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80/20 Japanese

Learn smarter, start speaking today, and get to fluency fast!

Japanese is not this incredibly complex and confusing language that everyone seems to think it is. Learning a bunch of random words and set phrases isn't going to get you very far. You need to learn to think differently. That's why I'm writing 80/20 Japanese.

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Japanese is easy – you just need to be taught the right way.

When I learnt Japanese, I did it the hard way – by memorizing sentence patterns, set phrases and random vocabulary. The problem was, I didn't know how to put it all together. I knew all these random bits and pieces, but didn't understand why everything works the way it does.

I figured it out eventually, but there are so many things I wish someone had taught me. Japanese is actually incredibly logical, flexible and intuitive, but I wasted a lot of time feeling confused and frustrated because it didn't make sense to my English-speaking brain.

That's why I decided to write 80/20 Japanese. I want to save you from all the difficulties that I faced, and help you understand how the Japanese language really works. That's the 20% that will get you 80% of the way to speaking fluent Japanese, and that's what you'll learn in this book.

If you want to learn to speak and understand Japanese properly, and fast, read on!

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What's In 80/20 Japanese

In 80/20 Japanese, you will learn the most important 20% of the Japanese language that will get you 80% of the way to speaking fluently. This book will teach you to truly understand why Japanese works the way it does, and provide you with a solid foundation that's easy to build on.

Each chapter is packed with examples that support detailed explanations of all the important concepts, and they are presented in a way that helps you avoid the confusion that I faced when I was learning. With this book and plenty of practice, you'll be amazed at how quickly you can go from complete beginner to conversational pro.

Who's It For

80/20 Japanese is for anyone who wants to learn to speak Japanese, but either doesn't know where to start, has tried to learn but struggled to make progress, or is intimidated by how difficult Japanese appears to be.

How I Plan To Publish It

I will be self-publishing this book with the help of the Publishizer team. Once completed, it will be available in softcover, eBook and audio-book through

80/20 Japanese is being made possible thanks to designer Scott Lee of The Unspoken Pitch, as well as Guy Vincent and the Publishizer team.

As a bonus, we have Benny Lewis, renowned polyglot and author of Fluent In 3 Months, who has kindly offered to support this campaign with his awesome book. When you preorder the Early Adopter Package, you get one ebook copy of Fluent In 3 Months to accompany 80/20 Japanese. Woohoo!

About Richard Webb

I have spent over 6 years living in Japan, have a degree in Japanese, and studied linguistics at a Japanese university. I've also passed the highest level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and worked for two Japanese companies where virtually all communication was in Japanese.

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80/20 Japanese

What's Inside

1. Introduction

2. The sounds of Japanese

3. Introduction to Japanese grammar

4. General characteristics of Japanese

5. The essentials

6. Numbers and counters

7. Expressions of time

8. Nouns and adjectives

9. Verbs I - Building on the essentials

10. Verbs II - Taking it to the next level

11. Particles in depth

12. The magic of noun phrases

13. Conditional clauses

14. Wa vs Ga


Japanese is often considered one of the most difficult languages to learn. I thought this too, once upon a time, but now I know better. Yes, it is very different from English and pretty much every other language, but it is incredibly logical, flexible and has very few irregularities. With the right approach, I believe it is possible to learn to speak fluent Japanese in a very short period of time.

That's why I've written this book. I want to share with you the knowledge I have accumulated through years of formal study, over six years of living in Japan, and countless hours spent contemplating the finer points of Japanese and English linguistics.

When I first learned Japanese, I struggled with all kinds of concepts that, in retrospect, aren't very difficult at all. The problem was that I didn't know what I was doing, or what I should be learning. I had textbooks and teachers that taught me all the basic grammar and sentence patterns, and I could even put some decent sentences together, but it wasn't until I studied in Japan that I finally “got it".

The reason for that is simple - I spent a lot of time learning what to say, without properly understanding how Japanese really works. I had to figure a lot out on my own, which only came after being exposed to Japanese almost exclusively for months on end. If I had just had a better grasp of how languages work in general, and the specific things that make Japanese and English so different, I could have saved myself a lot of time and confusion.

This book is designed to give you the head start I didn't have. Wherever you are, if you want to learn to speak Japanese, the book will help you learn smarter, start speaking today, and get to fluency fast!

