20 Best Books to Learn Japanese for Beginners to Advanced Learners

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So, after watching countless anime, poring over your pile of manga, and streaming Japanese documentaries on Netflix, you’ve finally decided to learn Japanese. Maybe you’ve even started to learn the basics of Japanese through language apps. But if you’re serious about learning this seemingly intimidating language, your next step should be grabbing books to learn Japanese.

Why learn Japanese with books?

japanese signs

Japan has one of the largest economies in the world and learning the language will help you gain business or career opportunities. Additionally, Japafgrtdscxfnese is a great gateway language to learn other Asian languages like Chinese and Korean since they share a lot of similarities. Japanese study books are great tools to achieve proficiency.

  • Japanese books teach the fundamentals of the language in a structured way. The best textbooks for learning Japanese follow a certain structure that helps you progress to fluency as you learn grammar points, vocabulary, and forms of speech.
  • Japanese books explain the intricacies of grammar. Non-native speakers, especially English speakers, will agree that Japanese grammar is disorienting at first. Japanese grammar books help overcome this hurdle.
  • Japanese books have multimedia tools that self-learners can benefit from. Textbooks often come with other materials like worksheets, glossaries, and audio lessons. If you’re self-studying, making use of these tools will give you a rich learning experience.

Now, it’s time to check out this roundup of the best books to learn Japanese. Let’s go!

Best Japanese books for beginners

1. Japanese from Zero! 1: Proven Techniques to Learn Japanese for Students and Professionals

Perfectly suitable for kids and absolute beginners, this is one of the most popular books to learn Japanese. There are four books in the series and this first book slowly introduces the hiragana writing system, basic grammar and vocabulary, and pronunciation.

This book teaches 800+ words and expressions in a mix of hiragana (Japanese alphabet) and romaji (English letters). It also delves into some Japanese culture points. Lessons are well-structured and easy to grasp. There is no companion CD; however, you can check out the free web version for audio and video materials.

This book is best for:

  • Beginners who are looking for non-intimidating textbooks
  • Self-learners. Lessons are user-friendly and easy to follow.
  • Learning the basics of Japanese language in a relaxing, fun way

2. GENKI I: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese (English and Japanese Edition)

Genki is one of the most popular Japanese books for beginners. Engaging dialogues with cute illustrations are used to teach reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills. Grammar points, which are concisely explained in English, and the vocabulary lessons are easy to follow.

This book also covers Japanese Language Proficiency Examination (JLPT) level N5 so it’s great for test takers. This second edition includes culture notes, which helps in learning within the context of Japanese culture. It also includes an audio CD for listening and speaking practice.

This book is best for:

  • Students taking Japanese classes in a traditional classroom setting or with a tutor
  • JLPT test takers
  • Beginners who prefer structured lessons that cover all aspects of the Japanese language

3. Japanese for Everyone: A Functional Approach to Daily Communication

As you can glean from its name, this Japanese language learning book aims to teach natural, real-life Japanese. Divided into 27 lessons, this teaches grammar structure and vocabulary through practical dialogues and expressions and cultural notes.

This book covers complex grammar early, giving a good grasp of the structure before you dive into more challenging lessons. You get lots of written and oral practice, too. The use of romaji is minimized so you can learn hiragana and katakana (a special alphabet for foreign words) faster. The only drawback is the shortage of kanji (logographic Chinese characters).

This book is best for:

  • Both classroom use and self-studying
  • Practical Japanese lessons
  • Newbies who want to learn Japanese grammar fast

4. Elementary Japanese Volume One

Whether you’re a self-learner or studying with a teacher, you will love Elementary Japanese. This comprehensive Japanese book for beginners features thorough grammar explanations built around conversations and basic vocabulary.

This book includes 14 lessons with usage and grammar notes, exercises, new vocabulary, and new kanji. The lessons on hiragana and katakana are also substantial. The book comes with a CD-ROM that contains printable PDFs and MP3 audio files, which are also downloadable on the publisher’s website.

