The 10 Best Books To Learn Japanese

(Updated April 2019)

Japanese language students are lucky:  There’s so much competition for Japanese learning materials that the quality of Japanese textbooks out there are extremely high compared to some other less-pursued languages (even compared to Korean for example).

In the 10+ years I’ve been studying Japanese, I have bought piles and piles of Japanese language books, always with the idea of looking for the one to rule them all. In the end, no textbook is perfect: all have their strengths and weaknesses, but there are clearly some that are exceptionally well thought out, and will help you get you the best ‘bang for your buck’ in your Japanese study.

Without further ado, here are the 10 best resource books we’ve found for Japanese self-study.

The 10 Best Books to Learn Japanese

1. GENKI I: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese

If you took Japanese in University, this is probably the textbook you used. And love it or hate it, it’s still probably the best beginners Japanese textbook out there.

There are no shortcuts with this textbook — you have to put in the time to learn and absorb the material.  If you can work through to the end of this textbook, you’ll the necessary foundations of vocabulary, grammar, hiragana, katakana, and some basic kanji to build on.

The book is divided into 2 sections:

Conversation / Grammar focuses on learning vocabulary, sentence structure and culturally useful expressions via studying dialogues.

Reading / Writing focuses on teaching you kanji and reading comprehension via lessons that correspond to the Conversation part of the book.

Overall, while the Genki series still has some flaws that other textbooks have (for example, it teaches ‘Sayonara’ for ‘goodbye’, which isn’t very commonly used day-to-day in Japan), it’s still the best book out there to start learning Japanese on your own.

Pros:

  • Accompanying CD for practicing pronunciation
  • Lots of exercises to practice at the end of each chapter
  • If you finish this textbook, you’ll have a fairly large vocabulary (about 50 words per chapter)

Cons: 

  • Unusual standard of romanization:  ie. kiree instead of kirei
  • Doesn’t include stroke order for kanji
  • Sometimes not 100% logical in its presentation (ie. teaching 5 color words, but then skipping the rest)

Notes:

  • If you get Genki, we also recommend you get the workbook too.

 

2. A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar

There’s a reason why this book is known as the “Yellow Book” or “The Bible” among Japan expats. It is probably the best Japanese learning resource I have ever come across. Clearly and thoroughly written with great example sentences. If you are at a more advanced level, check out the “Blue” and “Red” books by the same authors.

Pros:

  • Comprehensive and thorough
  • Grammar points are explained clearly and with helpful examples
  • Learn the difference between similar and often confused grammar points

Cons: 

  • This book is not a textbook — think of it as a dictionary of grammar (as the title says)

 

3. Remembering the Kana: A Guide to Reading and Writing the Japanese Syllabaries in 3 Hours Each

In this book James Heisig applies his mnemonics method to learning to read and write the Japanese writing systems of Hiragana and Katakana. I found it really helpful when I was starting out.

Pros:

  • Mnemonics that really help to remember each character
  • Can teach you how to recognize hiragana and katakana in 3 hours each

Notes:

  • If you already know kana, skip this one and jump ahead to Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji book
  • If you’ve learned some kana without much difficulty, you may find this book ‘overcomplicates’ the learning

 

4. Kodansha’s Furigana Japanese Dictionary

This has to be the best Japanese-English dictionary in print form. Kodansha really gave a lot of thought to the layout and functionality of this dictionary — and it shows.  This furigana dictionary is a must-have in the library of any serious Japanese learner, from beginner to N1.

Pros:

  • Great section on how to conjugate regular and irregular Japanese verbs
  • Example sentences to show how words are often used

Cons: 

  • If anything, it’s not big enough for some more intermediate or advanced users
  • No information on intonation

Notes:

  • Organized alphabetically by kana, not the roman alphabet
  • No romaji, all furigana

 

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

Heisig’s Remembering The Kanji is an invaluable book for mastering kanji, and this book should be required reading for all serious learners of Japanese.

