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What Are the Best Books to Learn the Japanese Language?

By Jon, published on 20/02/2018 Blog > Languages > Japanese > How to Learn Japanese Through Textbooks

If you want to speak Japanese, you will first of all need to define your own Japanese language learning project.

How to learn Japanese is therefore a key question that you need to answer. There are a number of different methods for learning Japanese, but one of the most popular ways to learn basic Japanese is to get hold of a textbook.

But before you dive straight into buying a book from Amazon, you need to know why you want to learn Japanese.

Indeed, there is not much of a point getting into a 500-page manual if you just want to go to Tokyo for a few days, and only need to know some greetings and how to introduce yourself. For this, Japanese learning tools such as mobile or iPad applications (or a Japanese course) may be enough!

You may not want to leaf through a Japanese beginner’s manual if you already have a solid foundation in Japanese and your goal is to work in the land of the rising sun.

But if you want to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), you will need to learn the intricacies of Japanese grammar, and not just have a conversational level. In such a case, you will need a more substantial textbook to help you as you learn to speak Japanese.

As you will have understood, your profile and your expectations dictate which method and manual will be best for you.

This article will help you to understand the different methods of learning Japanese.

Learn Japanese with the ‘Japanese Manual’

This manual is composed of:

  • a first volume of about 500 pages
  • a second volume
  • a handbook of Japanese exercises, that goes hand in hand with the two volumes

Finding the right book is key to learning Japanese No need for 4 manuals if you find the right one!

This manual is the Bible when it comes to learning Japanese. Whether you are a total beginner or much more experienced, this manual is an inexhaustible source of learning.

The author, Kunio Kuwae, adds a great practice handbook full of Japanese exercises, which, unlike the manual, is focused on exchanging with an interlocutor. This allows you to practice the spoken language in order to improve your conversational Japanese.

You can find some websites with a similar approach if you are learning Japanese online, too.

THE (+):

  • You will be able to practice your grammar and your vocabulary thanks to an English and English-Japanese glossary, lessons, and corrected exercises. You can test your translation skills thanks to the proposed lexicon (have a look at the best English-Japanese translation tools here). The second volume is a good complement to the first. It is mostly focused on reading and writing in the language.
  • The idea is to give a student the keys to starting their Japanese language learning voyage.
  • There are also some corrected exercises to have a look at.
  • The sections on kanji will facilitate your learning and rapid progression in the language. The accompanying CD has 7:30 of Japanese recordings that will help you progress with your pronunciation (interactive Japanese courses).

THE (-):

  • In terms of pricing, each of the two volumes are expensive individually
  • For the whole package, expect to spend a little less than 100 euros (£88; $119 USD; $159 AUD; $154 CAD)

Many people who have learned Japanese using these manuals point out that despite the fairly high price, the book is of exceptional quality and will allow you to make great strides in learning the Japanese language. This is important for all beginners because Japanese writing is very complex for English speakers.

Japanese in 40 Lessons

Take your time to find the right Japanese book for you Take the 40 Japanese Lessons Book with you everywhere–it’s as light as a manga!

Just as learning Japanese via an app will focus on nihongo, books for studying Japanese will do the same. You will still be able to communicate with a native speaker, but nihongo is generally the form of Japanese learnt by any new learner as a second language, and therefore differs slightly from what Japanese people learn at school.

This book has the advantage of being a paperback book and is much more transportable than some other options. It is for those who want to learn this new language on their own.

And let’s not forget why you may be wanting to learn Japanese to begin with! Japanese cultural exports are exploding. From anime to sushi bars, karaoke to manga, bonsai to origami, Japanese culture has become part of international culture.

A knowledge of the language will give you direct access to Genki video games, Japanese film, animations, and comic books. 

Speaking Japanese will set you apart from the crowd. The majority of people who learn a foreign language choose a European language like Spanish, French, German, or Italian. Choosing a less commonly learned language will pop out on your resume and differentiate you from the crowd.

Also, Japanese is a stepping stone to learning other Asian languages, such as Korean or Mandarin. Like other Southeast Asian languages, Japanese is a highly analytical language, relying heavily on function words rather than extensive systems of inflection to denote linguistic properties.

These languages also share a similar subject-predicate sentence structure. Though Southeast Asian languages are distinctly different among themselves, as a group they are clearly different from geographically more distant language families, such as Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic languages.

From an organizational point of view, each of the 40 lessons is separated into four sections. For each lesson, you will also find themed exercises and pages on civilization, Japanese culture, and the history of Japan with beautiful texts on the Emperor, the Second World War, or the samurai.

This is a very useful book if you are preparing a trip to Japan and want to go further than just learning the basics as you can simultaneously study the language and culture.