This book is best for:

  • Self-studying and those taking Japanese classes for the first time
  • Students preparing for JLPT
  • Extensive grammar lessons

Best Japanese grammar books

5. A Guide to Japanese Grammar: A Japanese approach to learning Japanese grammar

Anyone studying Japanese grammar has surely crossed paths with Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese online. The grammar guide available on the official website, iOS app, and Android app has the same content as this book. The only reason to purchase this book is if you prefer a physical copy.

Explanations of grammar points use casual speech, which is rarely done in most textbooks. This makes it easy for learners, especially beginners, to comprehend even complex sentences. It does move on to polite forms to demonstrate so you can learn both forms.

This book is best for:

  • Independent, self-motivated learners
  • Easy-to-follow and comprehensive grammar explanations
  • Intermediate to advanced learners who want to brush up on their Japanese knowledge

6. Yookoso! An Invitation to Contemporary Japanese

Yookoso!’s strength lies in its conciseness. This is one of the most effective books to learn Japanese grammar if you prefer learning by example.

The grammar explanations in this book are brief but comprehensive. The sample phrases and sentences are what drill down particular grammar points. Contemporary and traditional Japanese culture concepts are also briefly explained to provide context for the language lessons.

This book is best for:

  • Beginners to intermediate learners
  • Practical grammar lessons
  • Reading practice

7. Japanese the Manga Way: An Illustrated Guide to Grammar and Structure

If you think learning Japanese grammar can’t be fun, this book will prove you wrong. Japanese the Manga Way is one of the best books to learn Japanese if you don’t like too academic, boring lessons. And if you’re a fan of manga, you’ll have a hard time putting down this book.

This takes a “real manga, real Japanese” non-traditional approach to learning. This means language that is spoken in real life is used here. Grammar is explained through actual manga scenes, making for an entertaining and enjoyable learning experience.

This book is best for:

  • Studying Japanese grammar, the non-boring way
  • Manga lovers
  • Supplementing other methods of learning (i.e. apps, online courses, other books)

8. A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar

While English dictionaries commonly tackle vocabulary, given the complexity of Japanese grammar, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Japanese have dictionaries for grammar.

This dictionary collates introductory grammar knowledge, detailing parts of speech, and all possible meanings and definitions. Usage, sample sentences, collocations, and related notes are also available. Many Japanese language learners swear by the comprehensiveness of this book.

This book is best for:

  • Anyone learning Japanese!
  • In-depth grammar lessons
  • Supporting other, more structured ways of learning

Best Japanese vocabulary books

9. Essential Japanese Vocabulary: Learn to Avoid Common (And Embarrassing!) Mistakes

Ideal for both self-study and classroom use, Essential Japanese Vocabulary covers vocabulary that is used in colloquial setting, leaving forms that are unnecessary or not commonly used. It also teaches essential grammar points.

Text is written in kanji and kana, and explained concisely. Cultural insight helps readers understand the vocabulary and grammar faster. A glossary of grammatical terms is also included. Additionally, this is one of the best books to learn Japanese if you need a refresher on what you’ve already learned.

This book is best for:

  • Supplementing other structured lessons
  • Intermediate learners who have a background on hiragana, kanji, and Japanese grammar
  • Learning word usage through cultural insight

10. An Illustrated Dictionary of Japanese Onomatopoeic Expressions

Simply put, onomatopoeia are words that represent the sound it suggests. Think meow, oink, boom, and buzz. The Japanese language has more onomatopoeia than any other language in the world. Hence, it would make sense to get a Japanese vocabulary book like this one.

This book contains simple illustrations of gitaigo (onomatopoeia that describes conditions and states), with pronunciations and explanations in both English and Japanese. Easily one of the most appealing books to learn Japanese if you’re a beginner to intermediate learner.

