Beginning your journey to learn Japanese can be overwhelming. Japanese seems like such a difficult language, that you wonder if it’s even possible to master it. There are tons of resources out there, but this actually makes it difficult to know where to even start. I’ve been there.
I’ve literally tried hundreds of books, apps, online resources, and different methods to learn Japanese. Some were horribly bad, some were just okay, and a few were excellent. The books listed here are the latter. These are the best books I have found that will teach you the essentials of basic Japanese. Master the material in these books and you’ll have a great foundation of Japanese to build upon later.
Top Japanese Books for Absolute Beginners
1. Best Overall Book: Japanese from Zero 1
If you can only get one book to start learning Japanese, this is the one you should get. “Japanese from Zero 1” is one of the best books I have seen for people just starting out with Japanese.
It is explains things very clearly and is easy to understand. It is also well organized, teaches useful Japanese, and is actually fun to study. Unlike other books that just have pages of text and grammar, this book has a very friendly and casual tone that makes it easy to work through.
Not only will you learn how to read and write hiragana and learn over 800 words and expressions, but you’ll also learn about the culture in Japan. This book does an awesome job at teaching you the essentials of basic Japanese, and I highly recommend it.
At a Glance:
- Excellent and clear explanations
- Makes learning Japanese as a beginner fun and exciting
- Learn useful Japanese words and expression
- Does not come with a CD
Buy it from Amazon here: Japanese from Zero! 1: Proven Techniques to Learn Japanese for Students and Professionals (Volume 1)
This course is well written and has audio CDs as well as an online learning lab where there are flashcards, games, and quizzes to supplement your studies. This course is also one of the best deals out there. For a $49.99 dollars ($33 on Amazon), you get 3 books (a beginner, intermediate, and advanced book), a book for learning kana and basic kanji, 9 audio CDs, as well as using their free online resources.
Besides giving you a good foundation of Japanese, this course teaches you real-world Japanese (but not the most natural sounding Japanese) that is very useful if you ever go to Japan. It also does a good job of teaching you Japanese in steps, with the goal of teaching you how to use Japanese in actual conversations.
However, this course is more for casual learner of Japanese. Someone who has a few months to study Japanese before going to Japan. This course does teach you useful Japanese, but it doesn’t do a good job of teaching you the fundamentals of Japanese you NEED to know in order to learn more advanced skills.
For example, in some of the examples on the CD, it doesn’t say why certain forms of verbs are used, or how to conjugate them. Another drawback is that it is harder to work through than the “Japanese from Zero 1” book because it is more “text-heavy” and it uses romaji throughout the whole series. Once you learn how to read hiragana and katakana, I feel it is much more efficient to learn Japanese by using those writing systems instead of the English based romaji.
At a Glance:
- Amazing value for the price
- Comes with books and CD’s from the beginning level through advanced
- Teaches useful Japanese you can use in the real world
- Books are pretty text-heavy.
- Harder to read and study than some of the other books available
- Audio CDs don’t really teach you anything. Mostly there for listening and pronunciation practice
Buy it from Amazon here: Living Language Japanese, Complete Edition: Beginner through advanced course, including 3 coursebooks, 9 audio CDs, Japanese reading & writing guide, and free online learning
For those of you who want an even more complete package that includes everything in the complete edition plus iPhone and iPad apps, and online course, access to an online community with language experts, and even an e-tutor to give you personal support, try the Platinum Edition. The e-tutor is a great benefit to this course and can help you to improve your Japanese faster and more efficiently
Buy the Platinum Version from Amazon here: Living Language Japanese, Platinum Edition: A complete beginner through advanced course, including 3 coursebooks, 9 audio CDs, Japanese reading & … online course, apps, and live e-Tutoring
3. Reading and Writing: Japanese Hiragana and Katakana Flash Cards Kit with CD
This is an awesome way to learn how to read and write hiragana and katakana.
This kit includes 200 flash cards that comes on a key ring, so its easy to manage. It also comes with two wall charts (one for hiragana and one for katakana), which makes referencing the characters very simple. Putting it up on your wall while learning the characters can help you to remember them quicker.
There is also an audio CD which does an amazing job teaching not only the characters, but the correct pronunciation and even vocabulary words.
Using the flash cards, audio CD, and wall charts is an excellent and fun way to learn all of the hiragana and katakana characters. There are some typos on the cards, which can be a little frustrating, but for the most part, it doesn’t interfere your learning. I really like this kit and feel that it’s a great way to master hiragana and katakana.
