Best Books for Learning Japanese
Looking to pass the JLPT, or just learning Japanese for fun?
I've spent a lot of money on books over the years... and not all of it was well spent -- although I did end up learning Japanese! On my blog I often get questions asking which books I recommend for certain areas of study, such as Japanese vocabulary, kanji, grammar, reading skill, or listening, for specific JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) levels, etc. So I though I'd summarize it on this page, for easy reference.
All the books I recommend there are ones that I own or have owned and have found useful. I've probably bought way more books than necessary over the years, but I find buying books for myself keeps me motivated to study, so it has probably been worth it in the end, even if some of those books weren't very good.
Just started learning?
So you wanna learn Japanese? That's great!
I was a Japanese padawan myself some 5 years ago - but now I am nearly fluent. It's been a long but very fun and rewarding journey, and I really recommend everyone to start learning Japanese. Anyway, let me point out some tips that I think might be useful for a beginning Japanese student:
Don't fall into the romaji trap! Japanese written using the Latin alphabet is called romaji. You can use romaji to learn the Japanese kana syllabaries hiragana and katakana. After that you should get rid of using romaji as soon as humanly possible. There are two reasons for that: One is that you need to become literate as soon as possible. Literacy is key to efficient learning of any language - and even more so Japanese, which literal form has some quirks (to say the least), that are reflected in the spoken language too! The other reason is that it'll make your spoken Japanese sound more natural. Maybe I'm just imagining, but I think I can tell when a foreigner has learned Japanese through romaji from the way he/she is speaking.
Make sure you have a good Japanese dictionary and kanji dictionary. They're indispensable for your learning progress. Your goal is to learn the whole Japanese language, right? So every time you see a word or kanji you don't know - look it up, write it down, and study it.
Poll: kana vs romaji
As I've written above above, I advocate learning and actively using hiragana and katakana as early as possible, in order to not fall into the "romaji trap", but not all people agree with this.
What do you think?
Books for learning Hiragana & Katakana - Learning to read again as an adult can be a fun experience!
Japanese is written using a combination of kanji (rather complex characters of Chinese origin), and two unique "kana" syllabaries (i.e. an "alphabet" where each character represents the pronunciation of one syllable, often a consonant followed by a vowel). The hiragana syllabary is used to write Japanese words that can't be written in kanji, or where the writer wishes to use the phonetic kana instead of the ideographic kanji for some stylistic reason, as well as to write grammatical particles, verb endings, etc, in normal written Japanese. Meanwhile, katakana is mostly used to write foreign loan words.
This book teaches you the Japanese hiragana syllabary. In my opinion it is essential to quickly learn how to read and write Japanese properly using hiragana and not rely on romaji romanization for more than the absolute beginning. And learning hiragana is fun, too! This book showcases each of the 46 basic hiragana, then goes on to show how these are extended to make up the full hiragana syllabary. But I don't think you need a book just for that, and that's where the value in this book is: it also teaches you how the hiragana are used in words and sentences, shows you some exceptions to the rules, and provides useful exercises that will not only teach you hiragana, but also essential Japanese.
Once you've mastered hiragana (or while still studying it, which may be more efficient), you also need to learn katakana. They're similar, but they're not the same. The basic principle is the same, but shapes and usage are different, so you need to study both. The good thing about katakana is that it's largely used to write foreign loan words, lately mostly from English, so once you start learning it, you'll be able to understand a lot of words in written Japanese immediately because they're actually in English! This book is in the same series as the above one and complements it well.
In addition to the above book, I recommend using flashcards to drill yourself on the hiragana and katakana. That is in fact how I learned them myself. Even after you've memorized the kana, it'll take a while for them to stick in your head so that you're able to recall them instantly, and that's why I recommend doing flashcard exercises for a short time every day for a month or two when you start learning Japanese. Unfortunately, flashcards are a pain to make (if you're lazy like me), and that's why these come in so handy. These flashcards also include 450 basic words, so that you'll also improve your essential Japanese vocabulary.
Japanese beginner level books & JLPT 4 - The best beginner Japanese book recommendations ever!
This is the beginner's book series that I started off with, and in hindsight I think I was very lucky. Compared to the other popular beginner's books I've seen on the market (Minna no Nihongo, Japanese for Busy People, etc), this one has a really no-nonsense approach to language learning, yet manages to be interesting and comprehensive. It's developed by Tsukuba University in Japan, and revolves around situations at a university in Japan. Each chapter has a conversational situation that is followed by a report or diary entry written in more formal language. This is then followed by grammar notes and conversational notes, often explaining pragmatical usage of words and expressions in different situations of Japanese society. Highly recommended!
