Category Archives: reading

4 ways to find interesting Japanese content to read for the Kindle

It’s one thing to learn Japanese but another to find interesting content to read in the language. In a previous post, I wrote about the Kindle Paperwhite and its significance for Japanese learners.

Since then, Amazon have made some progress in harmonizing much of the Japanese Kindle Store with the Amazon.com site. This is great news for Japanese learners around the globe. It is now possible to access Japanese language titles without all the previous hassle. From classic novels to manga in the original, there is a lot to choose from.

So how can you find some good content to read in Japanese?

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The Kindle Paperwhite: A godsend for Japanese learners (if you’re in Japan)

EDIT: The situation has greatly improved since this post. Please read this update on how to find good Japanese content for the Kindle.

Happy New Year everyone! I don’t know about you, but the New Year has got me motivated to get back to studying languages and reading more Japanese. I also plan to take the N1 this summer. I will touch on that in future posts. Another of my long-term goals is to become more literate in Japanese and to read books that Japanese people read.

I like reading Japanese news and blogs like Itai News on my PC and iPad but I have always wanted to read more Japanese content offline. It’s more relaxing with a book and looking at a screen all day makes my eyes sore. However, I hate looking up kanji and new vocabulary manually. It takes a lot of time and distracts me from the book I am reading. This and a lack of space in my tiny Japanese apartment has meant that, over the years, I haven’t bought that many books in Japanese. Up until now, there haven’t been many Japanese e-books available either. Well, I have finally found my solution.
Continue reading The Kindle Paperwhite: A godsend for Japanese learners (if you’re in Japan)

More good books for learning Japanese

We got some good feedback for our best books for learning Japanese post so we thought we would add some more to the list of worthy study aids for Japanese. The books we present here are somewhat more advanced than the previous post. If you are just starting out, we recommend you check out the books in the top 10 post before getting these.
Continue reading More good books for learning Japanese

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.

Our 10 best books for learning Chinese

Continuing the book collecting obsession into my Chinese studies, I have amassed around 20 books and courses in Chinese over the past 3 years. Of the ones I’ve purchased, borrowed, or been recommended by friends studying in China and Taiwan, here are what I can say are quality and useful to others.

Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar: A Practical Guide

If you buy only one book for Chinese, get this one. Easily the best book I have found for everything. It is split into two parts, Part A for the structure of Chinese and explaining all the grammatical features, and Part B for situational Chinese like how to describe things etc. Explanations are solid, provides tons of example sentences and everything is in Simplified and Traditional characters.

Pimsleur Chinese

Strictly speaking, it’s an audio program, but Pimsleur is a great method for learning Chinese conversation. It’s also one of the best tools out there for getting an authentic sounding accent. You can try out Pimsleur for free by signing up for a 30 day Audible trial. Download the Chinese taster course here.

Practical Audio-visual Chinese (Traditional)

My friend in Taiwan swears by this series and he used this at his language school when he studied in Taiwan. He was on book 3 and was at a very impressive level of Chinese. Comes with CDs and has workbooks if you want them. Only Traditional characters and starts with teaching you Zhuyin, but also has all the sentences in Pinyin as well. I am on book 3 now also and have to say it is my favorite course book.

Colloquial Chinese: The Complete Course for Beginners

This was actually the first book I used for Chinese that a friend recommended when I was starting out. A solid beginner course that is lesson based and comes with CDs. Spent a good bit of time with the pronunciation using this one. Another good option if you are looking for a starter course. Also has an intermediate book as well in the series.

New Practical Chinese Reader: Textbook 1

If you want more of a course-type book this series is a good introduction. I did the first book in their series using Simplified Characters. Concise and nicely organized. Would recommend it as your first introduction to Chinese and Chinese characters. Especially good if you like the dialog lesson format. Comes with CDs.

Conversational Chinese 301

Bought this one when I was in China. It goes at a faster pace than the above course, but would still say it is good for beginners. Either one of these are a good introduction course. No CD though, so take that into consideration.

The Michel Thomas Method: Speak Mandarin Chinese For Beginners

For working on speaking this is probably the best starter course. Harold Goodman does a good job of introducing the tones with concept of colors as an aid for remembering them. I love the Michel Thomas method and have used this series for other languages as well (French, Russian and German!).

Remembering Simplified Hanzi: Book 1, How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters

I don’t actually own this book but I’m a big fan of the method and used it to learn all the Kanji in Japanese with the original “Remembering the Kanji” book by the same author (see my Japanese book reviews). Comes in Simplified or Traditional versions.

Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters

Since I did Japanese before Chinese, I had already done my time learning 2000 characters, so I don’t actually own this one either. My friends at a language school love it though, and the method sounds very similar to the “Remembering the Hanzi” mnemonic system. So I would just pick either one and stick with it.

Chinese Demystified: A Self-Teaching Guide

A good overview of the Chinese language. I personally would buy the Modern Chinese Grammar over this one if I could only choose one, but that one can be intimidating since it is rather thick and does read a bit like a textbook with alot of explanations using grammatical terms. If that puts you off and you want a gentler overview of Chinse, but still with solid content, I would recommend this one.