My Top 3 Podcasts for N2 Level

Posted: 31st Mar 2023

Did you know one of the very first blog posts I made on this site was about podcasts? While that post was for beginners, today we're going to jump ahead a bit and talk about podcasts for N2 level Japanese.

Before we get into the podcasts themselves, you may want to check out this recent post I wrote called How to Learn Japanese from Podcasts.

In this post, I'm first going to answer a couple of questions about the N2 and why podcasts may be a good study tool. After this, I'll go into my top three podcast recommendations for N2 level, detailing what each choice is "Good for" and "Less good for" - essentially a list of pros and cons. No podcast is perfect, so don't feel afraid to dip in and out of the recommendations you see given here or anywhere else!

If you'd like to skip ahead to a particular section, you can do so by clicking on the following links. Note: the podcasts are listed according to my personal preference.

Note: I am not affiliated with any of the organisations or podcasts linked in this article. In other words, I don't make money from you clicking on links - these are purely my personal recommendations.

What is N2?

N2 is one of the five JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) levels, which go from N5 (easiest) to N1 (hardest).

For those wanting to work in Japan or use Japanese at work, N2 is generally the minimum requirement, although many companies, including the one I worked at in Osaka from 2016-2017, now ask for an N1 qualification. While the JLPT exam doesn't cover speaking or writing skills, passing the N2 requires advanced capabilities in reading and listening as well as detailed knowledge of grammar, vocab and kanji (roughly 1,000 characters).

If you'd like to find out more about the JLPT, check out these other posts I've written or select the "JLPT" category on my blog homepage:

N2 Listening_featured image

Why are podcasts important for N2 level?

So: why am I doing a whole post about podcasts for students aiming to pass N2?

Put simply: podcasts are a brilliant way to immerse yourself in authentic Japanese - and this is essential for anyone approaching (or already at) N2 level!

While I'm slightly biased by the fact that I personally have always enjoyed listening as a way of learning, many of my students tell me that they're exactly the same. My favourite things about learning from podcasts are:

  • You can do it pretty much anywhere.
  • It's relatively easy to slot into your schedule (e.g. listening on your commute or last thing before bed).
  • There's no pressure to answer questions or memorise anything - all you need to do is listen!

As mentioned above, I wrote a whole post on how to learn Japanese from podcasts recently, so feel free to click here and give it a read for some more details and tips regarding  how this can actually work in practice.

My Recommendations

Alright. Time to crack on with the good stuff!

1. Learn Japanese from Small Talk

Learn Japanese from Small Talk is hosted by two native Japanese speakers who, if memory serves, first met while studying abroad in the UK. Since returning to Japan, they've continued to document their experiences of going through Japanese university, jobhunting and, more recently, the transition to 社会人生活 (shakaijin seikatsu - life as a working adult).

While I've written more about the pros of this podcast below, what I really love about it is the genuine chemistry between the two hosts. For me, it's really reminiscent of chatting away with Japanese friends, so if you feel like you struggle for chances to encounter "real life" Japanese chitchat, this is an excellent place to start.

So: should you give this podcast a go? Check out my thoughts to get an idea of whether it's for you or not.

Good for:

  • Hearing natural conversation between friends. In particular, this podcast is great for anyone curious about how friends of different ages interact. As there is an age difference between the two hosts, be sure to listen out for how the conversation switches between casual and formal language. Can you tell who's older?
  • Interesting topics relevant to Japanese learners (e.g. recent trends in Japan, discussion of cultural differences, Japanese food, news and more).
  • A laidback feel with plenty of funny interactions between the hosts.

Less good for:

  • Production quality. While most of the time this isn't a problem, there is the odd occasion on which this podcast suffers from noise interference or big discrepancies in the sound levels for the two presenters' mics, which for me tends to mean I give up on that particular episode.
  • Language/vocab explanations. While I really appreciate the duo's efforts in explaining some of the trickier Japanese phrases that come up, as well as their inclusion of a vocab list at the end of each episode, the accuracy of their explanations and English translations can be quite hit-or-miss. If you listen to this podcast, I suggest double checking the meanings of any new words elsewhere or checking with your Japanese teacher before committing them to memory.

You can listen to Learn Japanese from Small Talk via the following links:

While you may notice that the pair haven't uploaded yet in 2023, they have been active on Twitter, so my hope is they'll be back to releasing episodes in the near future.

2. 4989 American Life

While I can't remember how I came across this podcast, it's been a firm favourite in my podcast app for several years now.