Having a good dictionary is essential for your Japanese learning progress. I came across this dictionary myself when I started learning Japanese, and found it extraordinarily useful. In fact, I still find it useful from time to time. The best thing about this dictionary is that not only is it a very well-written and comprehensive book, but it has extensive example sentences showing the usage patterns of Japanese words. Learning words by their 1-to-1 correspondence to English words will make your Japanese sound unnatural, and that's where good example sentences come in. In fact, I think they're almost more important than the actual word descriptions themselves.
This dictionary has furigana (hiragana showing the reading of kanji) for ALL kanji in the whole book - including the example sentences. That means you can use it even if your kanji skills aren't great yet. It also means it uses the Japanese kana, which is the natural way of writing Japanese, instead of romaji. Many other beginners' Japanese dictionaries uses romaji, but trust me, that will only set you back in the long run. This is the best Japanese dictionary out there for beginners and intermediate level alike.
This dictionary uses the SKIP method of organizing and ordering the kanji instead of the traditional radical/stroke count order. The SKIP method is easier to learn and is also way faster to look up, which is why I recommend this kanji dictionary. It contains all the joyo and jinmei kanji, which is essentially all you need, and has example words featuring the kanji for each of the characters, as well as cross references and stroke order diagrams. This is simply the best kanji dictionary for Japanese learners!
This is the best beginner's book I've found since after I started learning Japanese. I've recommended it to many of my friends and they have all liked it. Note that this is a very basic Japanese book for absolute beginners! It has 25 lessons that build on top of each other, and each lesson contains a dialog and then a thorough explanation of the grammar used in that dialog, as well as a complete list of the vocabulary used that is printed along side, for fast reference. The dialogs are in simple kanji & hiragana with romaji along it. Now, I normally wouldn't recommend using romaji for learning, but since this is an absolute beginner's book, it's also a good tool for learning hiragana as well. Finally, the main reason why I think this book is better than all others I've seen is that each lesson has good exercises and a self test. In my opinion, doing exercises is essential to efficient learning. Besides, it's pretty fun too. :)
Before I started taking Japanese classes, I thought I'd give myself a bit of a head start and study some basics in advance. So I set out to find some decent study material and came across this Pimsleur package. Pimsleur is a tried and tested well-known maker of language tapes for almost any language... and lo' and behold it was actually really good! This CD pack contains 10 30-minute lessons of situation-based polite/formal conversational Japanese. I think that for the price, it's good value for money. You can go over the lessons any number of times until the sounds, patterns, and words settle in your head, which is great for improving active language skills. I listened to these while commuting to work during the summer before I started attending Japanese lessons. And even now when I'm living in Japan, phrases from this series comes to mind every now and again!
It's actually fun, you know - and not as hard as some make it up to be!
Don't make the mistake of putting off learning kanji thinking that you'll pick it up later after you learn spoken Japanese. Being literate in Japanese is essential for learning to speak and understand spoken Japanese as well.
Why is that? Well, I've read that once a person becomes literate, he/she can never again go back to thinking about language without subconsciously associating it with its written form. This, I think, applies even more to Japanese, since in many cases words get their meaning from the kanji characters they're made up of, rather than etymologically through morphological compounds. Why is that? It's because Japanese has borrowed around 50% of its vocabulary from Chinese - so the words might have made sense as sounds in Chinese at the time, but they sure don't in modern Japanese.
That's why I really recommend that you focus a lot on becoming literate in Japanese early on in your learning.
The best books for learning kanji - Not being able to read is called illiteracy -- and it's not for you!
This book is nothing less than an etymological kanji dictionary of all the 2000+ joyo (everyday use) kanji! For each kanji character, it presents its history in brief, references it to associated characters, tells its story of how it has evolved into its current form, and also its readings (both kun and on readings) and three example words/compound words written using the character. Of all the Japanese learning-related books I own, this one is by far the one I've gotten the most out of. I heartily recommend this one!
This book is really popular among Japanese learners. Its philosophy is that you study the meanings of the kanji characters first, before you associate them with sounds and vocabulary. Heisig advocates using a memorization technique that associates stories with each character. Some people claim this works wonders, and although to me the above book by Henshall is much better, I am willing to concede that this book might work better for some people - so please have a look at both and consider which method you think will work for you - or do both! (I did!)
I used this series of flash cards in the beginning to learn a lot of basic kanji fast. I think flash cards are great for memorizing kanji -- it's just too bad they're so tedious to make, right? Well, this is the solution -- they're already made for you! These cards include meanings, readings (both on and kun), as well as sample vocabulary written using the character for each kanji.
