You Can Learn Japanese Outside of Japan (How and Why)

There is a myth that immersion is the only way to learn Japanese, that is to say, unless you are living in Japan, you won’t be able to learn Japanese. But all that is really required to learn Japanese, or any other language, is access to native media and native speakers. The internet offers a wide array of online resources and services that makes this access possible no matter where you live.

Successfully learning Japanese outside of Japan is possible by leveraging online resources to communicate with Japanese native speakers and engage with native Japanese written and audio-video content. Many resources are available for complete beginners to build a foundation in the language.

According to the Japan Foundation’s 2018 Survey Report on Japanese-Language Education Aboard, there were 3,851,774 people actively learning Japanese at institutions offering Japanese language education outside of Japan. This survey only covers “institutions implementing Japanese-language education in language studies”, it does not include an estimate of the number of self-learners.

Survey Report on Japanese-Language Education Aboard 2018, The Japan Foundation [1] – Number of Learners

In the same year, 2018, JASSO (Japan Student Services Organization) reported that 298,980 students were studying Japanese at institutions in Japan [2]. So, of the people that study Japanese, only about 7.2% of them are actually doing it in Japan! I count myself as one those who learned Japanese outside of Japan as the vast majority of my time spent learning Japanese has been in my home country.

At the time of writing this article, I am living in Japan. I often get asked, “how may years have you lived in Japan?” The question is very specifically “how many years?” The fact of the matter is, I have spent over 10 years learning Japanese, but I have only spent about 14 months of that time in Japan. I lived in Japan for 8 months in 2012, and at the time of writing, another 6 months spanning from 2021 to 2022.

Before moving on, it may interest you to know where all our fellow Japanese learners are located. They are in 142 countries and regions around the world, with the dominant region being East Asia. Just 15.6% are in English speaking countries. And another interesting fact is that the number one reason people chose to learn Japanese is interest in anime and other media!  

Survey Report on Japanese-Language Education Aboard 2018, The Japan Foundation [1] – Learners by Country/Region

Build Your Japanese Language Foundation: Methods & Resources

There are two keys to learning Japanese, one is access to native speakers and other native content, the other is putting in the time and effort it takes to learn a language. The first thing you will need to do is to build your foundation in the language, but once you foundation is built, you can turn your attention to focusing on native content and unstructured communication with native speakers.

In terms of building your foundation, I started off by taking Japanese courses offered at my university. We used a textbook series called Genki, which I highly recommend; it is the most popular textbook used by learners in English speaking countries. I have written in detail about using Genki here. I have also written about where to go after Genki here.

Besides university courses, there are other ways to go about learning Japanese. I have written in detail about learning via classes vs. a private tutor vs. self-studying here. I have also written about the costs of three ways to learn Japanese here. Two of the methods I discuss are undertaken in your home country, which are: self-study and a university degree in Japanese.

For those on a limited budget, I have also written about self-studying Japanese completely for free here. The self-study option, where paid or free, involves selecting effective resources. I provide my best recommendations in the above-mentioned articles, two of which are NHK’s News Web Easy (free) and (paid).

Improve Your Japanese by Engaging with Native Media and Native Speakers

With your foundation built, what’s really going to make the difference is consistent effort to engage with native Japanese content and communicate with native speakers. This can be done with online resources. The resources mentioned above will certainly help give you a grounding in listening, reading and grammar explanations. From there, you can branch out to listening, watching, and reading other native media.

The most important thing to do is to actually practice your speaking with a native speaker. When you speak, you will make mistakes and say things that sound unnatural. A native speaking private teacher will help you through this. The best place to find a native speaking teacher is italki. I have written in detail about the benefits of italki here. The more time you spend practicing, the better you’ll become, and the intensity of the personal attention from a native speaker is what will make the difference.

The Time it Takes to Learn Japanese

Ultimately your success in learning Japanese comes down to number of hours you spend learning and practicing. Quality of resources and effectiveness of study are also important, but time is the most critical factor. Assuming you are highly motivated to learn, you will be able to consistently invest the time you need to advance towards fluency. But how many hours will it take?

The United States Foreign Service Institute says that it takes 2200 class hours to reach professional working proficiency in Japanese [3], which is level 3 on the Interagency Language Roundtable defined as “Able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations in practical, social and professional topics [4].”

