best books to learn japanese

30 Best Japanese Textbooks to Learn the Language at Any Skill Level

Alright, you hooligan.

Enough with all-fun, no-work Japanese resources like manga, anime and internet browsing.

Sure, they can help—but to learn Japanese fundamentals you’ll need a good old-fashioned textbook.

Japanese textbooks teach you the language in its most correct form.

They guide you step-by-step through major grammar points, crucial vocabulary and forms of speech.

It’s all well and good to learn slang and fun expressions from casual entertainment. But as a serious Japanese student, you need to know how to speak proper Japanese, too.

What’s gonna happen during that dream job interview in Tokyo when you can’t even summon the grammatical knowledge to speak humbly to your superiors?

Or when you’re apartment-hunting and can’t speak politely to a potential landlord?

Since you’re here, I’ll assume this means you’ve discovered this need and are officially in the market for a good textbook to reinforce your Japanese learning.

Well, you’ve definitely come to the right place.

As a Japanese student, you’ve got way more choices to make than just paperback, hardcover or e-book.

5 Benefits of Learning Japanese with Books

With so many online and mobile resources available, it may seem like using books to learn is a thing of the past.

But books remain a valuable resource for learning, providing treasure troves of fact-checked, reliable information that can be accessed anywhere, at any time.

You’ll never have to worry about studying without Wi-Fi when you’re using a book!

Cracking the spine and taking your pencil to the page offers numerous benefits for learning Japanese. Here are five:

Textbooks Provide Structure

Books on learning Japanese are organized into lessons or units that group together similar ideas, which are great for creating learning schedules.

They cover multiple topics like vocabulary, grammar and speech (for those with audio accompaniments) in one neat package.

Nothing from left field will shoot in to surprise you; all of the terms you’ll find are those the book covers, whether it’s something you’ve learned in a previous lesson or a taste of what’s to come in the next one.

Previous lessons are also reinforced throughout textbooks.

For instance, if you learned about て forms in one chapter, you can bet they’ll be a feature in all future lessons. By seeing the て form in a variety of new situations, you’ll gain real working experience with its function, and before long it will be a reliable ally on your quest to learn Japanese.

Increase in Focus

A little concentration goes a long way, and books make it easy to get that wheel rolling.

When learning Japanese from a book, you’re concentrating specifically on the page in front of you—no links, advertisements or suggested pages to lead you astray.

With this increase in focus, you’re more apt to make inferences about the material being covered, which allows for greater depth of learning.

Additionally, finding gaps in your comprehension becomes much easier. If there’s something you’re just not getting after your third time reading that passage about visiting a shrine in Kyoto, you can pinpoint it right away.

Books Provide Detailed Explanations

While many websites offer definitions and usage examples for Japanese grammar, oftentimes they lack a good explanation as to why these terms are used in the manner that they are. This can lead to misunderstandings and frustration on your part.

This is where a good textbook has your back.

Within each lesson, ample information is packed into a few short sentences, which can clear up any confusion a reader may have about the material.

Books on learning Japanese provide all sorts of notes and exceptions that may exist for a grammar point, detailed examples of verb conjugation, and cultural contexts behind certain words.

So if you’re lost on a term like 我慢 (がまん, perseverance/endurance), try looking at a textbook for clarification!

Engagement on Multiple Levels

Books engage you in a way that’s unique to the medium of print—you’re seeing, touching, asking questions to a book lying in front of you that’s begging to be read.

Since Japanese requires the use of a new writing system, getting familiar with the printed words will force your brain to connect with these unfamiliar characters until they become second nature.

Many textbooks offer different activities to respond to the material, such as word matchups, bingo, skits and more.

There are also different language styles in one place—you’ll get casual and formal speech in one go, making you familiar with each style of writing and speaking. Talk about a comprehensive approach to learning!

A Foundation for Exploratory Learning

Of course, books aren’t a one-and-done solution to mastering Japanese; no learning medium is. But they do serve as a solid starting point to blast off into creative methods of learning.

With the lessons in your textbook as a foundation, you can create new contexts in which to explore your new vocabulary and make connections to the real world.

Try doing dialogue practice with your language partner with the stories in the lesson. Plug the kanji from the unit into your flashcard app. The possibilities are endless with a textbook by your side!

How to Choose the Best Japanese Textbook for Your Needs: 5 Factors to Consider

The right textbook can make all the difference in the world. The wrong one might just be a waste of time, energy and money.

So, which textbooks are the best textbooks to learn Japanese?

