Like, really into it?
The place you’re about to read about might just seem like your own little vision of heaven.
I studied Japanese with this one goal in mind:
To visit a 満喫 (まんきつ, manga cafe).
To wander through the endless shelves of colorful softcovers for hours on end.
In order to enjoy coffee and two-dimensional 美少年 (びしょうねん pretty boys), I had to increase my reading fluency which meant practicing grammar, memorizing kanji, and learning new vocabulary.
Although the task seemed overwhelming (those two-dimensional pretty boys, though!) I found that increasing reading proficiency is surprisingly easy.
And even if you’re not the biggest fan of manga, there’s a whole other world of awesome reading material that’ll get your Japanese where you want it to be!
The Pitfalls of Learning with Romaji
So Japanese isn’t the easiest language to crack…
Learning three alphabets may feel an enormous task, which makes ロマジ (romaji) all the more tempting. Romaji is when the Latin (or Roman) alphabet is used to represent the Japanese writing system. Romaji may seem like an easy way to kickstart learning Japanese now, but it will quickly become an enemy to any Japanese learner.
Romaji can prove to be more detrimental as your studies progress as it limits your potential study resources, causes mispronunciation and misspellings and most importantly, romaji will be completely useless within Japan.
Most Japanese textbooks and lesson material will use Japanese script, and expect their readers to know at least hiragana. Popular textbooks like Genki will have text in romaji and hiragana, then slowly integrate kanji as lessons progress.
In contrast, a textbook that just uses romaji will not teach you different kanji, which can lead to some serious confusion later. For example: 行った (went) and 言った (said) are written different in kanji, but are spelled the same in romaji. So did Thomas go or speak? Another example is ame ga suki desu. Do you like rain (ame, 雨) or candy (ame, 飴)? Although the context can be implied in conversation, it can be a bit more difficult when you’re reading the sentence by itself. You’ll run into this scenario a lot, so knowing kanji becomes essential.
Another reason why learning how to use the Japanese writing system is so important is because romaji often omits vowels and misspells words. What’s wrong with the name “Tokyo?” It’s misspelled. In Japanese, Tokyo would be spelled “Toukyou.” This is important, because when you search for the proper kanji for words and names, you’ll need to know the appropriate spelling. Likewise, the long “ou” and “uu” vowel sounds will make your pronunciation clearer and more natural.
Finally, if you’re in Japan, knowing real Japanese script will be the most helpful as romaji most likely won’t be used on maps, in books or in that text message your cute language partner just sent you.
10+ Entertaining and Easy Japanese Book Series to Read Now
Now that you understand the Japanese written system and why you shouldn’t give in to romaji, it’s time to pick up a book and dive into Japanese literature! Reading children’s books and manga are a great way to start warming up to reading Japanese. As you look at children’s books, you should familiarize yourself with Japanese sentence structure. If you’ve never read manga before, then you might want to look into a manga guide like Japanese the Manga Way. It will teach you everything you need to know from the layout of panels to casual/spoken Japanese and useful grammar.
Once you’re comfortable reading manga, you might want to dabble in light novels. Light novels are Japanese books that are aimed at middle schoolers and junior high students. They usually have illustrations every few pages, and many of them come with furigana (hiragana placed next to kanji to spell out the pronunciation of a kanji character).
Whatever you decide to read, it’s important to have fun! No matter what your Japanese level is, you should be able to find something interesting to captivate you while you expand your skills.
Below are some entertaining novels that beginners can read:
Yotsuba&! isn’t an action-packed story filled with handsome heroes and heroines, and she won’t teach you the meaning of life, but the large panels, brief text and basic grammar are great for beginners. The manga revolves around a pigtailed toddler who seems to lack any knowledge of social etiquette, which results in some hilarious situations.
Since the scenes are set up in everyday situations, vocabulary is kept quite simple. Furigana is used to accompany all kanji, however Yotsuba’s speech bubbles are written exclusively in hiragana. This may lead to confusion for some readers, so purchasing an English copy of Yotsuba&! to use as a cross reference might be helpful.
Slam Dunk (スラムダンク)
“Slam Dunk” is a classic basketball-themed manga, where delinquent and gang-member Hanamichi Sakuragi winds up joining his high school basketball team to catch the eye of a girl. The team consists of other misfits like Hanamichi. As Hanamichi recognizes his love for the sport, his team quickly gains popularity as they advance towards Japan’s all-stars.
Although Slam Dunk has furigana to accompany all kanji, there will be some parts of the manga that will be difficult for beginner readers to comprehend. This is mainly to do with its sports-themed plot, so make sure to warm up on your basketball terminology (or have a dictionary handy). Turning to the translated version of the manga to verify that you’re understanding the context correctly can be helpful. Overall, beginners should get by fairly well. The large panels and text in the deluxe version (デラックス) will definitely help compensate.
