Smartphones are almost a necessity in modern life and a divisive one at that. With constant notifications, we are so easily dragged out of present surroundings and into that welcoming pixelated glow. Distractions aside—and I’m speaking as a chronic social media addict—there are some very helpful apps for studying Japanese.
Best of all, these magical tools won’t cost you a single yen. This is particularly great considering how much it costs to have a smartphone in Japan. So let’s check out the options.
1. Learn From Day One: LingoDeer
LingoDeer will have you speaking Japanese and raising your fluency level from day one. It follows a fun building-block approach that feels more like a game. Each lesson applies grammar and vocabulary that you learned from the previous one using several methods of testing.
Unlike other apps that have you memorizing Japanese vocabulary and phrases without context, LingoDeer features audio from native Japanese speakers and integrates words, sentences, and culture naturally that you can use in real life. You can even slow down the speaker’s voice to be as accurate as possible in your pronunciation—indispensable to learning the language. Other awesome features include the ability to turn on furigana so you can study kanji, and learn the meaning and context of a particle with a simple tap.
While LingoDeer isn’t entirely free, you can learn all the basics such as hiragana and katakana, more than 1,000 essential Japanese phrases, and enjoy a deep dive into the first modules. Afterward, you can pay a small fee for the premium version, which includes all lessons, including coverage for N5-N3 vocabulary and grammar.
2. The Flashcard Fiend: Anki
Anki allows you to import kanji and vocabulary “decks” from popular textbooks or JLPT lists and then convert them into flashcards. These can range from just a word or kanji to vocabulary placed in sentences to help you understand the context. These can come with audio cues and hilariously cheesy stock photos for extra fun.
When presented with a flashcard, think of the answer and click to have it revealed. You can then self-mark from Again to Easy, with the time in which the card will be repeated listed alongside the options.
Anki comes with a range of useful features.
Along with being able to create your decks, Anki comes with a range of useful features, including an answer timer and the ability to flip the questions and answers. This is particularly good for when you want to switch between reading kanji or vocabulary to being able to write them.
Anki can be used as an app, online, or a desktop version. For creating decks, you might find it quicker to use the desktop version and then sync it with your device. Apologies to iOS users—you have to pay—but you’ll get your money’s worth.
3. The Sensei: Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese
If you’re looking for structure or can’t grasp meaning from context, Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese is the answer to your prayers. This app is packed with logically organized lessons, beautifully clear explanations, and conjugation tables. There are even some exercises for the first chapters on basic grammar.
A vocabulary list with examples, kanji readings, and English definitions are available for every lesson. It allows you to pick up new words while also seeing the grammar work in context. Even without referring to this list, all kanji are clickable, so you never need to refer to a dictionary.
It’s not a game, so it’s not supposed to be particularly fun or help you with memorization, but if you want to understand something, Tae Kim is your sensei.
- iPhone (only)
4. The Quizmaster: Obenkyo
With Obenkyo, you’ll start from the basics of katakana and hiragana and advance through to kanji and vocabulary.
The app quizzes you with multiple-choice and writing tests using your touchscreen. Kanji lists can be displayed according to JLPT levels, making this the ultimate tool for preparing for the exam. You can easily access a list of vocabulary, classified by word type as in a dictionary, with verbs, for example, ichidan/godan, transitive/intransitive, etc.
Perhaps the star feature is the handwriting recognizer. It corrects not only your form but also your stroke order. If it makes a mistake in recognizing your writing, you can quickly tell it so, and your score will be adjusted accordingly. The app has also imported Tae Kim’s guide for grammatical references.
- Android (only)
5. The Community: Lang-8’s HiNative-Language Learning
HiNative-Language Learning is a place where native speakers edit entries written by those learning their language. Content can be anything you like and as long or short as you are comfortable.
It’s a community built on reciprocation, so if you’re not stingy, you’ll be sure to receive fantastic feedback and suggestions (and maybe even some friendships). HiNative is developed by the creators of Lang-8, a highly successful language learning website, so if you’re more comfortable with a full keyboard, you might want to try the group’s full browser version as well.