The answer depends on you. Before rushing out to the store or hopping onto Amazon, consider:

  • Your skill level
  • Your immediate studying needs
  • Your future plans and needs as a student
  • Your learning style
  • Your budget

Once you’ve really taken the above into consideration, you can start researching.

To save money and increase your study options, you may also want to consider checking out VitalSource, a cool site that lets students rent or buy e-textbooks from their collection and access them all on a single app.

You can find more textbooks just for Japanese learners at White Rabbit Japan, an online store that’s ready to cater to all your Japanese print needs.

In addition to textbooks, they’ve got workbooks, manga and a ton of graded readers and other reading material. (And snacks, in case you get hungry while you’re studying!)

In this article, books have been organized into the following seven sections:

  • Textbooks
  • Grammar books
  • Vocabulary books
  • Dictionaries
  • Kanji books
  • Reference books
  • Bilingual and parallel textbooks

Read through them all or skip ahead to the section that pertains to your study needs.

Plus, you can use FluentU to add a fun and authentic element to your textbook learning!

 

Enjoy!

The 30 Best Japanese Textbooks to Learn the Language at Any Skill Level

Textbooks

Most formal, classroom-based courses will provide their own textbooks, so you may not need to search for a basic textbook on your own. However, if you’re studying on your own or if you want to supplement classroom material, you’ll have some decisions to make.

Textbooks are great general, all-around learning resources.

These types of books tend to focus on major lessons, which divide up the material into topics such as greetings, asking for directions or going to the grocery store.

These lessons are introduced and supplemented with practice exercises, vocabulary lists, grammar tables and (sometimes) even audio, video and games as well.

Some will even have an online component where you can ask questions, interact with other learners, take tests and keep track of your progress.

Let’s look at a few available on the market now.

“Japanese from Zero!” | Trombley

Japanese from Zero! 1: Proven Techniques to Learn Japanese for Students and Professionals

This is one of the most popular textbook series available because it’s approachable and easy to use.

As the title suggests, this book is designed for newcomers to Japanese with no previous experience in the language. With a handy introductory guide, you’ll learn reading, writing, and speaking in great detail, along with explanations of nuances found within even the beginning steps of the Japanese language.

There are also supplemental YouTube videos that accompany each lesson, which clarify points that learners may have questions about. This book is highly recommended for those who are self-studying!

Takeaway:

  • Ideal for beginners and intermediate students.
  • Follows a lesson-based structure that covers grammar, vocabulary, writing, pronunciation and more.
  • For students interested in extra practice, the series includes workbooks that are sold separately and can work as companions to the textbook.

“Living Language Japanese” | Living Language Method

Living Language Japanese, Complete Edition: Beginner through advanced course, including 3 coursebooks, 9 audio CDs, Japanese reading & writing guide, and free online learning

Living Language is an established language teaching company that’s been around for years. You can find books specific to your level or purchase a complete package that includes books for all of them.

In this Japanese series, traditional textbooks are combined with a set of audio CDs and online resources to create a comprehensive experience for learning all the basics of Japanese. Focus is placed on the essentials of the language, meaning that the vocabulary and grammar you’ll encounter are the most common features of everyday Japanese conversation. Great for clearing the beginning stages of Japanese!

Takeaway:

  • Textbooks include CDs for speaking and listening practice.
  • Price is reasonable considering the amount of material.
  • Works well as a stand-alone course for those not enrolled in a formal class.

“Japanese, Comprehensive” | Pimsleur

Pimsleur Japanese Level 1 CD: Learn to Speak and Understand Japanese with Pimsleur Language Programs (1) (Comprehensive)

Pimsleur is another well-respected language company that’s been around for years. Their method focuses on speaking and listening through audio, so it’s ideal for students who want to supplement other textbooks or course work with extra listening and speaking practice.

By breaking down spoken Japanese syllable by syllable and providing authentic dialogue, you’ll get a feel for the natural flow of the language, enabling you to better understand and participate in Japanese conversation. Plus, each lesson is half an hour or less, making it perfect for the on-the-go language learner.

Takeaway:

  • Excellent source of speaking and listening material for those who don’t have native Japanese speakers to practice with.
  • Students quickly gain confidence through speaking and comprehension exercises.
  • Level-specific packages or comprehensive sets are available.

“Tobira: Gateway to Advanced Japanese”| Mayumi Oka Et Al. 

