Today is all about the best books to learn Japanese as a young master along the げんご (Gengo|言語) path! Having a good book to learn from is like having a good road map along the long language-learning journey. But the map makers are plentiful, so this reference can help you narrow down which maps are the absolute best!
The books for learning Japanese below aren’t listed in any particular order, but we do provide details on what makes the book good for learning Japanese and the “level” of the books as well.
So get your detective hats on, and let’s investigate!
- 1 15 of the Best Books to learn Japanese
- 1.1 Genki
- 1.2 Japanese From Zero
- 1.3 Minna No Nihongo
- 1.4 A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar
- 1.5 Read Real Japanese
- 1.6 Remembering the Kanji: Volume 1
- 1.7 Shadowing: Let’s Speak Japanese
- 1.8 JLPT Study Guide: A Comprehensive Guide to the JLPT Level 5 Exam
- 1.9 The New Kanzen Master Books
- 1.10 Living Language Japanese
- 1.11 The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary: Revised and Expanded
- 1.12 Japanese For Busy People
- 1.13 Nihongo Active Talk
- 1.14 New Nihongo Keigo Training
- 1.15 A Guide to Japanese Grammar by Tae Kim
- 2 How to Find the Best Learning Book for You
- 3 Other resources for learning Japanese
- 4 Wrap Up
15 of the Best Books to learn Japanese
You might want to learn Japanese for various reasons. Perhaps you have it as a hobby, you love anime or mangas, you’ll visit Japan soon, or you need to take the Japanese Language Proficiency test. Whatever your goal is in learning Japanese, these books, while mostly unbiased on our part, are for self-learners of the Japanese language.
In other words, these are our best 15 books for those studying on their own outside of a classroom or learning program. Of course, they can be used alongside a teacher (that’d be even better) but by no means is that necessary! Each of these gems is comprehensive enough to tackle all on your own!
There are two editions of Genki (1 and 2) for beginners and intermediate learners, respectively. Most people who studied Japanese in a university will have come across this book, lending to its popularity. It’s particularly widespread in the USA, Europe, and Australia. To date, the Genki book series has sold more than 2 million copies worldwide and is pretty fairly priced.
The lessons in these books are divided into 2 sections: Conversation/Grammar and Reading/Writing. The former introduces the words and topics and demonstrates some natural uses of the new material. The latter hones in on what was learned with corresponsive writing (including kanji) and reading practice.
The book comes with an audio CD for listening practice which works hand-in-hand with the Genki workbook, which can be purchased for an additional price.
The downsides to Genki are that the answers to textbook questions are sold only in a separate book that is only available in Japanese. Also, there are a bunch of pair-work exercises that cannot be done on your own; while the Genki books are useful for self-study, they were intended to be taught to students with the help of a teacher.
Lastly, the kanji doesn’t come with a stroke order.
Are Genki Japanese Textbooks Worth it?
Since Genki books are so popular, they get the most inquiries from curious learners probably more than any other Japanese learning textbook. After all, folks (like you) want to know if all they bang is really worth the buck!
The truth is, the Genki Japanese textbook series is one of the handiest resources you can have as a serious Japanese student. It provides all of the essential beginner vocabularies, along with ひらがな (hiragana) and カタカナ(katakana) alphabet charts. Also, between volumes 1 and 2, most N5 and N4 kanji are covered and charted out in the back of the books.
Plus, there are loads of footnotes explaining special exceptions to studying Japanese grammar points whenever applicable, or those dropping little cultural notes sometimes too. Not to mention, Everything is coherent, neatly distributed, and easy to follow.
So if you’re wondering if the infamous Genki really lives up to its hype, well, the answer is yes! Of course, the book has its downsides, but so does everything else in life. If you haven’t done so already, Genki may be worth a shot!
Japanese From Zero
This rather popular book got its fame from a YouTube channel with the same name that provides a bunch of free Japanese lessons for its viewers. It was written by a bilingual and native speaker of both English and Japanese, so the approach is really two-dimensional. Also, it was created for self-learners of Japanese.
There are 5 editions to the book series, each with exceeding levels of difficulty. Not to mention, it incorporates online materials for the community of learners who use the series.
What really makes the book stand out is its long list of useful Japanese grammar points that are used every day or frequently by Japanese native speakers! The books are fairly new so the context is up-to-date and relatable.
While Japanese from Zero is really affordable, some of the online material can only be accessed by purchasing online. Also, the pacing can be quite slow, especially for anyone learning Japanese writing – it’s a series better suited for beginner learners. Be sure to find a book that gives you a challenge so you can stay engaged while you study!
