The Ultimate Guide to Improving Your Japanese Listening Skills

The Ultimate Guide to Improving Your Japanese Listening Skills

Listening is the most fundamental skill you need to develop when learning Japanese. Along with speaking, listening is one of the foundations of language without which your Japanese skills won’t go very far. Use the resources found on this page to improve Japanese listening skills.

  1. Listen Up!
  2. Active vs Passive Listening
    1. Tips for Active Listening
    2. Tips for Passive Listening
  3. Check your Comprehension
  4. Beginner Japanese Listening Resources
  5. Intermediate Japanese Listening Resources
  6. Advanced Japanese Listening Resources
  7. Tweet me!

Listen Up! You Need to Listen Carefully to Japanese

How did you learn your first language? Did you have your little nose buried in a textbook for the first 6 months of your life? Did you study grammar points and take vocabulary tests throughout your first year, or write out definitions over and over again until you understood the meaning of a new word?

We all know how children learn languages: they listen. They are constantly immersed in their language, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, one-hundred percent of the time. Many children don’t say a single word in their new language for months—sometimes even years. It’s only after thousands of hours of listening that a child finally begins to speak the language they’ve heard for so long.

Listening is the most basic skill of language. It’s the core of all communication; even when we read, we tend to sub-vocalize the text, “listening” to the voice in our heads as our eyes move across the words.

However, when it’s time to learn the language, many Japanese learners focus too much on speaking. This is easy to understand. Speaking Japanese is cool! Hearing those new words roll off your tongue, wrapping your brain around a completely new grammatical system—it’s exciting! Plus, you get to impress your friends and family—no one’s going to care that you can listen to a Japanese commercial and know what it says, right?

But YOU should care. Why? Because every other language skill—speaking, reading, and writing—is based upon your ability to listen and understand. If you can’t do that, then you’re going to have trouble when speaking in Japanese. Even if you can speak well, if you can’t understand and respond to the other person, how are you ever going to communicate?

Alright, alright! What should I do?

You need to listen to Japanese as much as possible.

One way to do this is by following the immersion method. This means that you surround yourself with all things Japanese, and try your best to remove the English language from your life. Replace it with Japanese.

This means no more English TV shows, no more American music, no more English-speaking friends (just kidding…or am I?). Watch Japanese TV shows and movies, listen only to Japanese music, and make some Japanese-speaking friends instead.

Fill your ears with the sounds of Japanese.

The immersion method works because this is how we’ve all learned our first language. It is almost impossible for a typically-developing child not to learn the language they hear all day. The immersion method says, “Be like those kids! Do the same thing they do when learning Japanese.” If you want to get good at it, then you must first listen to it.

All the damn time.

You need to surround yourself in the rhythms and sounds of the Japanese language so that your ears can get used to the new linguistic flow.

Improve Japanese Listening Skills: Active vs. Passive Listening

Most people set up their Japanese immersion environment in such a way that they are passively listening to the Japanese language as much as possible. They have the Japanese news on in the background while doing dishes, put a Japanese podcast on in the car on the way to work, or listen to Japanese music while doing homework.

These are great strategies to get your ears used to the language; but they don’t really show that you understand what it is you’re hearing. To do that, you’ll need to actively listen to the Japanese. This means that you need to listen in order to respond to a person, answer a question, or summarize what you heard. Active listening ensures that you are actually paying attention to what you’re hearing, and that you’re working towards understanding it instead of just listening to it.

chart detailing differences between active and passive listening

Both strategies are necessary to level-up your Japanese listening skills. Use active listening when you’re in a conversation with a Japanese speaker, or studying for a test. Use passive listening to fill in all those gaps in between: drive time, the eight hours of sleep you get at night, whenever it is that you’re doing chores—anything that’s not already taking up cognitive space in your brain. Fill it up with Japanese.

Tips for Active Listening

Active listening involves actively trying to understand what you hear. To do this, you’ll need to follow each active listening period with something that tests your understanding.

For example, let’s say you’ve just watched Kamiya Erina’s latest YouTube video. You’ve actively listened to her while watching her silly antics. While you’re listening, pause the video and write down any words or phrases that catch your attention.

