Books and Textbooks for Learning Japanese


Choosing a Textbook

Think about what’s most important to you and see which books fit most of your criteria (price, kanji w/ stroke order, #vocab, #grammar exercises, reading passage topics, etc.). You probably don’t have the same criteria as me. To start your research, look at these summaries, read samples, read customer reviews, and visit the book’s website. If you can find the introduction to the textbook (the samples provided below often have it, or, or, reading through it can give you a good idea of the structure of the book, its possible strengths/weaknesses, as well as how the authors intended it to be used. If you want a book that focuses on writing, for instance, you probably don’t want to choose a book that emphasizes speaking. You can also tell if the book has an appendix and how much work you will have to do to finish each chapter (are you going to have to look up the English definitions of the words yourself? Do you care? Smaller details like this may be important to you).

Most of these books assume you already know the Japanese kana (hiragana and katakana writing systems). Some of them, however, at least show you the general stroke order in a table. If you need to practice the kana, try out this website: Tae Kim’s Japanese Grammar Guide: Kana

In general, all of these textbooks have gotten pretty good reviews (at least 3/5 stars). None of them are perfect though. You may like one better than another, but if you spend too much time searching for the perfect textbook, you won’t learn any Japanese! So choose one that you think will suit you best, stick with it until you finish, then move onto the next level. I suggest not buying multiple textbooks unless you want one for supplemental material, otherwise you probably won’t progress very far in either of them, and you will also waste money. Have fun learning!

Other Books

I have only included textbooks that have pretty good reviews on Amazon and other websites (at least 3 stars). Because of this, some popular textbooks are not in the list. Here is a list of some books that are not included and why. There are also other books/resources that I did not include because I wouldn’t consider them to be official textbooks, though they may be great resources, and I’ve included them in the list below with a few comments.

  • Nakama - not rated highly on Amazon, seems better suited to classroom use with a good teacher, but it may still be a good fit for some people.
  • Japanese the Spoken Language - This used to be a very popular textbook series and it does have some good merits, but there are better books out there now. If you want lots of detail on grammar, this series might be good for you. Uses lots of romaji unfortunately since it focuses on speaking first. There are also books that go over reading/writing.
  • Hiyaku: An Intermediate Japanese Course - a new textbook. I removed it from the table because I don’t have much information about it. Here is the companion website.
  • Basic Technical Japanese - If you are in a technical field and will be reading technical papers/resources, the Technical Japanese book series would be helpful to you. I didn’t include it in the table since it is rather specific. (Other books in the series are: Intermediate Technical Japanese 1 & 2, Kanji for Comprehending Technical Japanese, Comprehending Technical Japanese, as well as books about biotech, solid-state physics, etc.)
  • Tae Kim’s Japanese Grammar Guide – A wonderful FREE resource, and you could easily use it instead of a textbook! To learn vocab, you could grab a shared vocab list from the Anki spaced-repetition software program (corePlus is a good vocab list), and you’d be all set!
  • Japanese the Manga Way - an excellent book that teaches you grammar in a fun way. You’d need to supplement vocab, but this is a nice alternative to a traditional textbook.
  • Japanese from Zero - a good book series that teaches Japanese at an easy-to-learn slow-pace for absolute beginners.
  • Japanese Demystified - a nice self-study book to learn basic Japanese and it is inexpensive. More of a study-guide and supplement to a meatier textbook.
  • Human Japanese - software for the PC, Mac, and smart phones to learn the kana, basic Japanese grammar, and vocab.

Textbooks: Beginner

(Note: Most links below point to products on Unseen Japan Translation Services earns a commission on all purchases made on Amazon.)

Genki: An Integrated Approach to Japanese


JLPT N4 Level. Probably the most popular textbook. Between Books 1 and 2, there are 1700 vocabulary terms and 317 kanji taught. Generally multiple exercises per grammar point. There’s quite a few compared to most other textbooks. With the workbook you will have lots of practice. Teaches kana immediately. Formal Japanese taught in Book I; informal taught in Book II. Teaches at a slow pace; may be too slow for some people. Audio included.

Minna No Nihongo (Japanese for Everyone)


JLPT 4 Level. 2 textbooks for beginners. (There is also one for intermediate study called Chuukyuu.) Comprehensive (doesn’t leave special cases out) and very “Japanese.” Information taught is very practical. Textbook has quite a bit of pairwork, so probably better for classrooms. But with workbook probably fine for self study. Teaches things that are useful in everyday conversation. May not have an index for vocab? 1,900 vocab across both books, and 518 kanji (but does not teach kanji stroke order). Answer keys may or may not be included, and audio is a separate purchase. Average pace of study, and teaches to a lot of useful, everyday situations.

An Introduction to Modern Japanese


JLPT N3 level. $100 (but only $76 through Kindle, or $56 for a rental); however, supplementary workbook is required. For serious students who want lots of detail and want to learn significant number of kanji through their textbook. After finishing, students should be able to start reading a newspaper (with the help of a dictionary). 3000 vocab; 1000 kanji. Kana from chapter 1, but also has romaji throughout. Teaches kana stroke order. Slower paced and very comprehensive.

Elementary Japanese I & II


About $30. JLPT N4 Level. Decently reviewed on Amazon. 1800 vocab, 300 kanji. Workbooks very hard to find. Well reviewed on Amazon (4 star).

