How to Learn Japanese before Summer

Foreign travel can be tough, especially when you don’t speak a word of the local language.

This was my situation before joining Global English Camp in 2017. With a few months until Global English Camp 2019 gets underway, I thought I would share my thoughts about going to Japan with little to no Japanese ability, and what you can do before stepping on that flight to Tokyo this summer.

Personally, I didn’t speak a word of Japanese before applying to the programme. I started studying the day I received my acceptance, and although I’m by no means fluent, I know enough to get by and have very basic conversations.

In my opinion, learning Japanese isn’t necessary to have a great time in Japan, but knowing even a bit will enhance your experience this summer. You will be able to go beyond the typical trails by yourself, locals will greatly appreciate your efforts, and the opportunity to surprise your students with some Japanese at the end of the week is one you should absolutely take!

Anyway, let’s get into it!

Part I: Being in Japan with no/ minimal Japanese

Before discussing any steps you could take to learn some Japanese, I’ll share my thoughts about three key areas of intern life, and how to navigate them without being able to speak or read Japanese: work, travel and restaurants.


In short, we don’t speak any Japanese at work. The only time you may want to speak some Japanese will be at the closing ceremony, held at the end of English Camp, every Friday. You have the opportunity to speak to your students and hand out their participation certificates, and you might want to say a few words in Japanese (entirely optional, but well worth it).


The majority of your travel around Japan will be on the trains and metro. Luckily, announcements are usually made in English and Japanese, and signs are bilingual. Ticket machines also have an English option. The stations may actually present more of a challenge than the language barrier, as some of these stations are small cities, and finding the right exit can be tricky.

In terms of actual navigation, Google Maps is your best friend. A search for your journey should tell you:

  • the line (and its colour)

  • departure time

  • type of train (only in Japanese usually, but it can be helpful to match up the characters against the departure boards)

  • platform

  • price, and (sometimes)

  • which exit

In the rare occasion that Google doesn’t help you, station staff (like many people in Japan) are extremely helpful, often walking you to the right location.


Food/ bar/ restaurant vocabulary is where I focused the majority of my attention, and one that I recommend you focus on too. Many food-related words are derived from European languages, for example; menyuu, koh-hee, biiru, chokorēto, aisu kurīmu, or orenji. Recognising items on the menu or being able to ask for a recommendation is a great skill to have – in my totally unbiased opinion, Japan has the best food in the world.

In some izakaya (bars), there are tablets for ordering, with English available, while in most restaurants English menus are available (if the waiter hasn’t automatically brought you one). In fast food restaurants ordering can be done by pointing to an English menu.

If you are venturing to more niche places (which I highly recommend), some research ahead of time can help, but in the past, I have asked the waiter’s recommendation, and just gone with whatever is brought out (with mixed results), or even just pointed at other people’s food and said, ‘same, please!’

By the way, recommendation in Japanese is osusume.

Interns successfully navigating a restaurant with no Japanese skill - job done!

Interns successfully navigating a restaurant with no Japanese skill - job done!

I should also stress that the likelihood of you being alone/ in a group where nobody speaks any Japanese is low. Even if you are, the likelihood of also being without a phone to translate, or the other person not speaking any English is even lower. But still, these times occur, so it’s good to be aware.

Part II: I’m coming to Japan in 3 months and want to say more than ‘konnichiwa’ – how!?

As I mentioned at the start, I started learning Japanese the day I received my acceptance to COO in 2017. That gave me roughly 3 months – similar to what you have now. Here are five resources I used to try and learn as much as possible before arriving in Tokyo. 


1) Apps (Memrise)

There is a plethora of apps available to learn languages nowadays, with Duolingo probably being the most well-known. However, I found it clunky and too slow for Japanese (it’s definitely better-suited to European languages). Memrise is my top recommendation.

Memrise has many courses available, but its Japanese 1-7 courses are extensive. It has good courses for learning the hiragana and katakana alphabets quickly. Memrise is great for spaced repetition learning of vocabulary and some isolated phrases, however it does not teach grammar, and doesn’t help with forming full sentences. As a starting point however, I think it’s excellent.

Also, while discussing apps – get Google Translate! I keep it on the front page of my phone when I’m in Japan and was crucial for me to talk with my host family in Okinawa. To bring up a quick word you have forgotten, or to translate written text with the picture function, it is a vital resource.


2) Phrasebook

Phrasebooks have stood the test of time for a reason. Even though they are (arguably) outdated, having a Japanese phrasebook has come in handy for me a few times. There is a lot of useless information for our immediate purposes (i.e. phrases regarding car mechanics), but to learn some basic phrases (duh) or questions, for example around restaurants or directions, it can be very useful.

4) Japanese From Zero Youtube Account

This channel goes from very basic to more advance grammar topics and was my main grammar resource. The host, George, is a lifelong Japanese speaker who presents topics in a very simple way. There are also accompanying textbooks, but I didn’t go that far.


 5) Abroad in Japan

Chris Broad covers all aspects of life in Japan. I highly recommend watching his videos or listening to his podcast. He doesn’t cover much on language but shares his story about going from not speaking a word of Japanese to fluency (including writing), and the resources and techniques he used to do it.


6) Instagram

Follow Japanese hashtags like #日本語.

Many pages provide quick tips which are good reminders throughout those mindless moments scrolling through your feed.


5) Tofugu is a Japanese language/ culture/ travel blog that has amazing contributors like Dogen (find him on YouTube too), and lots of practical language knowledge for beginner and advanced Japanese learners. 

They also have a kanji learning system, called WaniKani. It is a paid system, but the first 3 levels are free, meaning you could learn ~200 vocabulary words. I have only briefly used WaniKani, but as an all-in-one system, it could be a good option to pick up some words before the summer. 


Additional: Textbooks

You may have noticed that I didn’t mention any textbooks. If you want to go down that tried and tested route, then there are many good books available, like Genki or Japanese From Zero. Personally, I thought a textbook for ~£40 wouldn’t be economic, especially with the above available. Also, I wanted resources that I could bring to Japan, and so a large textbook did not make sense in terms of packing (pack light!). I just need my phone, my pocket phrasebook and a notebook, and I’m all set!

 I focused here on the resources I used, as opposed to the techniques and schedule I followed to learn effectively. That’s a whole different topic, but in general I focused on efficiency. Learning hiragana and katakana was a simple first step, and then I focused on the topics that would occur the most frequently – food, directions, basic questions and standard introductions (and more food). 

Whatever you decide, I hope this has helped remove some of the fears of not being able to speak Japanese and given some good advice if you do want to pick up a few words and phrases before coming to Japan this summer.



I usually take the photos, so there's very few of my face - probably a good thing.

I usually take the photos, so there's very few of my face - probably a good thing.

I’m Justin, a postgrad law student from London, and 2019 will be my third summer with COO! Around the programme I have travelled around Hokkaido, Okinawa, Kansai and Tokyo. This year I’ll be going to Kyushu after the programme! Feel free to reach out to me on Facebook with any questions or see my Instagram (@justy.ldn) for my past pictures from Japan!

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