best-japanese-textbooks

Tried and Tested: The 10 Best Japanese Textbooks for Learners

It’s one of the most important Japanese learning decisions you’ll ever make.

It’ll guide your learning for the foreseeable future and dictate your progress (or lack thereof).

What is it?

Just this: Which Japanese textbook should you get?

Whether you’re a complete beginner to learning Japanese or you’ve got your sights set on taking the JLPT this year, it’s crucial that you find the right textbook for you.

A textbook is a big investment. A good textbook will help you understand and grow confident in applying new learning. A bad textbook can leave you so unmotivated or confused that you risk giving up language learning altogether.

But when it comes to buying a new textbook, you might be stumped. Do any of these problems sound familiar?

  • “I’m confused by all the choices and don’t know where to start!”
  • “I’m not sure which level textbook will suit me best.”
  • “I’m overwhelmed by the different books in the big-name series. Do I need to buy them all?”
  • “Textbooks are old news! Apps are the way to go. I have a ton on my phone… but they’re all teaching me different things at different speeds.”

Let’s face it: Most bookstores stock very few, if any, Japanese textbooks from the massive range available because most people are too intimidated to take on the challenge—but not you!

Shopping online makes things even more challenging as you can’t leaf through the options and get a good sense of what will work for you.

So how do you choose a textbook without getting to see it properly? Simply use our handy dandy guide!

We’ll give you the inside scoop on the best Japanese textbooks for all levels, from the perspective of someone who’s actually owned and used them. Let’s get started!

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What Makes a Good Japanese Textbook?

What is a textbook, anyway?

This seems really obvious! But as a former academic librarian and current language teacher, I’m often surprised by how many people refer to reference books as textbooks.

While both are useful, one type is designed to teach new material and the other to check or look something up. There’s a clear difference and there are clear features you should be looking for.

What’s a reference book?

  • Examples include dictionaries and encyclopedias (if Wikipedia were produced in print, it’d be considered a reference book).
  • It’s often organized alphabetically or contains many short entries that aren’t linked.
  • It contains multiple examples of typical usage.
  • It comprehensively covers even rare rules or uses of language.
  • It’s designed to give definitions of terms and examples of things like exceptions to grammar rules.
  • It’s great for refreshing your knowledge, translating texts accurately and gaining contextual understanding through seeing many examples of the way a rule is applied.

What’s a textbook?

  • It’s organized into lessons.
  • It moves from simpler to more difficult material, building upon knowledge covered in previous chapters.
  • Its authors often omit more obscure, advanced or complex rules and stay focused on one usage at a time to avoid confusion.
  • It includes problems for learners to complete in order to apply and check their knowledge and typically has the answers available (though occasionally, these are sold separately).
  • It often covers multiple skills, such as speaking, listening, reading and writing.

Both reference books and textbooks are incredibly useful, but trying to use a reference book to teach yourself Japanese can be a hard slog and trying to look something up in a textbook may leave you without the answer you seek.

Look for textbooks as your main roadmap and structure and reference books to help reinforce learning and fill in specific gaps in your knowledge.

Where to Buy Japanese Textbooks

While Amazon may be where most books are purchased these days—and their “look inside” feature can be really helpful—there’s a lot to be said for considering other places to buy. Here are a few options:

Physical stores

Traditional brick-and-mortar stores can offer a chance to really look through a book and compare several side-by-side. If you’re lucky enough to have access to a college campus bookstore, then it could be well worth your time to take a trip to check out their Japanese section.

Flagship stores in larger cities also have more stock and you may find staff who are really familiar with the language sections and can assist you.

Online stores

OMG Japan has a selection of textbooks and reference books that’s even better than Amazon’s. They’re well organized and very easy to navigate by level, skill or series. The staff are professional, have expertise in this specific area and will help answer your questions.

Of course, Amazon offers free shipping on many items and rock-bottom prices. The “used books” selection is also worth considering if you’re on a tight budget (especially for reference books, as textbooks may have problems filled in already).