Poll: Remembering the Kanji - the devil in disguise?
The book Remembering the Kanji is a heated topic of discussion in some of the forums on the interwebs. Some people love RtK and some people hate it. I lean towards the latter, but I can see that it works for many people too.
What do you think?
Progressing from beginner to intermediate
I think this step on the learning stairway is one of the most rewarding. Why? Because now you start getting some reward for the time you spent learning the basics, namely that you start understanding real Japanese to some degree.
That's why I think reading real Japanese texts is starting to get essential at this stage. I myself was a little bit late doing that, and I think it hurt my progress. There are books with short stories or essays in intermediate level Japanese (real Japanese though, not just schoolbook examples!), as well as lots of material on the web. You can sign up for an account on Mixi for example. Mixi is the biggest social networking site in Japan, and it contains lots of small snippets of text, such as diary entries and community board messages, in everyday, fairly straightforward, real Japanese written by real Japanese people.
Also don't let your listening skills fall behind! While I recommend that you read a lot, get some listening practice too. There are good books for this, especially those aimed at passing the JLPT, and there are also Japanese podcasts, youtube videos, etc that you can use to make sure your ears and brain is attuned to the sound of real, spoken Japanese - even if you don't understand all if it yet.
Best intermediate Japanese & JLPT 3 books
Grammar might not seem very fun and all, but it's actually the easiest - as in "most time efficient" - part of the JLPT exam! That's because it contributes 25% of the total exam score, but it can be completed in 15-20 minutes. Also, there's a clearly defined set of Japanese grammar patterns that appear on each JLPT level, so you know what you have to know (unlike, say, the reading section, which is pretty open-ended). As always with the Kanzen Master series, it's laid out as 50 or so one-day lessons. Follow their lesson plan, and I promise you you won't fail the test.
The UNICOM series listening books are absolutely awesome! I've used them for every level of the JLPT. The thing about the listening part of the JLPT test is that even if your general listening and understanding skills are good, there's a specific set of vocabulary and sentence patterns used on the JLPT. Call it JLPT Japanese if you like. So in order to nail the test, you need to study these specific Japanese words and phrases. I recommend the UNICOM series' JLPT listening books because they feature all the components (directions, time & date, graphs, sequence order, etc) that appear on the real test. That means you'll pick up the essential vocabulary and patterns thus nailing the test as well.
Reading real Japanese texts is extremely important to your overall Japanese language proficiency. It's also quite often more fun than studying using traditional textbooks. I started reading real Japanese a little bit too late I think - around the time I passed JLPT2 - which probably set me back significantly in my Japanese language abilities. This book contains 8 real Japanese essays with translation for the most complicated parts, and notes on grammar, vocabulary, and pragmatical Japanese language usage. It also comes with a CD with the stories read out for you - great when you're on the run, and for listening comprehension practise as well!
Best books for improving your Japanese skill - There are some books that can be used regardless of one's level for improving one's general Japanese communicatio
Do you know what tekkiri, assari, kossori, barabara, pekopeko, niyaniya, zutto, sutto, satto, zatto, sotto, and zotto means? One of the most charming points of the Japanese language is all the adjectives and adverbs, especially the onomatopoeic ones, that adorn otherwise simple sentences, and convey the speaker's/writer's feelings towards what is occurring, or very specifically describes how the action is occurring. Learning these will not only allow you to more deeply understand what other people are communicating (as opposed to just what they're saying), but also make your own Japanese sound more natural and fluent. This book I have found useful to refer to many times over the years.
Poll: What's your Japanese level?
See the below poll too for studying for the JLPT.
What would you say your current Japanese proficiency is?
Poll: What is your JLPT level?
This year or next, which JLPT level are you studying for?
What about the new JLPT level N3?
What do we know about this new level and new test format?
As has been discussed in my blog, there aren't yet any JLPT level n3 textbooks or study materials available, even in Japan. And since the test content specification hasn't even been released, what will actually be in the n3 test is a matter of speculation. However, based on the vague hints and examples that have been released regarding the new jlpt level, we can still make some qualified guesses.
For instance, as specified in the guidebook for the new test format, level n3 will be separated into three parts: characters and vocabulary, grammar and reading comprehension, and listening comprehension, just like the old test, but unlike the new n2 and n1 levels where everything except listening is merged into one section.
