Konnichiwa! (Hello!) Whether your goal is to watch anime without subtitles, speak to locals, or you're just fascinated by Japanese culture, it's always fun to learn a language you're passionate about. With Japanese being one of the most popular foreign languages to learn, there are countless materials available for all levels, from beginner to intermediate and beyond.
You may have already scoured the bookshops for the right kanji workbook or grammar title, only to find yourself overwhelmed with choice. Fear not, because in this article we'll share both a buying guide and our 10 top titles, including BBC's Talk Japanese and Japanese from Zero!, all of which you can buy from Amazon and eBay.
Trained as a Japanese Language teacher in Fukuoka, Japan, Emi moved to Greater Manchester in 2002 to teach Japanese from GCSE and A level at a sixth form college where she obtained her PGCE. Currently, Emi teaches Japanese at an independent school from year 3 to year 13 and also offers private tuition over Zoom.
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Emi Tamai is a renowned Japanese Language teacher and tutor from Fukuoka, Japan. Currently based in Greater Manchester, she has a background in teaching GCSE to A2 Japanese at colleges as well as advanced courses online. Emi is PGCE qualified.
If you are interested in working with Emi either to start your learning in Japanese or looking for someone to check your intermediate or advanced Japanese, you can contact her via Emi's mybest UK creator profile here.
Did you know that the Japanese language uses a combination of 3 different writing systems? They are hiragana ひらがな, katakana カタカナ and kanji 漢字 (Chinese characters). Both hiragana and katakana use 'syllabograms', which means each symbol represents a different syllable.
Hiragana is the most commonly used, as it presents grammatical particles and 'Japanese' words, whereas katakana is used to indicate words that have originated from foreign countries (loan words).
Kanji are Chinese characters, whereby each has a definition and a Japanese pronunciation. There are as many as 2000 kanji that are commonly used within Japanese society, so it's actually rather important for you to learn them!
It can be both exciting and scary when learning a new language, and you wouldn't want fear to overtake your determination of learning Japanese. Here are some guidelines for choosing the perfect book to make sure you're all ready to go on this exciting journey!
The first step is to identify your level of understanding of the language. If you're an absolute beginner, you can basically choose any beginners book and it will teach you the basics from the very start.
For those who have some experience, or even regularly watch anime in Japanese but have never learnt the language properly, you might want to go for advanced beginner books. This way, you won't waste time relearning the basics – instead, you'll build on your knowledge and progress as fast as a rocket.
If you have a decent level of understanding, speaking, or even reading Japanese, you might want to challenge yourself with intermediate level books. That way, you can make sure you're learning newly-introduced language skills all the way.
Over the twenty years that I have taught Japanese here in the UK, the most common question I have been asked is 'is Japanese difficult?' My answer to that? Japanese is different but not difficult. People always laugh about my response. They must think that it is not difficult for me as I am a native speaker.
I would like to encourage anyone who is interested in learning Japanese to try it because Japanese grammar is much simpler than the English language in the beginning. For example, there are no articles, singular, or plural verb endings that don’t reflect on the subject of the sentences. Therefore, you can overcome memorising alphabets, it can be very fun to learn Japanese!
Everyone has different goals when learning, and in this case, you might want to buy a book that focuses on a certain aspect of Japanese or Japan. Below are the main options available to you, and don't forget, you can always go for multiple books to hone each and every skill!
Though there are many books that combine several different focuses, for those wanting to build a general foundation of the language, it's generally recommended that you pick books that have a good proportion of grammar and vocabulary content.
Similarly, go for a Japanese conversation book if your aim is to communicate with the locals while travelling in Japan, whether just for a holiday or for longer-term stays.
Meanwhile, opting for a story or vocabulary book (or both, for that matter) will be an invaluable resource if you want to strengthen your understanding of the language and expand your vocabulary beyond the basics.
If you are very much interested in the language or you would like to learn Japanese properly, you must learn two types of alphabets: Hiragana and Katakana. Both alphabets consist of 46 letters each. You may feel that it is a tedious process, but it will help you to understand better, faster, and help you to progress to an intermediate level.
There are textbooks for beginners where you can learn Hiragana and Katanaka gradually. If you would like to know ‘survival Japanese’ for your holiday, you can manage just memorising useful phrases. Usually, this type of textbook uses Roman letters that use the English alphabet for pronunciation. You can easily increase your vocabulary from your personal interests, too.
You may not realise it, but there are so many Japanese words adopted into English nowadays. As a few examples how about: karaoke, tsunami, bonsai, koi, teriyaki, katsu, sushi, emoji, futon, umami, and tofu! Why don’t you start from here?
It's probably universally agreed that kanji is the most difficult aspect of the Japanese language to learn, as it's not something you can simply remember through spelling, but more by learning every single kanji by heart.
To effectively learn to write kanji, especially for beginners, it's best to purchase kanji exercise books. These books specifically teach you the general rules of writing, and the correct order of writing them.
Plus, you'll have loads of opportunity to practise writing kanji with these books, while being guided by the carefully-demonstrated examples provided. Once you feel confident enough, you won't have to rely on these exercise books, as you'll soon be learning new kanji by yourself!