Add those to your study routine. After you learn them, go back and watch the same video again, and see if it’s any easier to understand the second time around.

Active listening can be a great way to boost your confidence for situations you frequently encounter. Moving to Japan? Focus on actively listening to conversations about getting around, ordering at a restaurant, or introducing yourself. Like Japanese movies? Watch a bunch of films in your favorite genre and study the things you don’t yet know. As you continue to learn and watch in that genre, you’ll start understanding more and more of each new film as your listening skills improve.

Tips for Passive Listening

Passive listening means you’re simply hearing the language around you, without focusing on whether or not you understand what’s going on. The words literally go in one ear and out the other.

The easiest way to do this is to have Japanese on in the background as much as possible. You need to hear it everywhere: playing from the TV, from your computer, in your headphones, coming out of your car speakers—even your phone’s ringtone. Your goal is to create a Japanese environment right in the comfort of wherever-you-are-right-now.

With passive listening, I recommend using the most difficult material you can find. That means learners of all levels will benefit from listening to the resources I list in the advanced section below. You want to get used to the speed and rhythm of native Japanese as soon as possible. Since you’re not worrying about understanding it, don’t be afraid to find the most complex Japanese legal drama you can get your hands on and stream it in the background while you’re doing chores.

And hey, you might be surprised to find that you understand more than you thought!

How will I know it’s working?

Did you understand what you heard? Great! It’s working 😊

No, but seriously, there are several ways to check your Japanese listening comprehension. Here are 7 ways to check whether you understood what you heard.

infographic detailing 7 ways to check japanese listening comprehension

Where can I find shit to listen to?

Google it!

No, but seriously. Just Google “Japanese listening practice” and you should come across a ton of resources, like this one at Nihongo e-Na. There you can click “Beginner,” “Intermediate” or “Advanced” to locate the best listening materials for your level.

On the rest of this page, I’ve listed out my own curated resources for Japanese listening practice. These are materials that I’ve used myself to level-up my Japanese listening skills. I hope they come in handy to you as well!

Beginner Japanese Listening Resources

Beginner Japanese learners may benefit more from using English to supplement their Japanese language learning. So, the resources in this section are heavily skewed towards bilingual materials, where both Japanese and English are spoken. The English is used mostly to explain the Japanese grammar you hear, or to educate learners on particular nuances of Japanese vocabulary.

For Fun Active Listening

These are some of my favorite YouTube channels that got my Japanese listening off to a great start. Use these fun active listening resources to add new grammar and vocabulary to your Japanese study.

Japanese for Morons

Victor and Tomoko explain Japanese words and phrases while introducing some cultural tidbits. Victor’s other channels (Gimmeabreakman and Gimmeaflakeman) are also pretty interesting. He has a tendency to be controversial at times, but he’s still very much worth watching.

JapanesePod101


Free video lessons covering Japanese grammar and vocabulary. Their YouTube channel has scores of videos that can push you well into intermediate Japanese. If you find it useful, then you might be interested in subscribing to their podcast for more in-depth lessons.

For Easy Passive Listening

News in Slow Japanese

Link to News in Slow Japanese
A weekly podcast that delivers just what it says: the news in slow Japanese. On their website you can choose to listen to it fast or slow. There is Japanese and romaji text for you to follow along with, as well as a vocabulary list with English translations. You can pay for premium access to additional study materials if you want, or you can add what you want to learn to your own study routine.

For Beginner Assessment

Test your listening comprehension with these Japanese assessments.

Both are by JapanesePod101 on YouTube. Hear the question, listen to the dialogue, and choose the picture that best matches what you heard. The audio will be played twice, once in Japanese for your test, and again straight after with Japanese and English subtitles. This second time, the pictures will be eliminated one-by-one to show you how to get to the correct answer.

Now, I know these say “beginner” and “absolute beginner,” but to do these you will need a basic grasp of Japanese grammar and vocabulary. Don’t give up if it’s too hard! Just keep studying and coming back to these videos to assess.

