Top 15 Japanese Vocabulary Tips

By Team Japan Switch | January 29th, 2021

Are you having trouble learning Japanese vocabulary? Do you find it difficult to remember? Is it too boring? Or maybe you don't even know where to begin to start learning Japanese vocabulary? Don't worry. Just read this article to learn 15 of the best ways to study Japanese vocabulary.

This article is part of a series of articles on how to self-study Japanese.

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    Japanese Vocabulary

    Learning Japanese can be a bit of a challenging endeavor. For starters, Japanese has three writing systems: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Kanji includes over 50,000 different characters, however, you only need to know about 2,000 of them to be considered fluent. You also only need to know about 5,000 Japanese vocabulary words to be considered fluent as well. But these numbers may still seem to be too high for some. Making the challenge of learning Japanese to be even more daunting. But don’t worry. Let’s take this slow. Let’s stop focusing on the numbers. Instead, let’s focus on learning Japanese vocabulary. 

    Vocabulary and grammar are the basis of any language. Although vocabulary can be the more difficult of the two to remember. People spend hours and hours just reading their vocabulary lists over and over again. Some might fill notebooks with words that they have written down hundreds of times. But this doesn’t seem to get anyone anywhere. It only causes more stress once you finally put the notebook and pencil down for a few hours only to realize hours later that you can barely remember anything you just studied. 

    Fret not. You’re just studying wrong. Many beginner language learners struggle with finding the right way to study. It’s a common phenomenon. So here’s a couple of tips to get you on the right path to learning Japanese.

    Japanese hiragana

    Top 3 Methods of Studying Japanese Vocabulary

    Learn Japanese Vocabulary Anywhere

    1. Spaced Repetition System (SRS)

    Study. Learn. Wait. Repeat. A spaced repetition system is a good way to learn anything. History, science, even some math concepts can be learned this way. This is because a spaced repetition system targets your long-term memory instead of your short-term memory. It works a little like this:

    "Alex wants to learn 40 new vocabulary words this month. So she developed a list of 40 new vocabulary words that she studies vigorously for a week. After a week Alex notices that she has memorized 8 words pretty well and doesn't feel the need to keep studying them as intensely as she does the other words. She decided to temporarily take these words off the list, but she will return to them periodically to ensure that she does remember them. At the end of the next week, she realizes that she can accurately recall half of the words on the list, thus she has decided to temporarily take these words off the list as well. Instead, Alex focuses on the words that she is still having trouble recalling after two weeks and will only periodically look at the other words that she can easily recall. By using this method by the end of the week Alex can easily and correctly remember the 40 vocabulary words. She decides she wants to learn 40 more new vocabulary words next month. She will still use the same method and she will also periodically incorporate the old vocabulary words, just to be sure that she doesn't forget them."

    You could potentially learn hundreds of Japanese vocabulary words in a short time using SRS. Just think, if you decide to follow the example you could learn 480 words in a year. You could also use this method to memorize kanji too. However, despite its pros, some may find this method to be a little lackluster and boring. It also seems overly complicated. But this method of studying is integrated into Japanese learning apps like Anki. So you don’t have to stress about finding a way to integrate previously studied words into the list of words you’re studying now. However, if you don’t like this method of studying, there are other ways to study.

    2. Mnemonics

    This is yet another great way to memorize information. Just like SRS, mnemonics targets your long-term memory. It is an especially great way to memorize kanji. But it can be used to memorize Japanese vocabulary as well. I have personally used this method to memorize kanji and vocabulary. And I’m almost positive that you have used this method at some point in your life as well. Mnemonics is a fancy way of saying to memorize through association. 

    The way that I have used mnemonics to memorize Japanese vocabulary words is through sound. Sometimes Japanese words sound similar to English words. One example of this is 自然 (しぜん/ shizen). It sounds like the word season, which is pretty close to its meaning, nature. Another word like this is 象 (ぞう/ zou). It almost sounds like the word zoo. Zoos have exotic animals such as elephants, which is what 象 means. You can also use onomatopoeias to associate a Japanese word with its meaning. 時計 (とけい/ tokei)is a prime example of this. When I hear the word 時計 it reminds me of the ticking of a clock. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. I can use this to associate the word with its meaning, watch.

    However, you can’t always use the Japanese pronunciation of a word to associate it with its meaning. The word 建物 (たてもの/ tatemono) is a prime example of this. It sounds nothing like its English translation (building) or anything that can be associated with a building. You’ll have to find a different way to remember this one. 

    Memorise Japanese Vocabulary Quickly and Efficiently

    3. Rote Memorization

    Rote memorization refers to the repeated review of studied material. In other words, it is the way that most language learners typically study. Wait! Didn’t I previously say that this is a bad way of studying? Spending hours and hours hunched over at your desk staring at seemingly endless vocabulary lists with only a few words sticking in your head. Well, it depends on how you use rote memorization.