If you have artistic eyes, you might find Kanji fascinating. Kanji are logographic characters that came from China and each Kanji has its own meaning. Once you have learnt the basic shapes of Kanji, you will start making better sense of other Kanji.
Perhaps the easiest Kanji to start learning are numbers: 一 one, 二 two, and 三 three. Learning Kanji has nothing to do with learning Japanese grammar, therefore, you can start learning Kanji without knowing the language.
Some of the inclusions below are specific to Japanese learning titles, whilst others are more general, but either way, you'll need to ensure you have the resources you need to succeed. And remember, there isn't a right or wrong way to learn a language, as long as it's the best way for you to achieve your specific goals!
What is furigana, you might ask, and is it important? Well, essentially, furigana are small hiragana (or sometimes katakana) that are printed above the kanji to indicate the pronunciation.
This can be incredibly useful as a Japanese learner – even if you forget the kanji, as long as you remember the pronunciation, you'll be fine writing and speaking Japanese.
Most books aimed towards beginners include the use of furigana, but some might have romanisation instead. While it has almost no effect on learning the kanji and pronunciation, some people do actually refer to furigana for a better flow of learning, so you may want to check for this.
You may not believe this, but learning Kanji is challenging to native Japanese speakers. We start learning Kanji from year 1 at the age of 6 and complete them by year 3 of junior high school at the age of 16. During this time, we do also rely on furigana with most school textbooks consisting of furigana, as students are still learning Joyo Kanji.
There were 2136 characters issued in 2010 by the Japanese Ministry of Education. Even when you finish your education, if there are non-Joyo Kanji in newspapers or any documents published, there is usually furigana to provide support for uncommon Kanji vocabulary.
If you don't want to waste all the effort you've made to learn the various aspects of Japanese, you might want to consider buying a book with plenty of writing exercises.
This not only gives you an extra opportunity to write the characters, but it also tests out your knowledge for each chapter, making sure you are keeping up as it progresses.
Repetition is one of the key factors to learning a language properly, so the more exercises you complete, the more comfortable you'll be speaking the language. Then you won't be too shy to use it in real life situations!
There are different types of learning styles; visual, auditory, reading/writing and kinaesthetic. It is important and useful to know your learning style. However, a lot of people would benefit from learning Kanji from writing.
The more you write, the easier it gets. I always recommend making Kanji flash cards to my students by hand. There is so much information you have to learn from even one Kanji such as the shape, stroke order and various ways of reading them. Writing them all down by yourself is a valuable exercise to learn Kanji, in my opinion.
Visual aids and audio materials are especially important for those who have just started learning Japanese, as they can stimulate and motivate you to continue challenging yourself.
Colourful or even simple illustrations make the learning process less formal and more entertaining, which can help you to be inspired by, and most importantly, to enjoy the journey of learning a language.
For those without much experience of watching anime, you might want to look for included audio materials, which give you the opportunity to listen to and learn Japanese pronunciations. It'll help you speak the language like a native as you go!
For visual learners and auditory learners, it is definitely beneficial to seek visual aids or audio materials. If you are not exposed to Japanese speakers in your day to day, it is essential to listen to Japanese from the start of your learning journey.
At first, you may think Japanese people speak fast, but that is not the case. I myself used to watch tv programmes from Britain or the USA to improve my listening skills in English and I remember thinking how fast native English speakers spoke. It was impossible for me to understand them. However, that is not the case, as you know being a native English speaker.
My advice to anyone who wants to learn Japanese is to keep on trying. There are many different types of books and textbooks out. Resilience is the key to improve any language skills. You can try as many as books and styles as you need to. In the end, the energy you put into your study will pay off. Ganbatte kudasai! (Do your best!)
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George Trombley, Yukari Takenaka
Japanese from Zero! Book 1
The Perfect Book to Begin Your Japanese Journey
Anne McNulty et al
Japanese Stories for Language Learners: Bilingual Stories in Japanese and English
Reading With Famous Modern Japanese Writers
Learning Japanese Kanji Practice Book, Volume 2
Writing Kanji Stroke By Stroke
Learn Japanese: 2 Manuscripts
Informative, Yet as Concise as a Memo
Wolfgang Hadamitzky, Mark Spahn
Japanese Kanji and Kana Workbook
A Book With a Total of 617 Kanjis
Japanese Tutor: Grammar and Vocabulary Workbook
Beginner to Intermediate Level - All in One Book
Yohohama English Japanese Language and Teacher Club
50 Japanese Short Stories for Beginners
Challenge Yourself by Reading Fun Stories Written in Japanese
2000 Most Common Japanese Words in Context
Finish This Book, and You'll Understand Most Japanese Content
Let's Learn Japanese: First Words for Everyone
Learn Japanese Vocabulary With Your Inner Child
Lynne Strugnell, Yukiko Isono
Talk Japanese: The Ideal Japanese Course for Absolute Beginners
The Quickest Way to Learn to Speak Japanese
We promise this book is the best for those who are eager to learn Japanese but have no prior experience! From writing hiragana to learning practical phrases, you'll quickly build a solid foundation. Dialogues in this book reflect real-life scenarios as well, and with the support of online materials, you'll soon be speaking like a native.
