Category Archives: kanji

Learn Japanese kanji the smart way

The first book I ever bought for learning Japanese was a kanji book. This was long before I had visited Japan or knew any Japanese. Little did I know that my long battle with learning the kanji had just begun. To the beginner, there is something intimidating about the prospect of learning these characters. To many, memorizing 2000 seemingly random squiggles to reach functional literacy sounds like an impossible undertaking.
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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.