6. The Dictionaries: imiwa?
One of the most popular apps among foreigners, Imiwa is an offline dictionary with a variety of methods for finding words. You can search using romaji and Japanese characters, but you can look up kanji by SKIP (System of Kanji Indexing by Patterns), multi-radical, and Chinese radical. Its clear interface allows for the easy creation of lists and favorites and straightforward copy to clipboard/export to email functions.
It will appeal to those who don’t have English as their first language, as definitions and example sentences are listed in multiple languages.
The other fantastic feature is an automatic look-up of any text that you have copied to clipboard. Browsing a website and don’t understand a word? Copy it, open Imiwa, and the results will be instantly displayed.
- iPhone (only)
7. The Dictionaries: Japanese (by Renzo Inc.)
Japanese by Renzo Inc. takes first prize for design. It features a beautiful, clear interface, and it understands how a user thinks. On opening, it presents you with a search bar to immediately type in and a handwriting, kanji component, and SKIP search option, all on the same page.
It contains an audio clip for all entries and has the most precise layout for examples with hiragana above the kanji used and each kanji displayed underneath with their meanings. The app also features a built-in study system, but it’s not as good as Anki.
8. The Kanji King: Kanji Recognizer
This little app may be simple, but that’s where its strength lies. We’ve all been there. Staring at some unknown kanji as if we can wring its meaning out of it with our eyes. Kanji Recognizer is made just for those moments, enabling you to swiftly handwrite the kanji and obtain its readings, radicals, strokes, and basic meanings. You can then export to Anki or immediately look it up in your dictionary for compounds and examples of its use.
I’ve found it to be the best app at recognizing handwritten kanji. So I use it whenever my dictionary app cannot interpret my kanji squiggles or when I only want a kanji reading, rather than a detailed explanation of its meaning. Its simple interface and layout also make it very quick to use.
- Android (only)
9. The Beginner to Winner: DuoLingo
Lessons can begin without any previous knowledge of hiragana or katakana with DuoLingo. And testing past beginner levels are available. All the lessons are grouped into fun categories that range anywhere from food and family to subculture. There’s even an Olympics category in anticipation of the Tokyo 2020 games.
Once you complete a category, a power bar appears beneath it. After a while, the bar will start to recede, prompting you to review that lesson. Along with focusing on vocabulary, DuoLingo emphasizes sentence structure. When it comes time to be quizzed, the app likes to keep things exciting and test you in various ways. Eventually, you’ll find yourself translating English sentences into Japanese or selecting English terms from a word bank to recreate Japanese sentences.
10. The Government-Approved: WaniKani
WaniKani has over 2,000 kanji and 6,000 words sourced from the official joyo kanji guide established by the Japanese Ministry of Education. Through spaced repetition, you learn to depend on memory recall as you ascend through the various levels. However, it’s recommended that you have a solid grasp of reading both hiragana and katakana before starting. While this isn’t a service designated to teach grammar, there are example sentences for everything you learn that is useful for syntactic exposure or review.
If life happens and you become busy, you can freeze your progress. If enough time has passed that you forget or feel overwhelmed, you can also reset your level, but it’s permanent. Mastering, or “burning,” all of the items can happen within a year, but the average completion rate is two years. WaniKani is free to try for the first three levels. Afterward, there’s a small monthly fee.
Wanna Splash Some Cash?
Both Human Japanese and Japanese Sensei are popular apps that contain lessons and quizzes and learning activities. FluentU and JapanesePod101 are also great resources, especially for beginners. For more dictionary options for iOS, try Midori.
Skritter is an excellent kanji learning tool that improves your writing as well as your reading ability. Choose from lists or make your own and then let it test you on meaning, reading, and, importantly, writing. There are significant differences between the Android and iOS versions.
Android has an extra feature that allows you to preview the entire kanji or get a hint for the next stroke. It’s incredibly useful when faced with a completely unknown kanji. However, its interface for adding words to a custom list is clunky and best done through the desktop version.
By comparison, kanji can be added in the iOS version, which automatically searches for the reading and English translation.
For more on learning Japanese
- Learn more about the GaijinPot Study Placement Program
- Learn Japanese with our original study materials on GaijinPot Study
- Questions about studying Japanese in Japan? Take a look at the Japan 101 section on Higher Education and Studying Japanese
- Join our GaijinPot Study Facebook group to connect with fellow learners