How to remember Japanese Verbs

Learning Japanese verbs (日本語の動詞)can be overwhelming. There are just so many to learn and there are so many ways to conjugate them, it can be challenging to get all the different words and rules down. The overwhelmingness may even get worse without you knowing to the point that it discourages you to continue and de-motivate your language studies. This has definitely happened to me before. “So what can I do about it?” Well, I am glad you asked! Unless you are a genius (てんさい)with an eidetic or photographic memory, you are going to need way tactics to help you remember these verbs. Here, I want to share with you things I have done to help my successfully learn, memorise or potentially installed it in my brain the many different Japanese verbs plus its forms.

1. Start with learning what verb you are dealing with. Japanese verbs belong to three main groups. These are:

Group ① = u-verbs = 五段 (Go-dan verbs)
Group ② = ru-verbs = 一段 (Ichidan verbs)
Group ③ = irregular verbs = カ変・サ変

Some textbooks call them Group1, 2 and 3. Other textbooks call them u-verbs, ru-verbs and irregular verbs. Another name is calling them Ichidan, Godan verbs. Naming convention aside, there are three main groups. These this stuck in your head first off and you will be off to a good start.

Additional to remembering the different verb groups, I try to remember one example from each to distinguish the difference. Below are some example verb words I remember.

Group TypeGroup NameVerb Examples
Group 1一段 (Ichidan verbs)
(aka る verbs)
Group 2五段 (Go-dan verbs)
(aka う verbs)
Group 3Irregular verbs = カ変・サ変する・します

2. Get the dictionary and masu-forms down. A key aspect to grasp early on with your Japanese Language learning journey is making sure you have the basic forms of the verbs locked away in your brain. The basics that I am referring to for Japanese verbs learning is making sure that you remember the dictionary form and masu-form for the verb. When you know these two pieces of information locked in, it creates a basis for your learning and you can then use this starting point to create different forms of the verb or achieve other verb conjugations. Without knowing the dictionary form and the masu-form, it can cause you a lot of trouble in which rules to follow further conjugation purposes.

3. Getting the te-form right. When you learn Japanese verbs, you must learn the te-form right. A great tip I learnt is to use the いちりて song for “u” verbs. I learnt this great tip when I was studying Japanese in university and I seriously wish someone had told me earlier. The song teaches you how to form the te-form correctly. It is a short tune that you can sing to yourself when you are learning te-form for the very first time and great playing it in your head during exams when you are asked to change verbs into te-form. Honestly, I am still using it today and love it.

4. Use it so the more you hear, the more its there. There is a common saying ” If you don’t use it, you lose it.” It should not come as a surprise that this also applies to language learning. So when learning verbs, use it more by saying it during discussions, write it down when you are creating sentences., highlight it when you are reading it in a book. And get more exposure it the verbs by listening to it through TV dramas, movies and music. The more you train your ears, the more you will recognise.

5. Use stories to help you associate and remember them better. This approach is basically using a method called Mnemonics. It is a memory device that helps you remember something by associating it to something else. This approach has been very effective for me. My university professor had made a series of one-liner stories where it included the meaning of the Japanese verb and the sound of the Japanese verb was composed through the use of English words. One example is for the verb 相談します (to consult someone) and the story is “It’s so darn weird to consult someone you don’t know.” The “so darn” is the sound of the Japanese verb “そうだん” (soudan) and “to consult someone” is the meaning of the verb. Another example is “Kelly Slaterkicked his board when he lost” for the Japanese verb けります which means “to kick”. The thing to remember about these stories is that it helps you remember the masu-form of the verb. It is another thing to remember the dictionary form. What is great about this method is you can make your own stories to develop your own associations.

6. Learn with the particles well for the verb. Japanese particles are a challenge to learn. Without going into the details here about Japanese particles, what I mainly want to say here is when you learn the Japanese verbs, the form is one thing, but you should not forget the particle it comes with. Find out what is this verb doing? Does the verb take a direct object? For example “to read (読む)” and “to write (書く)” have direct objects it would take. Is the verb mainly involving a person? For example “to consult (相談する)” and “to pray for ask (お願いする)”. Is the verb a movement verb – as in a verb that you move from one place to another? Direct object verbs take the を particle while movement verbs that take you to places take on the に particle. Early Japanese language learners will be just told “rules” to follow. For me, as I studied the language more and more, I came to realise that the particles used have a reason.

