8 Best Japanese Books for Beginners

The books in this list are for someone who is at a beginner level of Japanese.  A beginner level of Japanese means that you should know:

  • How to read and write hiragana
  • Basic numbers, days of the week, months of the year, etc.
  • Simple adjectives like colors, sizes (big, small), etc. and how to use to them modify nouns.  Ex.  “blue cat”  “big dog”
  • Simple statement sentences such as “my name is…” “I like…” and “I have…”
  • How to say the 5 W’s in Japanese (who, what, when, where, why)
  • How to ask simple questions in Japanese, such as “Do you like..?”

The most important skill you need to know is how to read hiragana.  If you can’t do that, you need to check out the best books for absolute beginners first.  Also, if you can’t do 2 or more of the requirements listed above, you should go back and study the absolute beginner books before studying the books on this list.  If you prefer audio and video lessons with native speakers, my highest recommendation is Japanesepod101.

 

1.  Best Overall Books:  Japanese from Zero 2

Picking up where Japanese from Zero 1 left off, volume 2 is just as good, if not better.

In volume 2 of this series, you’ll concentrate on learning verbs, but you’ll also learn how to connect sentences, particles, katakana, over 800 words and expressions, and much more.  You’ll even learn subtle nuances of Japanese that other books don’t cover.

Just like volume 1, the material is explained very clearly, and is easy to understand. The material progresses very smoothly, so it actually feels like your Japanese improving with every page that you study.  The structure of these books puts you on the right path towards mastering Japanese.  Not only does it teach you the essentials of Japanese, but it includes a lot of fun lessons as well.  This keeps you motivated to study and actually get excited to open this book and learn something new.

They also have a website that has some free and paid membership lessons, but I’ve had technical difficulties with their website.

At a Glance:

Pros:

  • Clear and easy to understand explanations
  • Fun to study
  • The organization and progression of material is excellent
  • Good example sentences and example conversations

Cons:

  • Their website looks good, but I couldn’t sign up or access anything

Buy it from Amazon here:  Japanese from Zero! 2: Proven Techniques to Learn Japanese for Students and Professionals (Japanese Edition)

 

2.  Best Overall Books:  Japanese from Zero 3

In book number 3 in the Japanese from Zero series, you’ll learn a lot over 1,000 new words and expressions.  You’ll also start your journey into learning kanji, which is vital if you want to become an expert in Japanese.  Even if you just want to learn how to speak Japanese, learning kanji can help you achieve that goal faster and more efficiently.  This book does a good job at introducing you to some basic, yet useful kanji.

You’ll also learn some very important and HIGHLY useful conversational Japanese grammar patterns.

For example, you’ll learn the “tai” form which can be used to say if you want or don’t want to do something.  You’ll also learn how useful things like how to describe states of being, the “to” particle which you can use to say what you think, quote something you hear, or even describe things.  There’s a lot of other Japanese words and grammar in this book that you can quickly apply to everyday conversations.

The introduction to kanji is great.  Not only will you learn how to read and write some of the basic characters, but you’ll also learn important concepts that will help you throughout your Japanese studies.  This books goes into things like kanji radicals (which are important for remember and referencing kanji in dictionaries), stroke order, and the different readings of kanji.

While the kanji sections are good, the strength of this book is the useful vocabulary and grammar you’ll learn.  If you plan on becoming fluent in Japanese, I suggest you get the “Remembering the Kanji” book by James Heisig.  His approach to remembering kanji is a two-step process (you remember the kanji and readings separately), but it’s very effective for learning tons of kanji without forgetting them.

Studying the material in both the Japanese from Zero 2 & 3 books should get you to a low intermediate level of Japanese.

At a Glance:

Pros:  

  • Nicely organized and easy to follow
  • Clear and fun explanations
  • Teaches useful and natural Japanese expressions and words
  • Good introduction to kanji

Cons:  

  • Cute pictures and “fun” explanations could be too much for older or more serious learners of Japanese

Buy it from Amazon here:  Japanese From Zero! 3: Proven Techniques to Learn Japanese for Students and Professionals (Volume 3)

 

 

3.  Excellent Beginner’s Book:  Genki I: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese

This is one of the most popular and books for beginning Japanese.  Even though many people say it’s appropriate for complete beginners of Japanese, I
disagree.  You’ll get a lot more out of this book if you have a basic understanding of Japanese pronunciation and hiragana.  If you do, then this book is pretty awesome.

