Guide to Free Japanese Lessons in Tokyo

Want to learn Japanese, but just can't stretch the budget that far? Well, there are likely free or almost-free Japanese classes provided by Japanese volunteers and non-profit organizations near you in Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures!

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    Eligibility For Free Japanese Lessons

    There are free Japanese language classes in Tokyo and others locations around Japan near you and are available to all local foreign residents. Some community groups may check your ID to verify that you are a resident of the area, but this usually only happens in areas where there are so many foreign residents who want to learn that the school cannot accommodate the needs. In general, if you can't find a community center near you in Japan, you can reach out to a neighboring area. I personally have never been asked to show ID, despite going to 4 different community centers in Tokyo.

    Does the staff speak English?

    Most of the organizers speak English, and every group has at least one person who can speak English. Depending on the area, some groups also have support for Chinese, Tagalog, Spanish, and Portuguese.

    Types of Japanese Lessons Offered

    Do they offer free Japanese classes for beginner students?

    Most groups in Tokyo offer free Japanese classes for all student levels. Some groups may choose not to accept beginner level foreign residents. However, if you live in Tokyo, each ward has more than 3 groups, so you are bound to find one that matches your Japanese language level. The most common complaint we hear is that many volunteers are not be able to explain things in English, so beginners might struggle in the lessons.

    For those not living in Tokyo, usually any city with 50,000 residents or more has a community center which provides volunteer Japanese lessons (but these may be less conveniently located than urban areas, unfortunately).

    Do they offer lessons for advanced students?

    Organizations that offer private lessons can often cater to upper-level students. However, teaching an advanced student can be stressful for a volunteer, so not every group will have the option. Most volunteer teachers won't be able to explain JLPT 1 (Japanese Language Proficiency Test N1) content. They also may not be personally interested in talking about serious topics like politics, economics, etc. I have been turned down from some community centers because they felt my level was too high or the content I was interested in was not a match for their current group of volunteers.

    Do they offer JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) support lessons?

    Some groups offer JLPT support lessons approximately three months before the actual exam. They organize students into groups based on individual Japanese language levels and work through a JLPT textbook. They may offer a mock exam for the various sections of the test. Most of these places offer JLPT lesson support for levels N4, N3 and N2. If the volunteer Japanese classroom nearest to you does not provide N1 lessons, consider checking out the next Ward over. Usually one of the three closest areas will provide N1 test support.

    The primary downside to group JLPT lessons is that you may be studying with instructors who are from countries where English is not common, so the teacher may not be able to explain lesson content in English. In this case, the default language is often Japanese, and the teacher may use their native language to explain in-depth concepts. Every school is different and is determined by the current group of volunteers. You may need to investigate several community centers in and around your area to find the teacher and classmates who match your needs.

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    How much do the volunteer lessons cost?

    Free or Almost Free Japanese Lessons

    Based on my experience, around 50% of community centers charge 100 to 500 yen per class. These tiny fees goes to cover the renting of the space and operational costs like staff transportation or snacks. All the volunteer groups are doing this for non-profit reasons, so anything they charge is for overhead costs only. In the rare case, some groups may charge more than 500 yen per class, but they tend to take their students out on free (included) trips.

    JLPT Courses and Hardcore Volunteer Groups May Charge More

    The volunteer group may charge you extra for the JLPT lessons, for lesson materials, or other associated costs, but they are generally reasonable and less than 1000 yen per lesson.

    In the extremely rare case, the community group produced their own textbook content and could charge around 500 - 1000 yen per lesson. If the lessons are around 1000 yen, the teachers often are professionally trained and/or experienced.

    Textbooks are Reasonable

    Volunteer Japanese classrooms may require you to purchase the textbook on Amazon or at a bookstore. Most schools use basic textbooks like Minna no nihongo or Genki Japanese because they are the most well known and have editions in multiple languages. Minna no nihongo has versions in Thai, Filipino, Chinese, Portuguese, English, and more, so the volunteer organizations can teach a wide range of students using the same textbook.

    Japanese textbooks are inexpensive and will usually cost 2000 - 3000 yen. If you add on the workbooks, which are 1000 - 2000 yen, the total cost is 3500 - 4000 yen on average.


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    When are volunteer lessons held?

    Volunteer Japanese Lesson Schedules Vary Greatly

    The schedules for organizations will vary greatly. Most organizations hold lessons twice a week at a specific day and time. The lessons will be in either the morning or afternoon and on a mixture of weekdays, weekends, or both.

    Uncommon Schedules

    Most organizations do not provide volunteer lessons in the evening. The main reason is that most volunteers do not want to be "working" at night; they want time with their families. You may find a few late schedules, but it is really rare.

    No Intensive Schedules

    For those who want accelerated learning, you won't find any organization that will provide you a lesson every day. You could try joining several organizations and rotate between them day by day.

    Can I join the lessons anytime?

    Organizations that provide private lessons or keep a non-fixed schedule allow students to join whenever they want. You might not be able to join a lesson on the day you sign up, but you'll be able to go anytime after that. You may need to inform them if you can't attend your next lesson so they can prepare the teacher or make the decision to cancel the class.