Jpn-Tobira (Japanese and English Edition)

For intermediate learners who are ready to get serious about Japanese, Tobira is a highly effective book for both self-learners and classroom learners. This is the Japanese textbook my university used for intermediate Japanese classes, as it’s a natural step-up from the beginner-focused Genki series.

The practice exercises are in-depth, with detailed explanations about grammar points. For instance, there are practice exercises at the start of each lesson to check your previous knowledge and introduce some of the new concepts that will be introduced. From there, you’ll read passages that feature written and spoken Japanese speech styles. The conversational pieces are great for those learning with friends!

Tobira’s website is one of its main features, with supplemental tools and thorough grammar and cultural notes to accompany each lesson.

Takeaway: 

  • Offers a companion website with vocabulary, audio, and video materials to supplement textbook lessons.
  • Supplemental grammar and kanji guides available to work through.
  • Written mostly in Japanese, immersing you in the language as you’re learning it.

Grammar Books

For those who want to excel and really understand the language in-depth, a Japanese grammar textbook is essential.

There are two basic types of grammar books: reference books, designed to provide big-picture information when students need it, and practice-based books, which teach grammar through exercises.

“Practice Makes Perfect” | Sato

Practice Makes Perfect Basic Japanese

As the name suggests, this is a practice-based book. Students learn grammar through a series of lessons that teach all the essentials.

Explanations of verb types, particles, clause modification and more are laid out plain and simple for the beginner. You’ll be able to work right in the book as you go through short lessons and exercises, perfect for even the most time-crunched language learners.

Key grammar concepts are supplemented with plenty of real-world examples, allowing you to immediately put into practice what you’ve learned.

Takeaway:

  • Suitable for beginners, easy to get yourself started and easy to understand.
  • Exercises also cover phonetics, writing and other often-neglected areas of language learning.
  • Usage dictionary included.
  • Exercise-based approach helps students internalize grammar.

“A Guide to Japanese Grammar” | Tae Kim

A Guide to Japanese Grammar: A Japanese approach to learning Japanese grammar

Tae Kim runs a popular blog about Japanese, Chinese and “a dash of Korean.” Everything you could ever want to know about Japanese grammar is available on his website.

He has published his own grammar book through Amazon’s self-publishing platform, for those who want a physical copy of his blog’s content. This book covers all of the essentials of Japanese grammar in explicit detail, from basic sentence enders to advanced topics like negative volitionals.

The prime focus of this book is to give the learner building blocks that they can use to create a solid foundation in their knowledge of all things Japanese grammar. Since it exclusively focuses on the details of grammar, it makes a perfect companion for studying with other textbooks.

Takeaway:

  • Extremely detailed and comprehensive: covers grammar, writing, phonetics and more.
  • Useful as a reference.
  • Includes examples and vocabulary used by Japanese in the real world today, such as casual speech and slang.
  • Recommended for long-term students who want a systematic, thorough approach and who don’t mind starting with the “hard stuff.”

“Japanese Verbs & Essentials of Grammar” | Rita Lampkin 

Japanese Verbs and Essentials of Grammar

This book covers all the essentials in 160 pages. It’s organized logically for easy reference and offers a good way for beginners to get up and running quickly. This book is divided into two parts: verbs and grammar.

Part 1 focuses on Japanese verbs, explaining their endings and forms, how to modify them and more. You’ll also get lessons on those pesky て and た forms, which are essential to advancing through Japanese grammar!

Part 2 explains various Japanese grammar points from the basics, such as particles, counters and conjugations. Everything a newcomer to Japanese needs to know is laid out in simple language, making this a great guide for those just starting out on their Japanese journey!

Takeaway:

  • Short yet comprehensive: all major grammatical concepts are included and explained, without the fluff.
  • Suitable as a reference and includes tables that aid quick assimilation.
  • Bonus audio material online.
  • Has section with cultural information.

“New Kanzen Master JLPT N4: Grammar” | Etsuko Tomomatsu, Sachi Fukushima, Kaori Nakamura 

New Kanzen Master Jlpt Grammar Bunpo Japanese Language Proficiency Test N4

One of a huge series aimed for those studying for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), this is an undoubtedly valuable resource for anyone studying Japanese grammar. The levels of these books correspond to the JLPT levels, ranging from N5 (easiest) to N1 (hardest).

I personally used the N2 version of this grammar book to study for the JLPT, and I was blown away by how thorough and easy to understand it was. Each grammar point is given a comprehensive explanation, detailing usage and limits for the terms.

There are also lessons about sentence structure and explanations on grammatical conjugations, where you can put into practice the new terms you’ve learned. Definitely owe my success on the test to this bad boy!