Pro tip: Intermediate and advanced learners should check selections on the (all Japanese) Amazon Japan website, as they have a far wider selection than most English speaking countries’ local Amazon sites.

Find the book that you want, note the ISBN, then search by typing the ISBN directly into the search bar of your local Amazon site to see if there’s a copy available. Ordering directly from Japanese Amazon is possible, but may have expensive shipping.

Tried and Tested: The 10 Best Japanese Textbooks for Learners

“Genki”

best-japanese-textbooks

Probably the most popular beginner option for learning Japanese, “Genki” books I and II have been around for years and are firm favorites in college “Introduction to Japanese” courses. There’s a good reason for the enduring popularity of this series: They’re well-written, easy to understand, affordable and comprehensive.

Pros:

  • The series is popular, so lots of online posts and user experience has been shared about them.
  • Similarly, there are many digital flashcard decks available on Anki and Memrise.
  • It covers four language skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening).
  • JLPT level N5 is covered in “Genki” I and JLPT level N4 is covered in “Genki” II, so if you know the vocabulary, grammar and kanji in the books and can do the listening exercises, it’s likely that you’re test-ready!
  • It uses English to explain grammar points.
  • Some extra materials online are free to use.
  • Workbooks are available and are really useful for helping to consolidate learning without costing an arm and a leg.

Cons:

  • “Genki” books are meant to be taught by a Japanese teacher in class and have many pair-work exercises, so they’re not always great for self-study.
  • Answers are sold separately in an additional book and are all-Japanese with no translation available, making it even more difficult for beginners to study by themselves.

Recommended level:

Beginner.

In a nutshell:

Great for those taking their first Japanese classes.

“Nihongo Active Talk”

best-japanese-textbooks

If your main goal is having conversations and making friends using Japanese, then “Nihongo Active Talk” may be just the ticket. It covers set phrases and beginner vocabulary and focuses on the application and comprehension of simple speaking and listening skills.

Pros:

  • Romaji-based instruction makes reading easier.
  • Short and simple exercises mean you can quickly move on, keeping motivation up.
  • The book focuses on grasping grammar basics and applying them in conversation, helping learners study the concepts in context.
  • Useful vocabulary lists will help you pick up new words and review them easily.

Cons:

  • Romaji may discourage kana acquisition, which is essential for moving forward in your learning.
  • It only focuses on conversational skills and as a result, it’s less comprehensive than other textbooks.

Recommended level:

Beginner.

In a nutshell:

Get speaking straight away.

“Minna no Nihongo”

best-japanese-textbooks

Another major player for Japanese beginners is “Minna no Nihongo” (translated as “Japanese for Everyone”). This well-established textbook series has a really broad range of offerings.

The books are written by established Japanese language teachers, who are experts in their fields. I especially liked their “25 Topics You Can Read as a Beginner” book.

Pros:

  • The book introduces kanji from the beginning and although this may be a challenge, it pays great dividends and makes learning much faster as you move on.
  • Answers to some activities are included in the back of the book.
  • The all-Japanese format means that you’ll have to try harder to power through before checking the translation book, which will help you start thinking in Japanese sooner.
  • The series has a very wide range of books, covering many skills like reading, writing, speaking and listening.
  • The range of language covered is comprehensive.
  • Because there are so many books, there are many opportunities to practice and focus on the skills you especially need to master.

Cons:

  • Learners need to have working use of hiragana and katakana before beginning this textbook.
  • Like “Genki,” “Minna no Nihongo” was written to be used in a traditional classroom setting with a Japanese teacher guiding you through it and checking some answers along the way.
  • An all-Japanese textbook can be overwhelming for beginners learning by themselves and makes it hard for them to check their answers.
  • You may need to buy additional translation and grammar notes to overcome this issue.
  • Multiple books for each level mean that buying the whole set of books can get quite expensive.

Recommended level:

Beginner to intermediate.

In a nutshell:

An investment and a challenge that reaps big rewards.

