The Essential Guide to Learning Japanese with Children’s Picture Books

What was your favorite picture book when you were a kid?

Now that you’re here studying Japanese from the ground up, wouldn’t it be great if you had something like your favorite picture book that could help with your Japanese?

Japanese 絵本 (えほん – picture book[s]) might be written for kids, but they’re fantastic study tools for beginning to lower-intermediate Japanese learners of all ages.

In this post, we’ll look at some of the benefits of using 絵本, how to use them to study and five choice titles to help you get started.


Why Use Japanese Picture Books to Practice Japanese Reading?

Before we get into book recommendations, let’s talk a little bit about the benefits of using Japanese picture books as study tools. There are some key skill areas that can be improved by reading these books, and you’ll need to identify them in order to target them.

They’re artistic, creative and entertaining.

It’s akin to watching Japanese anime shows and reading manga to study Japanese. 絵本 typically feature かわいい (cute) characters, many of which are totally bonkers! For example, one book I read with my daughter recently, ほっぺおばけ (cheek ghosts), is about ghosts who dine on people’s cheeks! Because Japanese 絵本 are so light and fun, reading them feels less like “study” and more like educational leisure time – which is exactly what we want study to be!

They can improve your pronunciation and reading speed.

Because 絵本 are generally written for children who are just getting accustomed to the Japanese language, they focus heavily on natural rhythm and intonation as well as tricky sounds for kids, like ちゃ and っ.

They feature shorter sentences and emphasize key content words.

Content words are 名詞 [めいし – nouns] and 動詞 [どうし – verbs]. This makes it easier for you to skim to get the main idea. Skimming is a skill that will come in handy as your Japanese develops and you tackle things like 漫画 (まんが – comics) and the JLPT. Use 絵本 as a way to hone this skill moving forward! The only potential drawback is that 絵本 are usually written in ひらがな. If you’re looking to improve your reading speed while also reinforcing your basic 漢字 (かんじ) recognition, you may want to look elsewhere. This blog post is a great place to begin your search for kanji learning resources

They’re great for boosting basic Japanese vocabulary.

絵本 use common words and phrases which are essential for achieving fluency in everyday Japanese. They’re a great way to fill in any gaps you may have in your basic vocabulary.

You’ll learn more about Japanese society and culture.

Reading Japanese 絵本 will help boost your cultural knowledge in all kinds of ways. 絵本 often center around fundamentals of Japanese culture which their main readers – kids – need to know about. They might be legends, characters, places or even aspects of society such as 和 (わ – harmony, friendship). There are also picture book versions of classic Japanese stories – 昔話 (むかしばなし – folk tales). These stories are still read and loved by Japanese of all generations. Knowing them will help you relate to your Japanese friends or language exchange partners even better!

All of these benefits make Japanese 絵本 excellent tools for your Japanese studies.

A Simple Method for Learning Japanese from 絵本

The first time, skim the book. Read it as silently and quickly as you can. Try to focus on the most important words in the sentences. If you run into words you don’t know, don’t stop to look them up! Power on through and do your best to understand the main idea and some important details.

Next, read it again out loud. This helps you make sure you understood the story right the first time around. This is also very good for pronunciation practice. Focus on getting your pronunciation, rhythm and intonation correct. Pause only where appropriate. And don’t be afraid to go back over sentences or passages that were hard to navigate with your tongue – repetition is essential for building fluency! One good tip that has worked for me is to record myself reading the book, play it back a few times, take note of my pronunciation and then try again.

Then, take note of any new words or phrases that you’d like to remember. There may be a lot of new vocabulary words for you depending on the difficulty of the book. It’s not necessary to remember them all. Just focus on the essentials, the ones that you’ll be most likely to use or see again in the near future. Record the words in a notebook or a note-taking application on your phone and review them until you’ve internalized them. Take it even one step further by writing original sentences with your words and repeating them out loud!