Minna No Nihongo
We switch pace with this next book series, which offers students the chance to study Japanese completely in Japanese! That’s right. So while Minna No Nihongo does a companion book in English with translations, the main book forces you to immerse yourself in Japanese only.
These books (as there are many) are great for anyone really looking to push the limits of their brain and learn Japanese quickly. Plus, they cover all the most important language topics in-depth, like writing, listening, conversation, etc.
Unfortunately, this incredible book doesn’t come at the cheapest price, especially when you consider the cost of the companion book, which is sold separately. Not only that, but it does not teach hiragana and katakana, and therefore is not for true beginners.
Lastly, it was designed to be used as a classroom book, so the explanations can be really tough to understand. That being said, if you already have a high level of Japanese (particularly reading and writing) and want to challenge yourself, this can be an excellent choice!
A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar
As the name implies, this is one of the best books to learn Japanese and it’s not a textbook. This book is simply a “dictionary” of grammar. It’s rather renowned amongst ex-pats as the book to have in your possession, as it’s just that powerful.
The compact series totals up to 3 books, each with a different color – yellow, blue, red – in that order of difficulty. Each book is an incredible learning resource for their respective levels and provides grammar along with helpful and clearly written example sentences too.
These books are a little bit more on the expensive side but fairly valued if we do say so ourselves. Get your hands on the yellow, blue, or red book depending on your level for a clutch Japanese language resource!
Read Real Japanese
This book for learning Japanese is just as the name hints – all about reading Japanese! Actually, there’s not just one book, but two books – one focused on fiction, and one focused on essays. And what’s cool is that the texts in this book were not written for Japanese learners, but instead comprise texts written for Japanese native speakers and given to Japanese learners.
Similar to the last book we covered on this list, there are no flat-out English translations of the Japanese text provided in the book. There are, however, English tips and notes that accompany each reading.
Plus, there are ふりがな(furigana), or hiragana that accompanies kanji, for all the texts, which streamlines the studying process. The writing in these books was taken from several prolific Japanese authors. A good price for a good book. Definitely for intermediate to advanced students.
Remembering the Kanji: Volume 1
Remembering the Kanji is a 2-volume book series created by one man, James W. Heisig, who has revolutionized the way to learn kanji. This kanji book prides itself on teaching how to remember kanji (or anything of fair complexity) using the imaginative and creative parts of the brain to develop what is termed “imaginative memory.”
The learning method consists of studying first the “components” of different characters, giving them value and symbology, and then combining the many “components to form stories”. This book is meant to help you remember the meaning of individual characters, and does not offer you the reading of those characters – you’d need another source for that.
Although this new approach does help a ton with mastering kanji meanings, there is no escape from constant repetition and drilling to really remember the vast amount of material that kanji is. That adds to the challenge of clearly defining (within your mind) the definitions of many many components, some of which are given to you and are obscure or unusual.
If you are an intermediate or advanced Japanese student who wants to take a serious step up in your kanji knowledge and recognition game, this is the book for you. Oh, and it is an affordable book considering how much information it holds.
Shadowing: Let’s Speak Japanese
This is an excellent book for learning how to speak Japanese at a higher and more fluid level. There are 3 books in this series: one for beginner to intermediate learners, one for intermediate to advanced learners, and a special book for job interviews.
The selling point of the books is that each comes with a CD with audio for practice exercises and conversations of a native Japanese speaker. The listener then shadows or mimics the audio, trying to match perfectly the speed, intonation, tone… everything.
They are great for Japanese students who want to learn set phrases used by native speakers in the most natural context and with the most natural pronunciation. They are also a great form of immersion if you don’t have much time in your day. Oh, and the price is fair too
That being said, the book only focuses on speaking practice and listening, and isn’t geared toward students who want to practice their reading and writing skills. Plus, using it correctly does require you to speak aloud, so unless you’re exceptionally brave, you wouldn’t want to use this book in public. Plus, there are no reviews or tests, so you’ll have to quiz yourself.
JLPT Study Guide: A Comprehensive Guide to the JLPT Level 5 Exam
In case you’re unfamiliar, there are standardized levels of Japanese proficiency recognized on a national level in Japan, and therefore, around the world. The level of proficiency is measured from N5-N1, alternatively called JLPT5-JLPT1. In fact, the name of the actual exam is JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test).
