People often ask me about how I learnt Japanese and how they can start their own study journey. I am mostly self-taught and my skills aren’t fabulous but this is how I taught myself and some of my personal tips for teaching yourself Japanese through the exciting medium of Johnny’s! 🤣
My Japanese Journey
After I graduated university I enrolled in a vocational Japanese language course. Since I live in Tasmania (the ass-end of the world) this was with an online tutor based in a centre in Adelaide. I had online lessons, a workbook and 1-2 hours of Skype conversation practice a week. I did this as a hobby; I was working full-time as a speech therapist at the time. After 18 months I passed an exam and got my Certificate 2 in Foreign Language- Japanese. I’m going to say it’s equivalent to about N5 level JLPT. I had basic conversation and direction giving skills, could write a basic letter and understand all hiragana/katakana and some basic kanji.
Then I went to Japan for two years to work as an English teacher. Through the JET Program I was given free access to an intermediate level online Japanese text book which I used to self-study for my first year. This taught me more complex grammar and vocabulary. In my second year in Japan I swapped exclusively to self-study using the Genki and Nihongo Challenge textbooks, as well as drilling kanji either as they came up in my life or using a chunky kanji book I bought myself.
During this time I also had a lot of opportunity to learn Japanese through my work as an English teacher. Listening to how the Japanese teachers taught English grammar in Japanese was like reverse learning for me. I learnt how to use よう and passive form properly in Japanese when we taught these English forms to our middle school students. I would use their English textbooks to teach myself Japanese. I also forced myself to write my elementary school lesson plans in both English and Japanese. I didn’t need to write them in Japanese and I know that a lot of the translations were crappy and made no sense but the elementary school teachers really appreciated it and would help teach me the proper vocabulary and phrasing to describe games and activities. And of course there was plenty of passive learning through conversation. Nothing really beats immersion to bring your textbook language skills down to a functional, everyday level.
At the end of my two years in Japan I sat the JLPT in Nagasaki and passed level N3. Since coming back to Australia I haven’t done anymore formal study but I continue to learn more and develop my skills through my fangirl activities. I do miss formal study though and would like to push myself to sit the N2 sometime in 2020.
My Formal Study Recommendations
A lot of people around me recommend the Genki textbook/workbook series and now I do too! They teach grammar in a nice easy to understand way and give lots of opportunity to practice what you’ve learnt.
I also used the Nihongo Challenge series from a company called ask. These are great if you’re studying for the JLPT as well. They’re broken into grammar, vocab, reading etc so you can pick depending on the areas you want to work on. The activities are really quick so I’d keep it on my desk and do a page or so every now and then when I had time. It’s a great booster.
For kanji I just bought some big, fat kanji book off the shelf (Honestly they are all much of a muchness to me). Then I found a list of JLPT kanji on the internet and highlighted those sections in the book. I also kept this on my desk with a kanji practice notebook and tried and do a page a day. Repetition, repetition, repetition…. That’s the only way to learn kanji…
The most helpful thing I have though is an app called Japanese. It’s basically just an electronic dictionary app but it lets you search for kanji by component or drawing, has inbuilt study lists and flash cards, etc. It also lists kanji by JLPT level, includes common phrases and sayings, lets you search either English to Japanese or Japanese to English. It’s just so versatile. I USE IT EVERY SINGLE DAY! I WOULD DIE WITHOUT IT!
My Johnny’s Study Recommendations
I make it sound like I studied my ass off but really I hate study and did the bare minimum I needed to keep up with my assessment milestones. Formal grammar and textbook Japanese are definitely necessary and have formed the backbone of my Japanese but developing my use, expanding and applying my understanding, beginning to think in Japanese, these things came with immersion. Not just from living in Japan but by maximising my learning through the much more enjoyable medium of Johnny’s!
Magazines (reading practice)
Obviously I have an addiction to idol magazines! (If you hadn’t figured that out yet). I hear a lot of people complaining “Idol magazines are trashy” “Idol magazines don’t ask serious questions” “Idol magazines are only about the pictures”. I mean I won’t disagree, but as a way to build up your trashy idol vocabulary and reading fluency skills idol magazines are excellent! I started seriously reading magazines when I first arrived in Japan and let me tell you… it was HARD! I knew no kanji, I understood no plain grammar, I couldn’t read anything. I forced myself through articles. It took me whole days to read half a page and I still had no idea what was going on. But I developed a few tricks and now, after three years of pushing myself, I can read 80% fluently.
- Read and re-read and re-read: I often re-read things multiple times, adding a bit more info each time. The first time I will skim read; just fly through the paragraph reading what I can and ignoring all the hard parts. Then I’ll read through again and look-up about half of the tricky parts. Then I’ll read through again and look up any sentences that still aren’t coming together. Then the last time I’ll look up the parts I’m 90% sure of but just want to double check. This way I’m building the meaning of the paragraph block by block, adding a new layer each time, and finally building a complete picture.
