JapanesePod101.com has a lot of content, and it’s fairly difficult to navigate. It’s organized quite poorly, and there is no indication of which lessons are redundant or have been superseded by others. A lot of the older lessons are quite poor, and would likely turn many people off from the site. And unfortunately, those very lessons are the first ones that a new user would be likely to gravitate towards, based on the site’s design.
When Naomi-sensei joined the JapanesePod101.com crew, she basically started over with new lessons from scratch, making a fantastic series that progresses in a logical manner, builds on previous material, and becomes increasingly more difficult as it goes. Unfortunately, the seasons containing these lessons are sort of just mixed in all over the place. Her series is officially called “Nihongo Dojo” and includes Newbie Seasons 2-3 and Beginner 4-6, but I recommend a few other seasons in addition to the core Nihongo Dojo series. So before I get on to the reviews, I would like to just point out my recommended path.
*My Recommended Path*
The following lessons are what I recommend that you follow, based on my own experience going through the lessons. Remember that this is just my opinion. I encourage you to read my comments below about any seasons that are not included in my recommended path, and also feel free to try out those lessons yourself if you want.
1) Newbie Seasons 2 + 3 OR Newbie Season 4 (if you don’t feel confident about the material, do both)
2) Newbie Season 5
3) Particles (classified under “Bonus Courses”)
4) Beginner Seasons 4-6
5) Japanese for Everyday Life Lower Intermediate
6) Lower Intermediate Seasons 2-6 (in reverse order)
7) Advanced Audio Blog Season 1
8) Upper Intermediate Seasons 1-5
9) Advanced Audio Blog Seasons 2-6
And now, for the complete season reviews! If you would like to know my thoughts on JapanesePod101.com as a whole, you can read my review of the service here: JapanesePod101.com Review
Japanese Culture Classes
This one is pretty fun. You wont learn any Japanese other than maybe a handful of words, but as the title says, you will learn about different aspects of Japanese culture. Depending on just how much you already know about Japanese culture, this might be helpful or it might just be a waste of time. At the very least, I would recommend looking over the lesson titles to see if any catch your eye.
“Absolute Beginner” Section
Survival Phrases Seasons 1 – 2
These lessons are not designed for someone who is learning Japanese for the long-haul. They are either for the person who will just be taking a short trip to Japan, or for someone who already found themselves in Japan without any language ability and needs to get up to speed on basic things as quickly as possible. They will basically teach you useful phrases for various situations, but without really explaining anything grammar-wise.
Newbie Season 1
To put it bluntly, don’t waste your time on this first season from the Newbie series. It almost has too many problems to count. On top of the uninteresting dialogues that don’t really relate much to real life, there is very little focus and structure. Fairly difficult material keeps creeping into the lessons, and the host even keeps acknowledging it on numerous occasions, saying things like “maybe this isn’t really newbie level…” By the time we get to the end, the dialogs have turned into a convoluted story about a secret agent suffering from amnesia. Even though my own knowledge is well above the newbie level, I found this difficult to follow in parts. Also, there are discrepancies in the number of lessons. By the time you get to the last lesson, they are calling it lesson “30”, but there are only 27 lessons listed. It doesn’t really feel like anything is missing, so I’m not sure what the cause of this discrepancy is. Also, the downloaded files had BOTH lessons 6 and 7 labeled as lesson 7, making it appear that lesson 6 was missing. So if you aren’t careful, you could end up listening to 6 and 7 out of order. They should absolutely remove all traces of this season from their website, because it gives a bad image of their entire product. I can only imagine how many people must have given up on them after trying this season.
Newbie Seasons 2 – 3
Now this is certainly a welcome change of pace. This is the start of the excellent Nihongo Dojo series by Naomi-sensei. It starts off assuming zero knowledge of Japanese, and takes you through a lot of the basics, with each lesson building upon the last, and teaching you how to talk about quite a diverse range of topics. The dialogues are fairly interesting and employ great voice acting. Season 3 is a direct continuation from season 2, but tends to focus on the most annoying character, which was a bit of a turn off for me. But overall, these two seasons are very solid, and an excellent way to start off.
Newbie Season 4
I’ll start off by saying I like this season, but after the great quality of the last 2 seasons, which offer the listener a direct pathway to more advanced lessons, I must admit that I am a bit perplexed as to why they would go back and start over from the beginning again. This season gives you a solid foundation, starting off assuming zero knowledge of Japanese. If you worked through seasons 2 & 3, then this just gives you another perspective on many of the same things. These lessons are very well designed though, and the topics feel more relevant to daily life than the previous seasons. I believe the grammar that is taught here is roughly the same as what is in contained in the previous seasons, so technically, I believe you should be able to start off on this season, and then progress to the later Nihongo Dojo lessons. In comparison to Seasons 2 & 3, I found this season to be easier, because the dialogs tend to be slower paced. That is also a downside though, because you usually wont hear full native-like speed. I also found the voice acting in this season to be completely dry and monotone.
