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10 Great Free Apps for Studying Japanese

My smartphone, already a third limb, has become my pocket sensei.

By 9 min read

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

For people who like to make studying fun.

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

One of the best flashcard apps.

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

Straight to the point.

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.

4. The Quizmaster: Obenkyo

The app for learning stroke order.

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. 

5.  The Community: Lang-8’s HiNative-Language Learning

Learn Japanese and make friends.

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?

Guaranteed to already be on a foreigner’s phone in Japan.

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.

7. The Dictionaries: Japanese (by Renzo Inc.)

Easy on the eyes.

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

Never strain at kanji again.

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.

9. The Beginner to Winner: DuoLingo

Taste like cheap thousand?

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

It contains 6,000 words the government wants you to know.

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

  • Sami says:

    I would add the paid Human Japanese app for both Android and iOS which is really worth 5* of all time.
    http://www.cyber-pursuit.com

  • Jessica Marie Tan says:

    Flashcard Vocab = Kotoba
    Dictionary = Jsho
    I also download Conjugation Japanese
    and JLPT Quiz

  • Tess de la Serna says:

    I use “Japanese” dictionary everday. I love it!

  • sensei says:

    There is non-free learning app called. it is not cheap but I found it quite useful.

    https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/japanese-sensei-deluxe/id332692247?mt=8

  • Alain Roy says:

    Midori, anyone?

  • Oleksandr says:

    For studying kana, includes mnemonics, strokes, tips and flash cards game: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/kana-memorize/id1184225723

  • Anga says:

    hello talk is wonderful to practice with mothertongue people

  • pimo says:

    I would recommend Mondo. You can practice reading skills

  • Simbeline says:

    For an iOS quiz app, I like “Japanesequiz” because it doesn’t suffer from the exact problem you mention obenkyo having. I most use the kanji quiz, and it’s multiple choice options are similar to the JLPT where it chooses multiple similar-looking kanji, or multiple similar pronunciations, etc. Quite a good quiz app.

  • Hell's Hound Haruka says:

    I an offended that JA Sensei isn’t on here.

  • Joaquin Pellegrino says:

    For those stuck with a Windos Phones, there’s and app called Tango Master in the store, it’s great, I’d even say it’s the best one I’ve tried, is the only regret I have after switching back to android.

    It’s got dictionaries, flashcards and quizzes all in one app, and it has a tracker which divides the content into what’s included on each level of the Japanese Languages Proficiency Test, so you can focus on what you need to learn and also track your progress.

  • John M Scott says:

    JA Sensei is my number 1 above all these. I could go on for paragraphs on all of its features and just how incredibly helpful, easy to use and the amount of options and features it has. Hiragana, katakana, kanji, vocabulary, numbers, particles, lessons…. read, write and audio on everything too.

    • Sara ♚ says:

      Hi! I can’t find that app, is it really for iOS? Could you please send me the link? Thank you very much

  • tbrucia says:

    You have to be kidding about Google Translate, right? I have tried to figure out my (Japanese) daughter-in-law’s postings of Facebook using Google Translate and I might as well have done Japanese > Basque as Japanese > English. A disaster. It amazes me that Google even let Japanese > English out of the the lab.

  • Roland Davison says:

    I am astonished that Duolingo has not been mentioned in this list. Completely free, and available on iOS and Android.

    • Simbeline says:

      Duolingo is great for beginners but less great for intermediate learners. Same with Memrise and other similar apps. I like that this list is for people of all levels.

  • ad0ri says:

    but they only developed the app until the n4.. and they are not planning to improve it soon…

  • João Paulo Leandro Teodoro Luz says:

    Aedict for android is a great opition as well, comes with a lot of resources.

  • Raymond G. Giguere says:

    Hi I really liked Anki and Sensei which I just tried after reading your article.

    I also really have to recommend the website https://www.erin.ne.jp/en/ which you could also use from your smartphone, it has a lot of videos with subtitles where you can turn on/off kanji, hiragana, romaji and English individually.

    As regards to learning kanji I prefer any app that forces me to write rather than one that shows me flashcards. I found an app on Android called Oxford Kanji Tutor which presents you with the English and romaji/hiragana, and requires you to write the character. For me this really augmented my understanding of the characters.

  • Ada Choi says:

    Great!! all the apps are really help full. I think there are lots of way to learn, but its depend open you, which one is easy for you. I am also learning Hiragana and i am choosing Flash Cards for learning and got it from CardDia with the help of my friend. thanks.

  • Can anyone recommend a Japanese-Korean dictionary? Much obliged.

  • WhiteSiroi777 says:

    Is there an app that can show/flip kanji on my desktop every 10 secs or so?
    Thank you.

