Kymberly has taught in music, programming, and natural languages for over 15 years. She is crazily passionate about learning!
Why use an app to learn Japanese?
You carry your phone with you everywhere, right?
Unlike textbooks, pens, and paper, apps for smartphones are available anytime you have your cellphone with you.
Which means that dead time, such as waiting for appointments, or in queues at the grocery, or bank, or even on the phone, can be productive!
Plus instead of carrying a heavy dictionary, physical flip cards, and a textbook, you can have everything you need to learn Japanese on one small device.
Choosing the good apps
There are so many to choose from, some free and fantastic, others are expensive but terrible. It's hard to choose the good ones.
After having been burnt a few times with quick, ill-considered purchases from Apple app store leaving me with useless apps, I now sift through reviews, look for detailed screenshots and usage descriptions, before I buy.
It's also important to check that the app is being actively developed to prevent a bug from making your purchased app unusable.
On the other hand, an older stable app will work on older iOS version, like what's on my old iPhone 3G!
Learning the kana and kanji
You can't get by for long with just romaji (English characters) when studying Japanese.
Learning the 45 hiragana and katakana characters is the next step, and there are a great range of apps that help you recognize and write these characters.
After mastering the kana, you'll be able to move onto kanji.
Flashcards, writing practice and handwriting recognition apps will greatly cut down the time you need to memorize the top 2000 kanji (as used in Japanese newspapers).
Kanji and kana apps
- Obenkyo - a great free app for Android with a fantastic collection of features: katakana, hiragana and kanji tests, stroke diagrams and 'drawing' input tests, an extensive dictionary and a grammar guide.
Apple Kana and kanji apps
- Kana flip and Kanji flip - with an intelligent progressive learning system, you flip your way through learning the kana and kanji with the spaced repetition system showing you the more difficult cards more often.
The levels are based on the older JLPT (1-4), but it's a stable app, with no recent updates, so the app still works on older iOS versions, although it seems that they are currently only available from the US iTunes store.
Japanese vocabulary apps
Once you've memorized at least a handful of kanji and all of the kana, you will want to start learning words and phrases. This will cement the kanji and kana into your memory, and get you into the most useful part of learning a language - vocabulary building.
You do need to be honest - selecting "I got it correct" when you actually got the word wrong, or were unsure, may give a short boost to your esteem, but actually hinders your progress. The apps can't read your mind!
- Japanese flip is for Apple iOS devices - from the makers of the Kana and Kanji Flip apps, this includes 6000 words with example sentences to help you progressively improve your vocabulary.
It is also organised in the old JLPT system, with no update for the new system in sight. However, it's still my favourite vocab building app.
- Learn Japanese, available for both Apple and Android devices, is a great introductory vocab builder. Words are sorted into categories, making it idea for travelers going to Japan.
Japanese dictionary apps
A good dictionary is a must! Most of the pocket-sized dictionaries don't have anywhere near enough words in them to be useful past a beginner level.
These electronic dictionaries have a huge number of words and phrases, some also with verb conjugation and grammar references.
These dictionary apps rival the dedicated electronic dictionaries - I had one (a Casio), but I rarely used it, because it was yet another thing to carry and keep charged. On the other hand, I always had my phone and the dictionary app with me.
- For Apple iOS devices, Japanese is one of the best dictionaries with a host of great additional features, such as study lists, a kanji dictionary, grammar references, and a flash card system built right into the dictionary.
With more than 170,000 entries, it goes past the free JMDict (which powers WWWJDic, the best online free Japanese dictionary).
- Another Apple iOS app, Imiwa is a free dictionary to rival my favourite app above. It is multilingual, with 130000 or more words translated into English, over 14000 into French, more than 74000 into German and 6000 or more into Russian.
It provides example sentences for most of the words, which is great when writing in Japanese, although many contain mistakes because they are written by non-native Japanese speakers. But then, it is a free app.
Imiwa also provides verb conjugation information and allows you to look up the kanji using the radicals, and also has handwriting input to search for kanji.
- For Android users, JED - Japanese-English Dictionary is arguably the best free dictionary available. With 170,000 words, plus an additional 4500 kanji, it's a great 'pocket' reference.
A great iOS app to improve Japanese conversation skills
Japanese language apps with the lot!
Integrating hiragana, katakana and kanji study, with vocabulary learning, progressive lessons, and grammar references, these apps are the best for students who want to spend their time in one app.
These apps will get you to an upper-beginner and intermediate level of proficiency - around A2-B1 in the European language level system.
- Human Japanese - with a variety of games, tests, and graded lessons. Covering kana, kanji, vocabulary and grammar, with recordings of words and phrases from native speakers, Human Japanese is a great self-teaching tool for beginner to intermediate Japanese students. Human Japanese is also available for Apple and Windows mobile devices.
- JA Sensei - available on Android, JA Sensei is similar to Obenkyo, but with the logical addition of vocabulary groups (themes), a variety of lessons, accuracy measurements for drawing kanji, and audio recordings of the vocabulary. It's worth upgrading to the full version to get the audio and drawing capabilities!
- Duolingo Japanese - With a large library of themed lessons at various difficulties, you are able to study Japanese in small bite-sized pieces. The course aims to have you speaking and using Japanese quickly and in as natural a way as possible. Duolingo isn't limited to Japanese though - it offers many other languages with the same bite-sized learning approach.
