NihongoUp Japanese Study Tool Review

By Michael Gakuran | | Other | 31 Comments |

NihongoUp is a neat little game that installs quickly and cleanly and offers great benefits to you learning Japanese. With Kana and Kanji practice and even vocabulary drills for up to the highest level of the JLPT, it’s certainly getting itself noticed in the language-learning arena. You can also win a free copy!


Philip Seyfi, new media designer and developer at Divita is behind the swanky looking program NihongoUp, which also has an iPhone version. He commissioned me to take an in-depth look at the software and review it. So here’s the good and the bad. Video at the bottom of this post for those of you who don’t like to read :). See the end of the post where I’m giving away TWO free copies of the game! Yes, free! Who doesn’t like free!? There is also a 15-day free trial on his website.

Skip down to the bottom of this post for my Overall Impressions if you are in a hurry!

(Note: I have only been able to test NihongoUp on the Mac, so I cannot comment on the Windows, Linux or iPhone versions of the game.)


While the goal of the software is to help you learn Japanese, the look and feel of the tools we use are also very important. Studying is often hard, repetitive and just plain boring, so anything you can do to liven up the prcoess is a plus. The Japanese stationary market is flooded with colourful pens, finger-huggingly grippable pencils and cute folders to bring excitement to your work, so a good-looking and well-designed program would have a similar effect.

I’m pleased to report that NihongoUp succeeds at all levels on the design front. I wouldn’t expect anything less from a designer like Philip – his website and products reflect the clean, smooth designs of the modern internet and the animations glide between one-another like the airy clouds floating in the background of the game.


It looks lovely to behold and is a pleasure to use for the most part. A simple, pink layout with sharp transitions as you click between the various types of game available reassure you that this is a product that has been lovingly produced. Even the music fits the design and for the first 10 minutes of so, it’s quite nice to listen to.

Unfortunately at this stage, there only appears to be one track in the game and while it does make for good background music, I quickly became tired of it, preferring to turn it off completely in the settings and stick on Fatblueman’s new album to enjoy while studying. It definitely needs more tracks to choose from.


The software is very simple to use and requires no learning curve, so you won’t have any trouble using it. I installed it quickly and simply on my computer and was playing within 3 minutes. The menus and layout for the different types of Japanese review are all clearly separated, as you can see above.

There are also some basic options in the Settings panel that allow you to control music, sound effects, the game duration and, importantly for us Japanese language learners, whether you are viewing kana or kanji in the game (which is great for beginners who might fear kanji). I’ll touch more on this later.


My only minor gripe with the game’s functionality is that it has been designed primarily with keyboard input in mind. A mouse works, for sure, but when I attempted to use it to click on the balloons in the game modes, I sometimes missed, resulting in me ‘pausing’ the game. Rather frustrating and, I reckon, easily fixed. Why not put a small menu button in the corner of the window and have that for pausing the game?

Also, the point-scoring system is somewhat basic. You get more points exponentially as you get a series of correct answers, but I would like to see additional points given if you type or click the correct answer more quickly (i.e. when it is higher up the screen).


The game is divided into 4 sections: Kana, Kanji, Vocabulary and Grammar, so I’ll take a look at each one separately.

Kana Mode

Kana mode offers you 3 types of game: Hiragana, Katakana or mixed practice. The concept is simple: score points by typing the correct meaning of the Japanese characters that you see being transported down by balloons.

Sound easy? It is, but the catch comes when you start doing well. The more unbroken strings of correct answers you get, the faster the game becomes and the more points you rack up. It can get quite challenging, even for a person like me who deals with Japanese characters every day.


The big problem with this method is that is really requires you to have good typing skills. I don’t touch type, and I had trouble keeping up reading the characters, looking at my keyboard and knocking out the readings, especially for those odd combinations like ぢゃ (dya). Still, it is challenging and enjoyable enough to keep you trying again and again. Perfect for absolute beginners of Japanese who really need to nail those character readings. And believe me, you *need* to know the readings before you can progress in the language.

