(Updated June 18, 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 12 best resource books we’ve found for Japanese self-study.
The 12 Best Books to Learn Japanese
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.
- 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)
- 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)
- If you get Genki, we also recommend you get the workbook too.
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.
- Comprehensive and thorough
- Grammar points are explained clearly and with helpful examples
- Learn the difference between similar and often confused grammar points
- This book is not a textbook — think of it as a dictionary of grammar (as the title says)
- Mnemonics that really help to remember each character
- Can teach you how to recognize hiragana and katakana in 3 hours each
- 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
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.
- Great section on how to conjugate regular and irregular Japanese verbs
- Example sentences to show how words are often used
- If anything, it’s not big enough for some more intermediate or advanced users
- No information on intonation
- 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
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.
- Learn the ‘parts’ that make up a kanji
- Teaches you how to remember the meanings of hundreds of characters
- 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
- 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
- Over 150 lessons that teach kanji within the context of writings
- Might be hard to find or expensive outside of Japan
- Not for beginners — more intermediate to advanced
- 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
- Some people find the lookup method unintuitive (however I think this is rare)
If you’re just starting to learn Japanese, and are aiming to take the N5 test (or even if you’re in need of a refresher), I highly recommend this book. It has an easy to follow layout, great illustrations, and covers each topic at a good pace.
One of the best ways to prepare for the JLPT test is doing actual practice questions, which this book has plenty of. The practice sections include all the different types of questions that you’ll see on the actual test (kanji, grammar, reading and listening), so you’ll know which areas you’re prepared for, and which need more work.
If you’re working towards N5, this is the book for you!
- More than 300 JLPT N5 practice questions included
- 3 printable N5 practice tests
- Accompanying audio for listening comprehension
- Printable flash cards for kana and N5 kanji
- Fun illustrations and dialogues
- Ideal for students wanting to go from zero to N5 in a short amount of time.
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.
- Good structure and categorization
- Fun learning for advanced students
- Often vocabulary is quite specialized and difficult to use
- Recommended for N3 or above (not lower).
This is a great book for making the tricky jump from intermediate to advanced Japanese. Of course, you can read “real” Japanese anytime nowadays online but it’s sometimes nice to have explanations for unknown expressions and writing styles you come across. The book contains eight varying and interesting essays by famous Japanese authors such as Haruki Murakami, Seiko Ito and Banana Yoshimoto.
I enjoyed studying with this book except for the author’s inexplicable usage of romaji in the vocabulary explanations. Why would an advanced learner still be using romaji? Anyway, it is an interesting read and you should be able to find it used for cheap on Amazon.
- Helpful in making the difficult jump from textbooks to reading “real” Japanese
- Great selection from contemporary writers such as:
- Seiko Ito
- Momoko Sakura
- Ryuichi Sakamoto
- Banana Yoshimoto
- The use of romaji in a book for advanced students is a questionable and unfortunate design choice
- Lack of sentence-by-sentence translation
The follow-up to the original is much improved with an audio CD included and the romaji scrapped! It gets difficult in some places and new kanji readings are only given once so it’s definitely for intermediate learners and up.
- Notes that explain cultural contexts and usage
- Narrated CD comes with the book
- Interesting contemporary essays from popular authors including:
- Murakami Haruki
- Yoshimoto Banana
- Hirano Keiichiro
- For intermediate students (if you’ve finished the Genki series, you could try this out)
- Excellent selection of stories from well-known, established authors:
- Kawakami Hiromi
- Ishii Shinji
- Yoshimoto Banana
- Kitamura Kaoru
- Tawada Yoko
- Helpful notes in the back of the book
- Narrated CD comes with the book
- Doesn’t include complete translations of all sentences
- Furigana next to every new kanji (could be a plus, depending on your level)
- Not organized by level of difficulty (the first story is harder than the second for example)
Honorable Mentions That Didn’t Quite Make the List
A solid offering from the Japan Times for building up your Japanese vocabulary. Each lesson presents a new article with vocabulary and exercises. There’s also two audio CDs included. A lesson a day will quickly improve your reading comprehension.
- Comes with 2 CDs
- Great for building vocabulary to eventually read the newspaper
- Difficult to find outside of Japan — it’s available to buy, but can be quite expensive! Recommended you search second hand.
- For intermediate to advanced
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.
- 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!
- Fun and entertaining (and possibly useful, if you end up single in Japan!)
- You might consider the phrases ‘too lame’ to use in real situations
- Contains language not suitable for younger readers
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!
- Very helpful if you’re using Heisig’s method for learning the kanji
- Expensive and difficult to find (used to be $100 on Amazon, now difficult to find retail)
- 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!