At a Glance:
- Complete and thorough system to learn both hiragana and katakana
- 200flash cards, two wall charts, and an audio CD…all of which work together to help you learn both writing systems as quickly as possible
- Easy to understand and fun to study
- There are typos on some of the flash cards, but it doesn’t distract too much from learning the content
Buy it from Amazon here: Japanese Hiragana and Katakana Flash Cards Kit: (Audio CD Included)
4. Reading and Writing: Japanese Hiragana & Katakana for Beginners
Memorizing both hiragana and katakana is essential to mastering Japanese. Once you learn it, you’ll be able to pronounce and write virtually any word in Japanese.
This is the best book when it comes to learning hiragana and katakana. With this book, you’ll be able to master both reading and pronunciation of both hiragana and katakana.
You’ll also learn how to CORRECTLY write all of the characters. The explanations of the hiragana and katakana writing systems and how to read them are excellent.
They also have visual mnemonics to help you remember each character. The CD also helps you to master all of the material, and contains flash cards you can print out to supplement your studies.
While you could probably memorize both of these writing systems in a week or two on your own, you won’t have a complete understanding of each character. You definitely won’t be able to write the characters properly.
Unlike the English alphabet, Japanese characters are written using a specific stroke order, and have tiny details that are ESSENTIAL. This book will show you how to read and write all of the characters correctly.
At a Glance:
- Master both reading and writing hiragana and katakana
- Good picture mnemoics of each chracter to help you remember them
- Includes CD that is helpful for beginning students of Japanese
- Flash cards on CD you can print out to help you study
- Can only print out basic characters and not their variations
Buy it from Amazon here: Japanese Hiragana & Katakana for Beginners: First Steps to Mastering the Japanese Writing System (CD-ROM Included)
5. Quick Reference Pamphlet: Japanese Grammar Quickstudy Pamphlet
This “at a glance” pamphlet doesn’t teach you any Japanese, but is EXTREMELY useful as a resource guide. Keeping this pamphlet handy when you are studying Japanese will save you a lot of time and heartache.
When I first started learning Japanese, I made my own version of this pamphlet. But it wasn’t nearly as clear or as good as this one.
With just a simple glance at this quickstudy, you’ll be able to recall any hiragana and katakana characters, pronunciation, how to conjugate adjectives and verbs, particles, interrogatives, daily expressions, and much more.
I used to spend hours flipping through various books to find the information this pamphlet could have given me in seconds.
As a beginning student of Japanese, this pamplet will become your best friend. You’ll be refering to it very often, which will help you to remmeber Japanese as well as saving you lots of time.
At a Glance:
- Very useful pamphlet that has lots of basic Japanese words, grammar, and conjugations that you’ll use over and over again
- Saves you tons of time
- While using it, make sure you try to remember your target word/grammar instead of relying on this pamphlet. If you just look at it every time you forget something, you’ll come to depend on it,instead of learning the material. It’s just like people who depend on a calculator to do simple math
Buy it from Amazon here: Japanese Grammar (Quickstudy: Academic)
6. Quick Reference Pamphlet: Japanese Vocabulary Quickstudy Pamphlet
The same style of pamphlet as the Japanese Grammar one listed above, except this one covers Japanese vocabulary. With a simple glance at this pamphlet, you’ll instantly know Japanese numbers, colors, weather expressions, counting systems, and much more.
At a Glance:
- Useful when first beginning your Japanese studies
- Using this pamphlet can help you remember vocabulary quicker and can save you time
- This doesn’t teach you how to use the vocabulary words. This is meant to be used with other methods of study
- Can become too reliant on this pamphlet if you keep referring to it without trying to commit the vocabulary to memory
Buy it from Amazon here: Japanese Vocabulary (Quickstudy: Academic)
7. DO NOT BUY: Genki I: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese
If you ever searched online for recommended Japanese books for beginners, you’ve already probably seen the Genki series.
I DO NOT recommend this book for absolute beginners. I just wanted to include this book in this list to say DON’T BUY THIS BOOK as an absolute beginner.
Both of the Genki books (I and II) are great books. However, as an absolute beginner, I feel that Genki I is much too difficult and more complicated that it should be.
It also makes assumptions that you already know how to read and pronounce romaji, and jumps straight into hiragana. There is no smooth transition from romaji to hiragana.
If you are a fast learner who wants to challenge yourself, this book might be okay. But in my opinion, the “Japanese from Zero I” and “Japanese Hiragana and Katakana for Beginners” books on this list is about 100 times better than this book for a beginning student of Japanese.
You’ll learn easier, faster, and have a better understanding of the concepts if you start with those books instead of Genki I. Get Genki I when you already have a good foundation of basic Japanese skills.
At a Glance:
- Covers a good amount of material
- Has simple, but sufficient explanations of the grammar
- Much too difficult and complicated for a complete beginner
If you feel you’re ready, you can buy it from Amazon here: GENKI I: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese [With CDROM] (Japanese Edition) (English and Japanese Edition)