Kanji Mode

Kanji mode currently only offers two levels of study: JLPT levels 4 and 3. This is a big shame, because otherwise the game works quite well. On level 4, you are faced with sentences of hiragana or katakana test and 4 balloons float down. It’s your job to pick the kanji character that matches the highlighted reading at the bottom of the screen.


The good thing about this is that Philip appears to have accounted for kanji knowledge in-between levels. I can’t verify that for all kanji, but I did notice that in level 3, basic kanji characters you should have learnt in level 4 are used – so there’s no use cheating yourself! Let’s hope this trend continues when he adds JLPT levels 2 and 1 in the future and it’ll make for a very useable tool to track your reading progression and kanji recognition.

Also, you are able to change from sentences to just words in the settings if you prefer to focus on only one word when looking for the right kanji.

One problem, however, is that you cannot swap the kanj and matching kana around. In other words, you cannot check your kanji reading skills by looking at the character and selecting the correct reading for it. This sort of practice is essential because the JLPT test has a section that requires you to select the correct reading of kanji based on the characters you see in word combinations. In other words, you have to remember the readings for yourself instead of having to match the character to a reading already displayed. I hope to see this in future versions, as it is crucial to learning to read kanji well, in my opinion.

An example from the game. Choose the kanji:

おもさ  Choose: 重 昼 土 犬

Not in the game – I want an option to be able to choose like this too:

さ  Choose: おもさ いもさ じゅうさ じょう

Vocabulary Mode

This is more like it. All the levels of the old JLPT test are here 1-4. You are presented with an English word at the bottom of the screen and can choose to display answers in either kanji or in kana from the settings.


Unlike the kana mode games, this mode doesn’t get any faster, and I found it to be a little too slow at times. It works like many other drill programs I’ve seen whereby you just select the answer that matches the text, resulting in a satisfying ringing sound when you are correct and a bleep when wrong. Points increase exponentially as you get successive answers correct.

The big problem with this mode, as with the Kanji mode, is that there is no apparent way of swapping the recognition modes around. You must always select the relevant kanji based upon the English reading. Again, this is unacceptable for a serious learner, who must be able to understand kanji as seen in context. I think it is much more important to be able to see a kanji compound piece of vocabulary and choose the closest match in English to what it means.

Grammar Mode

Finally, we come to the grammar mode, with its Japanese particles and Japanese counters practice sections. Both items are very important in mastering the language, and even I struggle with counters after many years of study, so they are very welcome additions.


The counters practice in particular is a nicely done mode, utilising sentences complete with kanji and the counter in context. You choose the correct reading. The particles section is also good, but unfortunately only uses kana to keep things simple and at times has sentences to which there are multiple possible answers. A good start and fine for testing basic grammar, but this mode could use further improvement to really help it shine.

Overall Impressions

Alrighty then. No doubt there are some of you who skipped here to read my conclusion first. I don’t blame you – you want to know whether or not this piece of software is worth the $5 asking price, right?

Here’s your answer: Yes!

That’s going to be especially true for those of you who are still beginners learning the language. There’s so much to offer for the beginning learner – complete kana practice, JLPT levels 4 and 3 kanji practice and plenty of sentences in the vocabulary and grammar sections to get you off on a good start. Yes, you could find many of the same things online for free, but you can save yourself the time by just giving NihongoUp a try. I think the excellent kana practice and counters drills are the best I have seen to date and are worth the asking price alone.

For the more advanced learner, the answer is a more reserved yes. I would hope to see more on offer in future updates, such as additions to the kanji mode for JLPT levels 1 and 2. You can practice your advanced vocabulary up to the highest level JLPT1 though, which is great for improving your recognition skills one-way, but it is still limited. The big advantage is that all the words are already ready for you inside NihongoUp. If you use another SRS program like the marvellous Anki, you will need to create or download the databases containing all the vocabulary yourself.