Started by Utaco, a Japanese woman who has lived in California with her American husband since 2014, 4989's name is based on a Japanese 四字熟語 (yojijukugo - four-character phrase), 四苦八苦 (shiku hakku), meaning "to be in dire distress".

Following Utaco's various struggles - and successes! - with learning English, life in the US and more, this podcast is somewhat unusual (at least in my library) in that it's almost entirely made up of monologue.

If this doesn't sound like your cup of tea, hear me out! There's plenty to enjoy with this podcast, and for Japanese learners, there are also super handy transcripts to help you follow what's being said.

Now: onto the juicy part where we see what this podcast is and isn't (in my opinion) good for.

Good for:

  • Hearing authentic Japanese not exclusively aimed at learners. While Utaco does now cater to Japanese learners, e.g. through the transcripts, this podcast wasn't originally started as a study tool.
  • Experiencing (vivaciously) the trials and tribulations of a Japanese person living outside of Japan. Utaco often discusses things she finds different in the US compared with life in Japan, with a frequent topic of conversation being her progress with her English, meaning there's plenty for Japanese learners to relate to!
  • On a similar note, one real linguistic benefit I think learners can gain from listening to Utaco is getting exposure to how various emotions can be expressed in Japanese. On top of this, Utaco essentially gives a masterclass in how to tell a story in an interesting, varied manner no matter what the topic. If you have the patience to have a go at reading through the script and maybe even trying some shadowing, there's plenty to learn from Utaco's skilled presentation style. In fact, this podcast is my own personal choice for shadowing practice. (See this post for a video introducing shadowing.)

Less good for:

  • Examples of conversation. As each episode is essentially a (structured) monologue, you naturally won't hear Utaco talking with other people - although if my memory serves, she may very occasionally have guests on with whom she does mini interviews. (Don't quote me on this!)
  • Listening when tired. Due to its format, this podcast can require a little more focus to keep up with what's being said. As it's aimed primarily at native speakers, the language is also pitched at a slightly higher level than, for example, Learn Japanese from Small Talk. As such, I recommend it for times when you have a little more energy in the tank to keep following along.

You can listen to 4989 American Life via the following links:

3. バイリンガルニュース・Bilingual News

Last on my list of recommendations is a podcast which was a firm favourite of mine back when I was studying in Japan (2014-2015).

If you're somewhere approaching N2 level - and if you've read this far in this blog post - my guess is that you're starting to look for materials that can help you push your language ability that bit further than what you've been using to date. In particular, one of the great things about reaching a more advanced level of Japanese is that your options in terms of what you can listen to start to become much broader.

Although Bilingual News is 100% aimed at learners (of both Japanese and English), it occupies a valuable place in the world of Japanese podcasts in that it offers a gateway into some quite advanced topics that, even at N2+ level, can be difficult to really get your head around when they're presented fully in Japanese.

Bilingual News is hosted by bilingual friends Michael and Mami, with Michael primarily speaking in English and Mami mostly in Japanese. Each episode follows a few different stories and is broken down accordingly into a number of segments, each of which kicks off with a formal summary of the news before diving into conversation between the two hosts.

As the podcast can dive into some fairly sensitive topics, there are bound to be opinions that won't sit right with everyone. To be totally honest, the main reason I went off this podcast was that many of Michael's views and attitudes didn't sit well with me personally. However, from a linguistic perspective this is in some ways what makes the podcast most interesting, in that you can hear how he and Mami navigate their differences in opinion in an unscripted, spontaneous manner. Even if it turns out not to be for you, it's definitely worth a try.

So: what is and isn't Bilingual News good for?

Good for:

  • Getting in some listening practice when you're too tired to keep up with pure Japanese.
  • Pushing your Japanese to the next level by exposing yourself to more specialist vocab and phrases you might not encounter elsewhere.
  • Getting a mixture of hyper-formal language (through news article intros) and casual conversation as actually spoken between friends.

Not so good for:

  • Immersing yourself fully in Japanese. Naturally, as this podcast is bilingual, it's not going to be for you if you're looking for exposure to fully Japanese-language media.
  • Impatient listeners! I personally find that parts of the podcast can drag slightly, perhaps mostly due to it being a spontaneous conversation in which the hosts need formulate their thoughts on the spot.
  • Variety. While the news naturally changes all the time, long-time listeners may get a little tired of the format. Also, as mentioned above, some of the views expressed in the podcast may not be your cup of tea.

You can listen to Bilingual News via the following links:

If you'd like to find out more about Bilingual News, check out this Tokyo Weekender interview with Mami and Michael.

You've reached the end of this post! I hope you enjoyed it.

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