Stories You Can Read Smoothly (イッキによめる！)
Illustrated by Yoshiyuki Momose (you’ll recognize his work in Princess Mononoke), Stories You Can Read Smoothly are exactly as the title reads. The volumes are made up of short stories that should take around 15 minutes or less to read. The first volume consists of nine stories that are aimed at grade-1 readers (so any beginner should be able to pick these up and fare pretty well).
What’s really great about these books is that there’s furigana to accompany kanji (with explanations of difficult and unfamiliar words), and quizzes at the end of each story to test your knowledge and understanding of the context.
Ghibli Film Comics (ジブリフィルムコミックス)
Many Japanese learners and non-learners have been introduced to Studio Ghibli or Miyazaki films at one point in time. Luckily, most of the enchanting movies have been adopted into paperback novels and colorful comics, like Kiki’s Delivery Service (魔女の宅急便, まじょのたっきゅうびん), that are great for beginner readers who know basic kanji like 女 (おんな, woman) or 決 (けつ, decision).
More difficult kanji is accompanied with furigana, however since Ghibli is known for creating some other-worldly characters and situations in their stories, readers should have a dictionary handy. I’d recommend Tangorin‘s online or phone dictionary, since it’s packed with diverse vocabulary.
Beginners would do well picking up the comic adaptations of the movies first, as sentences are kept on the short side and there are plenty of colorful pictures to help better understand the context. Any of the light novels will be beneficial for those looking to challenge themselves or increase their reading proficiency as they work towards becoming an intermediate Japanese speaker.
You can find your favorite storybooks like The Very Hungry Caterpillar (はらぺこああむし), and even Disney tales in Japanese. Guri and Gura (ぐりとぐら) books are a series of famous children’s books that have been translated into numerous languages. They’re great for any beginner reader who wants to challenge themselves with longer sentences and new vocabulary. The situations Guri and Gura come across aren’t too unusual, so knowing normal vocabulary like snow, duck, eat and play will get you far.
Ginga Tetsudou no Yoru (銀河鉄道の夜) and Tebukuro wo Kai Ni (手ぶくろを買いに) are popular children’s tales that many of your Japanese friends have probably read. Ginga Testudou no Yoru is about a boy named Giovanni who’s overworked from his job, school, and caring for his sick mother. One night, Giovanni nearly collides with a train—however it stops before hitting Giovanni, and the student is able to board.
The train takes Giovanni through spectacular places, and during his journey he meets many interesting people, however it becomes clear that the passengers on the train seem to have met tragedy, hinting that the train is really a vehicle for those traveling to the afterlife. Although the sentence structure in Ginga Tesudou no Yoru is suitable for beginners, the book has some uncommon vocabulary like “expeditions,” “galaxy,” and “fossils”. The names of the characters are also foreign, so knowing katakana is a must.
In contrast, Tebukuro wo Kai Ni has more of a simple plot and basic vocabulary. A fox is left to face winter without mittens. In order to keep his poor paws from freezing, the fox sets out on a journey into a human village to fetch himself a pair. The text on each page may seem a bit lengthy, but the book includes furigana (some versions of the book are written entirely in hiragana) and is filled with beautiful illustrations.
Personally, I love any book by Mari Takabayashi (たかばやし・まり). Her illustrations are beautiful, and although her books are written entirely in hiragana, the sentences are a bit more “adult-like” compared to other children’s books. But the vocabulary remains easy-peasy.
Folktales (昔話, むかしばなし)
Children’s fables, fairytales and old folktales provide great insight into Japanese culture, as many social lessons are taught through these texts. Popular fables include Momotaro (桃太郎, ももたろ), Shitakiri Suzume (舌きり雀, したきりすずめ) and Tsuro no Ongaeshi (鶴の恩返し, つるのおんがえし).
A great set of Japanese folktales is Kodomo to Yomu Nihon no Mukashi Banashi こどもとよむ日本の昔ばなし（こどもとよむにほんのむかしばなし), which is a collection of twelve popular folktales, designed for children. Since fables do tend to have some strange words, it’s best to familiarize yourself with words and phrases like,
- 昔 (むかし, olden times)
- むかしむかし (once upon a time)
- 変わる… (かわる, turn into…)
- 奇跡 (きせき, miracle)
- 勇者 (ゆうしゃ, hero/brave person)
- 鬼 (おに, demon/ogre)
- 巨人 (きょじん, giant)
- 幽霊 (ゆうれい, ghost)
- お爺さん (おじいさん, old man)*
*It seems like every-other fable includes an “old man” as a main character.
Japanese Graded Readers (日本語多読, にほんごたどく)
Japanese Graded Readers is a beautiful series of books that keeps beginners in mind. Each set of books are grouped into levels, with Level 0 being appropriate for beginners who fall into the JLPT N5 level. The themes of each book vary from tales of passengers on a bus to guides on how to wear traditional clothing. New vocabulary is slowly introduced according to level, and furigana accompanies new kanji. Since the vocabulary is relatively simple, a beginner should be able to handle the first few books without a dictionary.