Still not sure? Philip offers a free 15-day trial of the software on his website. Go over and taste it for yourself! NihongoUp Free Trial

Suggested Improvements

As outlined in my breakdown of the program, here is my list of suggestions for improvements:

  • Option to switch recognition in kanji mode – currently you can only learn by matching the kanji characters to the reading you are given, and not vice-versa.
  • Option to switch recognition in vocabulary mode – currently you can only learn by matching the kanji words to the English you are given, and not vice-versa.
  • JLPT levels 1 and 2 added to the kanji mode.
  • Faster in all modes except kana. Alternatively, a speed control.
  • Pause button instead of having the mouse pause the game when you mis-click on the screen.
  • Additional points for typing or clicking the correct answer more quickly.
  • Option to see kanji in the grammar mode – sentences using only kana are difficult to read for more advanced learners.
  • More music tracks! One track quickly becomes repetitive.
  • Competition to win a FREE copy of the game!

    I have two copies of the game to give away. There are three ways to win! You only have to do *one* of the below to enter, but do all three if you like :)

    1) Re-tweet the following text on Twitter. Make sure to include everything, especially the hashtag at the end!:

    Win a FREE copy of NihongoUp and learn Japanese! Simply re-tweet. #gakUP

    2) Make a Youtube video telling me why you want to win a copy of NihongoUp and make sure to post a link to your video in the comments of this post.

    3) Leave a comment on this post telling me why you want to win a copy of NihongoUp.

    You can also follow me or Philip on Twitter for further Japanese stuff and general cool points :)

    Follow @gakuranman on Twitter
    Follow @nihongoup on Twitter

    Winners will be announced by 22nd January. Good luck!

    31 comments on “NihongoUp Japanese Study Tool Review
    1. Japanese says:

      Looks cool! How much does this cost after the trial?

    2. Gakuranman says:

      Sounds good Philip! Thanks for informing us of the update :)

    3. Gakuranman says:

      Sounds good Philip! Thanks for informing us of the update :)

    4. seifip says:

      NihongoUp 1.2.8 was just released… It includes a reverse kanji mode, all modes except kana are slightly faster, the game is now paused with a right-click instead of a left-click :)

      A much wider selection of background music (together with an interface where you'll be able to choose which songs to play) will hopefully be available in the next update!

    5. seifip says:

      I would really like to avoid separate downloads… I know that it's a possible solution to many different problems but it also complicates everything quite a bit which isn't a good thing for a program that's supposed to be fun & easy to use and is oriented at a fairly non-technical user base.

    6. Gakuranman says:

      Maybe offering extra tracks as an optional download would be an idea?

    7. seifip says:

      Do you think that adding a wider background music selection in expense of file size (even the one song that is included with the game at the moment accounts for over 1/3 of the file size) would be a good idea?

    8. Claudette says:


    9. Cassandra says:

      I would love to have a copy of this game. My husband and I are both learning Japanese (total beginners) and we've been looking around for some games to supplement our primary learning.

    10. Cassandra says:

      I would love to have a copy of this game. My husband and I are both learning Japanese (total beginners) and we've been looking around for some games to supplement our primary learning.

    11. Jennifer M. says:

      I would love to win a copy of this because I have been struggling with learning Japanese for a while now. I started learning about a year ago but I need something to help give me that push in the right direction and keep me focused. I think this program could help me significantly! Thank you so much!

    12. YoyoKirby says:

      Oh! I tried the demo of this game! It was very cool .:o

    13. KeruCHU says:

      こんにちは、マイク先生!I took your free class on Edufire a while ago. I would really like this game to give to my half Japanese friend who wants to learn Japanese. I would give it to him on his birthday (February 16th.) I think it is perfect for him since he easily gets distracted from learning Japanese because he wants to play games, haha~ He is a beginner in Japanese and does not know all of the ひらがな yet. I would really like to help my friend and I think it would be a great gift! ^ ^

    14. Biggi says:

      Hi There!
      I’d like to have a copy because the company I work at just changed my timeshifts into total chaos. I’m in despair! With this timetable I have no chance to attend one japanese-class at our local languageschool. Also my other language-lerning-freinds like to have a fixed date during the week to learn together.. so with this going on, my japanese might become even weaker as it is now. With Nihongo Up, I am able to learn the basics whenever I’m at home! Yay! I guess it would be great!

