These 8 Things Are What Make Japanese so Difficult to Learn

  • This social context can be seen pretty clearly in Japan’s senpai-kohai or “superior and subordinate” relationships.

In January of 2015 I moved to Osaka, Japan to enroll in a Japanese language school. Like many others, I assumed diving into the deep end with complete Japanese immersion would be the thing that would push me to propel my Japanese learning. After I graduated from language school in 2016 I would enroll in a Japanese university, begin working in Japan, and 7 years later here I am writing this article. After so much time in Japan, I’ve spent some time reflecting recently on my Japanese language learning journey, and what I learned along the way.

The truth is, there are some things that make learning Japanese incredibly difficult. Being immersed into the culture and language here, there were some things that would become a subconscious hurdle for me on a daily basis. After 7 years, I think I can put into words what makes Japanese such a difficult language to learn as a native English speaker. In no particular order, here were some of the things that stuck out to me, and some things you can begin tackling to improve your Japanese right away and avoid obvious pitfalls.

1. The writing system in general, along with the sheer number of Kanji

Did you know that Japan has three alphabets? Did you know that one of these alphabets has 1000’s upon 1000’s of characters? Well, technically that last one isn’t an alphabet since it is a logographic system where shapes in combination and order denote specific ideas and meaning. The point being, this is probably the most intimidating and difficult aspect of learning Japanese that stops most new learners in their tracks. At first, learning the first two alphabets hiragana and katakana is relatively simple, but mastering kanji is a lifetime pursuit. Many people on YouTube videos are articles say things like “There are 2000 kanji to learn!” or something along those lines, but the reality I think lies somewhere closer to 3500 to 5000 kanji you will need to know to be able to write intelligent Japanese, with nuance. While reflecting on my Japanese learning experience, I can say that learning the first 1000 kanji was one of the most difficult things I had to do to become fluent. As you learn more kanji, you memorize more patterns that make learning the next kanji easier and easier. Really though, the further you get on your Japanese language-learning journey, it becomes more apparent just how many kanji there are to memorize. It really never ends…

However, I know just how difficult it can be to learn kanji, because for the past 7 years I have been living, studying, and working in Japan. I know exactly what worked for me and what didn’t, so if you’re interested in learning more about my process in studying Japanese kanji you can read about it here. 

2. Multiple readings, Onyomi and Kunyomi

If the absolutely insurmountable number of kanji there are to learn wasn’t enough, it main pain you to find out that these kanji in Japanese actually have multiple readings. These are officially divided into onyomi and kunyomi. A long long time ago (in a land far away) kanji were created in China, which would then be imported into Japan through Korea in the 5th century. These onyomi are the remnants of the original Chinese pronunciation. Kunyomi, on the other hand, are words that are pronounced using the original Japanese pronunciation. It doesn’t end there. Depending on the specific order of kanji, the pronunciation of the kanji before it can change depending on the context. This creates a dynamic where you need to read ahead so you can determine the correct pronunciation of a word as a whole based on what comes after it. It’s a very uniquely Japanese situation (as far as I know), and means that you not only have to memorize how to read kanji, multiple different ways to pronounce each kanji, but you also have to learn an entirely new way of reading all together. 

3. The insane counting system (seriously)

You know how people like to talk about how weird English is for having so many different exceptions when counting animals. “It’s 1 goose and 2 geese? WOW! What’s up with that?! (In my best Seinfeld impression.) Now imagine another world where plates, pencils, pizza’s, any other P word you can think had a specific method in which you would need to count them. You, my friend, have just entered the wonderful world of Japanese counters. 

In actuality, this isn’t really that big of a deal since, practically speaking, you really only need to know maybe around 20 of these in 90% of all everyday scenarios. Still, this may be the one area of Japanese that I am okay with never reaching native level fluency on. If you’re interested in deeper context, Tofugu wrote a fantastic article where they compiled 350 different means of counting in Japanese. They actually go over their “17 must-know Japanese counters”, which should come in handy if you’re learning Japanese and are looking to tackle counters for the first time. 

4. The complexity of Keigo

Keigo is often described as “polite Japanese” or “honorific Japanese” but it’s a bit more complicated than that. It’s actually a lot more complicated than that, as there are different types of keigo. There is sonkeigo (尊敬語) or respectful Japanese, kenjyogo (謙譲語) or humble Japanese, and teineigo (丁寧語) which is the standard for using more polite forms of Japanese that most Japanese leaners start with. 

So, why does the addition of keigo make Japanese such a complex language to learn. Well, for starters, while simpler forms of keigo like teineigo typical modify the grammar structure similar to how we may in English, kenjyogo and sonkeigo are spoken using an entirely different vocabulary word altogether from what would be standard Japanese. For example, to eat in kenjyogo or humble-style keigo would be to “itadakimasu. (頂きます)” This is what Japanese people say before every meal. “Itadakimasu!” However, to say that someone else you respect is eating in sonkeigo, or respectful-keigo, is to say they “Meshiagarimasu (召し上がります.) Of course this is also the more standard way to say to in Japanese, which is to “tabemasu (食べます.) 

