The 10 Best Japanese Books for High-Intermediate Students

Your goals as a high-intermediate student should be to increase your skill in all areas of Japanese, but put an emphasis on reading and speaking more naturally.
A high-intermediate level means that you have: 

  • An excellent foundation in all areas of Japanese (reading, writing, speaking, and listening)
  • Can read at least 300 kanji characters
  • Can hold conversations in Japanese about everyday topics
  • Can listen to Japanese TV shows or native speaker’s conversations and understand the MEANING (not every single word) of the situation most of the time

These books will help you to read more Japanese and take your speaking to the next level.  At a high-intermediate level of Japanese, you should also concentrate your efforts on speaking and reading.  To help with your speaking, I highly recommend learning from the online lessons at Japanesepod101 and finding a good online tutor on a site like italki.

 

1.  Best Overall Book:  Tobira: Gateway to Advanced Japanese (Japanese and English Version)

At a high-intermediate level of Japanese, the training wheels need to come off and you should be challenging yourself to get to the next level.  Tobira does exactly this…it challenges you by teaching you almost entirely in kanji, hiragana, and katakana.  No romaji to be found here.  It is serious book meant for a serious students, but the material is so interesting that you’ll look forward to studying it.

English is only used for explanations of grammar points and definitions of vocabulary words.  According to their website, you need to know 290 kanji characters to be able to use the book.

Unfortunately, there are a few kanji that popular books like the Genki and Nakama series don’t cover.  But you can download a list of the 290 kanji you need to know (297 if you plan on doing “Tobira’s Power Up Your Kanji” book, number 3 on this list).

There at 5 qualities about Tobira that puts this book ahead of all the others:

  1. The material talks about aspects of Japanese culture and is interesting and engaging to study
  2. Tobira will easily take you to and advanced level of Japanese
  3. The material is very well organized and formatted, which makes it easy to learn
  4. You learn both formal/technical Japanese as well as conversational Japanese
  5. Their website offers videos, audio files, kanji, vocabulary, and grammar worksheets to solidify what you study

You can preview a sampling of the book here.

When you first start studying this book, you will be challenged.  If you stick with it and master the material in Tobira, your Japanese will taken to a much higher level.

The material in Tobira can also prepare you for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).  After studying this book, you will know 800 kanji, many of which are from the JLPT N2 level.  If you also master all of the grammar, vocabulary and reading, in this book, I feel that you will still need to study more to pass the JLPT N2.  However, you would have a good chance at passing the JLPT N3 with this material.

At a Glance:

Pros:

  • Very interested material that you look forward to studying
  • Excellent, simple explanations make the material easy to understand
  • Will improve all areas of your Japanese (reading, writing, speaking, listening)
  • Learn both formal and conversational Japanese
  • Material will help you prepare for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT)
  • Will challenge you to take your Japanese to the next level

Cons:

  • Expensive compared to other books
  • Can be difficult to study in the very beginning

Buy it from Amazon here:  Tobira Gateway to Advanced Japanese (Japanese and English Edition)

 

2.  Tobira:  Power Up Your Kanji

If you don’t know these 297 characters, it’s okay.  As long as you know around 200+ kanji characters, you should be able to get through the book with a little work.

This book teaches you 503 more kanji, concentrating on characters that are on the JLPT N2 test (as of 2009).

The book is well organized, and teaches each kanji is a very straightforward manner.  You’ll learn how to write each character, and then be given its meaning and reading(s).  There are also example sentences for each kanji taught.

You can check a few sample pages of the book here.

On its own, this book, wouldn’t be that good.  However, if you use it with the Tobira book, it is excellent.  You’ll be able to study both the grammar, vocabulary, and kanji together, which makes it easier to remember and will save you time.

At a Glance:

Pros:

  • Very well organized
  • Simple and straightforward teaching of kanji
  • Excellent when used together with the Tobira: Gateway to Advanced Japanese book

Cons:

  • Not very good as a standalone book.  Need to be used with the Tobira book

Buy it from Amazon here:  Tobira: Power Up Your Kanji

 

3.  Tobira:  Kore De Mi Ni Tsuku Bumporyoku (Grammar Power)

This is the grammar exercise book that you use with the Tobira: Gateway to Advanced Japanese book.  The exercises in this book will help you to understand and remember the material taught in the Tobira book easier.

The good think about this book is that exercises in this book focus on the essential grammar patterns you need to know to reach an advanced level of Japanese.

The format of this book is great.  You learn each of the targeted grammar patters in a logical and easy to understand way.

You can preview a sample of the book here.

At a Glance:

Pros:

  • Helps you to remember and understand the material in the Tobira book
  • Focuses on the essential grammar you need to know to reach an advanced level
  • Nice format of exercises in the book

Cons:

  • Must be used together with the Tobira: Gateway to Advanced Japanese book
  • A little difficult to use when studying on your own
  • Helpful, but not absolutely necessary to learn the material in Tobira

Buy it from Amazon here:  Kore De Mi Ni Tsuku Bumporyoku / Grammar Power (Japanese and English Edition)

 

4.  Best User-Friendly Book:  An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese

Published by the same company as the Genki I and II books, An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese is one of my favorite books.