    15. 死神 says:

      Hi there! I am currently a student of Linguistics (Major in the Japanese Language) at the University of the Philippines. I am always in search of apps and whatnot that would help improve my language skills in Japanese and, I think, reading from your post above, that this seems to be a great software. I want to win a copy because first, I want to put my hands on anything that would further my studies in the language and second, I don't have any other way to pay for this since I don't have a paypal / credit card nor know someone who has. :)

    16. Karen K. says:

      Let's see NihongoUp
      Personally I think it's more useful and easier than sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher. Interactions with games and such are better than dozing off to sleep from boring lessons (am i right?)
      Well I did that, before that, I would watch dramas (japanese only) and it helped with the speaking and some kanji reading, I decided to go to a night class for japanese, it made me more exhausted, though with a program I'm sure it'll be easier to learn.
      Though I want to win the free copy yes to advance more on my japanese, especially with kanji, i know my hiragana and partially katakana, it would be interesting to use this program.
      (Another dream of mine is to go to Japan and meet celebrities, and be able to speak fluent Japanese and converse with them) But that's all just a dream
      Improving my japanese would be great! I would love to learn more cause I really love Japanese culture itself, I find it fascinating, especially since chinese is incorporated into it (I'm chinese that's one reason I want to learn kanji, to be able to differentiate the difference in definition)


    17. Ali says:

      well, here’s my entry into the giveaway: I recently started trying to learn the language, and so far it has been going well. my biggest issue isnt the memorization of the hiragana or katakana, but just the retention. having a new way to practice and reinforce them would definitely help. for 5 dollars, though, I think I’d be willing to buy it even if I don’t win it.

    18. One of my new years resolutions is to finally learn some Japanese.
      I've been here 2 years and barely learnt a thing, which is pretty pathetic.
      Gakuranman. If I win I promise I will study and learn some Japanese.

    19. Rukishou says:

      Since I'm a friend of Philip Seyfi (the creator of NihongoUp) I can get as many free copies of the game I want (that is, for me) – however I have paid for both the PC and the iPhone versions – so I won't be entering the contest, but I would like to tell those wondering whether to enter themselves or perhaps by it even if you don't win: assuming you already have some knowledge of Japanese and wish to train your vocabulary bank as well as work on remembering kanji, GET IT!

      It does not cost much and especially the iPhone app version can be really helpful for practicing kana, kanji, and particles (は、が、を), I think, and since it is in fact a game, you can use it to pass time while waiting for the next bus or something.

      I will also make a review on my website soon, if anybody is interested. ^^

    20. Jamaipanese says:

      I used NihongoUp for a while last year and maybe there has been a lot of improvements since. An excellent review tool in my opinion that can be used to keep Japanese fresh in your mind but not necessarily good as your primary Japanese learning option.

    21. Gakuranman says:

      I see. You are absolutely right in my opinion. I, too, have found that repeated exposure to related vocabulary items over a spaced period of time has been extremely effective to my progress in Japanese. When I studied at Akita International University, we used to spent 2 weeks on each topic. The book we used was 日本語中級J501 ( and was responsible for the great jump in my Japanese ability while there. Of course, we had an excellent teacher who supplemented our learning with sources and games of her own too, but I pretty much came to the conclusion that the slower, more in-depth pace studying vocabulary and grammar around a central text was the key. I may have to check out your decks on – do you have any links?

      I guess with regards to the value, we must agree to disagree. From my point of view, for beginning learners of Japanese, this program has more than enough to help them learn and enjoy the process. I am aware most students don't have a lot of money to spare, but seeing as $5 is less than 500 yen (which can buy you lunch for one day), I feel it's a very reasonable price for a well-designed tool that merges repetition games and a good range of Japanese sentences together. :)

    22. Gakuranman says:

      Hi Leica,

      You are welcome to send me the link to your video privately if you prefer, but since you have posted here you are already in the contest :)

      I didn't mention explicitly, but the two copies of the game I have to give away will be decided by a random draw. Unfortunately this time I am not giving extra points to those who make videos. That said, I'm sure Philip will be very grateful for the extra effort, so by all means please share your creation with us :)

      Good luck!

