Have you ever mentioned that you’re learning Japanese and subsequently had someone thrust a kanji-covered abomination in your face, asking you to translate it?
For most beginner learners of Japanese, the writing system is, by far, the most intimidating thing to tackle on your learning journey. With three alphabets, countless kanji combinations and a plethora of writing rules to tackle, learning to read Japanese, let alone write it, seems like a mountain of a challenge that, sadly, many learners are guilty of avoiding.
Up until recently, I was one of them.
Sometimes, learners of Japanese are happy with only learning hiragana, katakana and a hundred or so kanji, preferring to focus on listening and speaking first. Another problem people have is that they do learn the kanji, but tend to forget it easily, making their quest of conquering Japanese frustrating rather than fun.
So how can we practice our Japanese skills through writing in a way that’s fun, stimulating and rewarding?
The best answer I’ve found so far is keeping a Japanese journal.
After all, all you really need is a pencil and a notebook.
But what exactly do I mean by a Japanese journal? I’m talking about a special notebook you keep purely for written entries—no scribbles, doodles or shopping lists allowed, unless they’re in some way related—all in Japanese with the main purpose being to practice your kanji, stroke order and grammar. It’s like any good old-fashioned diary one might keep, except it’s kept purely in your new language.
If you remain unconvinced about its value to your language learning progress, take a look at the reasoning below.
Why Start a Japanese Journal Today?
- First of all, the best way to improve your writing is, well, by writing. Writing a lot.
- Keeping a journal will improve your writing speed. Think back to when you were five or six years old and how long it took you to write anything in your first language compared to now. Practice, practice, practice.
- Good news—it improves your kanji! You can practice kanji you know, get used to stroke order and come across new kanji when you want to use certain vocabulary or phrases to express yourself and your ideas.
- A journal can be a wonderful tool to help track your language learning progress. By keeping a notebook and writing in it consistently, you’ll be able to actually see improvement in your writing skills as time goes on. And seeing is believing!
- It’s always something to refer back to. Have you forgotten some old kanji or need to brush up on grammar? No worries. Flip back to a few months ago and have a look at previous entries.
How to Start Your Japanese Journal
How can you get into the habit of keeping a Japanese journal every day? Here are some tips to get started.
- Buy a notebook. Any will do, but a high quality one with lots of pages will work well. Buy something you’d be proud to show off to people.
- Decide how much time you’re going to dedicate to journal-writing. Try starting with 30 minutes a week, and expand on it later.
- Decide on a topic. See “writing challenges” below for some ideas.
- Keep at it! Use grammar and vocabulary you know at first – perhaps fill the first page with a self-introduction. If you don’t know any kanji, just practice using hiragana and katakana. It’s just as important to practice those, as they’re the foundation of written Japanese. Once you’ve fully mastered the easier first two alphabets, you’ll be fully ready to effectively tackle kanji.
So, now you’ve got you’re why and how. But there’s another how to address here—how can you keep up your motivation?
Many people have tried and failed to keep up regular journaling habits in their native language, so how can you muster the willpower and energy to stick to your Japanese journal?
Check out the following Japanese journal challenging, that are guaranteed to keep you inspired and to keep your writing time interesting and fun.
9 Japanese Writing Practice Challenges
1. The New Character Challenge
Chances are that you have a reasonably concrete study schedule set in place by now. (If not, start here!) That means you should be learning new characters—or at least seeing them pop up in your study materials—quite frequently.
What better way to reinforce your character studies than to practice using them?
- Keep a record of this week’s (or this month’s) new characters you’ve been learning. These could be hiragana, katakana or a group of some new kanji, depending on your current level.
- Use each new character at least once in your new journal. The more you use them, the better.
- Not sure how to use the new characters yet? You’ve just created a new learning opportunity for yourself! How can you use your new character practically? Do the research and find out. You can do this with apps or a dictionary.
2. The Daily Entry Challenge
Write a journal entry for every day for a week.
- This is especially good if you’re an intermediate level learner and you’re doing something exciting that week that you can talk about, such as going on vacation. Even if things are pretty routine and dull during this week, keep track of the things that you do, think, feel, see or even dream during these days.
- Knuckle down and write seven entries in seven days. Try the same time every day to get into the habit of doing it.
- If you’re feeling up to an extra challenge, try to keep this going for an additional week, for a whole month or indefinitely.
3. The Character Count Challenge
Set yourself a character minimum for your journal entry for that day.
- Decide how many characters you’re going to write in your journal entry. This will vary depending on your current Japanese skill level and your quantity of available time. If you plan on writing in mostly hiragana and katakana, increase your character count a little. One kanji character is sometimes equal to two or even three kana letters.
- Start with 100 (yes, it’s supposed to be a challenge!) Then increase it up to 200 the next time you attempt this feat, then 250, then 300… you get the picture. You’ll get to know your own challenge limits as you go.
4. The Show and Tell Challenge
The very nature of this challenge is extremely difficult for some—particularly anyone who would say they are shy or perfectionist. You’ve got to show your journal (or at least an entry or two) to your Japanese friends for proofreading and checking.
- Don’t be shy! Find a native or fluent Japanese speaker who would be willing to read your writing. With this challenge, you’ll be able to figure out and improve on any mistakes you’ve made by showing a native speaker your work.