“Guide to Japanese Grammar”

This textbook was written by Tae Kim, an English speaker who’s mastered Japanese. It turns the idea of a Japanese textbook on its head, ditching the “start with easy phrases and teach grammar later,” and dives head-first into Japanese grammar concepts.

If you really want to understand the foundation of the language from the very beginning (instead of memorizing words and phrases), this book might be right for you.

Pros:

  • This entire book is available for free online by the author and you can even download a PDF for free, too. You can also search for a physical version on Amazon if you prefer your Japanese textbooks to be tangible.
  • Great for checking grammar rules, this textbook can be used as a beginner reference guide as well as a textbook to work through from start to finish.
  • Topics are organized in a logical fashion.
  • There’s lots of English support and examples for explanations.
  • The textbook is designed for independent learners and it’s popular with people teaching themselves Japanese, so healthy online communities exist around this book to answer questions and provide support.

Cons:

  • There are no listening exercises or audio support.
  • Some practice exercises require a conversation partner, so those sections aren’t the best for solo learners.
  • Practice exercises are open-ended questions, so they require someone with better Japanese than you to check for errors.
  • The grammar focus of the book may not suit everyone and makes this resource less comprehensive than those of a similar level, such as “Genki” or “Minna no Nihongo.”

Recommended level:

Beginner to intermediate.

In a nutshell:

Get to grips with grammar.

“Japanese from Zero!”

best-japanese-textbooks

Offering an unintimidating entry point to teaching yourself Japanese, this series has become really popular since its first publication in 2006.

Unlike most textbooks, no teacher is required and an active online community awaits those who want a more interactive approach.

Pros:

  • The books are designed for self-study, which is a massive advantage over many other textbooks if you want to teach yourself.
  • The interface of the books and web materials is intuitive and visually appealing.
  • The series was written by a native English speaker and a native Japanese speaker, which means that different ways of thinking about language acquisition are considered.
  • It’s suitable for younger learners.
  • Supplementary materials are available to registered users on the YesJapan site.
  • The cost point is significantly lower than a lot of alternatives.

Cons:

  • No audio is included in the textbook, though there’s some in the supplementary materials you can view online.
  • The books were self-published and while this shows great entrepreneurship, other textbooks have teams of expert teachers and editors on hand to assure quality and put the knowledge gained through classroom teaching into their texts.
  • You have to pay extra to access some web content.
  • The slower pace may frustrate busy adult learners with limited time.
  • It’s less comprehensive than some of its counterparts.

Recommended level:

Beginner to intermediate.

In a nutshell:

A good place to start and find out if learning Japanese is for you.

“Shadowing: Let’s Speak Japanese!”

best-japanese-textbooks

As the name implies, this resource uses the shadowing technique to teach Japanese, which consists of speaking along with a native speaker and trying to match the speed, pitch and pronunciation.

These books’ main strength lies in their practicality: The example sentences contained in both are really useful in daily life. They’re great resources for perfecting pronunciation and learning to automatically speak common phrases in a natural way.

It’s especially difficult to find good speaking resources at an advanced level because they’re predominantly resources aimed at native speakers, who almost never need to actively correct their pronunciation or rhythm in speech.

There are two main books available, covering beginner to intermediate and intermediate to advanced. In addition, a specialist book for job interviews is also available. If you’re interested in this technique and want more options, then check out an alternative on OMG Japan.

Pros:

  • The books are good quality, well organized and include native speaker audio.
  • The system promotes natural speed, rhythm, intonation and pronunciation.
  • You’ll start speaking from day one.
  • To a large extent, they can help replace a teacher for speaking practice in a way other techniques simply can’t match.
  • The technique employed yields excellent results compared to other speaking practice methods.
  • They’re well-organized and easy to use.
  • A smaller book size makes them far more portable than traditional textbooks.
  • They allow you to learn set phrases and speech in a natural way in just 10 minutes a day, making them great for those with limited time who want to get started immediately.

