How Hard Is It to Learn Japanese? A Look at Why It's So Complex (2024)

  • Learning Japanese

Posted: Friday, May 6, 2022

How Hard Is It to Learn Japanese? A Look at Why It's So Complex (1)

The Japanese language is considered one of the most difficult to learn by many English speakers. With three separate writing systems, an opposite sentence structure to English, and a complicated hierarchy of politeness, it’s decidedly complex. But how hard is it to learn Japanese? Keep reading to find out what makes the Japanese language so difficult.

Japanese Writing System

How Hard Is It to Learn Japanese? A Look at Why It's So Complex (2)

First off, there are the three writing systems: katakana, hiragana, and kanji. Hiragana and katakana are phonetic alphabets. Unlike English, which treats vowels and consonants separately (and has multiple pronunciations for many of the letters), phonetic alphabets are always written and pronounced in one specific way.

Hiragana and Katakana

With hiragana and katakana, the vowels a, i, u, e, and o are best visualized in five rows, and the consonants are added across the top to create a grid (the table below presents the corresponding vowels on the far right side, as Japanese is read vertically right to left).

How Hard Is It to Learn Japanese? A Look at Why It's So Complex (3)

Hiragana is the first Japanese writing system that children learn—it’s the most basic writing system in Japan. In the table above, it’s easy to identify hiragana because of the alphabet’s more rounded shapes (presented on the left side of each square). Katakana, on the other hand, is sharper in appearance (presented on the right side of each square).


How Hard Is It to Learn Japanese? A Look at Why It's So Complex (4)

Unlike hiragana and katakana, kanji is pictographic. Each symbol, or moji, stands for a concept rather than a sound. For example, in the table above, you can see the kanji 一、二、三 (1, 2, 3). There can be several pronunciations or readings for these symbols. The kanji 一 can be pronounced ichi or hito, but the meaning (one) stays the same.

How Hard Is It to Learn Japanese? A Look at Why It's So Complex (5)

Japanese Grammar

Japanese grammar, as a whole, is one of the most difficult things for English speakers to get their heads around. In Japanese, the verb goes at the end of the sentence, something that feels instinctually wrong for English speakers.

English uses a Subject-Verb-Object word order.

Example: I went to the store.

Japanese, however, uses a Subject-Object-Verb word order.

Example: I store (to) went.

The Japanese form is actually much easier to conjugate, and there are also no pluralizers. However, changing forms between animate and inanimate objects takes some getting used to.

Japanese only has a past and a present tense. While there are multiple forms of each tense, it’s much quicker and more efficient than English. Japanese also relies heavily on context, so many things are considered obvious that must be spelled out in English.

Gender Differences

While Japan used to have very marked differences between genders in speech, much of that has been on the decline. Nowadays, many linguists refer to the differences as gentle “female” and rough “male”. These differences in speech are categorized by endings and politeness: for example, the rough form might end in ~っぜ (ze), a crude ending, rather than ~わ (wa), a more refined sound.

In truth, gender-neutral Japanese is what’s taught in most language schools (and is essential to keigo discussed below), so this is far less relevant; but it’s important to understand when dealing with day-to-day communication.


In Japan, politeness rules supreme—to be impolite is to transgress not only personally but culturally. While most foreigners and expats are forgiven on the exactness of keigo, being intentional with your honorifics can go a long way in impressing your coworkers and managers as well as building bridges within your community.

Integrated in this politeness is a system that values humility over directness, purposefully elevating the listener while putting yourself in a lower rank. Endings become longer, from ~です (desu) to ~でございます (degozaimasu). Still not quite sure what that means?

If you live in Japan, take a moment to listen to department store clerks, and their Japanese might sound quite confusing. That’s because the ultimate example of everyday keigo is the relationship between customer and employee, where the customer is highly honored. While difficult to learn at first, there are a few stock phrases that will become second nature in time with practice.


