Who didn’t love comic books as a kid?
Well, thanks to your need to study Japanese, you can love comic books again!
Manga, Japanese comic books, spans across all genres and appeal to audiences of all ages and stages.
Manga is also a highly entertaining resource for Japanese reading practice.
But let’s take it one step beyond this—what lessons should you be looking out for and what manga should you read? Anybody who has been inside a manga store in Japan knows that there are literally thousands of options.
So, I have put together a short list of some of the most popular manga right now (in Japan and abroad), along with some modern classics to get you started. All have been adapted into anime, and several into live-action films. They are all different genres and tell very different kinds of stories, and all contain different and interesting lessons in Japanese grammar and vocab.
How to Use Manga as an Effective Japanese Study Tool
The first step to reading manga in Japanese is to familiarize yourself with the story.
Someday maybe we will be advanced enough students to simply pluck a book off the shelf, open it up and start reading. When that day comes, you will enjoy being able to get really lost in the story of the manga but until then, you should concentrate on the language.
So, to keep from getting distracted or frustrated because you can’t keep track of the story, read the English translation of the manga first or watch the anime or live-action adaptation.
However, you can skip this step if you would like to, as the artwork in manga tells the story as much as the text—another reason why it is such a perfect reading tool!
If you live in the U.S. or Canada, a great place to search for English versions of manga is on Right Stuf Anime, a site that specializes in Japanese print and video products and offers free shipping on a large enough order.
Another way to ease into reading manga is by checking out the wealth of reading material available on White Rabbit Japan. This is another online store (that offers international shipping), and they break material down by level. They also have some bilingual comics and other educational materials that use manga and illustrations in the learning process.
Once you are familiar with the story and feel ready to concentrate exclusively on reading, sit down with the manga and its English translation. It can be really hard to look up unfamiliar grammar forms, so I like to do a close comparison between the Japanese and the English to demonstrate to myself the English equivalent of a new Japanese sentence structure, or to help me understand what I’m reading.
For example, in chapter 10 of “One Punch Man,” when Saitama agrees to help the S-Class heroes fight impending peril because “どうせ暇だから” (どうせ ひま だから – I’ve got free time), I wasn’t familiar with such a casual phrase (and I always knew “free time” as ひま), so I cottoned on to the joke much faster because I read it in English alongside the Japanese—otherwise it could have gone straight over my head.
Having the English copy on hand can also save you loads of time looking up unknown kanji and vocab. You can just check how the word has been translated, rather than having to get out your dictionary or translator. Of course, there are always variations between translations so I still like to note down the unfamiliar words to check up on later.
5 Crazy Cool Japanese Comic Books You’ve Got to Know
Webcomic comedy series “One Punch Man,“ written by an author under the pseudonym of One, follows the story of Saitama, a ヒーローをやっている者だ (ひーろーをやっているものだ – hero for fun) with such immense power that he can defeat all enemies with a single punch.
Saitama lives in the ruins of City Z, one of several cities in a fictional Japanese metropolis ravaged by terrible monsters. He and Genos, a cyborg desperate to learn from Saitama, join the Heroes Association to help fight these mysterious and increasingly destructive monsters. Saitama’s abilities are ignored, disregarded and feared by the establishment.
“One Punch Man” is a great manga for less advanced readers, as all the kanji include furigana and the text boxes are relatively small compared to the illustrations. The different ways that the characters speak are also great for beginner-intermediate learners.
Saitama is casual, colloquial and almost lazy in the way he speaks. He never seems to use honorifics or change the way he speaks according to whom he is talking. For example when he first meets シルバーファング (しるばーふぁんぐ – Silver Fang), an older man and one of the most highly ranked Class S heroes, he calls him おじいさん (Grandpa or “Old Man”). Genos is the extreme opposite.
Genos is so formal and polite in his language, even with Saitama, that it comes across as wooden and awkward. Style of speech is an important way to characterize in Japan, and you can tell a lot about a character from the way that they speak, particularly to strangers. “One Punch Man” is a great manga to get yourself starting to understand the effects of voice and tone in spoken Japanese.
Cult psychological thriller “Death Note” (デスノート/ですのーと), written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata, follows the story of Light Yagami, a high school student who discovers the Death Note of a shinigami named Ryuk.
A Death Note is a supernatural notebook that allows its user to kill anybody, needing only to know the face and name of the victim. The series follows Light’s attempt to cleanse the world of evil using this book and his growing obsession with its power. Genius detective L is hired by the police to find the source of all the mysterious deaths and to stop the perpetrator.
Since its first release from 2003-2006, “Death Note” has been a consistently popular manga. It has been adapted into an anime series, three live-action films (one due for release this year) and a live-action series. As of 2015, over 30 million copies of the manga are in circulation.
