Japanese Language

Prior to Departure: Language Resources
Orientation in Tokyo: Language Classes
Research Internship: Language Resources
Dialects and Proverbs in Japan
Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT)
Reading and Writing in Japan: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji
Returning Home: Resources for Continued Study
Tips for Language Learning from Alumni

Prior to Departure: Language Resources

Prior to arrival abroad, all U.S. Fellows are required to memorize the hiragana and katakana alphabets.  There are two primary alphabets used in Japanese  and you will be expected to use the hiragana and katakana in the language classes during the three-week orientation in Tokyo.  The websites below have a wide array of self-study material to assist with memorization of hiragana and katakana.  However, one of the best ways to memorize these alphabets is to make or buy flashcards that you put on a ring clip and carry with you in your bag. Then, when you have a little down time, you can just pull out your flashcards to test your memorization of the alphabets. Students with prior Japanese language study who have already memorized these alphabets are encouraged to work on their kanji prior to arrival in Japan.

Genki Online – Home

GENKI is a highly acclaimed series of integrated resources for learning elementary Japanese through a well-balanced approach to all four language skill areas-speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Used in many Japanese language courses around the world.

Genki Online – Self-study Room

A website that offers a set of interactive exercises for learning hiragana, katakana, and practicing kanji learned in Genki. It helps you recognize the kanji through multiple choice and gap-fill exercises, jumble modules and crosswords.

AJALT – Online Resources


Hiragana and Katakana (Free Study Material) | MLC Japanese Language School in Tokyo

Learn Hiragana: The Ultimate Guide

Learn Katakana: The Ultimate Guide

8 Great Free Apps for Studying Japanese

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Orientation Program in Tokyo: Language Classes

During the three-week orientation program in Tokyo all U.S. Fellows will participate in intensive Japanese language study. Classes will meet for three-hours each weekday and students will be expected to complete language homework to supplement their classroom study.

Language classes are taught by the AJALT language school and utilize the Japanese for Busy People textbooks. Beginning students are required to purchase the Japanese for Busy People I (Romanji) version and are strongly encouraged to purchase the supplemental workbook (in Kana) to practice writing in Hiragana and Katakana on their own.  Students with prior Japanese language experience will meet via Skype with AJALT instructors in March or April to assess their spoken Japanese language level and will then be advised which language textbook/s to purchase.

Japanese Learning from Association for Japanese-Language Teaching (AJALT)

Japanese for Busy People Books

Japanese For Busy People, as the title suggest, a concise course for “busy” students who want to learn natural, spoken Japanese as effectively as possible in a limited amount of time. This worldwide best-selling series was prepared by a working group of experienced Japanese language instructors who revised and tested the material in an authentic classroom environment.

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Research Internships: Language Resources

There are no formal language classes provided by the program during the research internship period.  Rather students can continue with self-study of Japanese.  Your research project and work in the lab will need to take priority but most students find additional language study benefits and complements their experience in the research lab; allowing for great interaction and communication with lab group members. Most students will continue to study their Japanese for Busy People books on their own and utilize the wide array of online, self-study resources to continue to make progress with their language study.

Self-Study Resources for Internship
See above section on pre-departure and orientation program resources for other helpful sites and apps to continue self-study of Japanese.

Suggestions from Alumni on Self-Study Resources

  • I use an app called Shirabe Jisho (on iOS)! It’s a great dictionary app that even lets you write in kanji – really helpful when I didn’t know how to read signs” ~ Emily Nishiwaki (2017 US Fellow) 
  • I study kanji with WaniKani” ~ Katelyn Miyasaki (2017 US Fellow) 
  • I really liked Kanji Study. Also jisho.org is a really good dictionary” ~ Nickolas Walling (2016 US Fellow) 
  • I always used a dictionary app just called “Japanese” which has great simple sentence examples to show how to use words and phrases. Worst app goes to “Japanese-hirigana” because of the way too catchy songs, e.g. “ah, ah, akachan, AKACHAN! AKACHAN!!” haunts me to this day” ~ Savannah Cofer (2017 US Fellow) 

At some host universities, you may be able to enroll in specialized Japanese language programs for visiting researchers. You can also look into volunteer taught courses or language schools in your host city that may offer courses suitable to your language level.  You will need to pay individually for any language class tuition or fees during the research internship period.Some of the volunteer organizations and language schools in host cities includes:

Another option is to set up a Japanese Language Exchange with members of your host lab or other Japanese students you meet in your host city. Language exchanges work by spending part of your time would be spent studying and practicing your spoken Japanese and the other part of the time would be spent having the Japanese student study and practice their spoken English. This model can be quite effective and a way for you to make friends with a Japanese student interested in improving their English skills. However, these often become one-sided so make sure you have set up clear expectations with your language partner and try to structure the sessions around textbook lessons to be sure you remain on track. If there is a Nakatani RIES Japanese Fellow at your host university or in your host city this would be a great thing to set up with them, as they will be very motivated to practice English prior to their arrival at Rice University and to help you with your Japanese. Some universities may have English Language Discussion Tables or Meet-ups organized through their International Students Office that you could join. Ask your lab secretary and/or mentor to find out if this is an option at your host university.