- Keep a reading cheat sheet: I used to find (and still do actually) that I would often end up searching the same kanji or grammar over and over again. Or when I was reading long articles I’d keep coming across the same unknown word but I just couldn’t make it stick. So I started to keep a cheat sheet, either in a notebook or list in my phone, of words I knew I knew but couldn’t remember. Instead of having to search for them each time, I could flip to the cheat sheet and find them quickly. I also made these the words I would practice in my kanji notebook even if they weren’t at all relevant for the JLPT because I knew they were high frequency words for Johnny’s that would make my life a lot easier.
- Questions = Context: Magazines are awesome for reading practice because they give achievable Q&A chunks to break up the reading (except cross-talks, I still hate reading those 😣). They also give you the question they asked the boy which helps put the entire answer into context! I used to properly translate the question and then read the answer and this would really help my understanding of the answer without needing to stop and translate it as well. Popolo is especially good for this as they often present the Q&A in a grid so you can translate the question at the top, then read the answers for all of the different members straight down the column.
- Pick your difficulty: This is all just my personal opinion but the easiest magazines to read are Potato, duet and Wink Up. These mags are aimed at tweens and use a lot of hiragana in place of less common kanji. Next level up are Popolo, Myojo and TV guides. They will include tricky kanji but they use basic or spoken grammar and give lots of context. Next level up is theatre/movie magazines. These are more serious interviews and use a lot of specific production related vocabulary. The boys often speak in polite form in these interviews so if you’re coming from a text book Japanese background you’ll probably find the grammar in these easier. Finally there’s fashion and indie magazines. These write in a more literary style. Lots of tricky grammar, lots of low frequency vocabulary and it’s often tricky to see where the interviewer stops talking and the boy starts as it’s written more like a conversation or monologue than a Q&A interview.
Videos (listening practice)
Watching videos is another great way to get exposure to all kinds of grammar and vocabulary but I found that there were certain ways to maximise watching things to help me learn as well as enjoy.
- Don’t wait for subs: Even when I didn’t understand a lot of what was being said I would watch things without subs while I was waiting for subs to come out. You can often follow the context of variety shows without needing to fully understand what’s going on. Dramas are a bit harder but by pausing and looking up one or two key words I found I was often able to follow these ok too (Just not Black Pean, that shit was hard!!!). Then when some kind person would make subs, I would re-watch it and see how much I had understood the first time. Kind of the same as my read and re-read strategy with the magazines. I would also pay close attention to the way that the translators phrased things as this helped with the reverse learning, trying to figure out why they had said certain things in English depending on the different context of the Japanese.
- Ditch the subs: I got to a certain stage where even though I couldn’t understand everything that was being said, I got over having subtitles. I preferred to understand 60% on my own, than 100% with subs. Idk if other people will feel the same but I think ditching the subs earlier than you need to forces you to learn more. If you don’t take off the training wheels you’ll never learn to ride a bike without them.
- Use Japanese subs: This is a great strategy that I learnt from my French housemate! She would watch English TV shows with the English subs turned on because then she got double input and it made it easier for her to understand. I started doing it with Japanese and it really does help! You can also learn to read words you don’t know written down and to pronounce words you might recognise in written form but can’t say. Also embrace teloppu, the obnoxious text that flashes all over the screen during variety shows. You can pause videos to look these up and it gives you sooooo much support and context. I would be so lost without teloppu!
Radio (advanced listening practice)
Listing to the radio is fun but really challenging! The boys talk at normal speed, they use tricky words, there’s all kinds of games and corners that are confusing even for them and the Jfan listeners and things are gone in a second with no way to easily pause or back track. There is literally nothing to help you, no teloppu here! I used to preload the vocabulary and game rules by reading the explanations of these on the show’s website before listening. Most of the shows also have a real time Twitter that tweets things the boys have said or information about the games etc that runs along with the show. I find it super helpful to use this to reinforce what I have heard in written form. When I started listening to the radio it was 80% white noise but after persisting with it for three years I can’t NOT listen to it. Even when I’m zoning out words jump out at me and have meaning.
Search in Japanese (reference)
The guys use a lot of dialect, slang, their own made up words etc. If you ever come across something that really doesn’t make sense, or the dictionary can’t help you, chances are there are a lot of Japanese people who don’t know what it means as well. So try a Japanese search. I often type the word plus 意味 into Google just to see what kind of Japanese explanations and examples I can find. Sometimes this is more useful than English because some words and concepts simply don’t exist in English. If the word is an object then I’ll do a Google image search as well or sometimes I put the name of specific foods or places into Wikipedia so that I can get more context about what the boy is actually talking about.