Newbie Season 5
This season takes things off in a slightly different direction, focusing primarily on informal speech and the differences from formal speech. This is a great follow up to either season 4 or seasons 2 & 3. Highly recommended if you feel that you need some additional practice with informal speech.
Absolute Beginner Seasons 1 – 2
This series is designed for people who have no previous Japanese knowledge, similar to the Newbie series. However, Absolute Beginner progresses much more slowly and doesn’t cover much material. In a way, its a bit similar to Survival Phrases, in that they tend to focus more on set phrases than grammar. I would only recommend this if you try the Newbie series first and find that it is too difficult for you. I could see this series being a good way to get your feet wet if you just want to take things slowly.
Beginner Seasons 1 – 3
These are the original lessons that Japanesepod101.com started off with, and you can definitely tell that they didn’t have everything completely planned out too well from the start. The lessons sometimes seem a bit random in their content, and the difficulty level jumps around a bit. There also tends to be quite a bit of random chatter throughout some of these lessons that wastes your time. Many of the dialogues and topics are fairly boring. I tried to go through this twice in the past and gave up both times. The actual dialogs can get fairly difficult, but the grammar points stay fairly basic. In most of these lessons, they tend to keep everything in formal dialog, and sometimes offer an informal dialog track as a bonus. It doesn’t seem like a bad idea in theory, but its really weird when people are talking formally in situations where it’s clear that they shouldn’t be. By the time season 3 came around, they had fixed most of their problems, but it was too little, too late. I would not recommend listening to these unless you really just want more listening practice from the dialogs, and in that situation I would still skip season 1 altogether.
Beginner Seasons 4 – 6
This is a continuation of the Nihongo Dojo series that started off with Newbie seasons 2 & 3. It is very well structured with each lesson building upon the previous ones, so you get an excellent foundation in the beginner level topics. There is definitely a bit of a difficulty jump from the Newbie lessons, so make sure your fundamentals are solid before proceeding! These are overall just good solid lessons, so there’s not really much else for me to say about them.
Lower Beginner Seasons 1 – 2
This is another series that I don’t really see the point of. It starts off with the absolute basics again, and really covers a lot of the same stuff that you find in the Newbie series, but in a less structured manner. The dialogs are ok, but I hate the lessons parts that are in English because they TALK. SO. SLOW. The short Japanese dialogs are actually quicker and more natural sounding than their English. Did they get confused and think this was Englishpod101.com or what? If you just want some extra practice after finishing the Newbie series and before starting into the Beginner lessons, this wont hurt, but I don’t really think it’s a necessity.
Upper Beginner Season 1
A little bit more difficult than the other beginner lessons, these all focus on various announcements that you might hear in public places. As such, there is lots of keigo. I found this series to be a bit boring for me, so I skipped it. For someone who lives in Japan, this can be useful though. It’s also not bad if you want more practice with keigo.
Business Japanese for Beginners
This series has a lot in common with the “Absolute Beginner” series. It basically just goes over a set phrase or two each episode and explains situations where you might use it. The difficulty looks to be on par with the newbie series, but it is focused more around the workplace. There is not a lot here that you wont pick up from other lessons, but it has the advantage of being grouped together, which might be useful for someone who will start working in Japan soon. If this sounds interesting to you, I would try to work this series in somewhere before the other beginner lessons, but after the newbie lessons. If you aren’t interested in business or phrases used around the workplace, I would recommend skipping this.
Must-know Japanese Social Media Phrases
This series is very similar in style and difficulty to the Business Japanese course. Each short lesson basically just presents one phrase that someone might post on social media, than a handful of responses that people might post to it. I found it pretty interesting because its a type of casual talking that doesn’t really come up much in any of the other lessons.
Must-Know Japanese Sentence Structures
Sigh. Nothing terribly useful here. At best, just a refresher course after doing a couple other Beginner courses.
Japanese for Everyday Life Lower Intermediate
Now this series works a little differently from most of the others. Instead of having a dialog at the beginning that then gets explained to you, this series is more interactive and prompts you to try making your own sentences. It focuses on a lot of situations that you might encounter in daily life in Japan, and its designed so that you can be flexible in your responses for situations that don’t just have one set answer, such as customizing a meal at a restaurant. It is less difficult than other Lower Intermediate seasons, so its a good choice once you graduate from the beginner lessons. I really hope they make more seasons of this in the future.
Lower Intermediate Season 1
I don’t recommend this season. See my comments for “Intermediate Season 1” and “Beginner Season 1”. Most of the same comments apply.
Lower Intermediate Seasons 2-5
These seasons are all… okay. They aren’t bad for the most part, but they aren’t as good as some of the other seasons either. It does kinda hit hard though because the difficulty is really ramping up at this point. The line-by-line study option on the Japanesepod101 site became my best friend while going through these. You could really do these in any order that you want, because there isn’t really any progression from one season to the next. I recommend doing them in reverse order though, because the later lessons just felt more useful to me, but this was just my opinion. They are also phasing out the English commentary and explanations now, but the lessons are still mostly English.