My personal anecdote about this book: I struggled terribly with remembering Kanji before I came across this book years ago, and it helped me immensely. Although I’ve forgotten many of the mnemonic ‘stories’ I first learned, I still remember the meanings of most kanji.

Pros:

  • Learn the ‘parts’ that make up a kanji
  • Teaches you how to remember the meanings of hundreds of characters

Cons: 

  • Some of the keywords chosen in the book are ambiguous or strange (ie. rarely-used English words instead of its regular-use equivalent)
  • You’ll only learn the basic ‘meaning’ of the kanji, so without further study you won’t be able to ‘read’ Japanese kanji or compound words

Notes:

  • Some people report not being able to view kanji stroke order on the kindle version. Buyer beware!
  • Most people pair this book with Anki flashcard software. I did this and 100% recommend it

 

6. Kanji in Context

So this is another kanji-related book. Kanji in Context allows you to build a strong vocabulary after using Heisig’s book.

Pros:

  • Over 150 lessons that teach kanji within the context of writings

Cons:

  • Might be hard to find or expensive outside of Japan

Notes

  • Not for beginners — more intermediate to advanced

 

7. The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary

This is the best kanji reference dictionary that I’ve come across.  The newest edition has the most common 3000 kanji, in a book that almost could fit in your pocket. An invaluable resource.

Pros:

  • A visually appealing, well layed-out dictionary
  • The ‘SKIP’ method used to look up kanji is quite ingenious
  • Up to date, reliable definitions and examples

Notes

  • Some people find the lookup method unintuitive (however I think this is rare)

 

8. How to Sound Intelligent in Japanese: A Vocabulary Builder

This book is aimed at students who already have a good grasp of Japanese and want to be able to sound, well, smarter by building their vocabulary with intelligent sounding words. If you’re looking for words and concepts that would impress a native Japanese with your ability, this is probably the one.

Pros:

  • Good structure and categorization
  • Fun learning for advanced students

Cons:

  • Often vocabulary is quite specialized and difficult to use

Notes

  • Recommended for N3 or above (not lower).

 

9. Making Out in Japanese

Ok, so not really a serious one, but you’ll definitely have a lot of laughs with it!

Pros:

  • Fun and entertaining (and possibly useful, if you end up in Japan)

Cons:

  • You might consider the phrases ‘too lame’ to use in real situations

Notes

  • Contains language not suitable for younger readers

 

10. Pimsleur Japanese

Not strictly a book, but it’s a great audio course for starting out in Japanese. Gets a bit too corporate for my liking towards the end of the 3rd series, but you will remember and be able to use what you learn with Pimsleur. You can sample Pimsleur Japanese for free with a Audible 30 day trial. Download the taster course here.

Notes

  • A lot of people hate on Pimsleur (Why???), but it’s really good for beginners to get you speaking.  Try it out if you’re just starting Japanese!

 

Honorable Mention: Kanji Study Cards

This is not a ‘book’ per say, but flash cards.  Kanji study cards that accompany James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji (above). It is definitely nice having all 2048 kanji with their readings in one set and it saves you the effort of making the cards/notes yourself. If you’re lazy like me it’s a no-brainer!

Pros:

  • Very helpful if you’re using Heisig’s method for learning the kanji

Cons: 

  • Expensive and difficult to find (used to be $100 on Amazon, now difficult to find retail)

Notes:

  • Only useful in conjunction with the Remembering the Kanji book
  • Cards haven’t been laminated so you can write your own notes on the cards. The downside of this is they can become ‘boro-boro‘ quite easily

 


So there you have it. There are probably more (I have spent a lot of money on Japanese books over the years) but those are the books that stood out for me. Enjoy!

Update: We have since posted up some more helpful books for studying Japanese. Check them out here.

What Is Ganbatte

What Is Ganbatte?

Ganbatte Meaning

Westerners vaguely familiar with the Japanese term “ganbatte” sometimes think of the English translation as “good luck” or “hard work.” However, ganbatte is less about one’s luck and more about defining one’s own destiny. A more specific and appropriate translation of ganbatte is “do your best.”