There is a lot of useful information contained within this book.  If you went through and studied all of the material and did the exercises in the workbook, you would have a very strong foundation of Japanese.

This book teaches you grammar, reading, writing and conversational Japanese.  There are also sections which teach you “useful expressions” which I found to be quite good.

The organization of the material is very well done.  The conversation section usually starts off with a short dialogue and new vocabulary words.  This is then followed up with grammar, conjugations, and expressions.  Some of the vocabulary and expressions can be quite difficult for a beginner though.  This book also teaches you basic kanji.

At a Glance:

Pros:

  • Great organization of the material
  • Lots of material to learn from
  • Useful expressions that are actually useful
  • Clear explanations

Cons:

  • Works better as a classroom textbook rather than a book for self-study
  • Some words are difficult and not useful to most beginners (ex. learning the word “anthropology” in the very first lesson)
  • Some very basic words aren’t taught (we, they, etc.)
  • Can be expensive since you buy the textbook and workbook separately

Buy it from Amazon here:  GENKI I: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese [With CDROM] (Japanese Edition) (English and Japanese Edition)

 

Genki I Workbook

The workbook for Genki I is actually really useful, and helps to understand and remember all of the material in the book.  I don’t that getting this book is
100% necessary.  If you are on a budget, just getting the textbook is fine.

However, if you use the workbook together with the textbook, I think you’ll learn the material much quicker and have a deeper understanding of the Japanese taught in the textbook.

Buy it here:  Genki: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese Workbook I [Second Edition] (Japanese Edition)

 

4.  Essential Study Companion:  A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar

This is one of the most useful Japanese books you can have in your library as a beginner.  This book doesn’t have cool
pictures or even fun lessons.  Nor does this book provide you with a way to learn Japanese in a logical order.

So why is this book so important?

It is probably the BEST resource of basic Japanese skills out there.  If you use this book as a supplement to other books (like Japanese from Zero, listed above) you’ll take your Japanese to another level.  There are example sentences of grammar patterns and also gives insight to the nuance and usage of each pattern/words.

I would study a certain grammar pattern and then look it up in this dictionary.  The insight I got from this book helped me to understand the material more clearly, and made it easier for me to actually apply what I learned in conversations.

This dictionary of basic Japanese grammar contains A LOT of material.  While it says that it’s a “basic” book, it covers material well into the intermediate level.

At a Glance:

Pros:

  • The ultimate resource for basic Japanese grammar that is the perfect companion to any other Japanese book, online lessons, or self-study.
  • Will deepen your understanding of how to use Japanese grammar patterns and nuances

Cons:

  • Since this is a reference book, it is very dry and isn’t meant to be used on its own

Buy it from Amazon here:  A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar

 

5.  Mastering Verbs:  The Handbook of Japanese Verbs

This book helped me a lot throughout the years.  I referred to this book when I was just starting out with Japanese, and I still check it to this day to refresh my memory on some verb conjugations and usages.

The first 49 pages were the most helpful to me.  They contain charts showing how to conjugate any verb into any form.

Need to see how to change a regular I verb into past tense?  No problem.  Just a quick glance at one of the charts and you’ll instantly know how.

This book teaches you how to master all the verbs in Japanese.  It doesn’t teach you every single verb.  Instead, it shows you how to conjugate any verb so you can use it in any situation.

You’ll find this especially useful when you study more advanced verb structures like changing an irregular verb into the causative form.  These verb conjugation charts were worth the price of the book 5 times over for me.

The majority of the book (the remaining 154 pages or so) teaches you different grammar/sentence structures that uses the very conjugations you just learned.  If you studied all of the material in this book, you’ll instantly know how to use any verb that you learn in any situation.

