Learning Japanese: 6 best apps for total beginners

best apps to learn Japanese
Learning Japanese is a great to immerse yourself in a new culture. Source: AFP

Do you struggle to know what someone is saying when playing a game like “Ghost of Tsushima,” watching your favourite anime, or reading a manga? 

You may want to consider downloading the best apps to learn Japanese.

After all, there are plenty of benefits to mastering the language. 

Take cultural immersion, for example. “Ghost of Tsushima” follows the story of Jin Sakai, a samurai on a mission to protect the island of Tsushima (which is a real island situated between the Tsushima Strait and Korea Strait) from fierce Mongol armies. 

While players can enjoy the story dubbed in English, playing the game in Japanese allows you to truly throw yourself into the culture. 

It adds a new layer of understanding as you see Sakai’s struggle to continue to abide by the samurai code that he has believed in his entire life.

Learning a new language can also give you another perspective or insight into a culture and mindset. This makes you more open to new people. 

While the list of benefits to mastering the Japanese language is seemingly endless, here are some of the top reasons:

  • You can work in Japan. Most Japanese companies require applicants to be fluent in the language. Having a good command of the language makes it easier to get your foot to the door.
  • You can study at Japanese universities, such as the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University, which are consistently Asia’s best and in the world’s top 100
  • Travelling through Japan is much easier when you’re familiar with the language. Locals are more likely to talk with you and you can explore rural parts of the country with confidence.

Choosing the best apps to learn Japanese: 5 things to look out for 

With so many different kinds of apps, it can be challenging to narrow down the best apps to learn Japanese. 

Here are a few things to keep an eye out for:

1. Your ability to read, write or speak the Japanese language 

As a beginner, you should focus on improving your vocabulary and choose an app that teaches you simple grammar and sentence structure.

If you are looking for a more advanced level of studies, you won’t need to worry about apps that teach you hiragana and katakana — go for apps that focus on kanji or reading ability.

Hiragana is mainly used to represent Japanese words, while katakana represents foreign words.

For example, “arigatou”, Japanese for “thank you”, is typically written “ありがとう” (a-ri-ga-to-u) using hiragana characters, whereas “America” is written アメリカ (a-me-ri-ka) using katakana.

2. Time commitment 

Are you busy balancing your studies with extra-curricular activities after class? 

How much time you set aside to learn Japanese will determine the kind of apps that you’ll choose. 

Some apps require you to log in daily to refresh your memory of flashcards. Others have gamified the learning process, which rewards you for many days you log in a row to study Japanese. 

If you struggle to make time, consider using apps that allow you to pop in and learn at your own pace.

best apps to learn Japanese

The Japanese Language Proficiency Test is a timed, paper-based standardised test designed to gauge your reading comprehension and listening skills in Japanese with five difficulty levels. Source: AFP

3. Specific skills

Have you signed up for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test and are looking to target specific skills like kanji or grammar? 

Or do you want to improve your listening after finding a Japanese conversation partner? 

In this case, you should focus on apps that teach a specific skill, zeroing in on your weak points in Japanese.

4. The app does not gloss over grammar 

Many companies will take the structure of their best Spanish course, replace it with Japanese words, and call it a Japanese course, according to Live Fluent. 

That won’t work with the Japanese language simply because grammatically speaking, Japanese has little to nothing in common with English. 

The best apps to learn Japanese will teach you the language on its own terms. It recognises what you need to know as a native English speaker learning Japanese.

5. The app doesn’t ignore the writing system (specifically kanji)

Did you know that some Japanese courses and apps don’t focus on teaching the Japanese writing system? 

If you’re serious about learning the language, it’s crucial for you to master this aspect. 

Written Japanese combines logographic characters (kanji) with syllabic ones (katakana). Each kanji character represents a word or idea, much like Chinese characters.

best apps to learn Japanese

Signage in kanji characters for the Tokyo District Court is seen outside the premises in Tokyo. Source: AFP

6 best apps to learn Japanese

1. Japanesepod101

  • Price: US$4 per month

Japanesepod101 is one of the best apps to learn Japanese for good reason.