The 80/20 Approach

You've most likely heard of the 80/20 rule, or Pareto Principle. It suggests that in any endeavor, 80% of the results come from 20% of the input. For a company, 80% of revenue usually comes from around 20% of its customers. In many sports, approximately 80% of the goals are scored by 20% of the players. The ratios won't always be 20% and 80%, but the point is that in anything you do, there are a few things that matter far more than everything else.

When it comes to languages, one of the most oft-cited examples of the 80/20 principle relates to vocabulary. In just about any language, the most common 1500 words or so usually account for 80% of the spoken or written language. For Japanese, the first 1000 words account for roughly 76% of the words that appear in novels. Although this is good to know, it is somewhat misleading, and misses the point of language learning.

Firstly, many of the most common words have very little meaning on their own, like the English words “it", “the" and “of". These words are essential, but they mostly just supplement other, less common words that have more meaning.

Secondly, the most common words overall will not necessarily by the most useful words for you. If your goal is to discuss politics in Japanese, you'll need a very different set of vocabulary to somebody who wants to understand anime. You're much better off learning the words you need over the ones you're told you "should" know.

More importantly though, a language is not merely a collection of vocabulary. A language is a skill, or more accurately, a group of skills that you use to communicate. The most important 20% of the Japanese language is therefore not a list of the most common words, but rather the knowledge and understanding that will allow you to practice and develop these skills most efficiently and effectively. Vocabulary is of course necessary, but it is only one piece of the puzzle.

To speak fluent Japanese, the most important skill you need is the ability to understand how sentences are formed, and how the words in a sentence relate to each other. You need to develop this skill above all others because it applies to everything, and because it is the single aspect that is most different to what you already know, making it the most difficult to master.

Despite this, the usual way people are taught Japanese essentially equates to being made to remember and practice lots of different sentence patterns that apply to specific situations. This works for a while, but it is severely limiting and leads to a lot of confusion. I experienced this myself, and wish I had started with a proper understanding of sentence formation, rather than having to figure it out for myself.

That's why after introducing the sounds of Japanese, this book focuses first and foremost on giving you a proper understanding of Japanese sentence structure. It does this using simple examples and highlighting the important differences between Japanese and English. This teaches you to think differently, and lays the foundation that will allow you to say anything. It's the 20% of the language that will get you 80% of the way to speaking fluent Japanese.

One more application of the 80/20 rule in this book is to ignore written Japanese. Learning to read and write Japanese requires a lot of memorization and additional practice. I encourage you to learn these skills when you are ready, but at the beginning stages of learning a new language, an entirely new writing system is a distraction that slows you down and causes added frustration, making you more likely to quit. Instead, it's better to focus on understanding the language first. That is the most important 20%.

Deconstructing Japanese

The skill of speaking Japanese can be broken down broadly into four pieces - pronunciation, listening, vocabulary and sentence building. The sounds of Japanese, which are relevant to both pronunciation and listening, are covered in Chapter 1, while the remainder of the book focuses on sentence building. In doing so, it also includes a variety of useful vocabulary.

Here is a brief introduction to each of the building blocks of spoken Japanese.


This is really important, and people often don't spend enough time on this. There's no point being able to speak Japanese correctly if nobody can understand what you say. You don't need to be perfect, but good pronunciation will make communication much smoother and more enjoyable, while also improving your listening skills. In the beginning especially, you should dedicate time every day just to practicing pronunciation. It takes time for the muscles in your mouth to develop the ability to make the new sounds accurately and efficiently, just like any other physical skill. The more you do it, the easier it will become.


Listening is a skill in itself that takes practice. In addition to learning to recognize all the different sounds and sound combinations, it is important to get used to the natural flow of a language, and practice listening to it being spoken at a natural pace. So often, people will learn all the basics of a language, but can't keep up when they hear it spoken naturally. Focused practice on listening to naturally spoken Japanese is essential. The sooner you start, and the more you do, the better.


This is obviously important, but it's more than just memorization. If you ever studied a language at school, you no doubt had vocabulary tests that required you to memorize the meanings of individual words. You also no doubt forgot most of those words as soon as the test was over.

Instead of this, try to learn words that matter to you, and learn them in context. The majority of my vocabulary has come from hearing or seeing a word in the real world and making the effort to learn its meaning. This works extremely well because it lets your environment tell you which words to learn and how to use them. This doesn't mean you can't learn vocabulary through study - just be sure that when you do so, you learn words that are relevant to you, and learn them in context.

