The Best Book to Learn Japanese

The Best Book to Learn Japanese

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Studying Japanese
Picture: makaron* / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
People often ask me what the best book for learning Japanese is. While there are a lot of good ones, one in particular stands above the rest.

I frequently get asked by folks, “What’s the best book to learn Japanese?” Most of them know what a Japanese weeb I am and that I’ve been studying the language daily for over eight years now with some decent success.

The thing is there isn’t just one book that’ll make you fluent. You’ll likely need a series of books on your Japanese learning journey – plus a lot of listening, speaking, and reading practice to boot.

However, a good, basic beginner’s book can lay a strong foundation for future success. And there’s one book that I’ve found stands head and shoulders above the rest. After I introduce that book, I discuss a few others I’ve found insanely helpful as well.

Note: Article contains affiliate links; Unseen Japan earns a small commission, at no cost to you, if you buy anything listed on this page.

My Japanese Journey

Before I dive in, a little bit about me. And don’t worry – this won’t be one of those sites where I tell you in excruciating detail about my three-month trek through the Himalayas before I give you the recipe for soup. I promise I’ll be brief.

My Japanese journey began in middle school in the 1980s. I lived in a small town, so this wasn’t any easy feat. So it’s no surprise that I gave up before I even began.

In my mid-20s, I made another run at it. Once again, I bombed out.

Then, when I was around 39, I vowed I’d finally learn this damn language. My procrastination, it turns out, paid off. There were now tons of material available for learning that had never existed before!

Yes, there was definitely an explosion of online material. The online resources that many users now use on a daily basis didn’t exist in the late 90s. (And we didn’t even have home Internet service in the 80s. Yes, my friends – it was a dark time indeed.)

But more than that, there was a lot more printed material to boot. I found more and better textbooks and ancillary resources than I ever could previously.

I’ve used all of the resources below in my own Japanese journey. Thanks to them, I was able to pass Level 1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) in 2018. I hope that they prove as useful to you!

Best Book to Learn Japanese: The Genki Series

Best Book to learn Japanese #1: Genki I

Without a doubt, I’ve found that the Genki series from the Japan Times is the best book for learning Japanese.

Genki has three merits that set it ahead of most books in the Japanese language learning category.

It Gets You Into The Written Japanese Language Quickly

A lot of Japanese textbooks that target English speakers never take the learner beyond learning romaji – i.e., the Roma alphabetized version of writing Japanese.

The problem is that no one who uses the Japanese language uses romaji. While scattered words will sometimes be written in romaji for emphasis and effect (e.g., the name of a store), Japanese is generally written in a mix of two syllabic writing systems, hiragana and katakana, and kanji, ideographic characters originally adopted from China.

Genki recognizes this and starts you off in the first character learning hiragana and katakana. It then introduces you to kanji as you progress through lessons. Right from Day One, you’ll be learning Japanese the way it’s actually written.

It Provides a Strong Base for Further Study

Genki actually comes as a two-volume set. After studying these two volumes, you’ll have learned 1,700 words and around 317 kanji.

Now, that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of getting fluent. But with that foundation under your belt, you’ll be well set to build on that knowledge and nudge your way from beginner to intermediate level. (If you need a structured approach to intermediate study, the Japan Times also makes a book for intermediate Japanese learners as well.)

Plentiful Exercises and Examples

One of the best aspects of the Genki series is that every explanation of a grammar point in Japanese comes not just with an explanation, but with a series of examples to help get it down pat. You’ll get more than a basic introduction – you’ll get hands-on practice.

Audio Included

Some Japanese language learning books actually come without any audio. Avoid these books like the plague! As Joy of Languages notes, listening is a critical component of language learning that needs to be practiced explicitly [1]. Genki avoids this mistake by including a CD-ROM containing all practice conversations within the book.

(For those who are gonna ask: It’s possible to find the CD-ROM files online but apparently not in any official way. This is an oversight that I hope the Japan Times corrects in a future edition.)

Best Book to Learn Japanese: The Runner-Ups

The Dictionaries of Japanese Grammar (Basic, Intermediate, Advanced)

There are a lot of pretty good free Japanese grammar resources floating around. (Tae Kim’s Guide[2] springs to mind.) But sometimes, there’s nothing better than a professionally compiled resource.

That’s how I feel about The Japan Times’ Dictionary of Japanese Grammar series. Yes, they’re pretty costly. The complete set will set you back slightly over USD $100. But if you’re a serious student of Japanese, they’re worth the investment.

All three volumes of the series cover a titanic swath of Japanese grammar. Each entry contains a wealth of information:

  • English descriptions of the grammar and notes on its detailed usage
  • A wealth of examples sentences – in Japanese scripts, romaji, and English translation – so you can see it used in context
  • Related expressions that are similar but different to the point being discussed.
A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar
An example from A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar for the expression mieru.

Plus, the introduction to each book contains valuable discussions of nuances of Japanese reading and communication. All in all, a must have for the dedicated Japanese learners’ bookshelf.

Japanese Sentence Patterns for Effective Communication

While the Genki series is great, it’ll only take you so far. There are other books I’ve found helpful in my Japanese journey. First and foremost is Japanese Sentence Patterns for Effective Communication by Taeko Kamiya, published by Kodansha.

Best Book to learn Japanese #2: Japanese Sentence Patterns for Effective Communication: A Self ...

As someone who loves having great conversations, building my speaking ability in Japanese was important to me. But I kept running into obstacles making myself think in Japanese. I would often find myself thinking things like how one says “I was just about to…” in Japanese. In other words, I was wondering how common patterns of speech and thinking were expressed in Japanese.

