Language learning can be divided into four interrelated skills. The active skills: speaking and writing, and the passive skills: reading and listening. The active skills are considered harder to acquire than the passive ones i.e. listening is easier than speaking, reading is easier than writing although this is not always the case. With Japanese, the writing system is quite complicated which also plays a part.
All four skills are built upon vocabulary and knowledge of grammar however, they will each need to be developed in different ways.
Where to start
Start by learning the most common and most useful phrases that you will hear in daily conversation in Japan. I have provided a list here. Note that you must familiarise yourself with the rules of Japanese pronunciation as soon as possible if you have no source of spoken Japanese to relate these phrases to. If you do not, you are likely to pick up bad habits that will take time to unlearn. Pronunciation is dealt with in the next chapter.
Next, read about Japanese grammar. A lightweight book like Japanese Grammar is ideal at this stage. You don’t have to take everything in right away but hopefully you will start to relate some of the grammar to the phrases you have learned. Simply parroting phrases with no real understanding of how they are put together will not get you very far.
If you are going to learn Japanese. the sooner you start the better. This definitely applies to learning to read and write. You should begin with katakana (characters used for foreign loan words), then go on to hiragana (the basic Japanese script – hiragana and katakana are together known as kana) and finally kanji (Chinese characters). I discuss methods of attaining literacy in Japanese here.
Once you have good grasp of basic grammar and vocabulary, you will need to start reading books aimed at Japanese learners. I recommend several here. Watching Japanese TV programs and films regularly will aid your progress. Gain as much speaking practice as possible. Taking exams in Japanese like the JLPT may provide you with motivation
If you stick with a logical and disciplined approach to your kanji studies, you may reach the point at which you can start reading Japanese articles, stories and novels. This is a real accomplishment and further than many will ever get. It is possible to reach this point within a year with an efficient study plan and hard work.
Should I learn to read and write Japanese?
This depends on you and your goals. Becoming literate in Japanese is a formidable task. Many foreigners decide that they only want to speak Japanese. Someone who plans to stay a couple of months in Japan may have different goals to someone who marries a Japanese person and intends to live in Japan for a long time.
It is perfectly possible to write Japanese in roman letters (romaji) and you could, for example, communicate with Japanese people by email using this method. Obviously, you will not be able to read real Japanese but you would be able to ask nearby Japanese people to read things for you if necessary (assuming you were reasonably fluent).
Another option is to learn the kana. There are about 50 hiraganaand 50 katakana. This can be done fairly quickly and will definitely be of use to you if you go to Japan. This would allow you to read some signs and shop names (useful for knowing where to get off on the train or finding all-you-can-eat restaurants!).
I recommend learning katakana first as they are a little easier to write and are generally used for English loan words (although some loan words are from other languages). Thus an English native speaker would be able to start understanding real Japanese immediately upon mastering katakana (though only to a very limited extent). Learning hiragana is worthwhile but there is less “instant gratification” as without a vocabulary you will have to look unknown words up in the dictionary. You will not be able to read notices or newspaper articles without a thorough knowledge of kanji.
Finally, and this is the course I recommend, you could learn kana and kanji. As stated, there are about 100 kana. These should be learnt first and shouldn't pose too much difficulty. The main hurdle is the kanji. There are 1945 jouyou (everyday use) kanji and about another 100 name kanji (names are notoriously difficult to read). Each kanji may contain up to 30 strokes (although the majority contain much less than this) and can have several pronunciations.
Learning kanji is difficult but not impossible and the skill is sure to impress most people you meet. There are several other reasons for learning kanji, the chief one being that they are essential to read real Japanese and distinguish between the many homonyms inherent in Japanese. In addition, many consider they are aesthetically pleasing. The topic of learning kanji is covered in more detail here.