As has been mentioned, I am slowly making my way learning Japanese. I have finally, after a great deal of searching, found three sources that are working for me:
For the real beginner, you need to learn your kana before you do anything else. This is a mailing list that looks sketchy as hell, and at the end of the course they will try to sell you advanced courses, which aren't all that bad, but if you do the excercises, by the end of two weeks you will have a solid background in kana.
After that you need the grammar. The kana101 guy has a book, but the best one I have found is this one, available online, as a pdf, and an iOS app. It is the only book I have found that is organized in a way that makes sense to me, features no-bullshit explanantions, and excercises at the end of each unit. Plus it has vocabulary lists with each page, leading to the third point.
You have to drill vocabulary. As an English speaker, you know something like 5,000 to 20,000 words, and now you have to learn another 5,000 before being able to call youself fluent. It is a daunting task requiring a robust study system. My preferred system is flashcards, and particularly the digital flash cards from Anki. These cards are more customizable than you need for a Japanese vocabulary deck, will accept Japanese input either as copy-pasted or typed in, and, best of all, will sync through your account to multiple devices. I can input the new cards at home while studying a chapter of the book, then actually do the flashcards during downtime at the office, or sit at the park and do them in my phone.
All these things have the added benefit of being free.
But the keys to learning a foreign language are motivation, exposure, and practice. So to further my practice I have also been considering purchasing Japanese manga. This is a terrible idea for me because A) I have never really liked the comic book format, B) I am not really fluent enough to seriously attempt this, and C) the local comic store only has English manga. I am going to ignore all those problems, because A) hopefully I will enjoy the format more with increased exposure, B) the goal is to get more fluent, C) the adventures detailed below with online purchasing have been valuable in themselves and D) having visual references to add context, plus the slower speed of reading vs listening, seems like a much better way to gain exposure than either newspapers or anime.
So I have decided to make my way through all of the Bleach manga, mostly because even a year after cancellation I still find myself yearning to know what happens next, which is apparently told in the manga. The goals I am setting are 1) to understand what happens in every issue, no matter how long it takes to get through and 2) to be able to read the final issue of the TV run (corresponding I think to chapter 479) at about the same speed I can read English. Depending on how it goes, you may start getting short manga reviews of the bound editions as I move through them.
I decided to buy the first three volumes from a store called "honto", or real internet store, which according to anonymous strangers on the internet is much better than amazon for japanese editions. Of course, the entire site is in Japanese, which made ordering a bit of an adventure. And by "a bit" I mean I really had very little confidence that these things would arrive ever, not because of the site but because I would probably send them to the Antarctic research station by mistake.
Being a first time visitor, it asked me to register with the site, agree to a terms and conditions page (no idea what it said, but that kind of page is recognizable in any language), I had to confirm my email address, and then fill out a form. All the forms, despite being utterly familiar in layout, seemed strangely alien and slightly terrifying for being only understandable with the help of my trusty rikaikun. It felt like a test, a test for which I knew I was unprepared and yet the penalty for failing was not a poor grade but around $15 plus shipping. I learned that I was born in the final year of the reign of the previous emperor. And then I got an error message at one of the text boxes, asking me to input my name as furigana (that is, the phonetic pronunciation of my name), so I made one up in katakana, and the program automatically converted it to hiragana; I feel more Japanese already.
Then registration finished and I just sat there for a bit with a dumb look on my face (I assume), because it hadn't asked for payment or my address. What the hell just happened. I sat there for a full minute before my phone dinged that I had recieved an email, but the email didn't help at all. I kept staring at the page until I recognized it, the character for continue! I felt like I had just won a giant prize, read the whole button out as "Continue shopping" and realized that my prize was to fill out another god damned form in a language I barely understand.
The first page asks me for my newly created password, which I am halfway through painstakingly sounding out before figuring out what it wants. I type it in and hit "次へ", which means "next". I click a little too hard because of the adrenaline of being a success. I go through all the form labels on the next page before inputting anything and discover it wants my address. Great! I start to type in my zip code, but it cuts me off at three and four digits. Oh, I guess this drop down box means I should change over to US shipping. Nope, all my options have "県' in them, the symbol for prefecture. Where then is country? Do these people ship to America, or has the internet lied to me?
Maybe it has, maybe it hasn't. I am told that Amazon Japan will screw me nine ways to Sunday on shipping, but at least I can figure out how to ask if they ship to America. I feel a vague sense of failure, but at least I can get what I am looking for.
Oh, shit. Amazon accounts don't transfer to the Japanese store. I think I am going to cry. As I input my information all again, dreading even more Japanese language spam, I notice that even Amazon wants both my name and a furigana, making me wonder if I should come up with some kanji for my name. If I write my last name phonetically, the IME gives me "ぶれ栗", which means "Chestnut Shake". Not exactly poetic, and strange enough that I will leave such endeavors off until I acquire more fluency.
Oh, dear. Now I see what the complainers on the internet were talking about. Shipping is not even a little bit cheap. I think I will be buying in larger volumes for the next purchase, or if this is a weight issue I will be looking for another source, but I have spent way too long on this endeavor already. Of course, the reason it is so expensive is that they don't offer anything slower than express. I should get it next week, but I would gladly wait another week or two or three if they would cut the shipping down to maybe a third of what it is. Oh, well, here I am getting a book shipped from the other side of the planet and my complaint is that it will get here too fast. Maybe I should calm down, enjoy life a little more, and get back to Durarara.