Sentence building

In order to communicate in any language, you need to be able to build and understand sentences. A solid understanding of grammar makes this process much less random and confusing. Grammar is often seen as boring, but it helps you make sense of new concepts, allows you to expand the range of ideas you can express, and if you learn the basics well, it gives you the power to self-correct and experience rapid improvement.

If you think grammar is unnecessary, and simply listening to and immersing yourself in a language is the most effective way to learn it because that's how children do it, consider this - when you learned your first language, you were constantly surrounded by it and had no way to escape, even in your thoughts. You had a fundamental need for language, a rapidly developing brain, and people around you that actively encouraged you at every step. Even so, it took you several years before you could put a coherent sentence together, let alone have an intelligent conversation.

The fact is, you can't simulate a child's circumstances, and nor do you want to. You're smarter now and your brain is more powerful. As an adult, you possess the ability to dissect and analyze new information far better than any child. Learning grammar allows you to leverage that superior intellect to great effect.

How to learn a language

Since learning a language means learning a number of skills, it should be treated like any other skill. Simply reading this book from beginning to end won't magically give you the ability to speak Japanese. It will help you learn all the essential knowledge you need to speak Japanese, but it is critical that you don't confuse the acquisition of knowledge with the acquisition of a skill.

Consider other skills. If you want to learn to play golf, simply reading about technique and studying videos of Tiger Woods is not enough. This will give you some basic knowledge that will help you improve, but you won't get better at swinging a golf club until you practice swinging a golf club. It's that simple.

Learning to speak a language is the same - you need to train your brain to think a certain way, your mouth to move a certain way, and your ears to interpret sounds a certain way. You obviously need some knowledge of the language to be able to do this, but you absolutely must put this knowledge to use by speaking and listening to Japanese.

It's not just me who thinks this. In his book Fluent in 3 Months, Benny Lewis says that the key ingredient that has helped him become fluent in over 10 languages is to start speaking from day one. No matter how little you know, talking to people in your target language gives you valuable experience that you can't get from study. It's also far more enjoyable than spending all of your time with your head down learning grammar and vocabulary.

As proud as I am of the quality of this book and how beneficial it will be for your Japanese language learning, it will never replace real-life experience. Make sure you practice what you learn early and often.

Creating opportunities to practice

“But… but… I don't have anyone to practice with?"

That excuse may have worked in the past, but not any more.

First of all, Japanese people are everywhere. With few exceptions, Japanese communities can be found in most major cities around the world - you just have to put in the effort to find and connect with them. When you do, though, don't be that person that goes up to people and says they're looking for someone with whom they can practice their Japanese. I've met countless people who, within a few minutes of meeting them, asked me to help them with their English. I'm happy to help out my friends, but nobody wants to feel as though they're being used, unless they're getting something in return. Make friends first before asking for help, or just start speaking to them in Japanese so that becomes the default language. In some cases, you may be able to arrange a language exchange, where you help each other out with your language learning goals. In any case, you want to build a genuine relationship, not one that hinges purely on your need for their language skills.

If you're worried about your lack of Japanese ability, and fear being ridiculed, don't be. Easier said than done, I know, but for the most part, Japanese people are incredibly kind and will be flattered that you are trying to speak their language. In English speaking countries, non-English speakers are sometimes made to feel like they don't belong. They get treated with rudeness, impatience and are sometimes even abused. Japanese people aren't like this - they don't expect people to learn their language. They're impressed with people who can speak Japanese, even a little, and although they might be shy, they will generally want to talk to you, no matter how little sense you make.

If you live somewhere where there aren't any Japanese people, don't have the time to spend searching, or are intimidated by the prospect of approaching a Japanese community, there is, of course, the Internet. Using websites like or, you can find native Japanese language tutors for as little as $8/hour, or connect with language exchange partners for free. This gives you easy, affordable access to native Japanese speakers with whom you can practice speaking Japanese, wherever you happen to be.

Of course, when you just want to practice your listening and interpretation skills without the speaking element, it's even easier. There are countless movies, TV shows, anime, podcasts, youtube channels and streaming radio channels available online. With these, you can practice when it suits you, and by using media related to a topic you're interested in, you can ensure that you actually enjoy the process.

Speeding up learning

When learning a new skill, what you learn and the order in which you learn it makes a big difference. In his book The 4-Hour Chef, Tim Ferriss shares his methodology for rapid skill acquisition, saying you must first deconstruct the skill into manageable blocks, select the most important blocks (the 20%), and then learn those blocks in a logical sequence.

