making conjugation much easier. Verbs conjugate for tense and that’s about it.

Men and women may speak differently, using styles of speaking that imply femininity or masculinity. These styles use certain gender specific pronouns and sentence tags, but it doesn’t affect the core grammar. The differences in these speaking styles are easy to identify and remember too. 

4. Kanji

With 2041 kanji considered “Jyoyou” or what a student completing Year 12 is expected to learn, it may sound counterintuitive to say that kanji is one of the factors making Japanese easier to learn. The simple fact is, you already possess a healthy visual memory, and there are a number of memorisation techniques that will greatly speed up your ability to learn those kanji. So relax, it won’t take you 12 years to learn the kanji, many people have done it in a year, or less. Systems like Heisig’s “Remembering the Kanji” and SRS flashcard apps like Anki and Skritter help you utilize the science of memorisation to accelerate your learning. You can even try your hand at building a memory palace or just grind them out with a paper and pen, whatever works for you. 

Each kanji may have multiple “readings” or ways of pronouncing it, often referred to as “on-yomi” and “kun-yomi”, but strongly attaching and memorising a keyword or meaning, and the way to write each kanji before tackling the readings makes remembering how to read them later much easier. 

The key is to enjoy the process and not make a chore out of it. Kanji are very beautiful and writing them is an art in itself. At iCLA, students learn Japanese calligraphy as part of their early Japanese studies, and it is very popular with our students and increases their enjoyment of learning kanji. In fact, learning kanji accelerates as you go on: the more kanji you learn, the easier it is to learn more kanji because you are already familiar with the radicals (more complex kanji are made of common set of visual elements called radicals that appear in the left, right, top or bottom parts of the character. Memorisation techniques like Heisig make use of this feature to help you attach strong visual stories to each kanji, aiding recall.) and patterns of meaning as well as pronunciation. 

You can use a lot of resources nowadays to further increase the efficiency of your kanji learning, let alone the fact that not many people need to hand write kanji with all our digital gadgets that enable us to type instead of writing from memory. Many Japanese forget their kanji from time to time (and you haven’t seen their handwriting yet!). You just need to familiarise yourself with how it looks. But I still recommend you know how to write the kanji you’ve learned. Someday, you might get caught without your phone and you’ll be left with nothing but your memory. Learning how to write from heart is a valuable skill when you have nothing else to help you.

5. Polite people

You can always practice with Japanese people when you are here in Japan (and in our digitalized era – from beyond the borders as well!). The Japanese are very kind and very polite, and as they’ve also been led to believe that their language is very difficult to learn, they get very excited when they see you studying it and speaking it, even if it is just “Konnichiwa”. They will do their best to speak to you in a way that you can understand, and they will encourage you to continue your studies.

6. Minimal slang and swear words

One of the more amusing linguistic experiments to conduct for yourself is to compare slang words with a good Japanese friend. No doubt you’ll find that you can keep rattling off different English slang for a concept (or body part) long after your Japanese friend has run out of words. It is the author’s belief that this is a big factor in making English the hardest language in the world to truly master! English is spoken around the world in a multitude of dialects and accents. Of course, Japanese people create new words every year and certain words do trend, but the volume of them pales in comparison to the tsunami of new slang being created every year in English! 

Japanese is also rather devoid of swear words compared to English. There are phrases you will only ever hear before fight scenes in anime and videogames, and you should not make the mistake of using them in public. If you think about all the various ways English speakers use certain four-letter words, can you imagine how difficult it must be to learn how to judge when it’s appropriate to use them and how to use them properly? On the whole Japanese is a polite language, and you can’t go wrong by sticking with being polite to people can you?  

7. Consistent Grammar rules

People starting out studying English are often confounded by the number of exceptions to its grammar rules. Here again, Japanese makes life a little simpler for its learners. The grammar rules are straightforward as are the way verbs and adjectives are conjugated. The exceptions to grammar rules are minimal, the difficulty arises in knowing whether the way you are saying, or writing, something is too formal for the situation, or not formal enough. This is not a problem unique to Japanese but with the focus on politeness in the culture people studying Japanese do tend to worry about it. Of course, people will cut you some slack when you are starting out.