    Rote memorization demands repetition, which is a good thing. The only way you will actually remember something, is by repeatedly reminding yourself of it. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you stare at Japanese vocabulary lists all day. You’ll probably end up falling asleep or looking at Instagram on your phone. Instead, you should try something like this:

    "Sarah wants to learn 20 new vocabulary words in a week. She decides to study her vocabulary list for 15 minutes every three hours every day. At the end of each day, she has studied her vocabulary list for at least an hour. After a few days, Sarah notices that she can easily recall a few of the vocabulary words and by the end of the week Sarah finds that she has accomplished her goal."

    The reason why Sarah can better remember her Japanese vocabulary words when using rote memorization is because she uses a short list and studies in short frequent increments every day. Usually, when people use this method they are trying to learn too much information in a short amount of time (ex. Cramming for a test). This method is more suited for remembering small amounts of information at a time. However, it should still be used with one of the other studying methods mentioned above, as it demands the repetition of studied material.

    How to Start Studying Japanese Vocabulary

    Learn Japanese Vocabulary with Japanese Textbooks

    1. Study Commonly Used Words

    It may seem obvious that you need to study commonly used words, but with hundreds of Japanese vocabulary lists floating around on the internet and the fact that knowing around 5,000 words is considered fluent, it can be hard to decide what words you actually need to know. But try not to stress about it. If you already have a Japanese textbook, then you are on the right path. Japanese textbooks already provide lists of words for you to study. If you do not have a Japanese textbook, don’t freak out. There are plenty of online vocabulary lists that contain commonly used words. 

    These lists may be organized into categories like food, clothing, verbs, and adjectives. So they should be easier to study. You can study one category at a time or mix categories. I recommend that you study verbs and adjectives together so that you can start practicing grammar patterns. Then select the types of nouns you want to study. You can study one category of nouns at a time or you can mix them up. The way that you study nouns should not affect your overall understanding of Japanese.

    2. Use Apps

    It should come as no surprise that I’m suggesting that you use apps to start studying, we do live in the age of technology after all. Textbooks are great, but sometimes we need a bit more than a textbook to study. Especially if you want to study on the go and you don’t feel like carrying a textbook with you. Apps are a good tool to use for these situations. Japanese learning apps are great to use in general, especially to help you memorize Japanese vocabulary and even learn new words. 

    Two great apps that you might want to try out are Anki and Memerise. Anki is a free app that uses flashcard decks to help you learn. You can make your own or you can use one of the decks that they have created. What makes Anki so special is that it uses SRS, so you won’t have to worry about figuring out when to revisit old vocabulary words. It does it for you. Memrise is also a free app that uses SRS.

    3. Use a Dictionary

    You should definitely buy or download an English-Japanese dictionary. It is impossible to learn any language without having a dictionary. By getting a dictionary you’ll be able to easily look up the translation of new words. You will also be able to translate English words into Japanese. However, you should be careful when you translate from English to Japanese using a dictionary. Some words are synonymous with each other, but they do not have the exact same meaning. Or the word may be commonly used in a different situation than the one you intend to use it for. 

    For example, in Japanese, there are multiple ways to describe late.

    1. 私はクラスをおそくなりました。(I was late for class.)
    2. 私はおそくをねました。(I went to sleep late.)
    3. おそいよるはすずしです。(It is cool late at night.)

    Look how the word late, which is in bold, is used in the first sentence compared to the other two. The first sentence describes being late for something. The second sentence describes doing something late. And the third sentence uses late as an adjective to describe the night. The location of the word is different in each sentence as well and different forms of the word are being used in each sentence. Standard dictionaries do not tell you about how to use a word in a sentence, so be careful.

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    4. Study Kanji

    You can not truly learn Japanese without learning kanji. Yes, you can speak Japanese without knowing kanji. But kanji is a big part of Japanese. Kanji is used every day and can be seen everywhere in Japan. If you decided to travel to Japan, you wouldn’t be able to read anything. Nor would you be able to work in Japan. So having an understanding of kanji is very important. 

    By studying kanji, you will also be able to learn new words that use the same kanji. Look at the word 音楽 (おんがく/ ongaku). If you don’t know either kanji in the word, it is impossible to read without looking it up. However, if you knew at least one kanji, you may be able to guess the meaning of the other kanji along with the meaning of the word. 音 (おん/ on) means sound, therefore the word has something to do with sounds. 楽 (がく/ gaku) means pleasure. If we combine the two meanings, we get “pleasurable sound.” Sounds that are pleasurable are typically referred to as music. Therefore 音楽 means music.