Intermediate Japanese Listening Resources

As an intermediate Japanese learner, you’re obviously no longer a beginner, but you’re not quite advanced either. You still might find using English to be helpful in your Japanese studies. To this end, the resources in this section also include bilingual materials where both English and Japanese are spoken. However, unlike the beginner resources, the materials in this section contain Japanese speech at native speed. This means that, while English is used as well, the Japanese you’re going to hear is much faster and much closer to what you want to be able to understand eventually.

For Fun Active Listening

These are some of my favorite YouTube channels that I used to practice listening to Japanese. I love Bilingirl Chika because it was nice to hear some fluent Japanese as well as to have English to fall back on when I didn’t understand. And YouTubers like BobbyJudo gave me motivation that one day a foreigner like me could speak fluent Japanese, too!

Bilingirl Chika


This is a Japanese channel for Japanese people. Chika is teaching English to Japanese people, which means that she uses quite a lot of English in her videos. Thus, you’ll get Japanese listening practice as well as English to help push you through the parts you may not understand.

There are also subtitles in both English and Japanese. This makes it easy for you to write down the Japanese words and phrases you’ll need to study later on.

BobbyJudo

What I love most about BobbyJudo is that he actually speaks Japanese. You can find dozens of Japanese language blogs and vloggers out there who either 1) don’t actually speak Japanese or 2) never use it on their platform.

I know that for me, when I was starting out learning Japanese it was super important for me to see other foreigners speaking Japanese fluently. That gave me a lot of confidence in myself that maybe, one day, I could do it, too. Watching Bobby speaking fluent Japanese can do wonders for your own motivation to study. Definitely give him a listen.

For Easy Passive Listening

Bilingual News

Bilingual News Website

Michael (native Japanese and native English speaker) and Mami (native Japanese and fluent English speaker) spend the podcast talking about whatever interesting topic they find on the Internet each week. They discuss a range of things, including philosophy, religion and science.

The conversation is unstructured, which gives you great practice listening to real-time, natural Japanese. Mami mainly speaks Japanese while Michael covers English. This allows both English and Japanese learners to take advantage of this podcast: even if you don’t understand the Japanese, Michael’s English response should give you enough context to grasp what Mami could have said. If you listen long enough and continue to study Japanese, soon you’ll be able to understand both hosts extremely well.

For Intermediate Assessment

Test your listening comprehension with this Japanese assessment by JapanesePod101 on YouTube. Hear the question, listen to the dialogue, and choose the picture that best matches what you heard. The audio will be played twice, once in Japanese for your test, and again straight after with Japanese and English subtitles. This second time, the picture answers will be eliminated one-by-one to show you how to get to the correct answer.

Advanced Japanese Listening Resources

There are way more resources available for advanced learners of Japanese. That’s because the higher up you climb on the Japanese language learning ladder, the more access you will have to native Japanese materials. The entire world of content made by and for Japanese speakers opens up to you. For you, what you’ll mostly want to do is quickly set up your Internet spaces to show you Japanese results, and to browse for content in Japanese. Still, I’ve provided some of my favorite resources so you can see what kinds of things are out there.

For Fun Active Listening

YouTube channels are super fun and the first place I go to for Japanese listening practice.

The first thing you want to do is change YouTube to Japanese. As an advanced Japanese learner, you want to be moving towards full-on Japanese immersion as soon as possible. Go to YouTube and scroll down to the bottom of the page; then, change the language to Japanese and content location to Japan.

How to change youtube language and region settings

Search literally anything you want—in Japanese, of course! It might be hard to find something you like, but keep looking and you’ll discover some gems.

Here are some of the Japanese channels I enjoy watching.

おるたなChannel

ないとー and 渋谷ジャパン post videos where they do crazy experiments and investigations. Their videos are super interesting, and the native-level Japanese is great for advanced learners.

Itsmaiika

I love watching mommy vloggers in English, so I found some to look at in Japanese as well! Maika is married and has two children, こっちゃん and きいちゃん with two kids. I absolutely love watching her hang out about the house with her kids, and discuss the joys and frustrations of everyday life. This video, Ko-chan’s 7-5-3 festival, is one of my favorites.

