Smartphones. 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 Facebook, Twitter and Instagram addict – there are some very useful apps for studying Japanese.
The best news of all is that these magical tools needn’t cost you a single yen. Which is particularly great whenever you are reminded of how much it costs to have a smartphone in Japan. So let’s check out the options.
1. The Flashcard Fiend: Anki
You are studying Japanese and you haven’t been using a Anki/Ankidroid or some other similar flashcard program? Please share your study methods with us mere mortals as Anki is basically a shortcut to vocabulary heaven or the path to enlightenment. Take your pick.
Anki allows you to import kanji and vocabulary ‘decks’ from popular textbooks or JLPT lists and then converts them into flashcards. These can range from just a word or kanji, to vocabulary placed in sentences to help you understand the context for it. These can come with audio cues and hilariously cheesy stock photos for extra fun.
When presented with a flashcard, think of the answer and then 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.
As well as being able to create your own 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.
2. The Sensei: Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese
This app will appeal to two kinds of students: 1) the self-studiers who are floating around in a grammatical abyss, looking for a structure to follow, or; 2) the Japanese language immersion students, who just can’t always grasp the meaning from context and examples given in class. Hands up who has craved a good old-fashioned explanation in their native language?
Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese is the answer to your prayers. It is packed with logically organised lessons, beautifully clear explanations, and conjugation tables, and there are even some exercises for the first chapters on basic grammar. A list of vocabulary used in examples is given for every lesson, with the kanji, readings and English meanings, allowing you to pick up new words whilst also seeing the grammar work in context. Even without referring to this list, all kanji are clickable and so you should never have to refer to a dictionary.
It’s not a game-app – it’s not supposed to be particularly fun or to help you with memorisation, but if you really want to understand something, Tae Kim is your sensei.
- iPhone (only)
3. The Quizmaster: Obenkyo
Have you ever opened an app and immediately fell in love? No confusion over how to use it but swiping through screens as if you and it had been born together? That’s how I felt about Obenkyo (which is also available in French – great news for native Francophones).
Start from the basics of katakana and hiragana and advance through to kanji and vocabulary as it throws various ways to test you, from multiple choice to touch-screen writing, with English to Japanese or vice versa as answer options. Kanji lists can be displayed according to JLPT levels, making this the ultimate tool for helping your prepare for the exam. You can easily access a list of vocabulary, classified by word type as in a dictionary, with verbs, for example, being listed as ichidan/godan, and transitive/intransitive, etc.
Perhaps the star feature is the handwriting recogniser – it corrects not only your form but also your stroke order. If it makes a mistake in recognising your writing, you can easily tell it so, and your score will be adjusted accordingly.
All kanji can be clicked to reveal their reading. The app has also imported Tae Kim’s guide for grammatical references. My only gripe would be that the multiple choice quizzes are often little silly – the question will demand a verb and then give several nouns and adjectives as answer options, making it very easy to guess which word is right!
- Android (only)
4. The Community: Lang-8’s HiNative-Language Learning Q&A
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 with.
It’s a community built on reciprocation so if you’re not stingy you’ll be sure to receive amazing 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.
5. The Dictionaries: imiwa?
Popular with gaijin iPhone users across Japan, imiwa? provides an offline dictionary with a variety of methods for finding words: not only can you search using romaji as well as 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 favourites, as well as very simple 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 a variety of languages, including French, Spanish, German, Italian and Russian, although native English speakers may find the screen a little overly busy as a result. 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.
The app, however, isn’t as slick as it could be. It does not have a handwriting look-up function for searching unknown kanji. This can be circumnavigated easily enough by switching to the iOS inbuilt Chinese keyboard, but it’s an unnecessary faff. Finally, users might be frustrated by the inability to pause the stroke order when viewing demonstration animations.
- iPhone (only)
6. The Dictionaries: Japanese (by renzo Inc.)
Out of the three dictionaries, Japanese takes first prize for design, with a beautiful, clear interface. It understands how a user thinks: on opening, it presents you with a search bar to immediately type in, but also a handwriting, kanji component and SKIP search option, all on the same page.
It contains an audio clip for all entries and has the clearest layout for examples with hiragana above the kanji used and each kanji displayed underneath with their meanings. Overtaking both imiwa? and Akebi on the development front, it has an incredibly useful list of conjugations for every verb.
Japanese features a built-in study system, but it’s not as good as the one that Anki has.
7. 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, and 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)
8. The Jack-of-all-Trades: Google Translate
So this may not be a Japanese-specific app, but for translating longer texts and getting the general gist, Google Translate is invaluable. There will be times when your dictionary app doesn’t contain a word or phrase and you’ll need to double check it.
In addition to handwriting, you can use your phone camera to scan words to translate and you can also test out its audio recognition software, in which it will then speak its translation back to you in your chosen language.
9. The Beginner to Winner: DuoLingo
You can begin the lessons without any previous knowledge of hiragana or katakana with DuoLingo and testing past beginner levels is 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 a category is completed, 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 puts emphasis on sentence structure. When it comes time to be quizzed, the app likes to keeps things interesting and will 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. For extra motivation, you can find help in the DuoLingo community.
10. The Government-Approved: WaniKani
WaniKani has over 2,000 kanji and 6,000 words that are 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. Before starting, it’s recommended that you have a solid grasp of reading both hiragana and katakana, and while this isn’t a service designated to teach grammar, there are example sentences for everything you learn that are useful for syntactical 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 this change is 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 and after that, there’s a monthly fee equivalent to the price of a bowl of ramen. If you’re willing to drop that cash on a bowl of noodles, why not drop it on a service that will help you read the menu?
Wanna Splash Some Cash?
Both Human Japanese and Japanese Sensei are popular apps that contain lessons as well as 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, which allows you to preview the entire kanji or get a hint for the next stroke – this is 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 easily 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