    You will also be able to pronounce these kanji by studying their on-yomi and kun-yomi readings. It may seem like a lot to study, but it gets easier the longer you study it. You will eventually start noticing patterns in kanji, leading to more ease in learning their meanings and writing them. If you want to learn more about kanji then check out The Ultimate Guide to Learning Japanese Kanji. The article provides a description of kanji and its importance in Japanese culture. And it also includes some great tips on how to learn kanji.


    5. Make a Plan to Study

    It is by far one of the simplest things on this list, but it can be hard to execute. Making time to study for something is always difficult. It can be even more difficult if you do not give yourself enough incentive to complete your goals. This is why many people who intend to teach themselves a language can find it very hard to follow through on their plans. We end up saying things like, “Oh, I don’t have time to study. I’ll do it tomorrow,” or “This is too much. I can’t study all of this right now. Maybe later.” And later never comes. Instead of making excuses and saying that you can’t do something, say what you can do. 

    Make a manageable plan. Instead of spending an hour studying without a break. Break up your study time. Studying for a whole hour straight, with no distractions is pretty boring anyway. Instead of spending an hour a day studying Japanese vocabulary, try to shorten the time to smaller increments and study vocabulary multiple times a day. Maybe you don’t want to study the same topic for vocabulary words every week. Study a new topic every week, while still occasionally revisiting old vocabulary words. Keep it interesting. 

    But most importantly make sure that your plan fits your schedule. If you have a full-time job or you are a full-time student then maybe spending an hour studying Japanese on the weekday may be too much for you. You can try studying Japanese vocabulary and grammar only twice a week, but alternate the days that you study them. And then study kanji on the weekend. Or if you can’t study during the weekday, study on the weekend. Put your study schedule on a calendar on your phone, with alarms to remind you when and what to study each day. So that you can not only plan to study but also execute your plan to study. 

    Man Listening to Good Japanese Music

    Make Studying Japanese Vocabulary Fun

    1. Listen to Japanese Music

    So far I’ve discussed several basic ways to learn Japanese vocabulary, but let’s make it a bit more interesting. Try listening to Japanese music. You’ll gain new vocabulary words and you may even hear some that you already know. By continuously exposing your auditory senses to Japanese music, you’ll be able to better differentiate words in Japanese. 

    So pick your favorite songs and make a playlist and just listen to music for a while. Listen to Japanese music while you’re cooking, doing homework, or just chilling. And if you can, try looking up a translation of the song or try translating the song yourself. I do this when I have spare time. I mainly listen to songs from anime, but I do have a few rock bands that I really like. One Ok Rock and Uverworld are my favorite. If you don’t listen to Japanese music, you should start. There are plenty of artists and genres to choose from. If you like rap, then listen to KANDYTOWN, a rap group that creates music that is reminiscent of the ’90s. Whatever you choose to listen to, just make sure it is something you like. You will not want to pay attention to the song if it’s hurting your ears to listen to.

    2. Watch Anime

    This is yet another way to improve your listening skills and build your vocabulary. It is also another way that I improved mine. There are just some words that get repeated over and over again that you can’t help but remember. Words like なかま (nakama/ friend), だいすき (daisuki/ love), and ありがとう (arigatou/ thank you) are a few common words that you constantly hear in anime. However, there may be some words that are more specific to one show or one genre like かいぞく (kaizoku/ pirate) or まほう (mahoō/ magic). So look out for those and be sure to look up their meanings. 

    Just like the previous tip, if you don’t watch anime, start watching anime. Hearing conversations in Japanese can help you better understand the language. And besides, anime is really good. It also has plenty of genres and plenty of shows to choose from. If you’re a beginner and you want to watch a show that has more vocabulary words around your proficiency level then I recommend that you start watching kid shows like Doraemon and Digimon. However, make sure that you are watching a show that you like and can really listen to and enjoy.

    3. Play Japanese Vocabulary Games

    Using flashcards is a great way to study, but that gets old, stale, and dry pretty quickly. Games, however, are always interesting. And are excellent ways to study. Two good apps to install are Infinite Japanese and Renshuu: Personalized Japanese Learning. Both apps are free, but they do have different focuses. Infinite Japanese focuses primarily on vocabulary, which is organized into different categories. The app teaches you how to pronounce and spell words. You can adjust the difficulty of the game and you can change the form of the vocabulary words. Infinite Japanese also has a cute design and is a casual game, so it isn’t very hard to play. 

    Renshuu: Personalized Japanese Learning has far more features than Infinite Japanese. This app teaches you grammar, vocabulary, and kanji. It uses audio, video, and images to teach. It also has a few games including crossword puzzles. The layout is simple, and the characters are simple but cute. Renshuu is a good all-rounder app to install on your phone, while Infinite Japanese is a good app for beginners to use to study vocabulary.