Takeaway:

  • Series available for all levels, beginners to advanced (JLPT N4~N1).
  • Plenty of practice exercises with mock tests.
  • Explains distinctions between similar grammatical phrases.

Vocabulary Books

Learning vocabulary is a slow and steady process. There are a number of vocabulary books that are designed to help students learn the words they need to become more fluent.

Keep in mind that a vocabulary book is not the same as a dictionary.

Understanding when and how to write, spell and speak Japanese vocabulary is a complex thing, so vocabulary books exist to hold your hand a bit more than a dictionary would while learning.

“The Handbook of Japanese Verbs” | Taeko Kamiya

The Handbook of Japanese Verbs (Kodansha Dictionary)

The Japanese language revolves around verbs—their conjugations, modifications and placement within a sentence. As such, a book like this focused on verbs and their usage will come in great handy.

It explains how verbs work and how they conjugate and relies heavily on exercises to ensure that students understand the material as they progress.

After breaking down Japanese verbs into their parts, readers are shown how they get mixed and matched with helping elements to convey a wide variety of meanings. Next, it shows how these verbs function in real Japanese sentences, with plenty of examples and practice questions to make sure that the meaning of each term is understood.

Takeaway:

  • Excellent for beginners and intermediate students who want a solid understanding of verbs.
  • Exercise-oriented approach makes it ideal for self-study or students who want hands-on practice.
  • Book includes several appendices and methods for looking up verbs.

“Japanese Vocabulary” (Barron’s Vocabulary) | Carol and Nobuo Akiyama

Japanese Vocabulary (Barron's Vocabulary Series)

This book organizes thousands of common Japanese words into categories. From basics like greetings and numbers to more specific terms like travel and shopping, it’s easy to create a study plan from this book—the units are already comprised for you!

It’s excellent for beginner and intermediate students who wish to focus on specific areas or supplement their own studies with vocabulary. The pronunciation is given for every word, and if you need to find a certain word fast, there’s an easy-to-navigate section that lets you pick out the term you want, showing both English and Japanese meanings!

Takeaway:

  • Very reasonable price.
  • Small yet comprehensive.
  • Romaji makes it easy for beginners and topical organization lets students emphasize particular areas as needed.

“Modern Japanese Vocabulary: A Guide for 21st Century Students” | Edward P. Trimnell

Modern Japanese Vocabulary: A Guide for 21st Century Students, Hiragana/Katakana Edition (Japanese and English Edition)

Here’s another vocabulary builder that organizes terms by topic. The words taught in this textbook cover a variety of subjects such as law, the internet, dentistry, culture, history and more.

The great thing about it is that not only do you get the common terms you may be looking for, but you’ll get a series of related words that may come up in relation to that term as well. It gets incredibly specific too—in the section about family, it naturally includes words for spouses and relatives are included, but also offers words to describe romantic relationships. There are even notes on Japanese-specific expressions!

Note that in this version, all the readings are in kana, not romaji. This makes it great for those who are serious about getting in that reading practice.

Takeaway:

  • Useful for beginner and intermediate students who want to supplement studies with vocabulary.
  • Kanji and kana included with easy-to-read fonts.
  • Topics can be very detailed, so this is helpful for students who want to expand their vocabulary beyond the basics.

“Jazz Up Your Japanese with Onomatopoeia” | Hiroko Fukuda

Jazz Up Your Japanese with Onomatopoeia: For All Levels

Onomatopoeia is a huge part of Japanese but isn’t often covered in textbooks. Which is really a shame, because Japanese onomatopoeia can be used to express all sorts of concepts, feelings, sounds and more that English doesn’t have words for—but I sure wish it did!

This book contains a huge variety of onomatopoeia, getting into the details of everyday Japanese so you sound more like a native. To help readers learn how they’re used in sentences, sample dialogues are provided in Japanese, with transcriptions in romaji and English translations.

The introduction alone is worth the investment, as it explains the logic behind onomatopoeia and certain rules that it follows when it comes to sound associations. Did you know that each Japanese vowel symbolizes a certain aspect of onomatopoeia? I know I didn’t, until I cracked the spine of this book!

Takeaway: 

  • Explains symbolism between sound and meanings of onomatopoeia.
  • Written in casual, everyday Japanese to give an accurate sense of daily conversations.
  • Offers cultural notes on certain nuanced points.
  • Geared for intermediate learners.

Dictionaries

Not all bilingual dictionaries are created equal. Some are better than others and some are more suitable for certain types of students.