The format and design of the books makes it very user-friendly.  Both the English and Japanese fonts are bigger than most of the other books I have seen.  In my opinion, it is the perfect size for reading and studying.  There is also just the right amount of white space between words and sentences.

The layout is also fantastic.  At the start of each chapter, there is a “culture notes” section written in English.  This gives you insight about certain aspects of Japanese culture, and is interesting to read.

You are then introduced to a short story or article(s), written in Japanese.  This is followed by a list of new words and kanji that were used in the articles.

The rest of the chapter explains all of the new grammar points for that lesson.  The explanations are very simple and short, but if you combine this with other resources like the “Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar” you should have little problems learning all of the material.

At the end of each chapter are exercises to help you learn and remember all of the material.  I really enjoyed studying the material from this book.  There were a few grammar patterns I had trouble with due to insufficient explanations.  I did have to use other resources to help me, but I still highly recommend this book

*Note:  The version I used was the 1st edition printed in 1994.  There is now a revised edition printed in 2008.  I can only recommend the 1994, first edition version.  I haven’t used the revised edition, but I have heard that it’s not as good as the original.

At a Glance:

Pros:

  • Format makes reading and studying a job
  • Logical layout makes learning vocabulary, kanji, grammar, and reading easy
  • Simple and easy to understand explanations for most of the material
  • Interesting notes about culture in Japan
  • Useful words and grammar that you will use

Cons:

  • Some grammar explanations were too short
  • Might need to use other resources to further your understanding

Buy it from Amazon here:  An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese

Books for Reading

At this level, you NEED to start reading as much as you can.  The more you read, the better your Japanese will get.

The only problem is that most Japanese books, even children’s books, can be too difficult.  And let’s face it, who wants to read a 10 page book about a red balloon?

We want to read quality material, preferably by good writers. But these books can even be too hard for very advanced students of Japanese.

The solution?

Check out these 3 books.  They contain excellent stories by skilled writers, but have furigana and translations to help you out.  They really make learning how to read Japanese fun and easy.

 

5.  Best Books to Get Started Reading:  Read Real Japanese Fiction

This is a great little book that contains 6 short stories by contemporary writers like Banana Yoshimoto and Hiromi Kawakami.

The stories are all written in Japanese, but have furigana over the difficult kanji to help you out. There is also a handy dictionary in the back to look up words from the stories you don’t know.

These are not your typical happily ever after type of stories, so it does take a little getting used to if you have never read Japanese literature before.  That being said, the stories are engaging, and teaches you lots of useful, REAL Japanese.

I particularly enjoyed “Hyaku Monogatari” by Kaoru Kitamura.  It had shades of a good horror story, and kept me captivated.

At a Glance:

Pros:

  • Real stories by contemporary writers from Japan
  • Interesting stories that keep you engaged
  • Helpful translations for difficult expressions
  • Explanations of subtle meanings in the text to deepen your understanding
  • Handy dictionary in the back of the book

Cons:

  • If you’re not used to reading Japanese literature, these stories can take a little time getting used to]

Buy it from Amazon here: Read Real Japanese Fiction: Short Stories by Contemporary Writers 1 free CD included

 

6.  Another Great Book for Reading:  Read Real Japanese Essays

Published by the same company as the “Real Real Japanese:  Fiction” book listed above, this book covers essays.  All of the works in this book is also written by popular authors from Japan.

The format is the same as the Fiction series.  Each page contains an essay written in Japanese, with furigana over the difficult kanji.  On the opposite page, you’ll find commentary/translations for difficult expressions and/or subtle meanings in the text.  This is very useful for learning the material.

In the back of the book, each piece is explained more in detail, so you really get a solid understanding of the text.  The Japanese-English dictionary in the back of the book is helpful too.

While I preferred the Fiction stories, this Essays version is also very good.

At a Glance:

Pros:

  • Engaging essays by popular authors
  • Explanation of subtle meanings in the text
  • Translations of difficult expressions
  • Great commentary of each essay that gives you a clear understanding of the material
  • Japanese-English dictionary in the back

Cons:

  • Can be a little too serious for casual learners of Japanese

Buy it from Amazon here: Read Real Japanese Essays: Contemporary Writings by Popular Authors 1 free CD included

 

7.  A “Unique” Reading Experience Book:  Reading Japanese with a Smile

Just like the previous two books, Reading Japanese with a Smile offers real writings from Japan.  What makes this book different is the actual stories themselves.

This book has some very “interesting” titles.  For example, one of the stories is called “The Rich  Boy’s Urine Therapy and His Girlfriend’s Depression.”

I just let your imagination run wild about what that story is about.  🙂

There are 9 stories in total, and they are all good.  There are full translations for teach, which makes understanding them easy.