This book is best for:

  • Visual learners
  • Building useful vocabulary
  • Learners with little to no Japanese background

11. Modern Japanese Vocabulary: A Guide for 21st Century Students

No matter what your learning goal is, when choosing books to learn Japanese, relevant vocabulary is necessary. Modern Japanese Vocabulary is a great choice because it covers contemporary topics such as the internet, modern politics, culture, and business.

Aside from learning useful vocabulary, this also contains homonyms, Sino-Japanese verbs, prefixes, and suffixes. Entries are arranged by category. This makes it one of the good Japanese kanji books out there because you learn kanji related to topics you are interested in. However, that pronunciation keys are in kana only, not in romaji.

This book is best for:

  • Learning relevant and practical vocabulary beyond the basics
  • Supporting other methods of studying
  • Learners who can read kanji and hiragana

12. Read Real Japanese Fiction: Short Stories by Contemporary Writers

Read Real Japanese Fiction lets you learn new Japanese words while enjoying stories written by some of the most daring and famous contemporary Japanese authors. The best of both worlds, if you ask me.

The Japanese text on each page runs from top to bottom and from right to left. On one side of the double-spread is the original Japanese text and on the other, you’ll find English translations of difficult passages. A Japanese-English dictionary and grammar and culture notes are also available.

Not only does this book help in expanding vocabulary. It’s also a great way to learn to speak Japanese because it comes with a CD with audio narrations. 

This book is best for:

  • Intermediate to advanced learners with kana and kanji knowledge
  • Expanding Japanese vocabulary through fiction
  • Reading and speaking practice

Best Japanese audiobooks

13. Pimsleur Japanese Level 1

Pimsleur is one of the fastest ways to learn to speak Japanese. Using the scientifically-proven method of spaced repetition system, all you need is 30 minutes of listening and speaking practice per day.

The CD contains 30 30-minute audio lessons featuring native speakers and an hour of Culture Notes. The first 10 lessons cover basic Japanese expressions and minimum courtesy requirements. The next 10 lessons refine what you’ve learned, with additional 100+ new vocabulary items. The last 10 lessons take you to the intermediate level.

Here’s a great offer: Try the Pimsleur Japanese course free for 7 days!

This book is best for:

  • Listening and speaking practice
  • Absolute beginners to intermediate learners
  • Busy individuals who would like to learn on-the-go

14. Learn Japanese: Word Power 101

While good Japanese lessons are worth investing in, we don’t have to pass up on free resources. If you want to learn Japanese for free, you should consider this audiobook by Innovative Language.

Aside from the 101 frequently-used words that this Japanese audiobook will teach you, you will also learn phrases and sentences recorded by a native speaker.

You don’t even have to be an English speaker to use this. Just select your native language and start learning!

This book is best for:

  • Expanding your Japanese vocabulary
  • Beginners with little to no experience with Japanese
  • Learners who thrive in fast-paced, non-structured courses

15. Shadowing: Let’s Speak Japanese

If you think the best way to learn Japanese is by speaking almost immediately, Shadowing is for you.

Shadowing is a form of training where you listen to a recording and immediately repeat, or ‘shadow,’ the recording as closely as possible. This method lets you process Japanese faster and pronounce Japanese in the same manner as a native Japanese person.

The audio recording in the CD features 65 minutes of real-world Japanese phrases and sentences. Transcript is available in the physical book, all written in kanji, with translations in English, Chinese, and Korean. This is one of the best books to learn Japanese if you want to start speaking right away.

This book is best for:

  • Beginners to intermediate learners
  • Listening and speaking practice, with focus on pronunciation and intonation
  • Non-linear learning path

16. Japanese: The Spoken Language, Part 1

It’s best to dive into this book with the goal of speaking Japanese, not writing. Japanese: The Spoken Language is written in romaji so you won’t be learning kana or kanji. This romaji is great as it helps you develop better pronunciation skills.

This book comes with audio materials for listening and speaking practice. Pitch accent is taught, which makes it even more useful. It uses practical vocabulary in drills and dialogues, and teaches in-depth grammar as well.