Much of this app is focused on podcast-styled audio lessons that feature a wide range of valuable tools and resources, such as spaced repetition flashcards for learning kanji.

Each episode is centred around a Japanese conversation between two native speakers. Two English-speaking hosts will break down the grammar and Japanese within this dialogue. 

This format is great for beginners because you learn new words and grammar in the context of a real conversation. 

Beyond this, each lesson is complete with sample sentences, vocabulary lists, grammar guides, audio transcripts, and review tools for Kanji. 

The lessons progress all the way up to the advanced level, which makes it worth paying for a paid subscription that starts at US$4 per month. 

2. Pimsleur

  • Price: US$14.95 per month

Pimsleur has a long-standing reputation for being an effective tool for learning how to speak a foreign language. 

It uses a unique feedback method to help you practice thinking in Japanese and produce your answers. 

As far as apps go, this is the closest you can get to practice speaking Japanese without being face-to-face with a real-life native speaker. 

Like Japanesepod101, you get to learn grammar implicitly through conversation patterns and explicitly through rules and grammar charts. 

The app also includes a hefty reading track woven into the audio lessons. 

Learners are first taught hiragana by reading texts phonetically (along with native audio). Later, users are gradually introduced to Kanji. 

best apps to learn Japanese

Speak like a local with JA Sensei. Source: AFP

3. JA Sensei

  • Price: Free

JA Sensei is a beginner’s app that covers basic Japanese reading, writing, listening and speaking.

This self-proclaimed “all-in-one” app targets all of the core language skills: reading, writing, listening and speaking in Japanese.

Each lesson introduces grammar and vocabulary with real-world examples. There are regular comprehension checks, and the app’s quizzes employ the spaced repetition system that allows you to review what you’ve learned.

You can even record your own pronunciations too and check them against those of natives.

JA Sensei features a lot of other language-learning tools, such as native-recorded audio, phrasebooks and a drawing tool for writing practice.

A neat feature of this app is the handy cultural facts, which would prove helpful to students who are curious about Japanese culture, tradition, and customs.

4. Obenkyo

  • Price: Free 

Did you know that “obenkyo” means “study” in Japanese? 

This word perfectly captures the app‘s approach to help its users to study and master the written aspects of Japanese. 

The app also has a grammar section, but it’s renowned for teaching beginners to write in Japanese, helping them master kanji, katakana, and hiragana. 

The best part? Obenkyo isn’t structured like a traditional course — you’re free to learn Japanese and explore all of the app’s content at once, as compared to a step-by-step lesson system.

You can also study and practice through multiple-choice questions that teach you how to write kanji — an essential skill if you want to get the hang of the language.

best apps to learn Japanese

Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese is a handy resource to gather sentence examples, dialogues, and tips for what using what you learn. Source: AFP

5. Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese

  • Price: Free

Tae Kim is the creator of the site: Guide to Learning Japanese.

Tae Kim’s guide to Japanese breaks down challenging grammar and vocabulary explanations into simple terms. 

The app also provides sentence examples, dialogues, and tips for using what you learn. In addition to grammar and vocabulary, learners are also exposed to hiragana, katakana, and kanji.

While the app is not available for download on newer Android and Apple devices, much of this resource is still available on Tae Kim’s site. 

6. Learn Japanese Phrases

  • Price: Free

This app helps you to study words and phrases with vocabulary and pronunciation tools.

Learn Japanese Phrases contains hundreds of famous words and phrases aimed at beginner learners.

They’re grouped into sections like greetings, eating and romance — you can even track your favourite phrases in a personal collection. Each word and phrase is accompanied by audio which you can slow down manually.

The app also allows you to record yourself speaking and compare your pronunciation with the program’s audio so you can check if your accent sounds like that of a native.

The best part? You don’t need an internet connection to use the app, so you can access it anywhere, anytime.