Maggie Sensei (grammar)
I love Maggie-sensei’s website! She has taught me so much. She has some amazing tutorials mostly on how to use really casual Japanese forms which is how the boys talk. Text books are great but they tend to stick to polite forms and focus more on formal Japanese than regular, everyday spoken Japanese. Maggie-sensei covers lots of regular, everyday Japanese so if you’re studying to understand what your Johnny’s boy is saying Maggie-sensei is going to be a lot more useful than a Genki textbook! She also has some dialect lessons if you’re boy is from Kansai! Also, doggo goals! 🐶
Fumi Blogs (reading/translation practice)
The Johnny’s Net blogs are a great way to keep up with your boy and practice your Japanese skills BUT depending on your boy and their writing style they can be really hard to understand. Some boys also only blog about once a month so if you’re relying on them to help you practice you’re not going to get the frequency you need. But! There is one boy who writes a short and simple daily blog that anyone can access and that is Fumi (A.B.C-Z Kawai Fumito). I am 110% Fumi biased BUT his blogs are a joy to read. They are so basic! SO BASIC! The grammar is sound, he uses 80% high frequency vocabulary. Half the time he talks about nothing, “I ate a banana today” “Look at my socks” “Kimura-san is so cool”… BUT, if you’re at a beginner level then this is the kind of content that you can engage with easily and successfully! It’s a stepping stone to building vocabulary and building fluency. (And becoming a Fumi fan…. subtly pushing my Fumi agenda in this tutorial… don’t mind me)
Before they axed the English translation service I would hand write my translation of Fumi’s blog in a notebook and then compare it to the official English translation. As I got faster, I started doing other boys’ blogs too. Then when they axed the service I kept up translating all of the blogs more formally to share with other people. If you want translation practice, sit down and write out your translation of Fumi’s blog everyday, it won’t take you long, and then you can cross check it with my translations here. You may even find some mistakes I have made so let me know if you do!!
Fan Letters (writing practice)
Every month I write a fan letter to Fumi and Hikaru. I send birthday cards to other members, or sometimes letters if they have an exciting new job coming up. Lots of people say to practice writing you should keep a Japanese diary, blah, blah, blah, that’s boring! So I write fan letters instead because it’s motiving and fun. I know that they never get read and sending things to Family Club is like sending them straight into the rubbish bin but it’s a nice release to write out all your feelings and I always feel proud when I look at the beautiful letter that I have put so much work into.
- DON’T TRANSLATE YOUR LETTER: I cannot stress this enough. Don’t write what you want to say in English (or whatever your first language may be) and then translate it into Japanese. Every time I see someone talk about doing this I cringe. Japanese and English are so different. You are NEVER going to be able to express what you have in English in Japanese without sounding stilted and unnatural. You will always feel disappointed that you didn’t quite get your message across the way you wanted. Think in Japanese, write in Japanese. If your Japanese is basic then write in basic Japanese. Don’t push yourself to use grammar and vocabulary you don’t understand because Google translate says. This will just make your letter confusing and unnatural. Use what you can to the best of your ability. If you’ve covered passive grammar in your study, then use some passive sentences in your letter. Use your letters as a fun way to practice what you’ve learnt to connect with your boy. When people ask what I have written in my fan letters I often find it really hard to translate it accurately into English without sounding like a spud. To me, this means that I am using my Japanese well.
- Call them by name: The fan letter is your own and you are free to write what you want but something I would highly recommend is referring to your boy by their name. I see a lot of fans write “kimi” or “anata” when referring to their boy. This is the same as using “you” in English but in Japanese this is either taken as being very formal and distant, almost like you’re pushing them away, or as waaaay too close and personal. Either way it’s uncomfortable for them to read a letter with someone referring to them as “you”. Refer to them by name. Instead of saying “I enjoyed your performance” say “I enjoyed Hikaru’s performance”. It sounds weird for us but much better for them.
- Send a postcard: If you don’t have the patience or motivation to write a whole letter then why not send a picture postcard. This could be of your home country or somewhere cool you’ve travelled. You can use basic, text book Japanese to say “I came here. It was great. I ate blah. It was delicious” and honestly no matter what mundane things you write, I’m sure your boy will get super excited when he sees that someone has sent him a shiny fun picture postcard!
- “Unspoken rules”: There are countless Jfan blogs written about what you should and shouldn’t say in your letters, what honorifics you should use to refer to the boys, how you should introduce yourself in a first letter… but you know what, this is your letter! It is between you and your boy! You write what you damn well want! There are a few things that I would highly recommend avoiding putting in your letters though: 1) Personal information: like SNS addresses, e-mails, photos etc. Let’s be honest, they aren’t going to contact you and any letters containing this information will be thrown out by Family Club anyway. Don’t be stupid. 2) Letters to other boys: The worst thing you can do is send a letter to someone and say “Can you give this letter to someone else”. It’s just downright rude. Don’t do it. 3) Abuse: Don’t send abusive letters. Like… just don’t.
- Getting a reply: Replies are a myth BUT if you believe the Johnny’s Web FAQ and want to give yourself false hope you can include a self-addressed and postage paid envelope or postcard in your fan letter and the boy can choose to reply if they want. You can get a reply sent overseas as long as the postage is paid correctly. I stock up on Japanese postage stamps when I’m visiting so I can put a postcard in every now and then. I don’t send one with every letter, that seems needy. But every few months I give it a go. I have never got a reply and I never expect to but hey, doesn’t hurt to try.
- Address: If you’re interested in sending a fan letter to Family Club the address is:
Miyamasu Tower B1F
Johnny’s Family Club
Group name – Idol name
I did think of something else to add but I promptly forgot it… 😅 I’m sure I’ll be back to update this post multiple times. Send me a message if you have any other tips or questions. I am ALWAYS ready to talk! 😁 I’m easiest to contact at @panyaweb on Twitter.