Japanese Sentence Patterns for Effective Communication (a.k.a. JSPEC) solves exactly this problem. It lists many of the common patterns you’d use in everyday speech. And it includes a glossary that allows you to translate relevant patterns from English into Japanese. JPSEC can thus be read front to back as a sort of textbook as well as used as a “dictionary” of common patterns.

Common Japanese Collocations

You’ll hear a lot of folks talk about collocations. This is simply a fancy way of saying “words that occur together.” Knowing collocations is important because idioms of usage change across cultures. For example, in English, you “take a shower.” In Japanese, however, you dash water on yourself (シャワーを浴びる; shawaa o abiru). If you tried to say シャワーを取る (shawaa o toru) in Japanese, you’d get some strange looks!

This is why many Japanese learners urge against studying vocabulary in isolation. It’s important to know, not just a word, but the other words it’s commonly used with.

Common Japanese Collocations can help with this. It’s a list of words in Japanese that you frequently find paired with one another. The entries are organized by noun and categorized (e.g., shopping, daily life). This makes it easy to look up, for example, how to say things like “iron clothes.” (It’s アイロンをかける [airon o kakeru] for the curious.)

Sadly, no book like this can be comprehensive. Even the entries that do exist are incomplete. E.g., the entry for “stress” (ストレス) will teach you the collocation 発散 (hassan) but not 解消 (kaishou).

Fortunately, the Internet exists! Once you get a little good at Japanese, you can use Google to help learn more collocations. I also recommend the site yourei [5], which is a searchable database of Japanese sentences pulled from various sources. Yourei is great for discovering new collocations. You can also use it to give yourself a quick sense of how common a given collocation is.

The Complete Guide to Japanese Kanji

The goal with learning any foreign language is to get to the point where you can immerse yourself in it. The more you can hear and read, the faster your learning will accelerate. However, that can be difficult with Japanese. You can’t even read a newspaper without knowing close to 2,000 characters.

Many Japanese learners lean on James Heisig’s system for memorizing kanji quickly. Others (like me) shy away from it [4]. The order of learning kanji isn’t exactly natural. And Heisig’s mnemonics for characters often bear little relation to their actual composition and meaning.

While it doesn’t contain a memorization “system”, I preferred using Henshall’s Complete Guide to Japanese Kanji. Henshall goes into depth on each character’s composition and its origins. Based on this information, he provides handy mnemonics to aid in memorizing.

In the end, I’ll admit it doesn’t matter how you learned kanji, just that you learned them. But if you plan on diving even deeper into Japanese – e.g., challenging yourself with the Kanji Kentei – you’ll find that Henshall’s book is a better bridge to further study.

Read Real Japanese

Like I said, reading Japanese can be an uphill battle. But once you feel you’re ready, you won’t find a better companion than the Read Real Japanese books. The series has two entries – nonfiction essays and fiction short stories – depending on which you fancy more. Each book contains the original text, English translations, and a voluminous set of footnotes.

What’s great is that the books’ explanations go beyond what even a books like the Dictionaries of Japanese Grammar tackle. It’ll cover points like why you might see two wa‘s in a sentence, or some stylistic point of formal essay writing. Since it’s more about style and convention, it’s material you won’t likely find in many grammar books.

The two books are the work of Janet Ashby. A previous version of these books (with, I believe, different essays if I’m remembering correctly) was previously available as part of Kodansha’s Power Japanese series.

Making Sense of Japanese

I remember getting this book during my mid-20s attempt at learning the language. (This book was also part of Kodansha’s Power Japanese series and was known as Gone Fishin’.) It still holds up. The book is a collection of discussion topics on some fundamental concepts of Japanese that don’t get enough airplay in textbooks. Yes, you’ll find a discussion of wa versus ga. But there are also some good discussions on issues such as shiru versus wakaru, the extent of hodo, the use of tame, and others.

All in all, I think many beginning and intermediate users will find lots of value here. And Jay Rubin’s writing style is engaging to boot. It can be nice to take a break from stiffly worded textbooks and read something enjoyable for once.

That said, I have one major caveat. Rubin’s book contains some sample Japanese sentences. However, every sentence is written in romaji – no Japanese script (kanji and kana) whatsoever.

This was still an accepted approach when the book was first written. It feels a bit dated today. I generally only recommend books that include full Japanese script along with romaji. This helps acclimate learners to the written language a lot faster [3].

The Best Books to Learn Japanese Deserve a Great Teacher

You can certainly study these books on your own. However, I’d recommend studying them with a trained, native language speaker who can help correct mistakes, aid you with pronunciation, and provide you with additional speaking and listening practice.

For Japanese language tutoring, you need look no further than iTalki. iTalki is a service that can find you a professional Japanese language tutor at a reasonable cost. Nearly all tutors are aware of the Genki textbook and can help you get the most out of each lesson. By using a tutor, you can ensure that you’re getting things right – and that mistakes don’t become habits!

Whichever book or services you decide to use, I applaud you for starting out on your Japanese language journey. Knowing Japanese has exposed me to new information, media, and friends I never would have encountered had I remained monolingual. Your world is about to get a lot larger – and you’ll be a better person for it.

Ganbatte kudasai!

Learn Japanese Online the Best Way: A New Approach

Sources

[1] Improve Your Listening in a Foreign Language. http://joyoflanguages.com/improve-listening-foreign-language/

[2] Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese. http://guidetojapanese.org/learn/

[3] How romaji can ruin your day. https://www.tofugu.com/japanese/romaji/

[4] Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji Review. http://www.nihongoperapera.com/reviews/remembering-the-kanji.html

[5] Yourei.jp. http://yourei.jp/

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Jay Allen

Jay manages the technical writing practice for ercule, an SEO, content strategy and analytics firm. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).

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