“Random House Japanese-English English-Japanese Dictionary” | Random House

Japanese-English English-Japanese Dictionary (English and Japanese Edition)

This is a reasonably priced dictionary with tens of thousands of entries, ideal for beginner and intermediate students. With such a large collection, you’ll be hard pressed to find a word that’s not included!

It’s divided into two sections: a Japanese-English section and an English-Japanese section. The Japanese section is labeled based on romaji, with Japanese characters included (kana and kanji), so newcomers to Japanese can get right in without having to worry about kana they may still be shaky on.

Takeaway:

  • The Japanese-English portion orders entries by the English alphabet, so it’s quite easy to find words.
  • Entries include Japanese kana.
  • The number of entries makes it suitable for long-term use.

“Kodansha’s Furigana Dictionary” | Kodansha

Kodansha's Furigana Japanese Dictionary (Kodansha Dictionaries)

This dictionary includes furigana—small hiragana written above kanji—to help students know how to pronounce words. This is a fantastic feature, as many dictionaries do not include the furigana readings of kanji. Students can learn kanji readings as they navigate this dictionary, giving them a leg up in their studies.

Like the Random House dictionary, it’s divided into a Japanese-English and an English-Japanese section. The Japanese-English section is written in Japanese kana, not romaji. There are also notes on words that may be vague in meaning, with example sentences that show them in their correct contexts.

Takeaway:

  • The Japanese-English section, ordered by kana, helps students learn the native Japanese kana order.
  • Suitable for beginner and intermediate students.
  • Example sentences included with each entry.
  • Compact and portable.

“Kenkyusha’s New Japanese-English Dictionary” | Kenkyusha

Kenkyusha's New Japanese - English Dictionary, 4th Edition (English and Japanese Edition)

This heavy-duty dictionary is the most thorough, in-depth dictionary on the market, packing a whopping 290,000 words.

Many entries have multiple sub-entries, allowing for precise definitions that allow you to understand the exact meaning of each word. Example sentences and detailed explanations abound, so that you’re fully informed as to what each word means, including ones that lack English equivalents.

What’s more, this is the dictionary used by translators and professionals, making it indispensable if you hope to get into that field yourself.

As a fun note, many people in Japanese-related fields call it the “Green Goddess” because of its trademark dark green cover.

Takeaway:

  • The go-to dictionary for students who plan to study Japanese for many years to come.
  • Suitable for intermediate students, advanced students and translators.
  • Later editions include more entries and more modernized terms than previous ones.

“A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar” | Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui

A Dictionary of Japanese Grammar for Learning Language 3- BOOK Bundle Set , Basic , Intermediate , Advanced - Japan Import

Many Japanese teachers recommend this book to their students, and for good reason. This one-stop shop for all things Japanese grammar covers 600+ basic grammar points and gives in-depth explanations on every possible usage of each term.

Aimed at beginning Japanese students, this book provides definitions of each grammatical point and the particular characteristics it possesses. Several example sentences are provided for every entry, broken down into parts that show how the grammar functions in a Japanese sentence.

As if that wasn’t plenty of help already, the notes contain detailed explanations and exceptions that exist for every term. Truly, everything you could ever want to know about Japanese is in this book!

Takeaway:

  • Part of a three-book series of basic, intermediate and advanced grammar.
  • Organized in alphabetical order for easy access.
  • Example sentences break down the usage of grammar points for easy study.

“Sanseido Japanese Dictionary” | Hideho Kindaichi

新レインボー小学国語辞典 改訂第6版 小型版(オールカラー) (小学生向辞典・事典)

If you want to look up Japanese the way Japanese children do, why not try a Japanese-Japanese dictionary?

There’s actually great value in studying Japanese in Japanese, as you’ll reinforce the terms you already know as well as learn how Japanese people define their own language—in other words, you’re seeing the words in their native contexts.

All of the definitions in this colorfully illustrated book are written in easy-to-understand Japanese, making it a valuable tool for intermediate learners looking to reinforce their Japanese.

This book also distinguishes homophones and explains key points of vocabulary, showing how words are used in sentences and ensuring you don’t get tripped up between similar-sounding vocabulary. Plus, all kanji include furigana, so as long as you’ve got your kana down, you can read this book!

Takeaway:

  • Designed for children, so it’s good for intermediate learners.
  • Indexed in kana order, with kanji labeled based on grade level.
  • Provides illustrations to reinforce the meaning of words.