This book is best for:

  • Newbies who need introductory lessons on spoken Japanese
  • Learning grammar in context
  • Auditory self-learners

Best Japanese storybooks for beginners

17. Japanese Short Stories for Beginners

The best books to learn Japanese need not always be academic. Sometimes, it just has to be immersive enough to help you retain knowledge.

Japanese Short Stories for Beginners features 20 easy-to-read and fun short stories that will allow you to expand your Japanese vocabulary. Text is written in kanji but if you’re not at that level yet, you can just read the English translation. And with the free Audible version, you can listen to a native speaker.

This book is best for:

  • Learning Japanese in a non-traditional, compelling, and immersive way
  • Training your kanji reading and listening skills
  • Exposure to new vocabulary

18. Japanese Stories for Language Learners: Bilingual Stories in Japanese and English

Taking learners on an exciting linguistic and cultural journey, Japanese Stories for Language Learners is one of the best books to learn Japanese. It features five compelling stories with English and Japanese language versions appearing on opposite pages.

The book includes notes from the translator, vocabulary lists, grammar points, and exercises on kanji, kana, and grammar. There’s also a companion audio material that lets you listen to the stories narrated by native speakers. Repetitive vocabulary helps heighten recall, too.

This book is best for:

  • Intermediate to advanced learners with basic knowledge of the Japanese writing system and grammar
  • Supplementary materials for students who are already learning through other methods
  • Immersive way of learning Japanese

19. 50 Japanese Short Stories for Beginners

This is one of the best books to learn Japanese if you’re not particularly looking for structured lessons. It contains 50 entertaining Japanese short stories for beginners and intermediate learners, all written in kana and kanji. Fret not if you can’t read Japanese, there are line-by-line English translations.

This book is a great way to dive into basic kanji reading and vocabulary expansion. It includes a reading guide that explains the basics of the language and its characters so you don’t come in clueless.

This book is best for:

  • Self-paced learning
  • Building Japanese vocabulary
  • Refresher lessons for intermediate learners

20. Am I Small? (Children’s Picture Book)

Am I Small? by Philipp Winterberg is not of Japanese origin. However, it’s worth checking out if you’re an absolute beginner or raising a bilingual kid. This short story of a girl who worries about her size is the most translated German book, with translations in over 175 languages and dialects, including Japanese.

With imaginative, colorful art and a well-written story, you’ll easily find this book engaging. The English-Japanese edition includes text in hiragana, romaji for the pronunciation, and English translation. Although far from being structured or academic, this book is great for building vocabulary.

This book is best for:

  • Children and beginners
  • Learners who want to read Japanese literature but not yet ready for longform text
  • Visual learners

How to choose books to learn Japanese + other tips

Now that we’ve gone through this list of top books to learn Japanese, here are some things you have to keep in mind before purchasing a book:

  • Determine your learning style. Are you the type of learner who needs structure? Or do you prefer non-linear lessons? It’s important to know which learning path is suitable for you so that you don’t spend money on a material that will not fit your style.
  • Identify your goals. Are you studying to learn how to read and write kana and kanji? Or do you prefer developing your speaking skills first? Not all books help with all aspects of Japanese language learning so having a clear goal will help you choose the right book for you.
  • Choose one or two books and stick to it. Don’t start buying a new book when you find yourself in sticky parts of the lessons. Most books can be read at your own pace so you can keep reading and practicing until you get things right. Sticking to one or two books ensure that you don’t overwhelm yourself or worse, drop out without finishing the material.
  • Download mobile apps. Apps are handy and are great supplementary materials, especially if you’re using structured textbooks. If you want to know how to learn Japanese on your phone, this list of apps can help.
  • Invest in other materials and resources. Consider listening to podcasts if you’re an auditory learner. Get a Japanese tutor if you need coaching from a native speaker. A good mix of learning tools will give you a diverse Japanese learning experience.

There you have it. With this extensive list of books to learn Japanese, you’re more ready than ever to start learning Japanese. With consistent practice and plenty of determination, you’ll soon be on your way to fluency. Happy studying!

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