There are many regional dialects, though you’ll likely be taught the most standard version spoken in Tokyo. The most famous dialect is called Kansai-ben, or Kansai dialect. Kansai is the region that encompasses the other two major hubs of Japan: Kyoto and Osaka. Kansai-ben is known for being more casual, and the dialect has turned into a major part of comedy routines as Osaka is one of the country’s most famous entertainment capitals.

Often, prefectures (and sometimes even cities) have drastic differences in dialects, so even the most adept Japanese-speaking foreigner will still feel out of place when traveling outside of Tokyo. Some dialects, like in Okinawa and Hokkaido, even include vocabulary holdovers from the Ryukyu and Ainu indigenous peoples, respectively, that were the original inhabitants of Japan.

Business Japanese

With complicated rules of hierarchy in keigo, it’s no wonder that business Japanese takes a lot of getting used to. In this area, we can break down keigo as it pertains to other adults in business settings.

There are three areas of keigo: teineigo, sonkeigo, and kenjougo.


Teineigo is the easiest. It’s the kind of keigo you learn in class, where every verb is tidily conjugated and those you are speaking to are equal /to or above you. This is the standard type of Japanese you use in work settings (and yes, that includes nomikai business parties).


Sonkeigo is the politest form. It’s used by the lowest ranking employees when talking about the CEO, or where there is a large gap in status. It’s never used to talk about anything pertaining to you or your group, however, as using such honorifics to talk about yourself will backfire and be considered arrogant.


Kenjougo is the most complex, and—if you get it right—the most impressive. This is a very specific way of talking about yourself and your accomplishments that purposefully puts yourself lower than other people around you. This doesn’t need to be used around people you come in to contact with every day but should be used to talk about your listener if they’re a customer, client, or otherwise outside your circle.

The good news is, you can get close enough for daily keigo use by simply memorizing a few stock phrases. If you find yourself talking in Japanese on the phone, we have a handy list of business Japanese phone phrases.

Make the Most of Japan by Learning the Language

Typically, the best way to learn Japanese is through language immersion. While it’s possible to get by with little or no Japanese language skills in metropolitan areas, you will miss out on a lot that Japan has to offer as well as frequently find yourself in a tight spot when dealing with day-to-day living situations like filling out documents at city hall, going to the post office, or trying to effectively communicate with Japanese coworkers.

You can alsolearn Japanese for freeor useJapanese Learning Apps. In Japan, there is also another way of communicationwithout using words.

If you live in Tokyo, we highly recommend taking some type of Japanese language course to help kickstart or refine your fluency. Check out our comprehensive list of Japanese language schools in Tokyo to help you find the best learning option for you.

How Hard Is It to Learn Japanese? A Look at Why It's So Complex (2024)


How Hard Is It to Learn Japanese? A Look at Why It's So Complex? ›

A Look at Why It's So Complex. The Japanese language is considered one of the most difficult to learn by many English speakers. With three separate writing systems, an opposite sentence structure to English, and a complicated hierarchy of politeness, it's decidedly complex.

Why is learning Japanese so difficult? ›

Japanese is considered challenging for English speakers due to its distinct grammatical structure and writing system, but difficulty varies by learner.

What is the hardest thing about learning Japanese? ›

Its Writing System

This is especially the case for a language that has its own writing script, different to that of the Latin alphabets. What makes Japanese even more complicated is the fact that it has not 1, but 3 writing scripts: Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana.

Why is Japanese writing so complex? ›

Almost all written Japanese sentences contain a mixture of kanji and kana. Because of this mixture of scripts, in addition to a large inventory of kanji characters, the Japanese writing system is considered to be one of the most complicated currently in use.

How long does it take for a normal person to learn Japanese? ›

On the other hand, you can expect to spend at least 3 years studying to become fluent in Japanese with near-native level accuracy. How long does it take to learn basic Japanese? If you're a complete novice and want to learn basic Japanese, expect to spend around 150-200 hours studying to reach a beginner level.