Cultural background of ‘Ganbatte’ in Japan

Ganbatte is more than just a Japanese word; it is a core language component of the country’s culture and ethos. Ganbatte describes something rooted in the citizens of Japan from birth, a sentiment carried with them throughout their entire lives. It is a call to persevere whatever the challenge at hand may be, whether it is a simple daily task, an important job interview, a youth sporting competition, or something as serious as battling a life-threatening illness.

While there is an element of empathy in ganbatte, and a similarity to suggesting that someone “hang in there,” it is also a rallying cry in times of adversity. It is a charge to “give it your all.” And it is easy to see how some people could end up feeling patronized or even offended by the use of ganbatte. Expressing it to someone struggling with depression, for example, can be tricky. The depressed individual already feels unable to give it his all, and ganbatte might feel like the equivalent of twisting a knife in the open wound. Or the spouse whose husband has left her for the nanny might bristle at the mention of ganbatte, being told to persevere and “keep her chin up” when she feels her entire world has been shattered.

For the Japanese, however, ganbatte is indeed a way of life, no matter what kind of adversity one faces. It is related to the term gaman, from Zen Buddhism, which is ultimately about persevering with dignity no matter how difficult one’s circumstances may be. These are defining elements of Japanese culture, on display in myriad ways from their commitment and loyalty at work to the respect earned by those who persevere with humility and without complaint. To better understand ganbatte and its variations, we will walk you through some additional terminology.

How to Pronounce Ganbatte

First things first. If you read the introductory section of this article pronouncing the term “gan-bat,” then let’s clear up the confusion. The correct pronunciation is gahn-baht-te, which has been transliterated from kanji characters or Japanese script. Now that we have the correct pronunciation under our belts, we will move on to how it is used. 

How to use Ganbatte

Ganbatte and Its Variations

Depending on the person or situation, the Japanese use ganbatte in a number of different ways, each calling on the central theme of persevering and trying your best. But just as you might alter your statement to a runner at the start line versus what you might tell her at the finish line, there are a number of different variations here as well.

Ganbatte kudasai

“Ganbatte kudasai” is a more formal or polite way to tell someone “do your best,” whereas ganbatte on its own would be considered the more casual way. The addition of “kudasai” turns the phrase into “do your best, please.” In either case, it is a call for the hearer to strive to reach their highest potential, to give their all, whatever endeavor lies before them.

Ganbarimasu

The appropriate response to Ganbatte kudasai is “Hai, ganbarimasu!” and the appropriate response to ganbatte is “Un, ganburu!” Both of these are an acknowledgment to the other party that can be translated as “yes, I will do my best.”

Two important distinctions exist in terms of how you might use ganbatte with peers versus your superiors.

Ganbare

Ganbare is the imperative form of ganbatte, and it can still be translated as “do your best,” but in this instance, it is more of a command than a wish. You wouldn’t necessarily say “ganbare” to a superior at work, for example (whereas ganbatte is still suitable). Ganbare is more appropriate between peers or from a superior to someone ranked below her in a working environment, for example.

Ganbarou

The collective rallying cry form of ganbatte is “ganbarou,” which translates to “let us all do our best.” Ganbarou is about a team meeting its challenges together; it is a commitment among all members to put forth their best effort.

Ganbatte iru

While a task is underway, or even once it is finished, there are additional variations of ganbatte used in Japanese culture. “Ganbatte iru” is one example used when the task is underway, and especially if the struggle is difficult, to emphasize “I am doing my best.”

Ganbaritai

“Ganbaritai” can be used when the task is underway to express some form of doubt, “I am doing my best, but I may not be able to overcome these obstacles.”

Ganbatte ita

“Ganbatte ita” would be used to describe doing one’s best in the past tense, as a way to reflect on a past struggle or difficult task and confirm that one did indeed try their best.

Ganbarankatta

“Ganbarankatta” is an admission that “I was unable to do my best,” and it is a humble way of taking responsibility for one’s own failure, without casting blame on circumstances or other people.