Kanji Books

Kanji books are another essential asset for any student of Japanese. Some are designed to help students learn Japanese characters and some are designed to act as references.

Both are useful for any student who plans to become fluent.

“New Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary” | Nelson

The New Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary

This dictionary has been the industry standard kanji dictionary for years.

The Nelson dictionaries, both the compact and standard versions, include enough characters for most students. Kanji can be looked up by radical, pronunciation, stroke count and more.

For a comparable dictionary that includes a different system of indexing and more characters, see “The Kanji Dictionary” by Spahn.

Takeaway:

  • Excellent for students of any level.
  • Each kanji includes a long list of vocabulary words.
  • Includes a variety of appendices and indexes for additional look-up methods.

“A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters” | Kenneth G. Henshall 

A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters

This book is designed to help students master kanji.

It contains all the General Use Characters and has extremely detailed etymology for each one, including historical character forms and previous meanings.

Takeaway:

  • Suitable for intermediate to advanced students.
  • Entries include meaning, pronunciation and vocabulary words.
  • Ideal as a supplement to other studies.

“Remembering the Kanji” | James W. Heisig 

Remembering the Kanji 1: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters

This book offers a different, story-based approach to learning kanji.

Each kanji element is associated with a story element, which is then used as a mnemonic device to aid memorization.

Takeaway:

  • Ideal for students who want a unique, systematic way to remember kanji and their meanings.
  • Focused exclusively on memorizing meaning, as opposed to pronunciation, vocabulary and so forth.
  • Suitable as a supplement to other coursework or studies.

“Basic Kanji Book, Vol. 1” | Chieko Kano Et Al.

Basic Kanji Book, Vol. 1

This first book in a two-part course aims at teaching beginners basic kanji covers 250 characters. I fondly recall using this book and its second volume in my kanji classes years ago, working through the writing games and reading exercises along with my classmates.

Each lesson begins with a lesson on kanji as a whole, such as how radicals are composed, how kanji functions in the Japanese language and even common kanji in family names. Every lesson covers 10 kanji apiece, breaking them into their stroke orders and meanings, with reading and writing exercises in easy Japanese.

It also offers fun games after each activity to test what you’ve learned, such as Concentration, navigating shopping centers and even figuring out features in real apartment advertisements! Those real-world moments (including a whole TV guide in volume 2) are definitely my favorite parts of this series.

Takeaway:

  • Targeted at beginner-level students.
  • Focuses on building reading comprehension and writing skills.
  • Provides lessons on kanji structure to gain intimacy with kanji from its very foundations.

“The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course: A Step-by-Step Guide to Mastering 2300 Characters” | Andrew Scott Conning

The Kodansha Kanji Learner's Course: A Step-by-Step Guide to Mastering 2300 Characters

Personally, this book is the most well-loved out of all of my Japanese textbooks, and that’s not just because I’m a nerd for kanji.

This book aims to give its readers a solid foundation of kanji by taking them on a step-by-step journey through all 2,300 characters. Kanji are organized by Kodansha’s own system, grouping them based on difficulty and shared meanings, making it easy to build an effective study plan.

Every single kanji is explained in great detail, including stroke order, definition, readings and more. My favorite part has got to be the mnemonic guides for remembering characters—not only do they tell logical stories based on the kanji’s radicals, but some of them have made me double over in laughter.

For instance, the characters 厄 (やく, misfortune) and 危 (あぶ/き, danger) come one after another. The first kanji is described as a cliff with a broken body lying below it (quite unfortunate!). The second kanji tells the story of “a man peering over the side of a cliff, and upon seeing what happened to the poor man in the previous entry, senses danger.” Not forgetting those two kanji any time soon!

Takeaway:

  • Kanji is arranged based on shared units to maximize learning efficiency.
  • Allows cross-referencing between similar-looking characters to learn the difference between them.
  • Explains abstract concepts behind kanji with fun, easy-to-remember mnemonics.
  • Contains an index that allows kanji to be looked up based on radicals, readings and more.

Reference Books

For all of the details of Japanese that trip you up no matter how hard you try, keeping a reference book handy will save you countless headaches.

These guides and references are essential to mastering the finer points of Japanese.

“All About Particles: A Handbook of Japanese Function Words” | Naoko Chino

All About Particles: A Handbook of Japanese Function Words

Though Japanese particles can be rather tricky to master, they’re far from impossible to learn. All that’s required is a clear, concise guide to learn from—and that’s where this book is here to help.

