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Should I Learn Japanese if I Want to Move to Japan?

Should I Learn Japanese if I Want to Move to Japan?

After living abroad in two very different Asian countries, Japan and Hong Kong, I am often asked a lot of questions regarding life in Asia.

One of the most common questions I seem to get asked is whether or not one should learn Japanese before moving to Japan. 

And while I’m quite the advocate for learning any local language while living there, my answer for if you should learn Japanese is a big, fat YES!

In a country where English skills are low, it’s best to learn a bit of Japanese. A while back I wrote 10 Words You Must Know When Traveling to Japan, which has phrases perfect for tourists, but if you’re planning to stay in Japan longer than a few weeks, I really recommend you learn to read Japanese.

An Introduction to the Writing System

Learning how to read Japanese, even if you don’t know the meaning behind what you’re reading, is highly advantageous. But when people learn that Japanese has 3 writing systems, a lot of people quit before they even begin. Let me assure you, it’s a lot easier than it sounds.

Japanese can be broken down into kana and kanji. So let’s start with the two kana alphabets: hiragana and katakana.

Besudesu Abroad

Hiragana is a phonetic alphabet used to compose almost all Japanese words. It is the first writing system taught to Japanese children, and although most words will be replaced by kanji later in one’s studies, hiragana is still used for grammatical particles, verb endings, or for words whose kanji are obsolete.

These 46 characters include 5 vowels (a i u e o) and 40 syllables made by a vowel combined with a consonant (ka, ki, ku, ke, ko…ba, bi, bu, be, bo…etc). The final character to make 46 is the ‘n‘ sound.

People often classify hiragana as more cursive or squiggly than it’s katakana counterpart.

りんご (ri-n-go) Apple
さん (sa-n) Mr/Mrs/Miss
にほん (ni-ho-n) Japan

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The 46 sounds of katakana are exactly the same as for hiragana, it’s just the characters are written differently. Relatively easy to tell apart from the round hiragana characters, katakana is mostly made up of straight lines and sharp angles. Katakana is mostly used for transliterating foreign names and words.

Even though I said most children learn hiragana first, katakana might actually be the most useful for foreigners to learn first. When reading katakana, you are often just reading English words using the Japanese sounds. Go ahead and try to guess a few of the words below– leave your guesses in the comments below and I’ll tell you if you’re right!

バナナ (ba-na-na)
アメリカ (a-me-ri-ka)
マクドナルド (ma-ku-do-na-ru-do)
ディズニーランド (di-zu-ni-ra-n-do)

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ittsu ・ a・ sumoru warudo


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And then there’s kanji, adopted logographic Chinese characters. Kanji can be identified easily from kana because they often look more complex. There are currently over 50,000 kanji, each with multiple ways to read them depending on how they are combined with other kanji and kana. Despite this high number, you really only need to know 2,000 to read a newspaper and survive in Japan.

Although kanji is often a pain to learn, once you do, Japanese becomes a whole lot easier. Kanji helps us figure out separate words within a sentence (there are no spaces in Japanese) and it is also useful for distinguishing between homophones (which occurs quite often given the limited number of sounds in Japanese).

東京 (とうきょう to-u-kyo-u)Tokyo
寿司 (すし su-shi)Sushi
夏 (なつ na-tsu)Summer

 The Challenge

The real challenge comes from the fact that these different writing systems will be mixed together in a single sentence. Can you figure out which writing system is which in the sentence below?

Besudesu Abroad

Once you have mastered reading a little Japanese, life in Japan becomes a piece of cake, or ケーキ(ke-e-ki)! Finding your way around will become much easier and you will no longer have to point to random things on menus hoping for the best.

So give it a try, I promise it’ll be worthwhile.

If you ever need help learning Japanese there are plenty of great resources you can find through Google or Youtube, or I’m always happy to answer questions as well! 

Do you think it’s important to learn the language of the country you’ll be moving to?


  1. Thank you so much for this post, very interesting and i would love to read more on the topic of Japanese language, it is so exciting that there are many writing systems. I’ve also heard that Japanese has Men and Women language. Is that true? how would that work? How do people communicate then?

    I’m an expat in Libya and i’d have the same advice with regards learning the Arabic language. Knowing how to READ it makes life so much easier right from the start and if you can learn a few words later that will improve your change to integrate in this country.

    I love your blog by the way… xx
    Jameela recently posted…Language Gap…at home!My Profile

    • I’ll be writing a post soon that talks all about the Japanese language system :)
      I can imagine the difference it makes knowing some basic Arabic in Libya. How much have you picked up?

    • It’s true that there is something like a “female and male language” in Japanese, but it’s more like nuances. There’s no problem when people communicate.
      It’s really difficult to explain without going into the details of the Japanese language, though.

      Japanese is such a beautiful language! :D

      • Yeah, the “male and female” more so refers to the writing system, but that’s all historical and nowadays it’s the same for everyone. There are, however, different levels of respect, which add a level of complication to speaking.

        But I’ll be covering all of this soon Jameela! :)

  2. The “sad” thing is that one can manage to somewhat survive in Japan without speaking Japanese – or only knowing the basics.
    I’ve met (mainly) guys who stayed in Japan for over 10 years and their Japanese was worse than mine when I first arrived in the land of the rising sun!!

    How does that work?
    Well, they’re very dependant on their Japanese friends, girlfriends or wives, but are unable to do anything without the help from others.
    If that’s the kind of lifestyle you want to lead, then go ahead and refuse to learn the language.

    I’m a firm believer that you ALWAYS should study the language of the country you choose to live in.

    I hear a lot of peole complain that they don’t have the time, but you NEED to make the time if you plan to stay somewhere. I did, too. :)

    • Yeah, I completely agree that you should at least TRY to study the language. Most of my co-workers don’t know a word of Cantonese though and rely on me to order or do things for them.

      At least here, English is an official language so majority of people speak it to some extent. Still baffles me about people living in Japan who don’t know any Japanese though!

  3. Hey!
    I lived in Japan for a few years and while I’ve never been there while not being able to speak Japanese, I know lots and lots of people who live there who don’t know a lick of Japanese.
    I’d say it’s not that important to force yourself to learn it if you don’t want to – Japanese is very easy to just pick up as you go along.

    I’m glad I found your blog! Looking forward to reading more of what you’ve written :)

    • I agree that it’s a language that is really easy to pick up while living there!

      And if you’re located in a big city you can get by fine without knowing any, which is why most tourists would be fine. But when it comes to more rural areas, I do know some people who found themselves needing to quickly learn some of the language.

      Glad you enjoy my blog! :)

  4. Japan’s a good country if you can get out and make friends.

  5. I love reading through your blog and look forward to all your posts! Keep up the great work!

  6. Definitely a good idea to learn a new language. Especially coming from America, where no one stresses the importance of being multilingual.

    Before we left to France, I learned some French (now, I’m a lot better at it).

    And it just helps to understand the culture so much more. =)
    nicole recently posted…Wednesday’s Wonder: The Fortune Cookies of LantauMy Profile

    • It really does help to understand, and appreciate, the culture more.

      I wish the US stressed the importance of being multilingual more than it does.