Therefore, JLPT5 is a great first goal to shoot for as an early student of Japanese, and this book is all about reaching that goal.
The book is easy to follow, the pacing is well-done, and the illustrations really excel the learning process. The best part is, this book contains actual questions from the real JLPT5 exam, so there’s no doubt as to the efficacy of the material!
Plus, this book offers printable flashcards and audio for listening comprehension as well. Lastly, it’s extremely affordable, making it one of the best cheap books to learn Japanese!
The New Kanzen Master Books
Staying on our theme of JLPT mastery, this series of books offers a dialed-in focus for each level of the JLPT exam after N5 (i.e. N4-N1). To make things even better, each level has 5 books that focus on the most important areas of Japanese mastery: grammar, kanji, vocabulary, listening, and reading.
As you may be able to tell, these are no-funny-games books with in-depth and thorough explanations of each topic, plenty of practice questions, and some mock tests that mirror the JLPT exam. For that reason, they can be very cold and dry – no goofy images or wild stories here!
There is no N5 level for these Japanese books, so stay away if you’re a complete beginner. Not to mention, from N2 level and above, all of the material is completely in Japanese.
Lastly, these books come at a really good price, and you can even find some package deals to get all 5 books for any one level. For a serious and concrete helpful Japanese book for JLPT practice, we recommend checking out New Kanzen Master!
PS If you don’t want to go with all 5 books in one level, if nothing else, get your hands on the Japanese vocabulary and grammar books!
Living Language Japanese
Living Language is a language-teaching company that has been in the game for over 60 years. They specialize in using multimedia sources coupled with linguistic science to provide a fully comprehensive learning guide for language students. This book in particular is meant to turn beginners into advanced speakers and covers every aspect of the language in depth.
More specifically, it includes 9 audio CDs, 3 coursebooks, a reading and writing guide, and a free online subscription to their learning center. It’s useful for self-study or learning in more of a traditional classroom setting.
We heard before that individual books of different levels could be purchased separately, but that doesn’t seem to be the case now (and that isn’t really Living Language’s style).
Admittedly, the guide is really thorough, covering everything from everyday grammar to hard-to-discuss social topics. But even though this book is foundationally concrete, it does come at a pretty penny and is meant to be a one-size-fits-all solution. Also, the structure is a bit dry and feels a bit outdated at times.
The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary: Revised and Expanded
This is a killer tool for any and all students of Japanese and is one of the best Japanese textbooks to learn kanji. As the name implies, this is a dictionary with every single most-common kanji, prescribed by the Japanese government, so you know what you’re getting is spot on and relevant.
Not only does the book contain a perfect list of kanji, but it also offers the kanjis’ meanings, readings, stroke orders, and usages in popular compounds.
Perhaps the most unique feature of the Japanese learning book is the System of Kanji Indexing by Patterns, or SKIP. This system makes it super easy to search for and locate kanji based on a pattern instead of alphabetical lettering and is really effective. It also helps you remember the kanji characters themselves.
It is a small book that is nearly pocket-sized and definitely worth its value in dollars.
Japanese For Busy People
There are two volumes/versions of this book – volumes 1 and 2. The first volume is written entirely in kana, or Japanese characters, while the second volume is written entirely in Romaji. The kana volume of this book is written entirely in hiragana and katakana, which sounds nice but can make for a more challenging time of learning Japanese (especially when reading!).
It doesn’t include any kanji at all until the very end, at which point it is sectioned off and taught totally out of context. Well, at least it’s there!
The book is geared toward professionals so it contains more professional or work-related contexts than some competitors. It is pretty well organized and hosts some rather complex grammar. And as the name implies, it’s built in a way to learn Japanese in short intervals at a rapid level over spaced-out periods of time.
Luckily, the book is pretty low cost and the name precedes it, as it is one of the most popular books for learning Japanese. There is also an accompanying app and included CD for practicing Japanese audio. It’s definitely a book geared toward self-earners, and the price + reputation make it an appealing option for intermediate or early intermediate students for sure.
Nihongo Active Talk
This book hails itself as the first Japanese textbook for beginners. It is centered around developing strong basic conversation skills in the students and is geared toward beginner students for that reason. It’s a fun and easy-to-follow book with cute illustrations, short dialogues, and loads of context for studying Japanese sentence patterns.
This book also gives a bunch of conversational tips as footnotes for the reader, which is really convenient for beginners. The grammar taught in this beginner Japanese book flows pretty naturally and finds exposure in a fluid context.
