10 Revitalizing Tips for Getting a Successful Japanese Refresher

Took a hiatus from studying Japanese and looking to get back in the saddle?

Don’t despair over the fact that you only remember how to say a couple simple phrases offhand, or can only respond to questions with: ちょっと。。。分かりません。

But here’s some good news: you might remember more Japanese than you’d expect.


Why Picking Up Japanese Again Is So Challenging

You’ve had little opportunity to practice. 

Unless you live in Japan or work closely with Japanese clients or coworkers in some way—or perhaps you can’t get enough sushi take out—you probably haven’t had many chances to practice your Japanese.

It’s totally different from your native tongue.

If you grew up speaking English or other non-Asian languages, Japanese comes with a steep learning curve. The words and structures being strikingly unfamiliar, it was difficult to learn and there’s little glue holding language in place when you stop practicing.

Japanese demands your full attention. 

Sure, there’s no saying you can’t study Japanese alongside an additional language, or that you can’t pile it on top of an already busy schedule (I’m currently working on doing both!) but Japanese is quite demanding. It’s best learned with either (1) total immersion or (2) rigorous, strictly-scheduled study. When you take long pauses between study sessions, you start to lose momentum—arguably even faster than with other languages.

So don’t beat yourself up over the lack of continued practice. All you need is to find time to reinvigorate your love and drive for learning Japanese—and pin down some study strategies that really work.

How to Get a Successful Japanese Refresher

1. Take a walk down memory lane.

Why did you start studying Japanese in the first place? If anime inspired you, revisit your favorites. If you learned for travel, review old travel photos and keepsakes. For business, look at Japanese business documents from that time in your life. Love Japanese food? Eat out at Japanese restaurants as often as your wallet will allow.

2. Dust off the textbook.

Learning Japanese without a little formal study is near impossible, so you’ve got a textbook (or many) lying around somewhere. Review chapter summaries and back-of-the-book reference materials.

If you haven’t used a textbook, here are some recommendations:

“Minna no Nihongo” 

This textbook series really lives up to its titular promise of providing Japanese instruction for everyone. It carefully eases you into the language point-by-point, and gives you loads of exercises to hone and sharpen your skills along the way. It is, however, extremely rigorous—the writers behind it clearly do not tolerate extraneous fluff. The lessons are demanding, requiring you to absorb long lists of vocabulary before proceeding. But, hey, we have to admit at some point that memorizing vocabulary is truly critical for learning Japanese.


Equally rigorous, but meanders a bit more than the previous recommendation. This one will give you more time to “smell the roses,” so to speak, and learn about interesting Japanese cultural details.

“Essential Kanji”

Essential Kanji: 2,000 Basic Japanese Characters Systematically Arranged For Learning And Reference

Keep this bad boy by your nightstand—there are no two ways around needing to learn massive quantities of kanji, and you’ll be grateful to have this book nearby in a pinch.

There are plenty more recommendations here with in-depth reviews if you’re determined to identify the best Japanese textbooks for your needs and learning style.

3. Review your old study materials.

Find your old notebook and the scratchpad you used for drawing kanji characters. Your goal should be to retrace your steps. These clues will be pivotal in awakening your memory and recalling all the Japanese you once learned.

My favorite old material was my student blog from Japanese class. On my old blogspot account, I still have pages and pages of all-Japanese blog posts that were written for class assignments—plus I’m still connected to all my classmates’ blogs and their comments.

Okay, I feel like we’re becoming friends already, so I’ll let you see my blog. It’s uncreatively titled モーリンのブログ, and chronicles my Japanese learning progress from September 2009 until April 2010, when I was enrolled in an intensive Japanese learning course. I went through the beginner Japanese in one semester, and proceeded to intermediate Japanese in the next.

While looking through this blog, I could see my tranformation from writing English text with scattered Japanese to full-on Japanese texts with a significant amount of kanji. I can read my personal introduction, which reminds me of my initial excitement and enthusiasm regarding learning this awesome language and traveling to Japan—talk about a huge motivation boost!

I can even pinpoint certain critical moments, like when I started using basic kanji. For example, it’s not too long before 見ます and 書きますappear instead of みます and かきます。I can actually even recall the mnemonic devices I used to memorize those characters in the first place: a tamagotchi-like eyeball walking on legs (見), and a bunch of handwritten scribbles (書).

Find some solid leads like this and go exploring!

4. Hone your basic skills.

Practicing kana and kanji writing and recognition, even if you think you’re still solid on the most elementary aspects of it. Go right back to the beginning and practice writing things out so you get a feel for the stroke order again. Hey, you might luck out and have your trusty muscle memory kick in during this process!

Here are a few noteworthy resources you can start using right away to brush up on these all-important skills:

Obenkyo (Android)

Tae Kim’s Learning Japanese (iTunes and Android)

Kana Invaders

“Kanji Pict-o-graphix”

Kanji Pict-O-Graphix: Over 1,000 Japanese Kanji and Kana Mnemonics

Once you’ve tried your hand at writing and recognizing characters, start tying them together by practicing simple grammatical structures and vocabulary words.

5. Take baby steps.

Jumping in all at once may feel intimidating, even once you feel moderately confident with kana and kanji. Don’t try to read a freaking newspaper—start by reading simple stuff. There are plenty of options for you to dip your toe in and test the water. Here are just a few tasters:

Children’s stories

Minimal kanji and sometimes accompanied by kana along the way! The linked resource has lots of Japanese children’s stories and even provides Japanese audio that you can play while reading.