Cons:

  • It’s difficult to understand the technique without a video demonstration which explains the difference between simple repetition and shadowing.
  • The books would also really benefit from some kind of method for checking your own progress.
  • You need to speak out loud, so it’s not the best for studying in public.
  • These textbooks are only good for speaking and listening—the texts don’t support any reading or writing practice.
  • You need to use audio the whole time you use this book.
  • They only help with listening to a certain extent, as they don’t monitor comprehension or place phrases in the context of longer speech.
  • Some English explanations are included but not enough to really master any grammar point, so these books are best used as supplementary resources.
  • There are no quizzes or review exercises.

Recommended level:

Beginner to advanced.

In a nutshell:

Sound like a native speaker and learn by doing.

“Tobira”

best-japanese-textbooks

Until “Tobira” was published in 2009 there hadn’t been a significant new textbook for intermediate learners for 15 years. The writers and publishers clearly worked hard to make a resource that was comprehensive, challenging and that supported learners trying to overcome the dreaded intermediate plateau.

“Tobira” requires an investment of both effort and time to work through but it yields excellent results and its spot as a favorite in many university classes speaks to the quality of its contents.

Pros:

  • Highly recommended by users for bridging the gap between low intermediate and advanced Japanese, this textbook will push learners to overcome the intermediate plateau.
  • It’s comprehensive and logical in terms of contents and learning order.
  • All skills are covered together, including speaking and listening.
  • Interactive resources, such as the “online language partner” feature, videos and quizzes are available on the accompanying website.
  • It’s designed for classroom usage but works well for independent learning, too.

Cons:

  • The books are dense and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the pace at which new kanji are introduced, especially when studying independently.
  • You’ll need additional grammar and kanji books to really get the full experience, so the series gets expensive quickly.
  • Big, heavy books make studying on the go impractical.

Recommended level:

Intermediate to advanced.

In a nutshell:

Perfect for bridging the gap between intermediate and advanced Japanese.

“New Nihongo Keigo Training”

best-japanese-textbooks

Keigo, or honorific Japanese, is used to show respect and to indicate one’s place in a hierarchy. It’s an essential feature of Japanese and mastering keigo can mean the difference between being able to work using your Japanese and upsetting a client or failing an interview.

There aren’t many resources specifically dedicated to the topic of keigo, so “New Nihongo Keigo Training” was a welcome edition when it was published in 2014.

Pros:

  • This textbook focuses on the practical usage of a trickier aspect of advanced Japanese.
  • Natural conversations and functional thematic topics are covered, such as declining an invitation and using keigo in emails.
  • Furigana throughout means that even if your kanji knowledge isn’t the best, you can still learn to communicate politely.
  • It’s succinct—this book gets straight down to business!
  • There’s a CD included and an audio download is available on the publisher’s page.

Cons:

  • The minimal English explanations mean this book may not be appropriate for those totally unfamiliar with keigo.
  • There’s limited assistance for speaking, which may be a disadvantage to those who primarily want to improve their conversational politeness.
  • Open-ended practice exercises may make it hard to assess the accuracy of your own answers.
  • Pair work activities aren’t well-suited for solo learners.

Recommended level:

Intermediate to advanced.

In a nutshell:

Master honorific Japanese to take your language to the next level.

“Try!” JLPT series

best-japanese-textbooks

If you plan to get certification in Japanese then you’ve probably encountered the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. Put simply, the multiple-choice test covers reading, listening, kanji, vocabulary and grammar ability from N5 level (beginners) up to N1 (advanced).

N2 is considered “business level” and is a requirement for many jobs and for entry to university for foreign students within Japan. N1 level is equivalent to a Japanese high school graduate with the knowledge of around 10,000 kanji and is mostly required for translators or specialist professionals working in all-Japanese environments.

Many textbooks cover material that appears on the JLPT. For instance:

  • “Genki I” covers approximately N5 level.
  • “Genki II” covers approximately N4 level.
  • “Tobira” covers both N3 and N2, though additional vocabulary study may be necessary at N2 level.