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    Can't Remember Your Japanese Vocabulary Words

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    1. Use Japanese Vocabulary Words in Conversations and Writings

    Knowing how to spell and pronounce a word is okay, but knowing how to use a word in sentences and everyday conversations is excellent. You do want to learn how to speak Japanese after all. So definitely practice this. By using Japanese vocabulary words in conversations and your writings, you’ll also be able to practice grammar and better remember your vocabulary words by constantly using them. You will also be able to better understand the placement of words in sentences. Understanding the placement of words in sentences is integral to learning Japanese because the positioning of words is different from how they are positioned in English. So practice, practice, practice.

    You may need a study partner and a journal for this. Try asking a Japanese friend for help with this. If you do not have a Japanese friend try making a pen pal online. You want to have someone who can tell you if the sentences you are making are grammatically correct and if your use of the vocabulary words in the sentence is correct.

    2. Make Your Own Japanese Vocabulary List

    If you find that you can not remember some of the vocabulary words on your list, it may be because you do not use them enough. While the previous tip is supposed to get you to use vocabulary words more so that you remember them, you may find that you are not able to use some vocabulary words as regularly as others. This is okay. Not all words come up in everyday conversations. Therefore, rather than continuing to use online Japanese vocabulary lists, try making your own.

    Think about words that you use on a daily basis, and make a Japanese vocabulary list from that. You can also make a vocabulary list from words that you hear in anime and Japanese music or read in mangas, books, and newspapers. Look up the words that you hear on anime or in Japanese media - try your best to spell them correctly, write down the correct hiragana spelling and its meaning in a notebook. You can also include the kanji for the words in your list, just make sure that it is the correct kanji for the word.

    3. Read Japanese Books

    Reading Japanese books may be hard for beginners, as they probably contain unfamiliar kanji and grammar. However, do not let that discourage you from reading. Most Japanese textbooks include short passages for each chapter that include the grammar points, vocabulary, and kanji learned in the chapter. If you are a beginner and you want to read something other than the passages provided in Japanese textbooks, you can read Traditional Japanese Children’s Stories. The site may not be that aesthetically appealing, but you can read traditional stories like Urishima and the Kingdom beneath the sea and Momotarou: The Peach Boy with line by line English translations. The site is also easier to navigate because it is written for Japanese learners. Whereas other sites that provide Japanese stories are written for Japanese children and are entirely in Japanese.

    If you are an intermediate student, you may want to start reading Japanese newspapers. There is an online newspaper called New Web Easy. It is aimed at helping Japanese learners. The site does not provide any English translations and it does include a lot of kanji. However, the site does provide the hiragana reading of the kanji. You can also have the newspaper read to you. If you don’t like to read the newspaper, then you can try reading Japanese web magazines. Watanoc is a free Japanese web magazine that provides several articles about life in Japan. Their articles are written for beginners and intermediate students. It also provides line by line English translations and you can have articles read to you. However, the site has not been updated since 2016. But you can still find plenty of articles to help learn Japanese.

    Studying Japanese Kanji and Vocabulary

    4. Post-Its All Over Your House

    This one might be a little out there, but it works too. Put post-its on items all over your house. Write ほん (hon/ book) on your books, テルビ (terubi/ TV) on your TV, and かばん (kaban/ bag) on your bags. You will be forced to look at these words every time you use the item. While you won’t be practicing writing these words, you will be learning through association. So make sure you put the word on the correct item. 

    You may annoy your roommate, parents, or significant other by doing this, but get them involved in studying Japanese too. Have them cover up the post-it or remove them from items. Then tell them what the object is in Japanese - you may want to put romaji at the bottom of the post-it for this. You can also remove all of the post-its and have them quiz you on what the Japanese vocabulary word means. Hopefully, they’re good at Japanese pronunciation. 

    Don't Stress!

    Learning a foreign language can be difficult and challenging at times, but don’t stress yourself out over that. You’ll get it eventually. Just keep trying. Besides now you know 15 amazing ways to learn Japanese vocabulary, including three memorization methods. Use these tips in combination with each other, in ways that are more suited to your lifestyle and learning style. So if you’re a person who loves to study by using flashcards, check out Anki and utilize SRS. If you learn by doing, definitely start reading Japanese written material. Reading books, manga, and newspapers are all interesting ways to learn Japanese. And if you just don’t feel like studying some days or want something fun to do, watch some anime. Listen to music. Play a game or two. Keep it fun and interesting. If you need more help learning Japanese vocabulary, check out our Ultimate Guide to Learning Japanese Vocabulary. Good luck with learning Japanese.

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