Which is harder Japanese or Chinese? ›

There are distinctive disparities between the two language structures. Japanese grammar generally follows SOV (subject, object, verb) language. In contrast, Chinese grammar follows SVO, similar to English, making learning and speaking Chinese easier than Japanese.

Which is harder Japanese or Korean? ›

Our conclusion is that Korean is easier to learn… but only just. As a beginner, we actually think it's easier to learn Japanese. Although learning Hiragana and Katakana can be a little challenging, pronunciation of Japanese is relatively simple and the grammar rules are not too complicated.

Is Japanese one of the hardest languages in the world? ›

The top 10 hardest languages in the world include Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Finnish, Hungarian, Icelandic, Georgian, and Navajo. These languages are renowned for their intricate grammar systems, complex writing systems, and significant differences from English.

Which is harder Japanese or English? ›

In fact, the US Foreign Service Institute considers Japanese to be one of the most difficult languages to learn for an English speaker (along with Arabic, Chinese, and Korean). While it may take an average learner 30 weeks to master French, it will take approximately 88 weeks for Japanese.

Why Japanese is worth learning? ›

In addition, when you learn Japanese, you become not only proficient in the language but also gain an insider view of the culture. Understanding the Japanese work ethic, their business etiquette, and knowing which cultural faux pas to avoid can often make or break an important business deal.

Why does Japanese have 3 alphabets? ›

Like hiragana, Japan's third writing system, katakana, is a native alphabet based on sounds. But why did Japan have need for yet another writing system? The reason goes back, again, to the fact that reading kanji is difficult – and not just for non-Japanese people and women.

Why do Japanese read right to left? ›

There are two ways to write Japanese, the traditional way and the modern way. Traditional is the same as traditional Chinese, which is top to bottom, right to left, but modern is the same as English, which is left to right, top to bottom.

Is Japanese overly complicated? ›

The research of the US-based FSI study found that Japanese falls into category IV for native English speakers. They categorize this language as a “super-hard language.” Others in this group are Arabic, Korean, and 2 Chinese — Mandarin and Cantonese.

How many hours should I study Japanese a day? ›

Those who spend more hours daily learning and practicing will probably progress faster than those who only dedicate a few hours per week. So for those looking to learn the language as a secondary language, at least 2—4 hours should be spent in a day learning and practicing the language.

How long does Duolingo Japanese take? ›

How long it takes to learn Japanese on Duolingo depends on a number of variables, including desired level of fluency, time commitment per day, and practice outside of Duolingo. For casual Duolingo learners though, expect two to three years of work.

Is Duolingo actually effective? ›

Duolingo generally does a good job of balancing the four essential skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing. It doesn't remedy the fact that we might not be pronouncing the words correctly, but the ability to make and speak our own sentences is a great step toward really learning to use the language.

Is Japanese actually hard to learn? ›

The SLS ranks languages by the length of time typically required for native English speaking students to reach “Professional Working Proficiency” in a large number of languages. Japanese is ranked as a Category IV language, the hardest category to learn, requiring 2,200 class hours — as compared to the easiest group of ...

Is it really that hard to learn Japanese? ›

Yes. Any language is going to take time and effort to learn, and Japanese in particular presents more challenges to a native English speaker than many other languages. However, as you've seen in this article, even the “hardest” aspects of Japanese are much simpler than they might initially seem.

Is Japanese actually easy to learn? ›

The US State Dept.'s Foreign Service Institute rates Japanese along with Chinese, Korean, and Arabic as only 4 languages in their most difficult category. They claim it takes 4 times longer to master Japanese than Spanish, Norwegian, or Romanian.

Which is harder Russian or Japanese? ›

After reading through all the differences, Russian probably comes across as the easier language to learn. And it is! For native English speakers, Russian is categorized as taking 44 weeks to learn (or 1,100 hours), while Japanese takes 88 weeks (2,200 hours).

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