When people think about the Japanese language–assuming they ever think about it at all–they often assume that speaking and listening are easiest, while reading and writing are hardest. While that may seem obvious–since the Japanese writing system is clearly the work of insane monks like two thousand years ago–it’s actually not the case.
The easiest skill in Japanese is writing, followed by reading, then speaking, and finally listening. That’s counter-intuitive, so let’s look a little deeper:
The main problem with listening is that you can’t control what’s going to come out of the other person’s mouth. They can say anything, about any topic, using any grammar, vocabulary, and accent they want. And the volume of information can be tremendous. You may be able to understand somebody who’s telling you where the restroom is, but can you follow the conversation for hours? Even people who’ve studied Japanese for years get lost. Hell, even native speakers get lost.
Speaking, by contrast, is far easier. You only say what you know how to say. A lot of second-language speakers use a trick so subtle that they themselves sometimes don’t realize it. Namely, they keep changing the subject back to things they know how to talk about. If you’re good at talking about, say, food, then you just steer the topic in that direction, because when you’re speaking, you can direct the conversation. What do I think about the new Japanese Prime Minister? I’m not sure, but hey, this fish is really delicious! What kind of fish do you like? What did you have for dinner last night?
Sometimes people with weak conversation skills even dominate the conversation, which makes them appear better at the language than they actually are. When you see non-native speakers, of either Japanese or English, who talk a lot without listening and responding to questions, pay attention to see if they are actually following the threads of others, or simply steering the conversation into patterns they are comfortable with.
Moving up the list, reading is second to the easiest, due to one great advantage: time. If it takes you all day to look up the words in a newspaper article or an email, then that’s what it takes, but at least you’ll eventually understand it. And unless you’re enrolled in a Japanese university, the volume of information is typically low. Even five emails a day is nothing compared to how many words you’ll hear in half an hour of conversation.
I’ll fully acknowledge that speaking Japanese is easier than writing when you first start out. It’s certainly much easier to figure out how to say something than it is to write it. But once you move beyond the basic level, things change dramatically. It’s not easy to access the necessary vocabulary and assemble a grammatically correct sentence in the space of a conversation. When someone asks you a question, you’ve got about two seconds to come up with an answer before things get weird. Not so with writing. As with reading, you can take all the time you want to look up words and check your grammar. You can even run it by a native speaker before sending it to your final recipient. And if you’re using computer, there are a ton of resources to fall back upon (including not having to worry about how to write the darn kanji).
Starting out, a lot of people focus on the verbal skills over the written. While that’s fine for a couple of months, beyond that you’ll find the language is much easier if you invest time in learning to read and write.