The logical sequence is the “secret sauce". Using kickboxing students as an example, Tim notes that average students were taught a “hodgepodge of random techniques" that “leave students to assemble the puzzle themselves". This can still produce excellent students, but success is dependent on each student's ability to assemble that puzzle. In contrast, teachers that consistently produce the best and most reliable students teach their craft in a logical sequence.

This book is that logical sequence for Japanese. Here you'll find the most important aspects of the Japanese language broken down and presented in a logical order designed to maximize learning efficiency and long-term effectiveness.

In some cases, this means that things you would normally learn first in a language learning course appear later, or not at all, simply because they are limited in overall application. Remember, this isn't a phrasebook; it's a road-map to fluency. By practicing what you learn in this book in the order it appears, you will learn the most crucial concepts first and avoid the biggest sticking points, bringing you closer to spoken fluency faster.

So now that have the material you need, what else can you do to speed up learning? In his book The First 20 Hours, Josh Kaufman discusses the keys to achieving rapid progress during the early stages of acquiring a new skill.

One of those keys is to learn just enough to self correct. As discussed, spending too much time studying and not enough time practicing Japanese is counter-productive, but so is not learning enough. If you learn just enough so that you will know when you make a mistake, it allows you to self-correct immediately, reinforcing correct methods.

Without this, you generally won't have that instant feedback. When speaking to a native speaker, their goal is usually just to communicate, so in most cases, they will not correct your mistakes as long as they understand what you are trying to say. Some people will help you out, and you can of course ask people the correct way to say something, but you should make it your own responsibility to be able to recognize and correct your own mistakes. I have done this since I started learning Japanese, and it has served me extremely well.

Another of the strategies Josh describes that is particularly relevant to language learning is to emphasize quantity and speed. When speaking Japanese, you should focus on saying as much as you can as quickly as you can, without trying to be perfect. The same goes for listening - instead of worrying about every single word, just try to understand as much as you can as it is being spoken. Especially in the early stages, your Japanese will rarely be perfect, even if you are careful, so give yourself the opportunity to make lots of mistakes and learn from them.

Keeping motivated

“The major barrier to skill acquisition isn't intellectual... it's emotional" - Josh Kaufman

The biggest obstacle you will face in your quest to speak fluent Japanese is yourself. The fact is, like any new skill, learning a language is tough. What makes it tough, though, is not the content, but rather the fact that you will get frustrated and feel stupid at times. The road will seem too long, and it would be much easier to just give up and watch old episodes of Game of Thrones instead.

For this reason, it helps to create a system that allows you to overcome these emotional barriers that you will inevitably face. The point of this system is to keep you motivated, or at least to ensure that you keep going even when you don't feel motivated. Here are ten things you can do to help prevent yourself from giving up or making excuses. You don't need to implement them all, but by putting some kind of system in place, you make it harder for yourself to lose focus and quit.

1. Focus on small wins

Feeling like you are making progress is crucial. If all you can say to yourself is, “I've been doing this for days/weeks/months/years now and I'm still not even close to where I want to be", you'll constantly feel like a failure. Instead, enjoy the small wins, and the be proud of everything you achieve. It could be something as simple as recognizing a new word that you just learned, or successfully using the correct form of a verb. Everything counts, and everything is progress, so make a habit of celebrating your successes.

2. Recognize that learning a new language is a roller-coaster ride

When I studied in Japan in high school, in five months I went from knowing some basic grammar and vocabulary and not much else, to being able to converse at full pace on any topic that wasn't too technical. Everyone was amazed at the speed of my progress. Despite this, I constantly went through periods where I felt like I wasn't getting anywhere. Invariably, though, these periods were soon followed by huge breakthroughs where I suddenly felt like I could understand absolutely everything. Of course, not long after, I'd be back down again. Then up. Then down. Then up. You get the point. So when things feel hopeless, recognize that it's a natural part of the process, and that the next big breakthrough is just around the corner. Just keep pushing

3. Set specific and realistic goals

Saying you want to be fluent in Japanese, with no timeline and no definition of what fluency is, doesn't work. As Benny Lewis says in his book Fluent in 3 Months, “successful language learners are those who are as specific as possible with their goals". Start by defining the level of fluency you want to achieve. I recommend starting with something small and within reach, such as the ability to hold a simple, spontaneous conversation. Don't aim for perfection, and don't expect yourself to know all the vocabulary that comes up. Once you have a defined goal, give yourself a realistic deadline to achieve it, taking into account how much time you can commit. The more achievable the goal seems, the more motivated you will be to reach it.