Tips on How to Learn Japanese

iCLA Student writing Japanese Calligraphy

There are a variety of digital tools and textbooks out there that can help with your memorization of Japanese, grammar, vocabulary, and kanji. If you are conducting self-study of Japanese, it can be particularly valuable to do some research into different methods of language learning and memorization techniques before you begin. You can then try out a few different methods and arrive at one that best suits your preferred way of learning a new skill. The important point is that you set aside time every day (or almost every day!) to study. You should identify your intrinsic motivation for learning the language and seek to nurture and maintain it. 

“Here are some things that helped me a lot during my studies:

  • Watch Japanese news every day – YouTube now has a bunch of live streams of Japanese TV news, and watching them will increase your vocabulary drastically, and I mean it.
  • Watch anime (Japanese TV programs, etc.) with sub, not dub – While listening to Japanese speech, you will match it to the subtitles and learn new words that hide between the words you already know.
  • Refresh your kanji every day. Make a bunch of cards with all the kanji you want to learn for this level of your studies. Write a kanji and some words with it on one side, and all the readings and meanings on the other side. Look through the cards every day – if you cannot remember the meaning of a kanji or a word – write it down about 40 times (two lines in a notebook). This boosted my kanji knowledge through the roof because I hated to write this much and remembered all of them
  • Study REGULARLY. I mean it. It does not matter if you study once a week, or twice, or 15 hours – do it regularly and do not quit, because quitting will throw you back. Of course, circumstances arise but, in that case, do not worry, it is totally possible to get back on your Japanese horse.”
Anastasiia, 3rd year student at iCLA
Anastasiia – 3rd year student at iCLA

Of course, if you want to supercharge your Japanese learning, you should join a class. Many people have come to Japan and attained fluency through self-study, but there is no better way to learn Japanese than to take classes taught by experienced Japanese language professors, which is what the students of iCLA receive. As the degree program at iCLA is taught in English, we do not set a minimum level of Japanese for admissions. Students can come to Japan with little to no Japanese and progress through our Japanese Language courses. All students are given a Japanese level check test during orientation to make sure they are put into a class that is appropriate for their level. Once a student has passed Japanese 2 they can continue to take Japanese courses as electives, up to an advanced level. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning Japanese to a proficient level typically takes several years of study, depending on the learner's dedication and immersion.

Japanese is considered challenging for English speakers due to its distinct grammatical structure and writing system, but difficulty varies by learner.

A year of intensive study, especially in an immersive environment, can lead to a solid foundation in basic conversation and comprehension, but more advanced proficiency will take longer.

While challenging, Japanese can be self-taught using a combination of online resources, textbooks, and language exchange. Consistency and practice are key to making significant progress.

Learning Japanese opens up numerous cultural and professional opportunities, providing rewarding experiences that can enrich personal and business relationships and enhance your travel experiences.

The Japanese language includes over 50,000 kanji, though daily communication and literacy are possible with a much smaller subset of about 2,000 to 3,000 commonly used characters.


To sum up, the authors hope that you now also feel that the reputation Japanese has of being a difficult language to learn is misleading. At the end of the day, it is just another language that you could learn. It takes work and dedication, but it is not impossible or overly difficult, and you must test this for yourself! We’re sure you can do it!

About the Authors
Dr. Midori Inagaki, Professor of Japanese Language at iCLA
Dr. Midori Inagaki Doctor of Philosophy in Japanese Applied Linguistics at Waseda University, Lecturer of Japanese Language Program at iCLA, Taught Japanese at: Tokyo International University, Dublin City University, Ireland.
Mr. Masahiro Toma, Director of Language Learning and Acquisition Program at iCLA
Mr. Masahiro Toma Director of Language Learning and Acquisition Program at iCLA, Taught Japanese at: Akita International University; The Australian National University