Lower Intermediate Season 6
This season is designed to bridge the gap from Beginner to Lower Intermediate. So basically this is supposed to come before the other Lower Intermediate seasons. There is definitely a jump up in difficulty from the beginner lessons though, so make sure to review those dialogs until you are comfortable with them before going on. They no longer read a slow version of the dialog, and the dialogs are spoken at a rapid pace.
Intermediate Season 1
The intermediate series is one of the first series that was produced, so it exhibits a lot of the same problems that we see in most of the other early series. This one seems to have a ton of goofing off and messing around, especially in the earlier lessons. Also, the vast majority of lessons do not even have a supplemental dialog track at the time of this writing (July 2015). The length and difficulty of the lessons is also all over the place. Lesson 61, which is the first to include a dialog track, features a crazily difficult dialog that is almost five minutes long! And then shortly after, they are doing much easier 1-minute dialogs. There also isn’t a lot of in depth explanation of the Japanese. It feels like most of the lesson is just the hosts running through the vocabulary list and saying the words in Japanese and English. I can read that myself off the website, so what am I listening to the lesson for? For this, my recommendation is the same as with all the older lessons—just skip it.
Upper Intermediate Seasons 1-5
All 5 seasons of upper intermediate feel about similar in their quality and level of difficulty. I don’t see any glaring problems with them, and they feels quite solid and well-made. The biggest difference that you will find from the previous seasons, is that the lesson and discussion is almost entirely in Japanese now. There is not much new grammar that didn’t appear in Lower Intermediate, but the vocabulary used in the dialogs is significantly more difficult. Rather than sticking with general vocabulary, they use a lot of more specific and less common words, sort of like what you would encounter in the news. The length of the dialogs is similar or just slightly longer than the ones from Lower Intermediate. I felt like this is currently above my level, so I have not personally studied most of these lessons in depth. The big problem for me is that the lesson discussion feels just as difficult as the dialogs, since its entirely Japanese. I feel like you need to be at a point where you are able to hold conversations without much difficulty before you can gain a whole lot from this series.
Advanced Audio Blog Season 1
Based on my reactions to the first season of several of the other series, you would probably think I hate this one, right? Actually, I think this is a great season! As it starts off, these are basically just dialogs (well, monologues actually) and nothing else. There are over 100 of them here, and they cover a really diverse range of interesting topics. The vocabulary and grammar feels no more difficult than what you would expect from the Lower Intermediate series, but they are about twice as long. It’s really JUST the dialog being read once straight through, and that’s it. There is no English audio, slow audio, or anything like that. Those would have been nice additions, but they do still have both Japanese and English transcripts available, and everything is there in the Line-by-line audio tool as well. Around lesson 70, they start adding some discussion around the dialogs (entirely in Japanese), and I found the discussion to be much more difficult to understand than the dialogs themselves. If you can understand the discussion sections, great, but otherwise you wont miss much by just focusing only on the dialog parts.
Advanced Audio Blog Seasons 2-6
These seasons of the Advanced Audio Blog series are significantly more difficult than the first season, and are definitely deserving of the “Advanced” label. There is a lot of advanced vocabulary, and there is Japanese-only discussion around every episode. Honestly, I think if you are at the point where you can understand this stuff, then you have long been fluent enough to enjoy plenty of other native materials like television programs or native Japanese podcasts. These lessons mostly seem to focus more around teaching you cultural things rather than the language itself. I am not at this level yet myself, so please take this opinion with a grain of salt!
“Bonus Courses” Section
JLPT Seasons 1-3
These are… okay, but nothing special. If you are planning to take the JLPT, then these can give you some extra practice and help you get prepared, but they are by no means a replacement for a real JLPT prep course. If you aren’t planning to take the test, I would skip them.
Japanese Children’s Songs
Consider this bonus course more of a fun distraction. This isn’t going to teach you anything relevant to speaking in Japanese, but if you want to learn more about some famous children’s songs, then this is the series for you!
The Japanese love their onomatopoeia! These bonus lessons go through many of them and give you some context on how they are used. While onomatopoeia are not typically considered one of the more difficult aspects of Japanese, this series might be able to help you keep from getting them mixed up, since a lot of them do often seem pretty similar to one another.
I found this one particularly useful. It does a good job of talking about different functions of various particles, and really helps you get a good grip on one of the most important aspects of Japanese grammar. This one is taught by Naomi-sensei. The dialogs are quite short and easy to follow, so I think this fits in pretty well between the Newbie and Beginner series.
Another “Bonus Course”, and also another course that I don’t see the point of. This is an audio lesson about Kanji. How does that work? After listening to a few lessons, I still wasn’t sure myself. Just skip this and leave your kanji studies to some more suitable method.
Japanese Vocab Builder
It’s just lists of vocabulary words read aloud. While I don’t find this very useful for myself, I can see how some people might be able to integrate this into their studies. Each lesson is based around a particular theme, such as “sports” or “furniture.” If you would like to pick up a few new words on various topics, this might make it easy for you.
This page has been last updated as of January 2017. I will try to keep updated with any new seasons that come out in the future.