The grammar you will find in the book is relatively simple, so that you can use it in conversation and concrete examples.

It is the same for the vocabulary and additional lessons, where you will learn Japanese words and Japanese phrases.

Concerning writing Japanese and the Japanese alphabet, you will have access to 20 lessons in order to learn each kana:

  • 10 lessons to master basic hiragana and their variations
  • 10 lessons to learn basic katakana and their variations
  • Bonus detailed Japanese lessons.

The other 20 lessons will serve as an introduction to learning the different kanjis.

The box-set, consisting of the book and two CDs with audio recordings, allows you to work on your written Japanese and refine how to pronounce certain words and other types of oral expression. In doing so, your ability to hold a Japanese conversation will improve dramatically.

Why not go through the 40 lessons with a Japanese tutor via webcam?

Japanese for Busy People

trust-manual If you are too busy to learn Japanese calligraphy, trust this manual.

For a relatively low price, you will have access to a tried and tested method aimed exclusively at beginner students.

The book clearly emphasizes the learning of the kana (hiragana and katakana) so as to help you with future learning of different kanji, and the Japanese writing system in general.

The grammar, conjugation, and proposed vocabulary is not as good as in some other books. The idea is to get right down to the essentials and streamline things when it comes to vocabulary, expression, or words and phrases that aren’t used very much.

This method won’t necessarily mean you will become bilingual, but you will feel that you are able to conduct a conversation if you plan to travel to Japan soon.

You will be able to express yourself and make yourself understood. English/Japanese and Japanese/English transcription lexicons are also available as well as a CD with recordings which will help you master Japanese better.

And if you’re more “visual” than this book requires, get started by learning Japanese via videos and movies!

Japanese For Dummies

With this manual, the target audience is clearly identified!

The book is available in two formats. A classic format that will come with several CDs and a paperback to continue your language training when you’re on the go.

With a good dose of humor, the method clearly emphasizes the oral dimension of the language, and so your Japanese pronunciation will improve. Therefore, through exercises containing dialogues and conversations, you will feel more prepared to use Japanese in everyday situations (introducing yourself, asking for directions, ordering at a restaurant…).

If you enjoy learning Japanese, it will be easier to do Feeling tired after all your Japanese learning? Try Japanese For Dummies, which is funny and may make you laugh!

The method also has the merit of being very effective in terms of the speed at which people learn the Japanese language.

There are many elements to aid you in each part of the language, such as summaries of verbs or adjectives to know in specific situations.

You can even download it on your smartphone and use it on the go!

1001 Japanese Expressions

This book is aimed at an audience who has a grasp of Japanese basics and who wish to improve in terms of fluency.

If you want to enrich your Japanese vocabulary and improve your ability to hold a conversation whilst improving the number of topics that you can comfortably talk about–this book is for you.

It is available in paperback and is one of the cheapest options on the market.

As far as the approach goes, the book is divided into three parts (verbs, adjectives, nouns):

  • The first part is dedicated to the study of verbs and expressions using each of these verbs
  • The second part is devoted to the study of names, adjectives, and adverbs
  • The third and final part deals with the essential expressions that are used in particular contexts. To correctly use certain expressions, you will first need to know the different levels of politeness existing in Japanese, in order to remove the risk of having a confusing conversation. Thanks to certain expressions, you will be better able to understand certain Japanese customs and traditions.

Each of the phrases you will find in the book are written in Japanese, as well as Romaji (Latin transcription). Minor setback: there is no CD, which can be problematic for a book that clearly targets oral expression.

In short:

Above all, it will be necessary to define your priorities and your learning objectives when it comes to learning Japanese. If the idea is to go sightseeing, spend a few yen in Kyoto or in the capital, your learning method is going to be different when compared to someone looking to work or study in Japan.

You can figure out what method would be best via questions such as:

  • What basic level do I have in Japanese (beginner, intermediate, advanced)?
  • How much time can I devote to learning?
  • How often am I willing to invest in Japanese lessons?
  • What is my ultimate learning goal?

These questions can help you find which book to guide you to:

  • For a beginner or intermediate, and for someone who is not necessarily in a hurry, your best bet is going to be the two Japanese Manuals as well as the Japanese Exercise Handbook, to complete the oral part of the learning.
  • For someone wanting to learn expressions in order to communicate before going on a trip to the country of Mount Fuji, we recommend the pocket size Japanese for Dummies, or Japanese in 40 lessons.
  • Finally, for someone who is fluent in the language, the Japanese Handbook remains a safe bet. You can become even more fluent thanks to the 1001 Japanese Expressions textbook, which will teach you some idiomatic expressions and allow for greater immersion in the Japanese tradition and customs.
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