We can also see that the time allocated to kanji and words is the same as for level n4, while grammar and reading is 10 minutes longer and listening is 5 minutes longer. So although they say that the new n3 level is between the old level 3 and 2, this time allocation suggests that grammar and reading will be comparatively harder than the average of these two old levels, while kanji and words will be comparatively easier. That's good to know when setting up a study plan!
So if I were to aim for N3 this year, I would study for the N2. If you score close to 50% on a mock (old) level 2 test, then I bet you will pass the N3. But of course, if the purpose of your studies is explicitly to pass the N3 test, then that will be rather inefficient since you'd want to study exactly the items that can appear on the test. If your goal is to become fluent in Japanese, then you won't lose much by studying for the N2 directly; skip the parts you consider so hard that they're blocking your immediate progress.
Anyway, using the example material available, I have created a mock jlpt level n3 test quiz that features kanji, characters, grammar, and the new sentence understanding format questions. Unfortunately I don't have the resources to create a reading and listening test, but I hope it can be of some help for judging whether or not the new jlpt level n3 is right for you.
Taking the step towards Japanese fluency
The great battle between Kanzen Master and Unicom for passing JLPT
I often get questions on my blog regarding which book is better for JLPT - the "Kanzen Master" or UNICOM series? As well as specific questions regarding Kanzen Master vs Unicom for vocabulary, listening, grammar, etc. The Kanzen Master and UNICOM series are the most popular study books for JLPT levels 2 and 1. That comes as no surprise as they're both really good series and I'd say they're the best books for studying for the JLPT.
So which one is best, Kanzen Master or UNICOM? In my opinion it breaks down to this: UNICOM's listening books are great! For the rest, I recommend Kanzen Master once you're at or above JLPT 2 level. The exception is the reading practice books where I recommend both. Yes, they're both equally good, and you can never get too much reading practice.
I like the Kanzen Master series "lesson plan" concept with one lesson per day essentially. If you follow that, you'll be in a very good position to pass the JLPT tests. I think doing exercises is essential to making the study material stick in your head. Do each and every exercise, preferably many times (with a month or so in between intervals). That way you WILL learn Japanese without having to bother too much about study methods yourself - let the books help you as much as possible.
Best books for passing JLPT level 2
The Kanzen Master series is really great for passing the JLPT levels 2 and 1. I used most of the books in this series, and I passed the first time on both levels! Anyway, this is the Japanese vocabulary training book, which like all Kanzen Master books is organized as around 50 chapters with overviews and drills of vocabulary that appears on the JLPT tests. This book contains material for both level 1 and level 2, so you only need one book for both levels.
The reading part of the JLPT is often thought to be the most difficult. But fear not! With practice you'll pass it with a good score for sure, and this book contains all the Japanese reading practise you need in order to pass JLPT 2, with analysis of the text snippets covered in the answers, so that you'll know what to focus your attention on for the real test.
Grammar might sound boring to some, but it's actually the easiest part of the JLPT test to score good points quickly! Why is that? Because the grammar part of JLPT contributes 25% of the overall score, but it can be breezed through in 15-20 minutes, leaving more time to the more time-consuming reading part which is in the same time slot. The questions are generally easy IF you know what to look for, and this book has all the Japanese grammar points you need to know. Follow the lesson plan as outlined in this book thoroughly and I guarantee you you'll get at least a 90% score on the grammar! Honestly!
It's essential for your overall JLPT score to know the kanji that appear on the JLPT test. Why is that? Because it's a written test, and guess what - it's written using kanji. That means you don't just need kanji skills for the "characters" part of the test - you need it for the whole test - especially the tricky reading part. Again, I recommend that you follow the lesson plan as outlined in the book. Just one chapter a day, and I promise you good results.
Ready to work in Japan?
Or with Japanese customers from abroad
Knowledge of Japanese can be a great advantage to your career, especially if you have a JLPT 1 or 2 certification to show, regardless of whether you want to work in Japan - possibly even at a Japanese company - or overseas working with Japanese customers and clients.
In fact I studied software engineering at the university, and just a little Japanese on the side as a hobby, but after getting into working life, I haven't had much use for my software engineering studies at all - despite working as a software engineer! - but I HAVE had an extraordinary advantage from speaking Japanese! I'm sure it can spice up any career.
The best business Japanese books
I am in fact only going to recommend one book for improving your business Japanese. This book is the best general-purpose business Japanese book out there. It's situation-based, covering typical business/sales situations. It will give you a solid foundation to stand on in customer-facing situations and contains essentially all the basic vocabulary you need to know - as well as a hassle-free overview of the politeness levels used when speaking business Japanese (keigo).