    Lessons with a fixed start and end date will not allow students to join mid-term. Volunteer Japanese lessons in Tokyo that provide fixed schedules will normally charge several thousand yen upfront for the whole course and require you to purchase the textbook. They normally do not offer trial lessons for people who just want to see how the lessons flow. They want serious students who will come for the entire course. Depending on their schedule and demand, you may need to wait three to six months to join a course.

    Common Complaints about Volunteer Japanese Lessons

    Which students get the best experience?

    The main group of foreigners who have an unsatisfying experience with free Japanese lessons are beginner students. Combine a lack of professional teaching experience with non-English-speaking volunteers, and you have a lesson that's confusing and frustrating for beginner students. Advanced students will normally find that they do not have any teachers who can properly challenge them. Mid-level students are likely the most to enjoy and benefit from these lessons. I started taking community lessons near my place at an N3 daily conversation level, so I had no problems with following the class material.

    My opinion is that volunteer lessons are best for students between N3 and N2 level. To make the jump from beginner to N3, I recommend you check out our school Japan Switch (not free but affordable), which specializes in beginner lessons. We charge 1500 yen for group lessons and 3000 yen for private lessons.

    Complaint 1 : Teachers do not speak English

    Most organizations will have at least one teacher who speaks English, but they may not have enough English speakers to accommodate all their classes. Many students have complained that their teacher would only speak in Japanese and didn't (or couldn't) simplify their Japanese.

    Complain 2 : Teachers who speak too much English

    Ironically, the opposite complaint is also common. Many of the volunteers come to practice their English and meet foreigners, and some will end up speaking way too much English during the lesson. They may also try to explain things in English even though students want a Japanese explanation.

    Complaint 3 : Teachers are not trained

    The volunteers are just that; they aren't trained and don't know how to teach a lesson from start to finish. Teachers who don't know how to teach will often move the lesson away from the textbook into a free conversation session. There are a few trained teachers in each volunteer center or people aiming to become teachers, but the majority of volunteers are hobbyists and don't want to be a professional instructor. They may not be able to answer technical questions about the Japanese language, but they will answer as a native speaker.

    Complaint 4 : Teachers change all the time

    Volunteer Japanese lessons can be great for meeting a variety of people in your area and, perhaps, living near you but may not be suitable for someone who prefers the same teacher to develop a long-term relationship with. What many foreigners don't realize is that the volunteers come whenever they want, and their transportation fees are out of pocket. The misalignment of expectations sometimes leads to frustration and lessons that may not be worth either parties' time. Personally, the volunteer community groups near me had a strong core group of people who came regularly. If you make the request for someone consistent, I think most places will be able to accommodate you.

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    Where can I find free Japanese lessons near me?

    Free Japanese classes in Tokyo near you

    The following two sites are general listing sites that link to many of the volunteer groups who provide free Japanese classes in Tokyo. Check the following two sites if you cannot find free Japanese classes near you.

    Tokyo Nihongo Volunteer Network

    The TNVN network covers volunteer lesson groups for all of the 23 Tokyo Wards. Make sure to choose the English option after arriving to the website.

    UBIQ Tokyo

    The TNVN network covers volunteer lesson groups for all of the 23 Tokyo Ward and areas in Tokyo located outside of the 23 wards, such as Hachioji, etc.

    The following sites are links to local ward government websites that may have additional groups not mentioned in the two sites listed above.

    Volunteer Japanese Lessons in Adachi Ward

    Here is a list of groups who provide community lessons in Adachi Ward.

    Volunteer Japanese Lessons in Chuo Ward

    Here is a list of groups who provide community lessons in Chuo Ward.

    Volunteer Japanese Lessons in Itahashi Ward

    Here is a list of groups who provide community lessons in Itahashi Ward.

    Volunteer Japanese Lessons in Katsushika Ward

    Here is a list of groups who provide community lessons in Katsushika Ward.

    Volunteer Japanese Lessons in Nakano Ward

    Here is a list of groups who provide community lessons in Nakano Ward.

    Volunteer Japanese Lessons in Shinjuku Ward

    Here is a list of groups who provide community lessons in Shinjuku Ward.

    Free Japanese Lessons in Saitama

    Volunteer Japanese Lessons in Saitama

    Free Japanese Lessons in Chiba

    Here are a list of groups who provide community lessons in Chiba.

    Free Japanese Lessons in Kanagawa

    List of community centers that provide Japanese lessons in other parts of Kanagawa

    Free Japanese Lessons for Job Seekers

    The government provides a free 120 hour Japanese course to special job seekers in Japan. These lessons are provided in 20 different convenient locations all over Japan. You can find more information here and the bottom information was quoted from their site.

    “This program targets those of foreign residents who have difficulties in finding stable employment due to insufficient knowledge and necessary skills for employment, including Japanese communication skills, even though they are actively engaged in job-hunting activities with high level of motivation.”

    But also...

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    If you're dead set on community lessons and don't mind all the wild card factors, one thing you can do to have a bit more control over your learning is how you supplement those lessons.

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