Japanese in Mangaland I, II & III


JLPT Level N4. More fun than other textbooks, with a sense of humor. Manga is original and was made for the book. One of the best for self-learners. Both formal and informal speech. You will learn actual (casual) Japanese used in manga. ~2000 vocab and ~1000 kanji. Reasonably detailed explanations, easy to understand for most part. Romaji/kana both used in Book I, then shifts to kana. You will need the workbooks to get serious practice exercises.

Japanese for Busy People I, II & III


JLPT Level N4. Most people think the newer edition is improved compared to the original. Opinions vary on whether explanations are good. Some people think it relies more on memorization over understanding. Around 2000 vocab; 341 kanji (stroke order included). Workbooks separate. Audio included. Kana version uses kana - no romaji.

Textbooks: Intermediate-Advanced

(Note: Most links below point to products on Unseen Japan Translation Services earns a commission on all purchases made on Amazon.)

An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese (IAIJ)


JLPT Level N3 (bleed-in to N2). An unofficial sequel to Genki I and II; you should have finished Genki or a similar intro series before tackling this one. $45 for book, $20 for workbook. Unofficial sequel to Genki. Lacks grammar exercises in textbook, but has more than Tobira. Workbook helps, but no answer key. Some might find the topics, which focus on study abroad, a bit boring. Around 1500 vocab and 1000 kanji (~300 should be review from beginner text). 2nd edition ships with 2 CDs containing audio.

Tobira: Gateway to Advanced Study


Strengths are: the current/interesting cultural topics, multimedia, reading/listening practice. Vocab, reading passages, and dialogue available as audio for free online.Extended reading sections, several short dialogues, ~15 grammar points with examples, discussion of difficult grammar, 100-150 new vocab, 50-70 words recommended for memorization. 1000-1500 vocab depending on your incoming level. 800 kanji (workbook has stroke order); ~300 should be review from beginner text.Less explanation than beginner text. Brief and to the point. Expects more from intermediate students. Not much English explanation. Not many exercises; workbook provides more practice. Optional kanji workbook also available.

Minna no Nihongo Intermediate (Chukyu) I & II


Not much information on this. Can someone write a review?

Aozora: Intermediate-Advance Japanese Communication


JLPT N3+. Focus appears to be on writing and speaking. Printed using a university press, so layout is not as pretty as other textbooks. Very little English. No appendix. Looks like more of an upper-intermediate to advanced textbook. Around $30. No workbook. Audio available through Web site.

New Authentic Japanese: Progressing from Intermediate to Advanced


JLPT N2+. Sequel to Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese. Very little English. This is more of an advanced reader with grammar notes and vocab. $47, with $30 study book. Explanations are entirely in Japanese. This is an upper intermediate to advanced book that asks a lot of the learner.

Other Books for Learning Japanese

(Note: Most links below point to products on Unseen Japan Translation Services earns a commission on all purchases made on Amazon.)

These are books you can use to supplement textbook learning or flash card drills at various stages of your learning.

The Complete Guide to Japanese Kanji


An etymological approach to explaining the origin of each kanji in Chinese script, based in scholarly research into the characters. Each description contains several words that use the character, a description of the meaning of each component, and a mnemonic to use to help you remember it. Downsides: it’s a reference book, and doesn’t specify a prescriptive order for learning kanji; it can be a little too detailed; and it only covers the Jouyou kanji.

Remembering the Kanji 1: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters


The original reason that the predecessor to this forum (the Kanji Koohii Forum) existed was to serve as a discussion forum for this very book. Heisig’s work attempts to create a system of mnemonics and a learning order for learning how to recognize the meaning and to produce the basic kanji used in everyday written communication within the shortest amount of time possible. The method has avid fans as well as livid detractors, and remains both popular and controversial to this day.

Adventures in Kanji-Land: James W. Heisig and the Birth of Remembering the Kanji

Forum Discussion on RTK:

Japanese Sentence Patterns for Effective Communication


Often referred to simply as “JSPEC”. A favorite of forum regulars. Teaches sentence patterns with an emphasis on constructions you can use in conversation. LOTS of examples included for each point, and structured so that it can be used as a reference when figuring out how to translate a way of speaking from English to Japanese.

A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar


The first of three encyclopedic volumes (along with its Intermediate and Advanced cousins) documenting the Japanese language for English speaking learners. Meant to serve as a dictionary of Japanese grammatical patterns. Patterns can be looked up in romaji, and also by their English meaning. Each entry usually contains no less than 10 simple sample sentences, and often contains many more. Each entry also refers you to similar grammatical constructs, and contains clear rules regarding situations in which an alternative pattern should or must be used.

Making Sense of Japanese: What the Textbooks Don’t Tell You


A book of essays that attempt to de-mystify some of the so-called “mysterious” aspects of the Japanese language. Best known for its lengthy dissertation on wa vs. ga, i.e., the bane of all Japanese language learners.

Read Real Japanese Fiction: Short Stories by Contemporary Writers


As it says - a book of short stories by excellent Japanese writers such as Yoshimoto Banana and Otsuishi, among others. Comes complete with sentence by sentence translations into English, and an appendix explaining key grammar points. Comes with a CD with all essays read aloud by a professional narrator. An intermediate to advanced book; you will want to be at least well into an intermediate study program before tackling this.

Real Real Japanese Essays: Contemporary Writings by Popular Authors


Exactly like its fiction counterpart, except the texts are nonfiction essays essays. Highly entertaining content. Again, this is a good intermediate->advanced project, and will be difficult for beginners.