If you enjoy this type of experience check with your home university’s International Student office when you return to the US to see if they have a similar program for international students or foreign visitors on your campus. This is an excellent way for you to serve as an ambassador for visitors to the US and show them the same hospitality that you have been shown while in Japan. Students from Rice University are encouraged to join the Rice University Center for Languages & Intercultural Communication – Japanese Language Lunch Table.

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Dialects and Proverbs in Japan

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Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT)

Students who wish to return to Japan in the future for study, research or their career are also strongly encouraged to consider taking the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). The JLPT is administered worldwide to evaluate and certify proficiency in Japanese of non-native speakers. The JLPT places importance not only on a learner’s (1) knowledge of the Japanese language including vocabulary and grammar but also on their (2) competence at using the knowledge in practical communication. For more information see the JLPT website

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Reading and Writing in Japan: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji

Literacy and Bookstores in Japan
Japan has historically had very high literacy rates and this can be traced back to Tokugawa period (1600 – 1867) as, after unifying the country, education became increasingly important to develop the government bureaucrats needed to run the government.  By the end of the Tokugawa period, literacy was estimated at 40%.  During the Meiji period, formal public schools at the primary, middle, and university level was established and both girls and boys were required to attend primary school.  This led to even higher rates of literacy among both gender and during the Meiji period Japan developed a robust publishing industry that in turn led to a rise in the numbers of people in Japan who read for pleasure, at all level of society. For more on this topic see Popular Literacy in Early Modern Japan.

There are bookstores everywhere in Japan including many used book districts.  People in Japan are often voracious readers and it is very common to see people reading small, paperback books on the subway while commuting.  Usually, these books have paper covers for privacy so the other commuters cannot see what book you are reading.  At Japanese bookstores, you can even ask that they put a paper cover on your book or purchase reusable plastic covers you can slip on and off as you finish one book and start a new one.  You can buy any genre of book imaginable in Japan and many foreign books are translated into Japanese.

E-books and e-readers have struggled to take hold in Japan. One big reason e-readers are not popular is that there aren’t a lot of e-books in Japanese available as Japanese publishers have been resistant to embrace this and abandon their historical networks of book printers and bookstores (some major Japanese publishers date back to the Meiji era).  E-books are becoming more popular though and you can now find some Japanese content through Amazon.jp, Rakuten, and other outlets. There have also been a number of e-book sellers/providers in Japan that have shut down unexpectedly Japanese consumers may be a bit shy about committing to a certain e-book platform as they worry it may be discontinued (like the Nook from Barnes and Noble). The plethora of used book stores in Japan also means that buying an inexpensive, used paperback to read on the train is likely cheaper than an e-book would be.

General Resources/Articles for Reading Japanese 




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Returning Home: Resources for Continued Language Study

Many Nakatani RIES Fellows choose to continue Japanese language study after they return home to their US university.  All participants will be given a Japanese Language Oral Proficiency Interview at the end of the summer to assess their spoken Japanese language level and these results are often accepted by university language departments for verification to test out of a lower level language class such as Japanese 101 or even 102. However, some campuses require students to take their own placement exam to verify language level so be sure you check with your Japanese language department prior to the start of the fall semester.

If your campus does not offer Japanese language study you may still be able to continue your language classes through Continuing Education or other community-based classes in your local area. Check with your campus Languages Department, local community colleges or continuing education programs, or your nearest Japanese Consulate or Embassy for more information on Japanese language classes that may be offered in your area.

The following resources are available for students at Rice University or in the Houston-area:

Some language schools in Japan may also offer classes via Skype.  AJALT sometimes does this with students it has already built a relationship with.  The Meguro Language Center (MLC) also uses the Japanese for Busy People books series and does have a Skype langauge study option.

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Tips for Language Study from Alumni

“I especially enjoy asking konbini (convenient store) clerks how much items cost even when the prices are clearly labeled! I see it as a challenge to mentally slow down these responses and to comprehend numbers, nouns, verbs, and language particles. Asking for prices gives me the perfect opportunity to practice these aspects of the Japanese language.” ~ Trevor Shimokusu, 2017 Nakatani RIES U.S. Fellow

“I’ve been trying to learn more kanji on my own, since it’s everywhere in Japan. I’ve been using an app called every day “Kanji Study” during my commute to lab. (I’d highly recommend it because it’s a great app!)” ~ Sasha Yamada, 2016 Nakatani RIES U.S. Fellow

“. I am currently only focusing on meaning, and covering about 60 new meanings a day with high retention. I highly recommend Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji for this, and for grammar, I recommend Seiichi Makino’s A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar.” ~ Josh Laurienzo, Nakatani RIES US Fellow

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