Looking for the best books to learn Japanese?
With so many apps, programs, and online resources out there to learn Japanese, you might be forgetting one of the best and simplest resources to either begin or continue your progress in learning the language: books! 😊
Nothing beats having a solid Japanese textbook or a dictionary you can reference and take notes in.
In the age of technology, learners often forget that a good old-fashioned book usually has much more to it than simple apps.
Editors and experts put these books together, standing the test of time, and hundreds of thousands of copies have been sold, making them a sure-fire way to improve your Japanese. Don’t forget, people have been learning this language with books for hundreds of years.
But there are so many books to choose from, where do you start?
In this list, I’ve put together 12 books to help you along your Japanese journey, for beginners up to advanced learners.
UPDATE: A lot of people ask for our best online Japanese course recommendation. Here it is for those interested:
Best books and textbooks to learn Japanese
Learning a new language can be daunting.
Even just a quick google search about “how to learn Japanese” can be incredibly overwhelming, with an endless amount of resources to choose from. But if you want somewhere to start, there is nothing better than a beginner’s textbook.
A solid textbook has everything you need to get started in learning Japanese.
It goes over the writing systems, tells you how to introduce yourself, and goes over basic sentence structure so you can start forming sentences of your own. All this comes in an easy to learn from, single package.
Here are some recommendations:
There are a few great beginner textbooks, but the most highly recommended is definitely the Genki series, which comes with two textbooks Genki I and Genki II, as well as paired workbooks.
The Genki series has simple explanations, adorable illustrations, and a ton of information that makes a great beginner’s foundation.
After learning everything from Genki I and II, you should be prepared for about N4 level on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).
Minna no Nihongo, which means “Japanese for Everyone” is another great all-encompassing textbook.
It covers essential grammar, vocabulary, listening, and even speaking practice. Minna no Nihongo can really prepare you to study entirely in Japanese, as it has much less English than other beginner textbooks.
Once you get the foundation down for learning Japanese, in Japanese, this becomes a huge leg up in your studies.
Like the Genki textbooks, Minna no Nihongo has two textbooks, volumes 1 and 2.
Once you complete volume 2 and internalize all of the lessons, you should be able to pass the N4 level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).
One of the biggest hurdles for Westerners learning Japanese is kanji.
I am sure you have heard many horror stories about how many kanji you will have to learn, and how difficult it is.
But this is just not true!
Kanji takes a lot of time, sure, but there is nothing hard about it. The Basic Kanji Book has the most useful 500 kanji in two volumes. This book really highlights each of the kanji, with all the readings, meanings, and words they are used in, so you can focus on learning them individually.
The book includes how to write each kanji with specific stroke order exercises, so you can practice writing them. It also covers the kanji radicals, which will allow you to deduce the meanings of other kanji you learn going forward.
It is a complete text to help you get started with the first 500 kanji, and give you tools to learn more kanji as you continue to study!
When it comes to learning Japanese grammar, this book and the subsequent books in the series would be my number one pick for anyone learning Japanese.
Each volume is huge, with a tremendous amount of grammar points that covers everything you will need to start constructing proper sentences in Japanese.
The book introduces grammar points in alphabetical order and gives a definition, translations, example sentences, explanatory notes, and references to similar entries.
In the beginning, it also has a helpful section on “Characteristics of Japanese Grammar” and Appendices and Indices at the end for more clarity.
The second and third books in the series, “A Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar” and “A Dictionary of Advanced Japanese Grammar” respectively, continue with the same format, allowing you to learn virtually everything you need to know about Japanese grammar.
One of the most common questions I get from Japanese learners online is:
“I finished Genki (or a similar beginner’s textbook), what next?”
And my answer is always the same: Tobira Gateway to Advanced Japanese is a perfect textbook that bridges the gap between beginner and advanced learners.
It continues with a familiar textbook format, with each chapter having a reading section, vocabulary list, grammar explanations, and various exercises and questions for a more complete understanding.
This book is not for beginners though, from page one they expect you to be able to read and understand Japanese at a basic level, using no romaji at all.
It is ideal for a self-learner that is progressing and wants to take their Japanese to the next level.
Once you have progressed in Japanese a bit more, you might want to delve into making your Japanese sounds more natural, or being able to understand basic idioms and phrases that often get lost in context.
This is where Common Japanese Collocations come in.