Here’s a list of thematic vocab that I’ve pulled out of “Death Note”:
- 死神 (しにがみ – god of death)
- 壮絶 (そうぜつ – grand/heroic) *な-adjective
- 選ばれし者 (えらばれしもの) the chosen one/a select few
- 不幸 (ふこう – unhappiness/sorrow/misfortune) *な-adjective
- 病む (やむ – to fall ill)
- 未来 (みらい – future)
- りんご (apple)
“Attack on Titan”
Hajime Isayama’s horror series “Attack on Titan” (進撃の巨人 / しんげきのきょじん) is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the remnants of humanity live in cities surrounded by high walls, cowering from the 巨人 (きょじん – Titans), enormous humanoid creatures that devour humans on instinct.
Eren Yeager, his adopted sister Mikasa Ackerman and their childhood friend, Armin Arlet, survive an invasion from the Titans, where Eren’s mother is eaten. They join the military to fight the Titans, and as the series progresses they begin to uncover the mysteries of the Titans.
“Attack on Titan” is an ongoing series that has been released in English and has been adapted into an anime series (the second season was recently announced to be released this year) and into two live-action films that were released in summer 2015.
While much of the language is quite specific to the theme, the illustrations tell the story really well even if you have trouble with the text, so I recommend “Attack on Titan” to anyone with an interest in attempting to read the story. You can buy the Japanese manga, and the English translation here.
Here’s a list of some vocab you will find in “Attack on Titan”:
- 巨人 (きょじん – titan/giant)
- 恐怖 (きょうふ – terror)
- 支配 (する) (しはい (する )) – control)
- 屈辱 (くつじょく – disgrace/humiliation)
- 総員 (そういん – entire strength)
- 戦闘 (せんとう – battle)
- 目標 (もくひょう – objective/target)
- 人類 (じんるい – humanity)
- 壁 (かべ – wall)
- 囚われる (とらわれる – to be imprisoned)
“Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon” (美少女戦士セーラームーン/びしょうじょ せんし せーらーむーん), written and illustrated by Naoko Takeuchi, was one of my favorite stories growing up.
The manga (and the anime adaptation) tell the story of Usagi, a hapless teenage girl who rescues a talking cat named Luna, who tells her that she is actually from an ancient society that lived on the moon. She was sent to the future on Earth with no memory of her true identity, to protect her from evil Queen Beryl of the Dark Kingdom (known as the Negaverse in the English adaptation).
She and Luna go on a journey to find first the other セーラー戦士 (せーらーせんし – Sailor Scouts) and then the Moon Crystal and the princess of the Moon—all while fighting the monsters of the Dark Kingdom to prevent the destruction of the solar system.
“Sailor Moon” is an older manga, first published in 1992, but it still has a widespread and faithful following in Japan and around the world. The manga has a lot of text, but it is a good option for learners trying to improve their reading as the first few chapters basically follow exactly the same story line. So, you can plug your way through all the text without fear of missing an important part of the story. It is available in Japanese and English.
An important thing to keep in mind when reading “Sailor Moon” is that she really talks like a young girl. I’ve adopted some of her idiosyncrasies to make my Japanese sound a little more warm and friendly, but I would be careful not to mimic her too closely for fear of sounding a bit juvenile. Gendered language is not really grammatical, unlike in many European languages, so even if you use slightly more feminine or masculine language, it will not affect how others understand you.
But it is worth noting some facets of 女言葉/おんなことば or “women’s language” to watch out for, especially if you use popular culture a lot in your learning. Usagi calls everyone she knows so-and-so-ちゃん, whether they are comfortable about it or not. She also refers to herself as あたし rather than わたし, a common pronunciation by girls and women. When asking a question in informal Japanese, it is uncommon to finish with か. Often the question is simply indicated by tone of voice, but girls and women also use の and なの? to end a question.
Serialized since 2012 and finishing only very recently in March 2016, “Assassination Classroom,” written and illustrated by Yusei Matsui is set in class 3-D, where delinquent students are taught by an extremely powerful octopus-like alien teacher.
This teacher’s name is 殺せんせー (ころせんせいー – Koro-sensei), a play on 殺せない (殺せない – unkillable) and 先生 (せんせー – teacher).
He proves to be an inspiring and empathetic teacher, schooling them both in regular lessons and techniques in assassination. The students have been tasked with assassinating him within the year, or else he will destroy all of planet Earth. This manga defies genre in many ways. At times it is a schoolroom drama, at others an action adventure with a healthy dose of comedy.
Thanks to the wide range of themes, I found parts of this manga easy to read and other parts more challenging with language that’s quite specific and difficult. This makes it a great option for students trying to advance to increasingly challenging levels of reading. This was one that I definitely needed to read in both Japanese and English.
There are a few useful grammar lessons even in just the first line of “Assassination Classroom”: “僕らは殺し屋” (ぼくらは ころしや), meaning “we are assassins.” Adding ら to 僕 turns 僕 from I (masculine) to we. So, “僕らは” means “we are.” The verb 殺す (to kill) then follows using the ます stem, し. Using the ます stem of a verb and adding 屋 to it shows that this is the person who does the verb—in this case, the person who kills: a killer, an assassin.
So, there you have it.
With this introduction to some great reads (and a couple of their hidden lessons), you should be well on your way to reading manga in Japanese, just because you can!
Who said that reading Japanese was impossible?
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