It’s worth noting that the Foreign Service’s training is fairly intense at 25 class hours per week, and each hour spent learning is likely quite effective. The class sizes are estimated at eight students [5], and the teachers are native or near native speakers who provide support in and out of the class. But what is also note worthy is that this training is done outside of Japan.

I myself undertook a form of intensive training when first started learning Japanese. I spent a summer term at my university in my home country taking Japanese classes full time. I did this in advance of undertaking an 8-month internship in Japan. In total, I spent about 400 hours learning and practicing before I went. When I arrived in Japan, I was able to navigate daily life reasonably well, even at my basic level.

The above proves that you do not need to live in Japan to learn Japanese, but the big advantage that living in Japan would give you is immersion. Immersion does not mean you learn by osmosis, rather, it just means that you get more opportunities to practice and apply the language due to the environment you’re in. The following quote sums up well the fact that immersion is all about increased practice time [6].

…the myth that immersion is the “best way” to learn a language, may be explained by the simple fact that the student is in an intense learning environment for significantly more hours, than the student who takes a weekly adult education class.

Sarah Elaine Eaton

The Challenges of Learning Japanese Outside of Japan and How to Overcome Them

Losing motivation is really the only way you can fail to learn Japanese, or any foreign language [7]. If you are taking classes, it might be that you do not like your class environment or your teacher. Or it could be that you start learning and after a period of time you realize that your initial expectations are not met and you have not improved as much as you had hoped [7], [8]. This can happen whether you are in or out of Japan.

There is other literature that suggests that textbooks just can’t give you a real enough version of Japanese as it’s encountered in real life and that cultural aspects of Japan are too overgeneralized [9]. I still think a textbook, such as Genki, is very useful as long as you keep in mind that a textbook is just to build your foundation so you can break into native media and start speaking to native speakers. This is where your learning will really begin!  

Start engaging with lots of different native media as soon as you can. You have full access to rich a selection thanks to the internet. Read news, blogs, and do Google searches in Japanese. Listen to podcasts, and watch drama, anime and Japanese youtubers. For speaking practice that you can do on your own, you can use the book series Shadowing.

But again, the absolute best thing you can do is speak with native Japanese speakers! A free way to do this could be by finding a language exchange partner, but my top recommendation is to find a teacher on italki. The one-on-one attention I have received from my italki teachers has allowed me to make considerable gains. I live in Japan at the time of writing and my italki teachers are still my favorite way to practice.

In fact, when I was still living in my home country, my company was preparing to exhibit at a technology tradeshow in Japan. I wanted to have solid business Japanese to be able to represent my company at the show. I found a teacher on italki and twice a week for four months in advance of the show, we roll played and worked on my business Japanese. When we went to the show, I was able speak my best Japanese ever.  


[1] The Japan Foundation. (2020). Survey Report on Japanese-Language Education Aboard 2018. Produced, edited and published by: The Japan Foundation.

[2] Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO). (2021). Result of an Annual survey of International Students in Japan 2020. Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO).

[3] Foreign Service Institute. Foreign Language Training. U.S. Department of State. [Accessed April 2022].

[4] Interagency Language Roundtable. ILR Speaking Skill Scale. [Accessed April 2022].

[5] Bamford, Julian (1987). How Much in How Long?: Estimating the Length of Time It Takes to Learn a Foreign Language. Information and Communications Study, 8, pp.143-149.

[6] Eaton, Sarah Elaine. (2011). How Long Does it Take to Learn a Second Language?: Applying the “10,000-Hour Rule” as a Model for Fluency. The University of Calgary.

[7] Dornyei, Zoltan. (2005). The Psychology of the Language Learner Individual Differences in Second Language Acquisition. Routledge.

[8] Matsumoto, M., & Obana, Y. (2001). Motivational Factors and Persistence in Learning Japanese as a Foreign Language. New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies, 3(1), 59-86.

[9] Matsumoto, Yoshiko and Okamoto, Shigeko. (2003). The Construction of the Japanese Language and Culture in Teaching Japanese as a Foreign Language. Japanese Language and Literature 37 (2003) 27–48.

Colten Dumonceau

My goal is to provide information that will help you learn Japanese as quickly and effectively as possible. I have spent more than ten years learning Japanese, mostly self-taught, from absolute beginner to an advanced level. I believe its possible to go much faster than I did. Please let me share with you the best learning strategies I have uncovered.

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