The strength of this book lies in the commentary for each story.  Difficult words and passages are explained in detail.  In addition to this, the commentary includes explanations of any Japanese culture or customs that are related to the story.

The commentary section also explains verb conjugation within each story, which can be very helpful if you haven’t fully mastered verbs yet.

Overall, Reading Japanese with a Smile has fun, yet wacky stories that you can learn some pretty interesting Japanese from.

At a Glance:

Pros:

  • Great commentary of each story
  • Excellent explanations of verbs, vocabulary, and expressions in each story
  • Explanations of Japanese culture within the stories highly useful

Cons:

  • Some stories can be a little too “weird” for some

Buy it from Amazon here: Reading Japanese with a Smile: Nine Stories from a Japanese Weekly Magazine for Intermediate Learners

 

8.  Up Your Kanji Game Book:  Remembering the Kanji 2:  A Systematic Guide to Reading Japanese Characters

If you used the “Remembering the Kanji 1” book, then you’ll need this second book to be able to learn the Japanese reading for each kanji.

The kanji in this book are grouped by similar pronunciations, which is nice.

However…

The truth is that I feel that this book could be organized better for easier learning.  I’m not exactly sure how you would go about doing that, but it seems like there could be a better system for grouping the characters together.

But I think volume 1 is such an excellent way to remember the kanji, that it’s worth going through volume 2 and learning all the readings.  It does take a while to get used to, but once you do, you can learn the readings faster than you think.

If you want to learn how to read and write the kanji all in one step, there’s no better book than the Kodansha Kanji Course.

*Note:  If you do buy both volume 1 & 2 of Remembering the Kanji, make sure you buy the right versions.  The revised edition of volume 1 will only work with the revised edition of volume 2.  So if you buy the older version of volume 1, you’ll need to buy the older version of volume too as well.

At a Glance:

Pros:

  • Logical grouping of characters and readings
  • Makes learning the readings somewhat easier than just pure memorization

Cons:

  • Not as good as volume 1 of the series

Buy it from Amazon here: Remembering the Kanji 2: A Systematic Guide to Reading Japanese Characters

 

9.  Go Beyond Fluency Book:  Japanese Core Words and Phrases:  Things You Can’t Find in a Dictionary

While some material in this book is very basic, there are lots of Japanese expressions that are for advanced learners.

The first part of this book explains words dealing with physiological or psychological distance.  While this doesn’t sound useful at all, it actually is really good material.

The author goes over pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs used in every day Japanese.  There are many details about words you think you might not know, but don’t really have a deep understanding off.  Knowing these details can make your Japanese sound a lot more natural and precise.

The second part of the book is all about idiomatic expressions.  I have studied many of them from other material, but there were also quite a few expressions I have never heard before.  In fact, I have never even seen these expressions explained in any other books except for this one…I guess that’s why the title of this book is “things you can’t find in a dictionary.”

Learning the material in this book will give you a deeper understanding of some of the basics, but will also teach you Japanese that will impress native speakers.

At a Glance:

Pros:

  • Details of some basic words are very insightful
  • Expressions I have only seen explained in this book
  • Will make your Japanese more precise and natural sounding
  • Tons of example sentences

Cons:

  • Need to have a solid foundation of the basics of Japanese to understand a lot of the material

Buy it from Amazon here: Japanese Core Words and Phrases: Things You Can’t Find in a Dictionary

 

10.  Sound Like a Native Book:  Jazz Up Your Japanese with Onomatopoeia:  For All Levels

If you ever listen to native Japanese speakers talk, you will hear lots of onomatopoeia (words that imitate sounds to describe sounds..like “boom!” “bark” or “buzz”).

This is rarely taught in Japanese classes or books.  So when students of Japanese come to Japan, they find that they can’t understand a lot of what is said to them.

This is especially true in the Kansai area of Japan.  Onomatopoeia is more heavily used in that region that places like Tokyo.  But since many TV shows feature comedians from Kansai, you’re very likely to hear tons of onomatopoeia being spoken on TV.

That’s why this book is such a lifesaver.  Not only does it teach a lot of onomatopoeia used in Japanese, but the examples in the book come from real life-conversations.

The author describes the most common sounds and action words, using an informal tone in the examples.  This makes it perfect to learn casual and natural Japanese you can use with friends you make in Japan.

Master these onomatopoeia and you’re Japanese will sound very natural.

At a Glance:

Pros:

  • Tons of onomatopoeia taught in the book
  • Simple and clear explanations
  • Exercises in the book to help you learn the material
  • Will make your Japanese sound more natural and descriptive

Cons:

  • Difficult to read page-by page.  Better used as a reference to look up words you hear or want to say.

Buy it from Amazon here: Jazz Up Your Japanese with Onomatopoeia: For All Levels

 

Did we miss any books? Or do you have any books you recommend? Drop a comment down below and let us know!

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