Another thing worth mentioning here is the overabundance of romaji. ろまじ(romaji|ローマ字) is the name for the Latin alphabet when they’re used in Japanese. For example, the very word “romaji” is romaji to the Japanese.
The romaji in the book is great for beginners who want to get started learning and practicing Japanese immediately. On the other hand, so much romaji can be a crutch to any learner and actually limit the learning process.
Lastly, don’t expect to find any real reading or writing practice with this book since the focus is conversation. Even so, it’s an affordable book with much to offer early self-learners starting out with Japanese!
New Nihongo Keigo Training
This is a one-of-a-kind book in that it actually focuses on (the dreaded)けいご (keigo|敬語). In short, 敬語 (keigo) is the umbrella term used to describe a special kind of Japanese used when being very respectful. Even amongst Japanese natives, Keigo can be challenging – most natives cannot even speak proper Keigo!
And most foreigners aren’t expected to even know Keigo due to its difficulty. Well, this book breaks the rules!
New Nihongo Keigo Training takes average situations where one could respond normally and forces the reader to use Keigo instead of normal Japanese. It makes for a great way to naturally tie in Keigo to conversation exchanges or other forms of communication, like email.
This is a book most certainly for intermediate to advanced students and really isn’t necessary unless you want to push yourself. Oh, and Keigo is essential if you want to work in some Japanese companies, where you’ll have to speak to your boss or clients with high honor.
Aside from the inherent challenges here, the book provides furigana for greater ease in kanji readings and also provides a CD and audio download for its possessors.
On the not-so-bright side, explanations in this book are limited which will be challenging for many learners totally unfamiliar with Keigo. Plus, some exercises are geared toward pair work and won’t fare well for self-learners.
A Guide to Japanese Grammar by Tae Kim
Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide is perhaps the most well-known from the free online version, still available for diligent learners. There is also a completely free downloadable PDF version, as well as a paperback for those who’d like something more tangible.
This book by Tae Kim is a heavy-hitter when it comes to comprehensive grammar mastery in the Japanese language. It takes you through grammar from start to finish, and really guides you to challenge yourself while you learn native concepts associated with said grammar. Therefore, don’t expect to find unrealistically basic sentences in this guide, but rather, expect to be plugged into organic and contextual scenarios for learning grammar.
This printed guide is affordable, easy to use on your own, and helpful both as a step-by-step study guide or as a general reference guide along your learning path. That being said, this book provides no audio support, and the practice questions are open-ended, so the responsibility really falls into the hands of the student.
Consider supporting Tae Kim and buying a copy of this amazing book for yourself or a friend!
How to Find the Best Learning Book for You
Regardless of your learning style, having textbooks like the ones on the list can be helpful. However, with all of these options available, finding the right Japanese learning book for you can be tough.
Start by considering your current Japanese level–that will immediately narrow down your options. Next, consider your weakness(es) in the Japanese language. Many of these books have a special focus, like kanji or speaking, and are ideal for developing in just one area.
Finally, consider your learning goals. If you want to become a fluent speaker and don’t care as much about perfect writing abilities, it’s okay to ignore your weakness(es) and get after your goals.
If you’re looking to become a master and touch up every level of your Japanese, consider a book with a more well-rounded, comprehensive approach. Most importantly, remember to be flexible and shop around until you find something that works for you!
Where to Buy Japanese Learning Books
Practically, all of these books are available on eCommerce platforms such as Amazon, Thriftbooks, or OMG Japan – a quick Google search should provide promising results. If you are a college student, odds are you can rent or buy books from your school at a discounted price (yay!)
If all else fails, try to find the closest local Japanese bookstore in your area and check out the books there!
Other resources for learning Japanese
If you can’t get a hold of any of these Japanese textbooks just yet, here are some useful resources to get you started with your Japanese journey.
- Japanese vocabulary – https://90dayjapanese.com/japanese-words/
- Japanese writing systems – https://90dayjapanese.com/japanese-alphabet/
- Japanese particles – https://90dayjapanese.com/japanese-particles/
- Japanese grammar – https://90dayjapanese.com/japanese-grammar/
- Japanese verbs – https://90dayjapanese.com/japanese-verbs/
- Basic Kanji – https://90dayjapanese.com/kanji/
Learning new things even in your native language can be hard. Language learning can certainly be challenging, but having the right resources from the start can be of great help! You should be able to improve not only basic vocabulary but also your reading comprehension, conversational skills
We hope this article has been helpful as you equip yourself with the best Japanese textbook to learn Japanese that suits your learning style.
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