This book offers thorough explanations on nearly 70 particles in the Japanese language, from basics like は and が to more complicated ones like だの and すら. Plenty of example sentences are provided to account for a variety of circumstances in which particles may appear.

For those that need a helping hand to figure out which Japanese particles to use in a sentence, it’s hard to find a better resource than this handbook. It makes for a great supplement to other textbook courses!

Takeaway:

  • Gives cross-references to explain when multiple particles can be used in the same situation.
  • Good for all levels of Japanese learners.
  • Focuses on building comprehension through context to allow for thorough understanding.

“A Dictionary of Japanese Particles” | Sue A. Kawashima

A Dictionary of Japanese Particles

If I’d had a book that explained particles during college, my grades in Japanese probably would have been much higher. A comprehensive dictionary for those little bits of grammar? Yes please!

Starting with an explanation of the importance, purpose and functions of particles, this dictionary covers over 100 particles complete with example sentences, making it a valuable reference tool for those tricky terms.

Designed to be used by beginning to advanced Japanese learners, all particles featured are ones that are found in modern Japanese. Entries are written in romaji as well as kana for universal accessibility. The contents are arranged in English alphabetical order, so looking up just the particle you need is a snap every time.

Takeaway:

  • Features different patterns and arrangements of particles in example sentences.
  • Offers colloquial terms in addition to formal terms.
  • Includes exercises to practice using particles.

“Common Japanese Collocations” | Kakuko Shoji

Common Japanese Collocations: A Learner's Guide to Frequent Word Pairings [Paperback] [2010] (Author) Kakuko Shoji

“Collocations” are words or phrases that are often used together, in a way that sounds natural to native speakers. I guarantee you have a few in your native language!

This book features such words found in the Japanese language and showcases how they’re used in everyday life. Divided into incredibly detailed categories and sub-sections, you’ll find common phrases for every situation imaginable. For instance, the section “travel” is broken into streets, maps, airports, logistics and more. So you’ll be able to find specific terms for navigating Tokyo station!

Keep in mind that this isn’t a textbook in the traditional sense—it’s more like a guide for sounding more natural in Japanese. For those that seriously plan on getting to an advanced level in the Japanese language, this book is a great addition to your resource collection.

Takeaway:

  • Goes into abstract phrases that may not be covered by most textbooks.
  • Organizes phrases based on one word/kanji, creating an easy index for learners to study from.
  • Provides notes on common usage errors.

“The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary” | Jack Halpern

The Kodansha Kanji Learner's Dictionary: Revised and Expanded

Made to be used with “The Kodansha Kanji Learners Course,” this comprehensive kanji dictionary features 3,000 characters. Basically, all the kanji you could ever want to know are bound in one convenient spot.

Meanings are given in order of importance and provide plenty of example words that contain the kanji. Some kanji serve as prefixes and suffixes, and this dictionary goes into how those are used as well.

Its most noteworthy feature is its unique system called SKIP (System of Kanji Indexing by Patterns), which organizes kanji based on patterns, rather than radicals. This makes it easy to accurately look up the character you’re searching for.

Takeaway:

  • Beginner-friendly index that allows for kanji to be quickly looked up.
  • Detailed descriptions of characters and includes examples of compound words to demonstrate meaning.
  • Color-coded entries to focus on core meanings and important characters.

Bilingual and Parallel Textbooks

You can study all the textbooks you want, but at the end of the day, you’re going to need to reinforce that study with real-world Japanese.

Here’s where bilingual and parallel textbooks come in handy.

Written in both Japanese and English, they’re designed to help Japanese learners take the step from formal studies to authentic Japanese. Reading Japanese stories allows you to explore ways of thinking that you may have never considered before, making for a wonderfully captivating experience.

Not only that, you’re being exposed to Japanese as it was meant to be experienced by native speakers, and with an English translation right alongside the Japanese text, you’ll be able to keep your momentum going.

Plus, you’ll get the added bonus of being able to brag about reading Haruki Murakami in Japanese!

“Japanese Short Stories for Beginners: 20 Captivating Short Stories to Learn Japanese & Grow Your Vocabulary the Fun Way!” | Lingo Mastery

Japanese Short Stories for Beginners: 20 Captivating Short Stories to Learn Japanese & Grow Your Vocabulary the Fun Way! (Easy Japanese Stories)

Designed for newcomers to written Japanese, this book has 20 Japanese short stories that feature paragraph-by-paragraph translations to guide you through your first foray into Japan’s world of literature.