Collocations refer to how words go together or form fixed relationships. For example, in English, we say “turn the volume up” more often than “turn the volume higher” so the first represents a strong collocation between the words “volume” and “up.”
When you learn a new language, learning collocations like this can make a huge difference in the fluency of your Japanese.
Common Japanese Collocations list hundreds of examples, organized by themes like “cooking” or “travel.”
It is a great book to help you transition from awkward English translations to more natural Japanese.
After you have progressed through some beginner material, and have a solid foundation of Japanese grammar as well as some vocabulary under your belt, you are ready to start reading native Japanese materials!
Japanese is a little different than other languages because of the high bar you need to pass before starting with native materials, mostly due to the complex writing systems.
But when you are ready, I have the perfect manga for you to start with.
Yotsubato is for children, so it’s a perfect start to reading in Japanese.
Because it is a manga, seeing the pictures in context will help you if you get lost. It follows the everyday adventures of a young girl trying to navigate the world with her adoptive father.
It is a slice-of-life manga, so it doesn’t have any difficult words or concepts, it’s a great introduction to native Japanese materials!
As I have said before, starting to read native Japanese material can be pretty difficult, due to the complex writing systems.
But thankfully, there are some great resources to help you break into reading Japanese.
The Japanese Graded Readers series has quite a few books to choose from at varying levels.
Each level comes in a package with about six different stories and a CD with the audio files. You should have basic knowledge of Japanese to delve into these short stories, but they are easy enough for you to continue to learn new vocabulary and concepts while you read.
The stories are all relevant to daily life in Japan, so they are a perfect way to break into being able to read real Japanese.
When you are ready to study for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), these are the books for you.
The New Kanzen Master Series has five books for levels N4-N1 of JLPT.
The books included in each set cover kanji, grammar, vocabulary, listening, and reading comprehension.
Of course, you can just buy one book in the set, which makes these perfect for learners who know their weak spots, and what they need to focus on to pass the JLPT.
They are more technical books than some of the previous texts listed, focusing on certain questions and patterns to help you pass the JLPT, but even if you aren’t taking the test, these books can be incredibly helpful, with plenty of detailed explanations and exercises that will help you improve all parts of your Japanese.
10. Magic Treehouse
It’s time to get into Japanese novels, and the Magic Treehouse Series is my favorite to recommend to new Japanese readers.
Of course, we have to start simple, so these are children’s stories, but each one is a proper 100-200 page chapter book that you will be proud of reading when you finish!
The stories follow siblings that venture off into the worlds of different books. Whether it is a prehistoric dinosaur world or outer space, you are sure to find something that interests you.
They are translated from English to Japanese, so the language is very simple and easy to understand.
The best part about these books is that the main character often takes “notes” about things they encounter on their adventures, so if a word comes up that you aren’t familiar with, it is explained in detail.
I can’t recommend these fun reads enough!
Read Real Japanese is another unique book that will help you bridge the gap to reading more native Japanese material.
The book is filled with Japanese short stories entirely in Japanese.
But the best thing is, the next page has the English translations for the most important words on that page.
It also has an index in the back of the book, with several examples to help you understand the meaning of these words. This allows you to read a real Japanese story without having to stop and look up words you might not be familiar with.
And seeing these words in context will help you remember them.
For those that are pretty advanced in their Japanese, but are still not very comfortable reading native materials, these are perfect for you!
Lastly, the book that inspired the Ghibli movie, Kiki’s Delivery Service, is a fantastic read for those that want to read a Japanese novel.
The treasured children’s story centers around Kiki, a young witch who must venture out on her own for a year, to a town without any other witches. The chapter book is an easy read with simple language and a fun story that will keep you engaged to the very end.
It is a great book for those that liked the film, or those that want an exciting story to read in Japanese!
Other Japanese resources, courses and alternatives to books
Of course, there are so many great alternative resources for learning Japanese.
You can head over to the Japanese resource page for starters, but if you’re looking for a few quick ideas, here are a couple of great ones:
JapanesePod101 (part of the Innovative series) is one of the most popular platforms for learning Japanese these days.
It has a massive library of lesson content for Japanese learners.
Rocket has a very structured, linear format taking you through each lesson from start to finish. For someone brand new to Japanese and an inexperienced language learner, it’s perfect.
More expensive definitely but a lot more overall value and long-term use.
It eliminates the need to travel to Japan. You can book an inexpensive voice or video lesson through italki (many are less than $10 per hour).
Any Japanese books or resources I should add here?