Another wonderful thing about 絵本 is that they’re relatively short. You can read them anytime you want. So, after you’ve gone through the steps above, go back to the book whenever you have a chunk of time you can kill with some Japanese study. This is a great way to review the words and phrases you learned and also build your confidence. Note how much faster and smoother you’re able to read the story compared to the first time. You’ll probably be amazed by how much better you understand it!

5 Classic Picture Books to Power Up Your Japanese Reading Skills

If you’re keen to explore the world of Japanese 絵本, 絵本ナビ/ehonNavi is the best place to start. 絵本ナビ is an online picture book retailer based in Japan with tens of thousands of 絵本 in its catalog. You can search books by sales ranking, review ranking and even by age group! They also have hundreds of books available in full online. Users can do 試し読み (ためしよみ), or sample reading sessions, for free. You have to create a free user account to access these sample books (registration only takes a minute) and can read each sample book only once.

And if you like learning Japanese with fun, authentic materials like these picture books, you’ll love FluentU.

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Below are five Japanese 絵本 to get you started with your reading practice. All of the titles below have remained popular with Japanese of all ages for many years. They’re available at 絵本ナビ and other retailers, and if you live in Japan or a large city, you’ll probably be able to find them at your public library, too.

Now, on to the books! Keep in mind that each of these titles is targeted towards a different age group and reading level.

ぐりとぐら (Guri and Gura)

5 classic picture books to power up japanese

ぐりand ぐらare two mice who, in their travels, come across a huge egg. Naturally, this gives them the idea to make a gigantic cake that will last a long, long time! First published in 1963, ぐりとぐら is arguably the best-known Japanese children’s picture book ever. Chances are good that any Japanese person you ever meet will have read it – or will at least have heard of it. It has been translated into several languages and eventually spun off into a full-on series of 絵本.

しろくまちゃんのほっとけーき (Shirokuma-chan’s Pancakes)

5 classic picture books to power up japanese

If you like pancakes and adorable bears, then しろくまちゃんのほっとけーき should be right up your alley. The tale is a simple one: little Shirokuma asks his mother to make pancakes for him and then she does! しろくまちゃんのほっとけーき is a great book for learning onomatopoeia. Part of the book is devoted to the sounds of mother cooking the pancakes. Lots of cool vocabulary is introduced!

だるまちゃんとてんぐちゃん (Little Daruma and Little Tengu)

5 classic picture books to power up japanese

Two traditional Japanese characters, the Daruma and the Tengu, are made cute and fun in this children’s classic. Little Daruma-chan is envious of Tengu-chan’s possessions, like his 扇子 (せんす – fan) and his 下駄 (げた- wooden clogs). Daruma-chan’s father, trying to make him feel better, does his best to scrounge up these things for his son but is not always successful. だるまちゃんとてんぐちゃん also became a successful book series and has been published in English.

かいけつゾロリシリーズ (The Kaiketsu Zorori Series)

5 classic picture books to power up japanese

Zorori is a fox and a wanted criminal whose only ambition is to become the world’s greatest prankster. He travels from place to place with this goal in mind, but his mischievous ways end up getting him and his friends into trouble more often than not. The かいけつゾロリ series, as of this blog plot’s publication, is comprised of over 50 titles. That being said, it’s hard to recommend just one. Don’t worry though, any one of them is a good place to start. The Zorori books are full of humor since Zorori himself often speaks in crazy Japanese だじゃれ (puns).

美しい数学シリーズ (The Utsukushii Suugaku Series)

5 classic picture books to power up japanese

Another famous series loved by both children and adults alike is the 美しい数学 (うつくしいすうがく) series. The books in this series are famed for their simple stories, gorgeous artwork and unique ability to subtly stoke a love of numbers in those who read them – even the most math-resistant! These are great books to both build your vocabulary and your skills with the Japanese number system. Among the titles in this series, 壺の中(つぼのなか – English title: Anno’s Mysterious Multiplying Jar) is particularly well-regarded for its amazing pictures.

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