For N1, most examinees use a dedicated JLPT textbook and all-Japanese resources such as newspapers, novels, movies and so on.

Some textbooks are specifically focused on students who intend to take the exam. The “Try!” series and the following textbook on this list are among the best of these.

The “Try!” series strikes a good balance between instruction, application and review of grammar and new vocabulary. I found their grammar explanations to be sufficient without being so complex that I had trouble memorizing the main points. The series worked well during lessons, as well as when I studied independently.

Pros:

  • The fast “a to b” style is perfect for the JLPT, covering the basics in a succinct fashion.
  • The books contain good, simple grammar explanations with some examples as well as exercises and listening quizzes.
  • The answers are included for easy self-assessment.
  • The books come with accompanying CDs.
  • They work well for classroom or independent study.

Cons:

  • You may need further examples to get a sense of how to use grammar that doesn’t have an equivalent in English.
  • The series takes the fastest route to covering the major grammar, vocabulary and kanji needed to pass your desired JLPT exam and is less thorough than books like “Tobira.”

Recommended level:

Beginner to advanced.

In a nutshell:

Ace the JLPT with a direct route to success. This author’s favorite textbook range!

“Nihongo So Matome”

best-japanese-textbooks

“Nihongo So Matome” is often misused as a primary textbook for those studying for the JLPT, especially for N3 or N2. 纏める(まとめる, matomeru) means “to consolidate” and for that purpose, these books are excellent. However, they lack the depth and explanations necessary in a primary textbook for learning.

The series has five slim books at each level that cover reading, listening, grammar, vocabulary and kanji.

Pros:

  • The books have a cute, appealing design.
  • The size of the books makes them great to use on the go, unlike weightier tomes such as “Tobira.”
  • Content is broken into manageable sections, with answers on the following page, making checking a breeze.
  • All questions are multiple-choice, like the real JLPT exams.
  • It helps you review the JLPT topics quickly and effectively.
  • Recommended study days are noted, helping you work through the book in a few weeks and making it ideal for the last month or two before your big exam.

Cons:

  • The major con of this series is that people buy it expecting it to teach them JLPT topics, rather than to consolidate existing learning. Used appropriately, this isn’t a drawback at all.
  • Five books for each level (grammar, listening, vocabulary, kanji and reading) gets expensive!
  • The series uses some question types and vocabulary not found on JLPT exams so it may cover some extra material while missing some that could be on your test.

Recommended level:

Beginner to advanced.

In a nutshell:

Revise and review before your JLPT exam.

Bonus: A Textbook That’s Always in Your Pocket!

best-japanese-textbooks

Finally, I’d like you to consider the advantages of using a digital resource. And I don’t mean downloading 20 different apps that’ll have you confused within the first five minutes. I mean signing up for FluentU.

How FluentU is different:

FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

Because the program is tailored to each learner’s individual level, FluentU can be your one-stop-shop for all your language learning needs. The sleek interface means you can seamlessly switch between desktop and mobile devices and the software learns about your level, targeting lessons specifically to help you achieve your learning goals.

Integrated spaced repetition software (SRS) means that FluentU will test you on new content at exactly the best time to strengthen your learning, making your language learning process quicker, more efficient and more rewarding.

FluentU’s advantages over paper books:

  • Interactive content like quizzes and SRS means each study session is tailored to your learning needs.
  • Many authentic options on various topics mean you can choose content that you’re actually interested in.
  • It’s weightless and portable! Perfect for studying on the go.
  • Constant updates mean there’s always something fresh to study.
  • It has built-in audio, because who owns a CD player these days?
  • Videos come from native resources, exposing you to truly natural language.

Recommended level:

Beginner to advanced.

In a nutshell:

The all-in-one-resource for Japanese learners.

 

No matter which resource you choose, remember to think about your personal learning goals. Whatever your motivation for learning is, one of these top 10 best Japanese textbooks will get you there!

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

Experience Japanese immersion online!

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