Ganbatta

Similarly, as a measure to console or encourage someone in the above scenario, you might tell them “ganbatta daro,” which can be translated into “you did the best you could.”

In a case where a task has been accomplished, regardless of the outcome, an individual may tell their friends and family “ganbatta,” which means “I did my best.” “Ganbarimashita” would be a more formal way of saying the same thing.

 

As mentioned earlier, there may be times when you are reluctant to use ganbatte or any of its variations, when you fear the recipient could feel insulted by the phrase. An alternative for this would be the Japanese translation of a popular American phrase: “keep your chin up.” If this seems more appropriate for the individual and circumstances, tell them “genki dashite” instead.

Stop texting and start learning! Studying during your commute: Part 1

I moved to Saitama about three months ago, which gives me a commute time of roughly 40 minutes to work. This is longer than the 10 minutes or so from my previous apartment in Tokyo. Well, something interesting happened to my language studies as a result. I find that I am learning a lot more Japanese! For the record, I am a full-time Japanese-English translator; contrary to popular belief, translators still need to constantly learn new vocabulary and industry terminology to stay competitive. This game never ends!

In this series, I’m going to share how you can better use your commute time for learning a foreign language. In today’s post, I will talk about the benefits of studying on your way to work or school.

Continue reading Stop texting and start learning! Studying during your commute: Part 1

Perapera Firefox is no more

Getting a lot of messages about Perapera for Firefox. The answer is that we are no longer updating it. The last update, we had to hire a freelancer to help fix some issues (no time these days) and barely anyone donated. I’m not sure why people stopped donating lately. I think we got about $40 and spent several hundred. I don’t say that to complain (and we don’t usually keep count anyways), but that’s basically why we are stopping the updates since it’s no longer feasible to continue them. Thank you for your support for all these years. The blog and the Chrome extensions are here to stay but Firefox just got too annoying.

If anyone wants to take it up on themselves to fix the Firefox add-on go ahead. 🙂

https://github.com/peraperakun

Is Japanese hard to learn? Yes and no!

One question that I’m asked all the time is whether Japanese is a difficult language to learn. My instinctual answer would be to say that it’s easy, but I’m 11+ years invested in the language already. Well I would say that wouldn’t I? 😀 However, I do truly believe that anyone can learn Japanese with a little time and effort.
Continue reading Is Japanese hard to learn? Yes and no!

What is the best Japanese dictionary?

Whether you are just starting out with learning Japanese or at a more advanced level, having a good dictionary available is vital. In this article, I will break down my favourite Japanese-English dictionaries for various purposes. Bear in mind that this is by no means an exhaustive list nor is it intended as one. It simply represents my own personal experiences with studying Japanese and using it at work.
Continue reading What is the best Japanese dictionary?

JapanesePod101 – A full review

When I started out on my path to Japanese fluency, resources such as textbooks and audio courses on CD were the only realistic way to make progress with this challenging language. Happily, there are now a a lot more choices when it comes to studying Japanese online.

The problem that students of Japanese now face is one of quality rather than quantity. So which solutions give you the best bang for your buck? In my humble opinion, JapanesePod101 is one of the best online courses out there for people who are serious about making significant progress in the language. As promised, I’ve finally got around to writing a complete review so here goes!

japanesepod101

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Continue reading JapanesePod101 – A full review

Please donate to support the Perapera plugins

Are you a regular user of our Chinese and/or Japanese plugins? Do you wish to see them continue to be updated into the future?

We get daily emails and messages from people requesting improvements and bug fixes. This is great and we are happy that many people still value our plugins. Unfortunately, we can’t continue development work without your support.

Without boring you with the details, we have hired freelancers for the last couple of updates. One way or another, development comes at a cost.

Please make a donation now to support our project.



What are the best podcasts for learning Japanese?

Podcasts can be a fantastic way of rapidly expanding your familiarity with a language. For Japanese, there is a multitude of resources available. In this post, I am going to list up the best Japanese podcasts that I have come across.

JapanesePod101: A great podcast for Japanese learners

japanesepod101

Continue reading What are the best podcasts for learning Japanese?