    23. Would it be ok to send the link to video via twitter or youtube mail? (my daughter is shy about posting publicly) Will certainly do video if we can acquire the necessary equipment in time. Meanwhile…

      This would be a great educational tool for my daughter, who is homeschooled, 1/4 japanese, and very interested in learning the language. The european relatives have been more dominant in her life, and i am thrilled that she has become more and more enthusiastic about exploring the neglected portion of her heritage.

      We did try out the program, was helpful, pleasant to use, and she liked it very much. Planned on purchasing eventually, it isn't expensive, but the budget is limited so could take awhile…

      This is a nice idea for a competition. I'm fairly certain the winners will be ones who take the time to create a video, but had to try anyway. Good luck everyone!

    24. Alex says:

      What I mean by “learning system” is actually more of an approach. This sort of never-ending multiple choice test is probably the least productive method for learning I have seen developed in recent years. (The audio-lingual method is another.) I never said that repetition isn't important, but the right kind of repetition is. I get repetition through narrow-reading (sources with the same vocabulary terms in different sentences and contexts). If you look at what I go through on systems like, you'll see that I have multiple “Goals” that overlap, each with different contextual clues, and I read unrelated books where the target terms pop up again unexpectedly. That's ideal repetition, and that's what takes the most effort for me to put together for teaching language.

      Like I said in my post, I do appreciate developments made towards Japanese learning materials, but I personally wouldn't suggest NihongoUp to learners at this phase of its development. (It may help people, but it is probably less effective than other systems.)

      Actually, just the implementation of an open-ended fill-in-the-blank format and the option to disable any sort of speed-timer might push me over the line of opposition and make me want to recommend it to learners. $5 isn't an arm and leg, but I do perceive things in terms of their worth. Value is still value. I'm still open to reassess the software when it's updated.

    25. Gakuranman says:

      Hi Alex. I read your review before I wrote this and I appreciate your concerns. But I think you are looking at the software from too much of a linguist's point of view. My entire childhood was spent doing revision for exams and a lot of that involved repetition. I passed my exams with a comfortable margin and retain some of that knowledge.

      I completely agree with you that the package may not present the best form of long-term learning, but in my experience, repetition is key to language acquisition and is the way I beat JLPT1 last year. Admitedly I used Anki with custom decks I built from textbooks giving example sentences, but Nihongoup features the same sort of thing. Yes, it is inflexible because you cannot add your own sentences and correct or edit existing ones, but you have to ask yourself if $5 is worth your time creating a database of sentences and learning to use one of the other SRS programs. As well as being a skinflint, I would prefer to create my own decks, but I certainly think five American dollars is excellent value for what the program contains. If it was $15 or even $10 dollars, I might have more bones to pick.

      As for multiple choice 'not being a learning system', I'm not exactly sure what you mean. Textbooks aren't learning systems, yet I've studied from them all my life. My Japanese classes weren't learning systems, yet I learnt Japanese. The practice tests I did for the JLPT are all multiple choice and they certainly helped me clear the hurdle and improve my Japanese. Multiple choice is not my recommended method for learning a language and it shouldn't be used on its own, but NihongoUp isn't billed as 'the comprehensive solution to all your Japanese needs'. It's a tool and lacks listening and speaking practice, not to mention the necessary exposure one needs to raw material using the language (such as living in the country or immersing yourself in language every day). You mention this when you say 'it is better to spent time looking [at the language] yourself, so I think we agree. I too think the program could be much better, but if it were, I would expect it to retail for more.

      One thing I am curious about is whether or not Philip will let buyers have any future updates for free or require them to pay again. What say you, Philip?

    26. Alex says:

      My biggest gripe is the multiple-choice format, both as a Japanese learner and as a language instructor. It's not a learning system. Also, the time limit is not conducive to productive learning. It's actually better to spend time looking at it. (It's a characteristic of memory) The system could be easily adapted to account for these features, and it could be a potentially useful tool. As it is now, I'd recommend waiting for version 2 before anyone makes a purchase.

    27. Coal says:

      I guess I will leave a comment have no twitter and suck at making videos!

      Normally I wouldn't consider getting something like this, but I have been seeing talk/reviews for it all over the place. It really looks like it's a nice tool!

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