  • Aentik Sparda Ten-no says:

    hmm nah as a japanese speaker and more specific from martal artist iaidoka noup never use google as a main or dependant thing to use google try more to learn with native teachers use google as one of your last fonts not as main, it can confuse more than liberate your doubts.

  • Paul McKenna says:

    I’m looking for an app with pre-made reading materials using high frequency Japanese, similar to the readings on the J proficiency test. Any ideas?

  • arek bak says:

    Vocabies app is a new but really cool. it supports Japanese language I mean pronunciation to listen to. and You can create lists of worrds with kanji too to practice both: meanings and characters.

    Go to Google Play Store and type vocabies it will be there:)

  • Reana K. says:

    I previously had an app for conjugating Japanese verbs on my iPhone but it seems to have disappeared under my nose. It was so useful and easy to use. You scroll on one side to select the verb and then scroll on the other side for the various conjugations of the verb. It was a free app but I don’t see it in the App Store anymore. And it’s not listed in the apps that I previously purchased so I cannot download it from the cloud again. Something strange….

  • Hirari says:

    Tried Skitter, and suprisingly loved it. This is great for lower intermediate level like me. It’s easy to use and I can follow its logic really well. Helped me to learn to write more kanji which has always been a problem.

  • Giacomo Petrini says:

    For Hiragana and Katakana There is also mine:

    https://itunes.apple.com/ch/app/kana-learn/id839995585?l=it&mt=8

  • Charley says:

    A friend of mine created an app called YOMIWA. It allows you to read kanjis through the camera. Just point the camera towards the kanji and it will instantly give you its translation. It also has a drawing feature and a “freezing” mode so you can freeze the image of the kanji you are reading.
    It is great and really usefull!

    • Hirari says:

      YES! I use this app all the time when reading in Japanese! This app is definitely the best one out there.

  • Isaiah Eddington says:

    Obenkyo was my favorite back when had a phone. It has a whole catalog, i think!
    I had two others which i’ve forgotten the name of, but will tell when I remember.

  • ktcintokyo says:

    Kanji Senpai

  • Oliver Rose says:

    Hey! You forgot Kanji Connect and Kanji Crush, 2 awesome online/mobile study puzzzle games you can check out via http://www.kanjigames.com !

  • pedroosan says:

    This seems more of an article of what the author uses, than trying to really list all the biggest ones out there.
    Missing WWWJDIC app which is by same developer as kanjirecognizer and has the latter built into it.
    I cannot even bring myself to trying any other dictionary app after having used wwwjdic.

  • Gregory Stewart says:

    “英辞郎 on the Web” is a fantastic free app available for iOS. (Don’t know about Android, sorry.) It will search the Net for examples of whatever you input and display the usages so that you can see how words and expressions are used.

  • Debi Stevenson says:

    If you have Apple, try Japanese Verb Master for conjugations ! There’s two: romaji and kana versions. Has ALL verb conjugations, like ” I wish I could have said”, etc. and some keigo also.

  • Oh, that’s where they’re hiding! Thanks for pointing this out, will update the article ^^

  • Oh, I’m so sorry! I’m an Android/ desktop user – had no reason to suspect they’d charge (a fairly hefty fee) on iOS Thanks for pointing this out – I’ll update it. But I highly recommend either paying the money or using the free desktop version – Anki really is a fantastic tool.

  • Hush says:

    I haven’t bought Human Japanese 1 or 2 YET(♥!) but I have both the demos and they are phenomenal! I have learned more from the demos than any one free app out there!

    The guy that writes to you in the app explains everything in a very natural way! But this is a list of Free Apps, so it makes sense that it’s not on here but a definite must have!

    Anyone out there should really try the free demos! No Regrets!

  • David Munson says:

    And this is something I’d like an answer from the developers on. Free for desktop platforms, free for Android, $25 for iOS. I bought it because I do actually believe in it, but it strikes me as a pretty shitty play by the developers.

    • onewhereitry says:

      probably because you also pay for Apple to publish your app on AppStore, unlike in Google Play where you can publish your work without paying.

    • Debi Stevenson says:

      Developers have to pay tech people sometimes,or for Japanese grammar professors to check their work, and also for licensing, so not everyone can put it out there for free. I’m working on my next one, but haven’t broke even on my first ones yet.
      (Japanese Verb Master, kana or romaji versions, Apple).

      • David Munson says:

        I get that, and I typically don’t mind paying for an app at all. But 25$ Just feels like the developers have an axe to grind and want to stick it to anyone with an Apple device.

    • KingKong says:

      The android version is developed by a third party, not the same people who maintain the desktop/web/iOS version.

      • David Munson says:

        Well that’s at least part of an answer, but doesn’t explain still why only one available version costs anything. They could at least spread the cost around a bit.

  • chiie00 says:

    I’ve been using Obekyo for months now. Its great. You must be really patient on reading those boring black and white notes because it helps. Believe me.

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