Perhaps the best part of Japanese Graded Readers is that each set of books comes with audio, so you can listen as a narrator reads the stories in clear, well-enunciated Japanese. This is great for anyone who’s practicing shadowing techniques.
Magic Tree House Books (マジック・ツリーハウス)
The Magic Tree House books are packed with grammar that you’ll be introduced to as your Japanese studies continue—especially if you’re studying for any type of fluency test. The dialogue is kept on the simple side, so you’ll be able to learn natural conversational Japanese without getting lost in a sea of text.
There are a ton of books in the Magic Tree House, and each book has a different theme (think: dinosaurs or pirates). Although any new vocabulary shouldn’t be too difficult to grasp, the books are available in English to cross-reference, and the furigana that’s included will help readers look up “sword” or “haunted” pretty easily.
Tired of children’s fables? Challenge your mind (and your heart) with tales from Kowai! Exceeding just over 200 pages, Kowai! features short and scary stories from 15 different authors.
Kowai! is aimed at young readers, so there’s furigana that accompanies kanji and occasional pictures will help readers with the context of the novel. The sentence structures aren’t too difficult to grasp, but a dictionary or grammar reference guide will definitely be useful, especially if you’re a beginner who’s still learning the basics of Japanese grammar and compound sentences.
Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes (禎子の千羽鶴, さどこのせんばづる)
Warning: the story of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes is sad if not downright heartbreaking (I went through a thousand paper tissues reading it). Themes include war, leukemia and hope around the making of a thousand paper cranes. Sadako’s story is very famous in Japan and is often referenced in mainstream media. Be sure to pick up the picture book or elementary version—which comes with furigana over all kanji, and grammar that won’t make your head spin.
Bluebird Paperbacks (青い鳥文庫、あおいとりぶんこ)
Kodansha created a series of books aimed at grade 3-6 students, called Aoitori Bunko (青い鳥文庫, あおいとりぶんこ). If you’re looking to make the leap from a beginner to intermediate learner, then do check out these books
Every book from Aoitori has furigana next to kanji. There are tons of books available as well, so even the biggest 本の虫 (ほんのむし, book worm) should find the selection pretty plentiful.
Where to Find New Reading Material
When you’re ready to search for new reading material, be sure to keep a few things in mind. First, try to do a bit of research on the book you’d like to purchase before buying it. Ask yourself, does this book use a lot of slang? Is the vocabulary and kanji that I’ll learn relevant? Questions such as these will help differentiate a helpful book from something a bit useless. (I once made the mistake of buying a historical fiction packed with lots of historical vocabulary, which is still gathering dust on my bookshelf.) Alternatively, you can look for:
Easy Japanese: やさしい日本語 (やさしいにほんご)
Many cities have Japanese bookstores. I was surprised one day when I ran into an all-Japanese bookstore nestled in an alley that I frequently passed in my city. After a quick Google search (my city name +で日本の本屋, でにほんごのほんや), I found that there were nineteen Japanese bookstores nearby that I never knew about.
If getting out of bed and going outside doesn’t do it for you, then there are plenty of online resources that will help you discover new and interesting novels. A great website for those who enjoy children’s books is EhonNavi. Many of the books that they offer allow you to preview a couple of pages from the book, which is very helpful because not many Japanese websites offer this option. EhonNavi also offers a ton of free Japanese children’s books to read online (however you can only read a book once). You can view available books here, but need to register a free account to read them.
CDJapan is a great website if you’d like to search for general reading or study material. Although CDJapan’s book descriptions are in Japanese, they have a huge book catalogue and offer international shipping.White Rabbit Japan is an awesome online store for Japanese graded readers especially, along with other types of reading material sorted by level. All the descriptions here are in English and the site is easy to navigate—and shipping is available from here to a number of countries, too.
With more and more books becoming available to international readers, you should be able to find fun, easy and interesting novels no matter what your level.
Manga cafes, here we come!
Oh, And One More Thing…
These books are awesome for building a strong foundation in Japanese. However, you’re going to want to take a break from time to time. Well, what if we told you that it’s possible to chill and learn Japanese at the same time?
If that sounds good to you, then it’s time for you to check out FluentU.
FluentU takes real-world Japanese videos—like music videos, movie trailers, documentaries, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. It naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You’ll learn real Japanese as it’s spoken in real life.
Just take a look at the wide variety of authentic video content we have available. Here’s a small sample:
You’ll discover tons of new Japanese vocabulary through these great clips.
Don’t worry about your skill level being an issue when it comes to understanding the language. FluentU makes native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts.
Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
You’ll see definitions, in-context usage examples and helpful illustrations. Simply tap “add” to send interesting vocabulary words to your running vocab list for later review.
And FluentU has a learn mode which turns every video into a language learning lesson and gets you to actively practice your newly-learned language.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.