4. Use content that interests you

It will make all the difference in the world if you are interested in the content you use to practice your Japanese. When I first lived in Japan, I liked talking to people and learning from them, so that's what I did. It didn't feel like study because I enjoyed it, and it's the reason I can now speak Japanese fluently. You may not be as fortunate as I was to have that opportunity, but if you want to learn to speak Japanese, there's probably something about Japan or Japanese culture that interests you. Use that. If you just like talking to people, find people to talk to. If you like anime or other forms of Japanese pop-culture, watch it and talk to others who like it too. Whatever your interests, you can find material and someone to talk to about it if you look.

5. Set a schedule and stick to it

Consistency is essential to learning any new skill, especially a language. Deciding you want to learn Japanese, and committing to studying and practicing in your free time, is not really committing at all. When your free time comes around, unless you're really motivated at that exact moment, there's a fair chance you will choose to do something else instead. Schedule time to study and practice your Japanese. Meet with a language exchange partner on a weekly basis, make Wednesday nights Japanese movie night, or read this book every morning on your commute. Whatever you do, make sure you deliberately allocate time for learning. As the saying goes, failing to plan is planning to fail.

6. Practice for at least 20 hours

In his book The First 20 Hours, Josh Kaufman argues that the beginning stages of learning a new skill are the hardest because, basically, you suck at it. This means you get frustrated, feel stupid, and in many cases, give up. One way to overcome this is to commit before you start to doing at least 20 hours of focused practice. By forcing yourself to the 20-hour point, you get yourself to a level where you feel competent enough that you won't feel like a failure and will therefore want to continue. Just make sure the twenty hours is consistent and frequent. One hour a week for twenty weeks isn't going to cut it - instead, aim to reach 20 hours in under a month.

7. Set stakes to ensure accountability

If you have something to lose, such as money or reputation, you're more likely to work harder to succeed. As Tim Ferriss notes in The 4-Hour Chef, a goal needs consequences. Once you've set a specific and realistic goal, create a disincentive for failure. Give a friend money or the right to publicly shame you if you don't follow through. You could also use a service like, which punishes you for failing to reach a goal either by telling your supporters of your failure, or by giving money to a friend, foe or 'anti-charity'. Whatever you put on the line, the more it hurts, the more likely you'll stay motivated to succeed.

8. The Jerry Seinfeld productivity 'secret'

Jerry Seinfeld apparently doesn't like to take credit for this method, but it is often attributed to him nonetheless. Here's what you do - buy a calendar, and commit to doing a certain amount of Japanese speaking or listening practice every day. Every day you do what you said you would do, mark that day off on the calendar with a big “X". Your only goal is to not break the chain of days that are marked off. It doesn't matter how well you perform while practicing, just that you practice for a set period of time every day and don't break the chain.

9. Write or record a diary in Japanese every day

A great way to both practice as well as create a visual record of your progress is to write a diary in Japanese (in romaji), or speak one into a voice recorder or video camera. Just write or say whatever you can, without worrying too much about the content. I've never been the sort of person to keep a journal, but I used this method when I first lived in Japan to practice and consolidate all of the new grammar and vocabulary I had learned. My first entry was just three lines and full of errors, but after five months I was writing a page and a half of almost error-free Japanese every day.

10. Have a good reason to learn Japanese

The best language students are always the ones that are either passionate about the culture of the target language, or whose circumstances require them to learn it. Countless people live abroad for years without learning a single word of the local language, simply because they don't have a strong desire to learn and can get by without it. On the other hand, some people are able to learn to speak a foreign language without ever traveling to the country its spoken because they want it badly enough and put in the effort. If you kinda sorta wanna learn Japanese, but are not particularly fazed if you never do, you'll have a much tougher time keeping motivated to make the effort. Find or create a good reason to learn Japanese and the battle is half won.

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Richard Webb

Richard Webb

Richard Webb has spent over 6 years living in Japan. He has a degree in Japanese, studied linguistics at a Japanese university, passed the highest level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and worked for two Japanese companies where virtually all communication was in Japanese.

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Scott has helped companies simplify, inform and innovate displaying data through Presentation, Infographics and Video. He is an industry expert in visual communication, having worked with a diverse range of organisations ranging from financial institutions to technology companies.