神谷えりな Kamiya Erina (some NSFW but still hilarious)

I had no idea who she was until I started watching her YouTube channel. A pretty risque video (NSFW) went around the intarwebs the other week, and her antics had me subscribing in no time! She’s absolutely hilarious. I love her personality and her videos always have me laughing. Best not to watch her channel while at work tho <3

Work Your Way Down This List!

If you don’t like any of the channels that I watch, here is a list of the top 100 most subscribed channels in Japan. These are super popular channels that are updated fairly frequently. Work your way down the list until you find some people to subscribe to!

For Easy Passive Listening

Podcasts are going to be great for you as an advanced learner of Japanese. Unlike YouTube videos (which usually require you to actively look at and listen to what’s happening on the screen), podcasts only require your ears and a passive concentration. Load them up on your favorite audio device and take them on a walk, in the car, on the train, in your bed—literally whenever, wherever.

Again, every possible native Japanese podcast you can find is listening material for you. Change your iTunes region to Japan and browse the podcasts available there. If you’re like me and absolutely despise everything Apple, you’re going to have to be a bit more crafty with your search. If you want to go ahead and get started listening to something, though, here is a list of some of the Japanese podcasts I listen to regularly.

NHKラジオニュース

Link to NHK Radio News Podcast

Download the Stitcher Smart Radio app and get access to daily Japanese news sources. NHK Radio News updates multiple times a day with several shorter audio files, as well as one or two longer audio downloads summarizing the major news of the day. A great way to keep up with what’s going on in Japanese news for those of us who aren’t in Japan. (Also available on iTunes)

女子だけ体育館に集合

女子だけ体育館に集合!

These four Japanese women get together and talk about anything and everything. Conversation tends to overlap, as it often does when women talk with each other, so it can be difficult to parse out who is saying what at first; but keep listening, and you’ll figure it out! You can download the episodes directly from their website. (Also available on iTunes)

Gasnuke Radio

Gasnuke Radio Podcast

This podcast is skewed towards an older audience, specifically middle-aged men and women (what the hosts term “Showa babies”). They wax nostalgic about the good ol’ days as well as discuss current affairs. My favorite episodes are the ones where Kura-san talks about visual kei.

日本放送Podcasting STATION

Link to Nippon Housou Podcasting Station

This is a subset of the Japan broadcasting station, founded to bring you a wide variety of topics including news, talk, sports and music. Posts tend to be an hour or so long, so grab as many as you can and load up your device for those long rides to and from work.

日野佳恵子のかえ姉の仕事と恋愛の法則

Link to かえ姉の仕事と恋愛の法則 Podcast

“Big Sis Kaeko” answers listener questions! The director of Her Story works as a researcher for male and female buying habits. In this podcast, she talks with an eternal focus on her basic rule: Work + Love = Life. The episodes tend to be pretty short; 10 minutes or so. You can download the episodes directly from the website. (Also available on iTunes)

For Assessment

Test your listening comprehension with this Japanese assessment by JapanesePod101 on YouTube. Hear the question, listen to the dialogue, and choose the picture that best matches what you heard. The audio will be played twice, once in Japanese for your test, and again straight after with Japanese and English subtitles. This second time, the picture answers will be eliminated one-by-one to show you how to get to the correct answer.

Improve Japanese listening skills ==> Level-Up Your Japanese

There’s no reason for any Japanese language learner to not be able to understand native-speed Japanese speech. There are countless resources at hand for you to develop your Japanese listening skills every moment of every day.

Take your language learning into your own hands. It’s your responsibility. No one else is going to make sure that you succeed.

Don’t be that girl who passed N1 but can’t hold a conversation in Japanese. Develop your listening skills, and show everyone that you actually understand this language.

Go get started! How will you practice your Japanese listening skills? Click below to tweet at me and let me know what you’re using to improve your Japanese listening skills!

I'm using {INSERT} to improve my Japanese listening skills! #learnjapanese Click To Tweet

 

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