7. Understand the intransitive versus transitive difference. This kind of follows the point above about learning the particles well for the verb. Japanese categorises its verbs as transitive and intransitive and the verb is different. The Japanese word for “something breaks” is こわれる and the word for “someone breaks something” is こわす. Having such a difference also results in different particles being used. Intransitive verbs tend to describe the state of something without caring how or what resulted in that state. Transitive verbs can tell the listeners more information and it a direct impact on the object that it has affected. This is very different from English. As a Japanese Language learner, it is important to develop that understanding that because of how verbs are used, this effectively means that certain particles are used in place with that verb.

8. Develop a tree or chart structure to help you with remembering the verb conjugations. You start with the dictionary form and then the masu-form when learning Japanese verbs. This is the textbook approach that most teachers use. Next, it is usually the te-form and the ta-form that teachers teach students. The potential form came next for me, followed by the volitional form, then passive, causative and causative-passive. The complexity lies within each conjugation where the verb, depending on which verb group it belongs to, will take on a particular form for a specific conjugation. To help remember these conjugations, give yourself two or three examples to work on and the rest will follow the same formula. I usually use “to eat” from 一段 group and “to read” from the 五段 group to help me remember. Exceptions including する and くる are definitely memorised. Once I have these basics memorised, it is mainly a matter of know what verb you want to use, recognising which verb group it belongs to and then applying the conjugation rule. This method works for me because I see it as a formula and it builds on top of the initial dictionary and masu-forms I’ve memorised.

9. (Mainly for people who speak Cantonese and/or Mandarin). Using the sound to memorise verbs. This is a bit of a weird one but as a person who grew up speaking Cantonese and is learning how to speak Mandarin, there are a few other things I learnt that have helped me learn and remember my Japanese verbs. One is to use the Japanese reading sound to guide you; and two, is knowing the Kanji will help to remember the verb. Many Japanese verbs, when written in Kanji, I tend to remember it better because I recognise the kanji and its meaning in Chinese. I would say the kanji in Cantonese. In many cases, I realised that the sound of the kanji pronounced in Cantonese is very very similar to the Japanese pronunciation. These are called 音読み (onyomi). Japanese verbs also have 訓読み (kunyomi). Not going into the details on how these two differ, my point is because I can hear the 音読み and then see the kanji for the Japanese verb, it has definitely helped me remember the verb better and more quickly.

OK! So far, I have talked about successful ways, if not useful methods, that I have found great to help learn and memorise Japanese verbs.

I am not a genius, so it has taken me a while to build this list.

Having said that, I have definitely employed some learning techniques that did not work for me and I find it better to avoid altogether.

Tips that don’t really help me are:

1. Avoid memory cards with the verb only. Context is everything and memory cards, flashcards or a vocabulary list with the word(s) that have no context never helped me better understand the word nor the usage of the word. If we think of it in the English language (or any foreign language), this concept is the same. You need to know how to use it. For example the word “hand”. This can be a noun or a verb. It relies on the context of how it is used. So when you make cards, have an example sentence in there as well. It will remind you how the verb should be used.

2. Have the particle there as well. Extension to the above avoid point, when making cards, do not forget to apply the relevant article. The particle may or may not change depending on the usage. If your learning goal is to be highly proficient in Japanese, it is probably important to get the particles right from the get-go.

3. Don’t try to learn everything. If you are not using it, the learning will not be reinforced. The practice may not always result to perfect, but practice definitely helps with your memorising process to some degree. I don’t think it is realistic to just rote learn words. I think it is pointless and should be avoided. Yet because of our reality with assignments and exams, your teacher may ask you “remember” it. I don’t think this is practical at all honestly. I learn best when I have used it or heard it a lot. So just start there.

4. Don’t just rely on one textbook. In high school, my resource was my high school teacher and the handouts she provided me at the time. During my Japanese studies at university, my primary resource was the Genki textbook. I grow to realise that textbook is written by people as well, but what they say may not necessarily cover the full context of what I need to learn for the verbs. So, I made it a habit to explore other textbook and Japanese grammar websites. JPLT textbooks are good. Some of my go-to Japanese grammar websites are and While I find these websites great, you may have a different opinion.

I have shared tips that have worked for me when it comes to remembering Japanese verbs as well as things to avoid. Give these a go and see what works for you. After all, we all learn and absorb information differently. The most important thing is to explore, find something that works and expand on that.



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