Plus, there are plenty of exercises, so you'll be motivated to polish your skills. No kanji is used either, so you don't have to force yourself to learn them – you can always come back to do so once after you've discovered your love of the Japanese language!
Want to be proud of having read Akutagawa Ryunosuke's writing in Japanese? Then you mustn't miss this book! With traditional folktales and other works written by equally-famous modern Japanese writers, you'll enjoy these stories both in their Japanese and English translations.
The stories are also accompanied by comprehension exercises and a detailed explanation of different vocabularies, making sure you can enjoy every single word of the story and experience the beauty of Japanese literature.
We're so excited to introduce this workbook to those who want to learn how to write kanji 'properly'! With every single stroke being demonstrated, you will remember exactly how to write it, even with your eyes closed. Plus, it's a confidence booster knowing you are writing the kanji perfectly.
Extra vocabulary is taught while learning to write each kanji, and there are exercises which constantly test you, which may sound scary, but hey, repetition and motivation are key to conquer your fear of kanji!
Easy to understand, logical, and informative – that's how we would describe this book! Using the simplest explanations, you can easily learn Japanese grammar without needing help from others. The separate vocabulary book contains 1300 examples that are practical in real life, and it even guides you to pronounce just like a Japanese person.
With the 'bite-size' format, the information in this book is almost as precise as notes written on a memo. You will waste no time and ace all the grammar and vocabulary tests, we just know it!
Finding kanji too intimidating to learn? This workbook teaches you to write kanji starting with the word 'one(一)' (which is a horizontal line). Stroke orders are indicated by numbers, so as long you are counting the numbers correctly, you will write perfect kanji in the boxes provided.
Kanji used between the N5 and N3 Japanese proficiency tests (with N1 being most difficult and N5 being the easiest) are all included in this book. So upon completing it, you'll be able to understand most words used in Japanese daily life!
If you have some experience watching anime (in Japanese) and finally want to learn the language properly, this book is your choice. The extensive exercises on essential grammar and vocab which progress to intermediate level, in addition to your familiarity of the language, will really help you to learn Japanese faster.
We do want to remind you that this book is absolutely not for complete beginners as some basic grammar and vocabulary is not covered at all. But as long as you have some experience in the language, why not try this book out?
With 50 short stories included, all 8-10 sentences long, this book will enable you to challenge your Japanese comprehensive skills while still gaining a sense of achievement. Most of the stories are related to the experience of living in Japan, which can be exciting content for those who want to have a glimpse of life in the East.
Each Japanese sentence is accompanied by the English translation, so you won't miss out on any vocab or grammar. However, comprehensive exercises aren't included in this book, so if you want to focus more on writing, you'll really need to motivate yourself to write the vocabulary in repetition.
If you are a massive fan of learning vocabulary, then may we present this: a book with 2000 examples of Japanese vocabulary! With each accompanied by furigana and an example sentence, you can easily learn and apply them, whether in a conversation or when reading a book.
This book is best for those with some experience in Japanese grammar and self-learning kanji. Those with less experience in the language, on the other hand, may require a Japanese-speaking friend to help them out.
This 'childish-looking' book is filled with so many colourful and cute illustrations that it's sure to get your inner child excited and eager to learn! With the kanji, furigana, romanisation and English definitions, you won't even realise you've learnt the vocabulary and begin to quickly recognise the kanji.
Learning how to write is not the main focus of this book, so unless you have some previous experience writing simple kanji, as an absolute beginner, you might find some kanji too difficult at this stage. However, don't let this to discourage you from using this to learn vocab!
What if we tell you you can learn to speak Japanese quickly, without having to know any kanji and kana? Well, this book uses only English and romanised Japanese, so it's ideal for those who want to conduct simple yet practical conversations with the locals while travelling in Japan.
Some basic grammar is introduced in this book, but it might cause confusion to readers as there are not many example sentences included. So, it's best to use this book just to learn a little Japanese vocab and some simple questions to enhance your travelling experience.
With your books sorted, we thought these stationary-related products would help you on your journey to mastering the Japanese language! Whether you want to draw cute illustrations with colour pens for visual stimulation, or practice writing kanji with mechanical pens, we've got you covered.
You'll know all the effort was worth it the moment you realise you understand some Japanese through conversations with locals or watching anime. Let this sense of achievement and your passion be your motivation for learning Japanese! We'd love to see you succeed too!
Author: Angina Chow
Buying Guide Reviewed by Emi Tamai
No. 1: George Trombley, Yukari Takenaka｜Japanese from Zero! Book 1
No. 2: Anne McNulty et al｜Japanese Stories for Language Learners: Bilingual Stories in Japanese and English
No. 3: Eriko Sato｜Learning Japanese Kanji Practice Book, Volume 2
No. 4: Languages World｜Learn Japanese: 2 Manuscripts
No. 5: Wolfgang Hadamitzky, Mark Spahn｜Japanese Kanji and Kana Workbook
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