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Posts tagged Japanese Language Study Methods


I checked out ふしぎな図書館 (The Strange Library) from my local library without even opening it. Murakami’s name on the spine was good enough for me. I brought it with me on my first attempt to go to China, and ended up reading the whole thing on the train on the way to and from the airport.

The book hasn’t been translated into English so I don’t feel bad divulging portions of the plot since few of you will likely be reading it. A boy goes into a library, is sent down to the basement to ask an old librarian for help, is tricked by the librarian, and ends up spending a great deal of time locked up in a cell of sorts deep beneath the library.

Some of Murakami’s common themes show up here, even though this book is somewhat different than normal for him. Like his other works, the symbolism makes the reader think. Beyond those aspects, I found Fushigi Na Toshokan rather entertaining just because the setting is so much like the library at Waseda University. Perhaps that is where Murakami got the idea (as he was a student at Waseda many years ago).

At the Waseda University library you enter on the second floor. When you go down a floor you are forced to remove all of your belongings and put them in a locker (which wouldn’t be so strange were it not for the fact that you don’t have to do that on other floors where there are plenty of books one could possibly steal as well). You then show your ID to obtain a pass to go into the basement. The basement includes a huge collection of books. Below the basement is yet another basement with another huge collection of books. This basement below the basement is where I normally go as some of the books are in English. The ordering is rather bizarre for the non-Japanese books. They aren’t grouped by language, so on a single shelf you will find a book in English next to a book written in Russian next to a book written in Spanish, etc. Nor do they use anything like the Dewey Decimal System, although they are numbered. For instance, I found Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World on a shelf and proceeded to explore the books around it, hoping there would be other guidebooks or books about Japan. Instead, there were marketing textbooks and other books with the word “market” in the title.

Anyway, under the second basement of the Waseda University library is yet another basement. This third basement is roped off. I suppose this third, unreachable basement could have been fodder for Murakami’s imagination, resulting in this book.

One other strange thing about the Waseda University library is that many books must be “ordered” online while you are in the library. The ordered books mysteriously appear at the first floor desk 10 minutes later. I always want to look on the shelves around the ordered book I know I want to see what else may be of interest. This is especially true of works in English since there are so few English titles available at other libraries. I’d like to browse the shelves where these books came from, but that isn’t allowed. This is similar to what happens in ふしぎな図書館 as the boy can’t look for his own books. Instead, the librarian retrieves them for him.

I like how Murakami shows how quickly us humans can turn the craziest of situations into “normal” in a short period of time. It doesn’t take long for the boy in the story to get settled in to a life of bondage on the one hand and having a cook who is half boy and half sheep on the other. The initial shock wears off quickly, and it doesn’t seem so strange that someone can be part boy and part sheep. I ponder this, by the way, as I sit in a Japanese restaurant next to Waseda University on a cushion on a tatami floor, slurping soba, while Frank Sinatra plays in the background. Someone who has never been to Japan before would find this scene extremely odd, perhaps even Twilight Zoneish. I now find it “normal.”

ふしぎな図書館 by 村上春樹 is actually a picture book (絵本) of sorts as every few pages is a picture. I’m not sure who ふしぎな図書館 is aimed at, as it is pretty creepy to be a little kids’ book, but there are furigana next to many kanji, even some that aren’t that difficult. Murakami is fairly easy to read in Japanese to begin with. This book, with the pictures and furigana, is an excellent choice if you are looking to improve your Japanese and can read a few hundred kanji.

Hiragana and Katakana quizzes

hiragana quizzes

My son finished learning hiragana and katakana a week or so ago. Now he has moved on to kanji with the hope of learning almost a hundred before we arrive in Japan in less than 6 weeks. My daughter is just about through with hiragana. One problem I found with teaching her hiragana (other than the obvious lack of motivation on her part) is that finding an online quiz that was just at her level was difficult. She was much more receptive to an online quiz than any coming from me so I persisted. At last I found one.

On Josh Gemmell’s site he has created three sets of quizzes for both hiragana and katakana. The really nice thing about Josh’s quizzes is you can be quizzed based on just the kana you have learned rather than all of them at once. So, for instance, my daughter just finished learning ma, mi, mu, me, mo. Instead of testing her on all of the hiragana (in which case I would have to tell her the answer for ya, yu, yo, ra, ri, ru, re, ro, wa, particle o, and n) I can select just “a” through “mo” to be tested.

If you are really good at multiple choice quizzes, and that is why you are getting them all correct, have no fear. Go to quiz 2 and now you will have to actually type in the sound.

Anyway, check it out if you are currently learning hiragana or katakana. I’ll show you how my son is learning kanji soon.

Free Japanese language learning apps for the iPhone and iTouch

kana quiz iphone itouch learn japanese hiragana katakana

I don’t own an iPhone, iTouch (iPod Touch), or iPad. I like a big screen and a keyboard with keys that are the same size as my fingers. However, my son has an iTouch. He learned hiragana a while ago and has been stalled out on katakana. Since he rarely sets his iTouch aside I figured if I could mingle katakana and his iTouch somehow he would learn the latter.

japanese iphone itouch japan language learning free greatings

I have now downloaded eight free apps which I will provide brief reviews of in no particular order.