So, what does this mean? The addition of keigo in Japanese means that there are often several standardized ways to say the same thing depending on every situation. Depending on your company, it can be very important that you understand these nuances. 

Even Japanese people struggle with keigo. 

5. EVERYTHING is context sensitive. 

This context can be seen pretty clearly in Japan’s senpai-kohai or “superior and subordinate” relationship dynamic.
As I had mentioned before, the addition of honorific Japanese demands that Japanese speakers are constantly aware of their present compare, their surroundings in general, and that they adjust to them accordingly. Only, this isn’t only a linguistic principle in Japan, this idea may be the entire cornerstone for Japanese society in general. Because of the nature of Japanese grammar, conversations can often go on for minutes without any direct reference to what anyone is talking about. It seems that the biggest virtue in Japanese society is the ability to be able to “read the room”, but in an entirely more extreme and socially complex manner, as they put it in Japanese, it is those who can not “read the air” who are truly lost in social situations. Japanese people tend to be incredibly indirect, which often makes it difficult for Japanese learners to ascertain not only the way to say what they’re thinking, but how to convey the idea in general. Many new expats in Japan struggle with whether or not they should be direct or indirect, or even whether or not they should be honest or tell people what they want to hear. It’s an entirely new style of communication if you come from a country with a more direct style of communication. Japanese is a very high context language, and coming from English, a very low context language, this can be quite tricky.

6. A complete opposite word order 

The Japanese grammatical structure may as well have been constructed in another universe as any romance language. I suppose it was when you consider how big the world used to be. In Japanese, verbs are typically placed at the very end of the sentence, which is typically the opposite of what you would see in English. This opposite word order means that it is very difficult for Japanese learners to even start constructing anything that looks like a sentence in the beginning. This article I found from Japanese pod 101 does a great job of breaking down the grammatical differences between English and Japanese in a very visual way. As they state in the article, Japanese is a SOV language, meaning the order of a sentence typically consists of a subject, object, and then finally the verb. English is instead a SVO language, meaning the modifying object is typically the last thing in a sentence. What’s more, the subject is often omitted entirely in Japanese (as I explained in point number 5.), which leaves out a lot of information that English speakers would otherwise be waiting for. In short, learning Japanese is difficult not only because of the grammatical shift, but because of the way you will need to adjust your thought process in order to be able to effectively adjust to both the language and culture. 

7. People talk really fast in Japanese. Like, REALLY fast. 

In 2011 linguists and behavioral scientists attempted the measure the speed of common language across the world. At 7.84 syllables spoken per-second, Japanese was ranked as the fastest language in the world. Comparatively, English was found to be spoken at a speed of 6.19 syllables per second, making it one of the slower languages out of the tested languages of Mandarin, German, English, Italian, French, Spanish, and Japanese. It is important to note that this tests denotes the speed at which syllables are spoken in a given language, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to the speed at which information is relayed. Source: Pellegrino, F., Coupé, C., & Marsico, E. (2011). Across-language perspective on speech information rate. Language, 87(3), 539-558.

8. The final and most humorous point: Some Japanese people refuse to talk to you in Japanese 

This is something that happens to everyone when they first come to Japan. You’re likely pumped and ready to start using that Japanese you’ve painstakingly learned, only to find that once you actually get to Japan, many people refuse to respond to you in Japanese. So, what gives? I think a few things are going on here. First, people in Japan aren’t used to hearing people speak Japanese with all different kinds of heavy accents like we are in English. When you first get off the plane, your pronunciation is likely very, very bad. This is when Japan’s “omoiyari” or “culture of caretaking” takes over, and people assume that you would be happier to speak in English. Because, of course! You have a foreign face, and you’re trying to speak Japanese! This is something many foreigners take personally in the beginning, but I think people’s intentions are usually good. This becomes a problem when you’re in the intermediate stages of learning Japanese, because your Japanese is almost certainly better than most people’s English in Japan, but some people will still insist on speaking English to you, which in-turn makes it more difficult to learn Japanese. It’s a vicious cycle, but is one that you can push through with time. I find now that I’ve been here for 7 years, even when I was in the countryside people would still tend to speak to me normally and in Japanese, but it takes a certain amount of confidence to make this happen. I know that I can usually tell how long another foreigner has been in Japan by the way they act, and I think Japanese natives can pick up on this too. Generally speaking, if you keep moving forward in a proactive way, and continue in initiate positive interactions, people will respond in a more positive and “normal” way to you in-turn. This is perhaps the most difficult and daunting thing about learning Japanese that makes most foreigners quit; You will never be Japanese, but you can be a foreigner who is really great at Japanese, and understands the local culture. There’s nothing wrong with that! But, you will need to make people feel comfortable around you on a daily basis. This is the truth for us as foreigners in japan, and this is the life we choose. At least, I suspects things aren’t going to change for a long time. 

But, It gets easier! Don’t give up! If you’re looking for some extra language learning help, why not check out my article below?


If you’re interested in hearing my story on how I studied Japanese in Japan and abroad, you can read about my experiences (and tips) here! 


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