- Not only will this reader most likely be very impressed with your effort, but they’ll point you in the right direction with things you’re struggling with, as well as praise you on your strengths!
- If you don’t have any friends or acquaintances from Japan right now, there’s a fantastic forum on japan-guide.com for finding Japanese language partners online. They’ll be more than happy to check for you. You can also try italki as a place to post your Japanese writing and get free language checking. You can also hire a private Japanese tutor or set yourself up with a language exchange partner on italki, and then this person can give you additional feedback on your writing.
You’re all set to make your first Japanese journal entry and try out some of these challenges. Fantastic!
But there’s a small problem—you’ve got no idea what to write about. Maybe you’ve already written a small self-introduction, but now you’re stuck. No worries! The next several challenges will help give you more guidance for writing and spark your creativity.
5. The Letter Challenge
- Try writing a heartfelt letter to one of your friends, or perhaps a Japanese family that has taken care of you at some point. Try to use as many different family honorifics as possible.
- You can also practice writing formal letters (perhaps to practice for applying for Japanese-speaking jobs) and using keigo, the most polite form of Japanese.
- Write to a friend who can speak Japanese. It’ll be motivating knowing that they’ll be able to read it when you’re done.
6. The Review Challenge
- Think about a recent book, manga, movie or anime you’ve watched recently. If nothing comes to mind, it sounds like you need some material to work with—and of course, it can be hard to come by authentic Japanese stuff depending on where you live. Even on Amazon, pickings are slim. Luckily, there’s an abundance of cool Japanese items to review on Right Stuf Anime. It’s about way more than just anime, so it’s worth a look for anyone who wants to make an authentic connection with the Japanese language and culture.
- If you choose to write about something from your home country in Japanese, bear in mind your review might be one of few—perhaps even the very first—review in Japanese! This could be great material for a personal blog. You might end up with a huge Japanese following!
- Treat yourself to a Kawaii Box, or sign up for a monthly subscription. They’ll send you ten adorable Japanese items in each box, ranging from yummy little snacks to toys and pencil cases, which gives you ample things to check out and review in Japanese. They even have a Reviewer of the Month program where you can receive a free box to review—which is perfect if you already have a good following on YouTube, a blog or social media.
- All in all, this challenge will give you the chance to practice descriptive adjectives. You should aim to use a good number of these in your writing, so set a personal goal before you start.
- Do you have a blog? Publish your review on your blog and reel in some Japanese readers!
7. The Recipe Challenge
It’s always nice when your Japanese studies can link you with food.
- Choose your favorite dish—perhaps dishes native to your own country. Describe the flavors and ingredients of this dish, and talk about any customs surrounding it or seasonal consumption if applicable.
- Write out a recipe for how to prepare your dish. It can be as complicated or as simple as you like, depending on your level.
- This will give you practice with imperatives and using the ～てください / ～でください form.
8. The Literal Diary Challenge
Write a simple diary entry of your day, or an event you recently went to. This is a good challenge to combine with the daily writing challenge from before.
- Choose a fairly normal day (going to school, work, etc.) or choose a day where you went to a special event, such as a festival.
- You can practice the past tense, adjectives and so on by writing about something that happened previously that day or earlier in the week.
- Be sure to practice any relevant vocabulary related to school (学校/がっこう), work (仕事/しごと), family (家族/かぞく), the various ways to say “went to” (～に行きました/～に いきました, ～へ行きました/～へ いきました), etc.
9. The Memory Challenge
Up for a chance to test yourself? Try the memory challenge:
- Open two blank pages of your notebook, preferably side by side.
- On the left page, try writing a journal entry with no help and without using a dictionary and, if you’re writing kanji, without checking the kanji shape and stroke order.
- When you’ve finished, check it yourself or with a friend and rewrite it neatly, with corrections, on the page on the right hand side.
- The left page can be your “draft” piece, and the right page can be your “final” piece. Using this method, it will be easier to see where there’s room for improvement as well as your strengths.
- This will get you used to writing from memory, as well as improving your confidence. Pay special attention to any writing mistakes you’ve made in the shape or size of the characters.
So what are you waiting for?
Buy a lovely notebook and decide how much time you’re going to dedicate to your journal. I recommend just a few minutes a week if you’re a beginner, and steadily increase the amount of time as time goes on and if you enjoy it. If you’re more advanced level and you’re studying higher level kanji, I’d recommend at least an hour two or three times a week.
Don’t forget to enjoy what you do! Add dates to your entries so that in the future, you can look back and remember what you’ve written.
Try out the above nine challenges to really bring your Japanese writing practice to its best possible level, but make these challenges your own as well. If you’re the creative type, why not add photos and cute stickers to spruce it up and make it cute?
Or how about writing a review of this article as your first journal entry?
Have fun, and good luck!
And One More Thing…
Dying to make your Japanese more authentic? Then I should also tell you about FluentU.
FluentU takes real-world videos like music videos, commercials, news, and inspiring talks and turns them into Japanese learning experiences. It naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You’ll learn real Japanese as it’s spoken in real life.
FluentU has a broad range of contemporary videos—like music videos, dramas, TV shows, and TV commercials:
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 it suggests content and examples based on your vocabulary. You’ll have a 100% personalized experience.
The FluentU app is now available for iPhone, and it’s also available as a website that you can use with your computer or tablet. If you’re an Android user, fear not, for our Android app is in the works!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.