1 )  Kotoba! is a decent dictionary that resides on the iPhone or iTouch itself after downloading so you don’t need an internet connection to use it. The iTouch (or iPhone) is a horrible device for dictionaries however as you’ll more often than not misspell the word you are looking for with the extremely tiny keyboard. You can’t input kanji, but kanji is shown with the word you look up. If you have an internet connection you’ll be better off with

2 )  Wa is another decent dictionary. With this one you can look up kanji, but not by drawing the kanji. Again, the biggest limitation is the horrible keyboard you have to use to input.

On both of these dictionaries you can download a Japanese keyboard that helps a bit, but not much. A qwerty keyboard was never made to be less than one inch by one and a half inches.

3 )  Kanji Sensei features a little Japanese reading and writing tutor. The writing tutor doesn’t work correctly. The reading tutor shows you a kanji and then gives you three English definitions to choose from in a sort of quiz. The number of kanji are small and so this will get really boring, really quickly unless you happen to be working on these very basic kanji.

4 )  Kanaquiz (a screen is pictured up and to the left) is one of the most useful free apps I have found so far. Although stroke order is not taught, the quizzes are good for reviewing both hiragana and katakana. You can take a hiragana quiz, a katakana quiz, or a quiz featuring both. High scores and number correct are saved so you can have something to shoot for in mastering your kana. You can also take quizzes with differing numbers of characters (25, 50, or 100). If you just finished learning hiragana and/or katakana this is a great way to practice and speed up your recognition time.

5 )  Kana Strokes beautifully shows you how to write all of the hiragana and katakana. This free app along with Kanaquiz, above, are all you need to master hiragana and katakana. Once you know stroke order for the kana there is nothing of value in this little app.

6 )  Beginning Japanese Words & Phrases and Japanese Idioms are nice for beginners to learn some words and phrases. These programs (the latter pictured up and to the right) have audio so you can hear a native Japanese speaker say everything. After learning a few things, or everything, you can quiz yourself. These are probably the highest quality programs for learning Japanese that are completely free and contains a decent amount of content for the iPhone and iTouch at the moment. Click here for more.

7 )  Hiragana Lite is a hiragana flashcard program. One of the nice features is that you can include just the hiragana you are currently mastering. You don’t have to study them all at once. This app is easy to use. I think you have to pay to get the katakana flashcards and maybe some other features.

8 )  ShinKanji Lite is an app for the iPod Touch I thought I may be able to learn something from. This app features thousands of kanji. However, the menus are difficult to work through. Sometimes they don’t seem to work at all. There appear to be almost daily updates on this one so maybe it will work OK someday. It was more frustrating than useful for me.

9 )  My Japanese Coach is also available for download to the iPod Touch. I didn’t bother to download and try the free version. I’m guessing it is the same as the problematic My Japanese Coach for the Nintendo DS. Only this version could be worse given the more limited control devices on the iTouch and iPhone.

Are there any free ones out there that I have missed that are good?


nihongoup nihongo up japanese learning game Nihongoup is a little program you can download for free to help you master hiragana, katakana, particles, and kanji on the JLPT 4 and JLPT 3 exams (the first few hundred). For $4.99 more you get practice exercises and JLPT 2 and JLPT 1 (I think). I haven’t actually paid the $4.99 so I’m not sure exactly what you get. The free program only works for 15 days.

The free download features games of balloons falling from the sky. You type in the correct pronunciation of the hiragana, katakana, or number of the correct kanji displayed in the balloon.

I figured out that to type ん you need to hit n twice. How do you type ぢ or づ? I tried ji and dzu but neither worked.

Overall I’d say this is a nice little trainer for beginners in the Japanese language. It doesn’t help much with writing, speaking, or listening though; mostly it is just character recognition practice.

Nihongo Journal with audio

nihongo journal cassette tapes audio japanese learning self study

I have some more issues of Nihongo Journal eager to find a place in your hands. Some have audio too. For ordering details see my prior blog entry on the subject.

If you want to self-study Japanese this is the best way to do it.

Best Japanese dictionary on the internet –, or Denshi Jisho, is probably the best Japanese dictionary available on the internet. I previously used the dictionary on the Kanji-A-Day site I previously mentioned, but recently I’ve found to be more useful. Not only does it give you the results you ask for, but it provides much more that can prove useful for those studying the language.

The results of your searches are presented in an aesthetically pleasing way. The author of the site has a knack for no-nonsense, clean, and clear design which I particularly like.

The site supposedly is optimized to run on cell phones, iPhones, and iPod Touches as well (although I haven’t tried these out as I don’t own any of them).

Rather than describe what you can figure out on your own with a few clicks, I’ll just leave my recommendation at that and encourage you to try it.