At a Glance:

Pros:

  • Very straightforward and easy to understand way of learning how to conjugate all the verbs in Japanese
  • Material is organized well
  • Lots of grammar patterns taught that use the conjugated verbs you learn in the book

Cons:

  • Verb conjugations and grammar patterns are just listed in the book with  a very short description.  This makes the book a little dry to read

Buy it from Amazon here:  The Handbook of Japanese Verbs (Kodansha Dictionary)

 

6.  Fine-Tune Your Japanese:  All About Particles

This is a book answered a lot of questions I had about Japanese when I first started. While there aren’t that many particles in Japanese, how and when to use
them correctly is a problem that most students have.  I was definitely no exception.

The tricky thing is that the same particle can be used in many different ways.  For example, the particle “de” can indicate a place where an action occurs, a certain period of time, or materials used for something.  In fact, “All About Particles” explains the 8 different usages for the particle “de.”

This is not a stand-alone book.  You definitely need to know Japanese vocabulary and grammar to get the most out of this book.  But used as a study reference with other Japanese resources, you can get an in-depth understanding of the particles that are so vital in written and spoken Japanese.

At a Glance:

Pros:

  • The different uses and nuances of particles are clearly explained, which most other books don’t do
  • Learn how to correctly use particles in written and spoken Japanese

Cons:

  • Gives very short descriptions of the different meanings and usages of certain particles.  A more thorough explanation of certain particles would be helpful

Buy it from Amazon here:  All About Particles

 

7.  Mastering Descriptions:  The Handbook of Japanese Adjectives and Adverbs

This is the book you want to get if you want to be able to describe things in detail in Japanese.  You’ll learn how to conjugate the any adjective and how to use
it to modify nouns and create noun phrases.

I found the section on adverbs to be the most helpful.  If you want to add color and be able to expresses yourself more precisely, you need to master Japanese adverbs. This book helps you to do that.

At a Glance:

Pros:

  • This book will help you to master all forms of adjectives and adverbs…You’ll learn how to conjugate them, their nuances, how to use them, and grammar patterns.

Cons:

  • The material is listed in a reference style, so it’s a little dry and hard to work through page by page

Buy it from Amazon here:  The Handbook of Japanese Adjectives and Adverbs

 

8.  Best Kanji Book:  Remembering the Kanji

Now that you have studied hiragana and katakana, it’s time to take the plunge and start learning kanji.  Yes, learning kanji is very intimidating.  There are
thousands of characters out there.

The “jouyou kanji,” or the “regular use kanji” consists of 2,136 characters. That means you need to know over 2,000 characters just to have the literacy of a high school graduate.  If you want to read novels, manga, or even flyers, menus, and signs in Japan, you’ll need to learn these kanji.

Remembering the Kanji can help you with all of this, and make it easier than you think.  This book does an amazing job of teaching you how to memorize 2,200 characters in less time than most traditional methods.  .

You’ll learn how to break down each character into radicals, which are basic units that are shared between groups of kanji. You then create visual mnemonic/stories for each of these radicals.  You can then combine these radicals together to form different characters.  This method makes it easy to remember their meaning.

For example, take a look at this kanji:  砂  This is the kanji for “sand.”

This character is made up of the radical that means “stone”(石) the kanji for “few “(少).  So this kanji literally means “few stones.”  You can then use this to create a story to remember this kanji.  Maybe see yourself walking naked on your favorite beach…it’s your favorite because the sand there has few stones to hurt your feet.

This book does not teach you the readings of each kanji.  You’ll be given a one word definition of each kanji, and learn how to write it in the correct stroke order.  You’ll learn the readings of each kanji in volume 2 of this series.

At a Glance:

Pros:

  • Does an excellent job at showing how to remember kanji by grouping similar radicals together
  • The one word definition give to each kanji character makes learning the meaning easy
  • Awesome method of breaking down each character into similar parts and creating visual stories makes learning thousands of kanji easier than you would think

Cons:

  • Learning how to read the kanji is a two-step process method (first making stories to remember each kanji, and remember it’s English meaning, then going back and learning the Japanese reading later)
  • After teaching your around 500 kanji characters, the author wants you to create your own stories.  This means that the rest of the characters are just listed, without any help or suggestions for remembering them

Buy it from Amazon here:  Remembering the Kanji 1: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters

 

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