Translations are provided line by line, meaning that you get a line of Japanese followed by a line of English underneath. At the end of each story, you’re provided with a summary of the material, a vocabulary list and questions to check your comprehension.

If you’re new to reading stories in Japanese, this book should be on the top of your list.

Takeaway:

  • Engaging stories that provide repeated exposure to new vocabulary words.
  • Provides quizzes at the end of each story to check your understanding.
  • Great for supplementing textbooks.

“Short Stories in Japanese: New Penguin Parallel Text” | Michael Emmerich

Short Stories in Japanese: New Penguin Parallel Text (Japanese Edition)

This book features eight short stories by famous as well as up-and-coming Japanese authors like Banana Yoshimoto, Kasushige Abe and Hiromi Kawakami. Three of these stories have never been published in English before—making for brand new material that you can enjoy!

With stories that cover a variety of themes and page-by-page parallel translations in English, engaging literature in the Japanese language is right at your fingertips.

This book is an extremely flexible tool for those with a bit more Japanese knowledge under their belts. If you want to test yourself, it’s easy to cover the English translation and read the Japanese alone, or you can use it as a reference point as you work through the text. Furigana for kanji are included, but only once, so this material is designed to push you towards kanji fluency.

Takeaway:

  • Provides notes and annotations for smooth comprehension.
  • Aimed at intermediate to advanced learners.
  • Kindle and paperback editions available.

“Read Real Japanese Fiction: Short Stories by Contemporary Writers” | Michael Emmerich and Reigo Matsunaga

Read Real Japanese Fiction: Short Stories by Contemporary Writers 1 free CD included

As the title suggests, this book provides modern Japanese stories by some of the top authors in Japan today. For those of you who want to know what Japanese people are really reading, look no further.

Stories are arranged based on difficulty, with furigana provided for all kanji. While there are no full English translations, only detailed notes on each page, this format makes for a good challenge and allows the reader to focus primarily on the Japanese language.

There is also a section for each story that explains certain literary elements found in the stories. For example, if there’s a verb in an unusual place that serves to create a specific scene, these notes will provide a thorough explanation as to how and why this usage works. A great way to get familiar with more “flowery” Japanese!

Takeaway:

  • Aimed for high intermediate or advanced learners.
  • Includes a dictionary to allow readers to check every word featured in the stories.
  • Gradually increases in difficulty with wordplay, complicated vocabulary and literary devices.
  • Great for those interested in translation.

“Japanese Stories for Language Learners: Bilingual Stories in Japanese and English” | Anne McNulty & Eriko Sato

Japanese Stories for Language Learners: Bilingual Stories in Japanese and English (MP3 Audio disc included)

This book features classic Japanese stories that focus on Japanese culture and literary tradition. If you ever wanted to read famed stories like “Kumo no Ito” or “Yuki Onna” in their original Japanese, these entries with parallel English translations are the perfect chance to take a crack at it.

Designed for intermediate and advanced students, these stories are laid out in a way that enables you to study from them. After the page-by-page parallel translations, you’ll find a vocabulary list and a list of translator’s notes that explain certain complex passages and justify certain decisions for the English translation. Finally, you’ll get a quiz that allows you to check your comprehension of the new terms you’ve learned from the story.

For those of you learning with others, there are also discussion questions that enable you to check your interpretation of the material. Try this book for your next study group!

Takeaway:

  • Comes with MP3 CD containing recordings of each story.
  • Vocabulary lists, discussion questions and quizzes to check comprehension.
  • Features translator’s notes to increase understanding of terms difficult to translate into English.

 

There are certainly more Japanese textbooks for learning the language out there, but this list includes some of the most authoritative, popular and effective titles and publishers in the industry.

If you’re a serious student of Japanese, you’ll definitely want to have a few of these on your bookshelf.


And One More Thing...

If you love learning Japanese with authentic materials, then I should also tell you more about FluentU.

FluentU naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You'll learn real Japanese as it's spoken in real life.

FluentU has a broad range of contemporary videos as you'll see below:

learn-japanese-with-videos

FluentU makes these native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts. Tap on any word to look it up instantly.

learn-japanese-with-songs

All definitions have multiple examples, and they're written for Japanese learners like you. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.

learn-japanese-with-movies

And FluentU has a learn mode which turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples.

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The best part? FluentU keeps track of your vocabulary, and gives you extra practice with difficult words. It'll even remind you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You'll have a 100% personalized experience.

The FluentU app is now available for iOS and Android, and it's also available as a website that you can access on your computer or tablet.

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.

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