Easy News

Feel like a grown-up while you read simpler Japanese. While the content and writing style of this website is arguably complex, once you see the furigana placed over each kanji you’ll feel the relief wash over you.

Japanese readers

Japanese Graded Readers: Level 1, Vol. 1 w/ Audio CD (Japanese Edition)

Want to hit the sweet spot between easy-to-read and made-for-adults? The linked Japanese reader series is an excellent way to guide yourself through reading Japanese texts. Hearing the audio accompaniment to the text will dramatically improve your reading speed—say “goodbye” to agonizing over certain characters and stumbling on certain chunks of text!


This online language program is based on Japanese videos, but it also has subtitles that can improve your reading skills as you’re listening to the content.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

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6. Get organized.

Devise a routine and break things down into manageable goals. For instance, if you’re striving to relearn your hiragana thoroughly, don’t plan to master it in one week—or even two. Schedule yourself a nightly hiragana session, and start with a mere 5-15 minutes nightly. If you’re having a ball, extend your sessions as you see fit each night, but don’t get ambitious and attempt to absorb everything in one sitting.

One big reason you may have discontinued Japanese study could be the time commitment required. Studying on your own means you never have to force yourself to overdo it or cram (unlike in intensive Japanese courses, ahem, looking at you, Sato-sensei) and therefore you can easily avoid getting burned-out again!

Strive to stay organized. Write down your goals for study sessions as you make them up. Create a page on your smartphone with only Japanese-related apps. Find online resources that allow you to pick and choose language topics as needed, and note down which ones you intend to tackle each day.

For example, FreeJapaneseLessons.com and Tae Kim’s site have lists of lessons broken down into small, digestible segments of critical Japanese grammar topics. Choose one small segment and make that your primary focus for one study session or one week’s worth of study sessions—whatever feels right for you. Be sure to give yourself enough time and let the lessons really soak into your brain. If you skimp on the basics, you’ll have a poor foundation on which to build your Japanese skills.

7. Rekindle your love of Japanese.

What was it that originally drew you to Japanese? Find study materials that gel with your natural passions and interests.

I originally came to study Japanese after taking a course on the modern history of Japan, so I love watching documentaries and things like interviews with former Japanese WWII soldiers.

Did you love Japanese music? Anime and manga? Did you have a childhood love for Hayao Miyazaki films and Japanese animation? Are you a bloodthirsty horror buff?

Or do you simply yearn to travel to faraway places?

Whatever it is, embrace it and harness your natural enthusiasm to make Japanese study time something fun and memorable.

8. Brainwash yourself.

Listen to Japanese in the background of every task, whenever possible. While I’m writing this, I’m listening to my “Japanese Practice” playlist on YouTube (songs that I’ve deemed clearly-sung and good for training my ears, including this one, this one and, oh yeah, this one too!)

My current bilingual music addiction is the up-and-coming indie group Kero Kero Bonito. Check out “Picture This” or “Flamingo.” The Japanese is clean, clear, simple and set to the chillest of chill beats.

My taste in Japanese music is arguably saccharine. You don’t have to like what I like—no offense taken if that isn’t your cup of tea.

So, what music do you typically enjoy listening to? Find the Japanese spin on it. Have some old favorites from your time abroad in Japan or from when you last studied Japanese (that’s coincidentally why BUMP OF CHICKEN gives me mad nostalgia, because I heard them constantly while living in Okayama one summer).

Track ’em down, and remember the good times you had with Japanese.

For example, you may have heard this old-school classic before! It was played frequently in my Japanese class, and it always puts me in the Japanese study zone:

9. Don’t isolate yourself.

Studying Japanese all by your lonesome, without the assistance of a structured classroom—and without actually living in Japan—can be an odd experience. Not everyone around you will immediately understand the value of learning this language, and you might not have any study buddies.

Even if you’re still working on shaping up the basics, hop online and find yourself a few friends. Getting connected with other Japanese learners, as well as Japanese natives, will remind you why you’re learning Japanese—there are awesome people out there to connect with and learn from!

The best place to start finding language exchange partners is italki. This platform is home to lively language exchanges with people from all around the world. You can choose a partner based on interests, gender, age, schedule and more!

You might enjoy these exchanges so much that you decide to take an additional step—hiring a private Japanese tutor. Luckily, you can do this on italki too.

Why pay for a tutor when you can have a language exchange partner for free? Well, for one, you can focus 100% of your time on Japanese, rather than spending half the time helping someone with their English. Plus, a tutor is much more reliable and always there on schedule (versus a more information language tutor who might flake out from time to time).

10. Don’t let history repeat itself!

Creating a system to maintain Japanese skills through simple, daily activities and constant goal-setting. If studying on your own isn’t working as you’d hoped, get yourself a little structure (some of us perform significantly better with structured plans) sign yourself up for a local class or take one of many free online courses. 

If times turn rough again and you feel unwilling to study one day for whatever reason, hold yourself firmly to a minimum of 5 minutes of practice per day. Most days you’ll do much more, but having a super easy minimum goal keeps you from ever breaking your daily habit under any circumstances.

Now go get refreshed!

And One More Thing...

If you love learning Japanese with authentic materials, then I should also tell you more about FluentU.

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FluentU has a broad range of contemporary videos as you'll see below:


FluentU makes these native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts. Tap on any word to look it up instantly.


All definitions have multiple examples, and they're written for Japanese learners like you. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.


And FluentU has a learn mode which turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples.


The best part? FluentU keeps track of your vocabulary, and gives you extra practice with difficult words. It'll even remind you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You'll have a 100% personalized experience.

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