- LingoDeer Japanese - Similar to Duolingo, LingoDeer offers a number of languages as well as Japanese. The audio quality is better, and the app is also better at explaining the grammar that you are learning.
After mastering these apps, you'll want to work with more advanced material.
Use the vocab building apps and dictionaries to help you read authentic material written in Japanese. Start with easier books, written for children, and work your way up to reading magazines and newspapers.
If you can read a Japanese newspaper without the help of a dictionary, then you have mastered the common Japanese kanji!
Web and mobile based lessons
Japanesepod101.com offers a huge number of free Japanese lesson podcasts, organised into various levels, from absolute beginner through to advanced.
Their website has a variety of study tools, and for a subscription fee, you can get transcripts and study aids to partner with their podcast lessons. If you are a visual learner like me, I highly recommend such a subscription - seeing the audio written helps me enormously!
They do have related Apple iOS apps, but unfortunately I found them very unstable.
Cooori's Japanese language program is available on their website and for mobile devices. Aimed at improving student's progression when they start learning Japanese, it uses an advanced artificial intelligence system to track a student's progress and tailor the study progression accordingly. This program is currently used in Japanese courses at the University of Iceland.
Busuu's Japanese language learning program is both web-based and has apps for Apple and Android devices. It's free to join and use the mobile apps, and you get to interact with native Japanese speakers, who will correct your written and spoken exercises.
Your favorite Japanese learning apps
Do you have a favorite app that you recommend for learning Japanese?
Let us know in the comments below!
John on February 26, 2019:
If you want to easily memorize all the necessary Japanese Vocabulary to pass the JLPT Exam N1 ~ N5.
Please try this app - "Japanese Vocabulary (N1~N5)"
All vocabualry are catergorized and have small game to play with. It really helps for memorizing. I am using it now and find it's extremely useful.
Tom on December 24, 2018:
I like "JLPT Taisen" game. I can battle with my friend, this so good for learn Japanese
Peter on December 02, 2017:
I've been learning with WEBU and SABU for a while and it helped me a lot. WEBU is a browser with pop up dictionary and it can also recognise text from photos. It helps me to learn new words on the street without even inputting the words. SABU is a video player with dictionary and it allows me to repeat each sentence easily. Both comes with a very good flash card system.
Nicky on November 02, 2017:
Hi, I was wondering where you can find the "kanji dream" app? I have been looking for this one, and can't find it in the store.
raphael on March 06, 2017:
It's a browser that gives an instant point-to-translate lookup of individual Japanese words. No fumbling to select text, no switching apps to try to lookup a word, instant pop-up translations in the browser as you read.
SpikeyGuy on October 06, 2016:
"One Second Japanese Words" (free version) was an app I downloaded from the U.S. iTunes store some time back, and only recently re-discovered. With many years Japanese study, and many apps compared, I have clear reasons why this one is so simple, yet good -- I only wish it could be re-made available in the U.S. What's good: At the end of the day, I'm too tired to read / study kanji, but the aural learning has always sunk in easily for me -- after all, we didn't get textbooks in our cribs. It cycles through a lot of helpful words. It could be improved: by minimizng the English voice (annoying), by making the kanji more readable, and few other things. But for what it does, it does it great. So, if anyone knows the "trick" for creating a Japan-based iTunes account, I'd love to hear it.
Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on October 02, 2014:
I'm forwarding this to my son. He is interested in learning Japanese. I think it is because he likes anime.
uuryilmaz on September 15, 2014:
JLPT Kanjis is also new and effectible app for learning kanji. And it is also available for both iPhone and iPad. You can learn and practice kanji in all levels of JLPT.
michael d. on June 02, 2013:
Japanese Hub for Windows Phone is the best app for learning Japanese that I've seen. It had lessons with culture notes, flashcards, vocabulary, kanji, quizzes, and a dictionary. I had to buy 4 apps on iOS for the same functionality.
Hezekiah from Japan on May 22, 2013:
Nice Hub, Kanji-Quiz is a good flash card style learning application.
Kymberly Fergusson (author) from Germany on May 15, 2013:
Thanks Laura! Recently I've been learning German ('cos I live in Germany now), and was really happy to be able to watch Japanese anime with German subtitles - thanks to my Japanese!
Kymberly Fergusson (author) from Germany on May 15, 2013:
Internpete - living in Japan made conversation and feeling comfortable speaking much easier, although I felt I didn't progress as much as I had hoped! Happy you could enjoy your time in Japan too!
Laura Schneider from Minnesota, USA on March 16, 2013:
Awesome article! Voted awesome and up and will share with specific friends whom I know are learning Japanese so that they can understand animé without subtitles/dubbed versions and manga. You just saved them a LOT of time and money by reviewing these apps for smartphones, because I know they're going to love them. Thanks for writing this excellent article!
Peter V from At the Beach in Florida on February 26, 2013:
Learning Japanese can be a challenge! I was fortunate to live in japan while learning Japanese which made it a bit easier. Great hub and information!
Kymberly Fergusson (author) from Germany on February 08, 2013:
This app looks great! I'll try it out soon - thanks!
Bmm209 from California,U.S.A on February 07, 2013:
Japanese Please! Is also a good app. It's free, and it has quick games to practice your Kana. :D