Read Your Way to Fluency: Best Books for Japanese Learners

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People are motivated to learn languages for school, personal reasons, pleasure, and business.  I have taken classes in Spanish and Latin.  Back in the day.  I did well in the final exams but have retained little.  Others have a better ability to pick up and retain fluency in languages. Young children often are the best at learning languages.  

We are now concerned about learning Japanese. Japanese is an important language, including in world financial affairs.  Many books are available to help learn Japanese and it can be hard to pick and choose.  To help you out, I selected ten of the best books available. 

Things to look for: the author’s expertise, the specific subject matter, what others are saying about them, the skillset of the intended audience, and any deficits that might be red flags.

Note: The Japanese language has three basic writing systems, kanji (Chinese characters) and hiragana, and katakana–two phonetic sets of characters.  One thing to look for is what type of system (specific ones or all of them?) are covered in the book you pick up.  


Elementary Japanese by Yoko Hasegawa  

This book is for beginners. It teaches each of the major Japanese writing systems with online media included. This is “volume one” which provides a full semester of “Introduction to Japanese” in one volume.  The author also has a second volume that provides a continuation of the lesson.  The author is a professor of Japanese Linguistics.

Possible Problems: Some readers did not find this book a good way to learn the language on their own; more of a textbook for a class. The lack of an answer key (without buying the Teachers’ Edition) to some exercises also can be problematic.   

Genki Textbook Multilingual Edition  by Eri Banno 

This is the third edition of the popular textbook to learn elementary Japanese.  The book provides lessons in vocabulary and grammar. 

The most recent version replaces the previously included CD with a downloadable app using a code. This is useful since many computers these days do not have a DVD drive.  

Possible Problems: These are familiar textbooks and there are familiar complaints from some about the quality of the English translations and use of Japanese grammar.  This is not a “quick study” book; more part of a long-term learning process. 

Japanese for Busy People by Association For Japanese Language Teaching [AJALT]

The Association for Japanese-Language Teaching (AJALT) was recognized as a nonprofit organization by the Japanese Ministry of Education in 1977.  It helps non-specialists quickly communicate in conversational Japanese. 

The new Japanese for Busy People: Revised 4th Edition is made up of three volumes: Book I, Book II, and Book III. Book I is available in both romanized and kana versions, similar to the Revised 3rd Edition. There are also workbooks available. 

Possible Problems: Some find the books too basic and not useful to truly learn conversational Japanese.  The use of different formats often provides a limited resource as compared to a book that is more comprehensive in its use of different scripts.  

Japanese from Zero! 1: Proven Techniques to Learn Japanese for Students and Professionals by George Trombley and Yukari Takenaka 

Trombley is a professional Japanese interpreter for many major companies. Takenaka previously worked in Japan as a professional in the medical industry before writing customized Japanese lessons that were used for the Zero! book series. 

This first book in a series focuses on learning Japanese grammar. The cover has a cute manga character.  The book is in an easy-to-follow workbook style with an answer key.  The book teaches reading and writing of the hiragana script. 

Possible Problems: Maybe not for good for total beginners.  (“Japanese from Close to Zero”?)  

Japanese Kanji for Beginners by Timothy G. Stout and Kaori Hakone 

This handy book teaches you a new mnemonics-based method to read and write frequently used kanji characters. The authors have extended experience with Japanese, including teaching and living in Japan for twenty years. 

Includes Online Audio & Printable Flash Cards. Japanese Hiragana and Katakana for Beginners are good companion books. 

Possible Problems: A few complained about the style of the characters and argued that non-book methods (such as apps) were better. 

Japanese Short Stories for Beginners by Lingo Mastery  

This book provides twenty short stories to help you learn Japanese.  Each chapter possesses a funny, interesting, and/or thought-provoking story based on real-life situations, allowing you to learn about Japanese culture in the process of learning the language.

Possible Problems: Some readers thought it was too difficult for beginners.  

From the Same Author: 2000 Most Common Japanese Words in Context, Conversational Japanese Dialogues, and Japanese Picture Dictionary Coloring Book 

Kodansha’s Furigana Japanese Dictionary by Masatoshi Yoshida and Yoshikatsu Nakamura 

Furigana are phonetic guides used with kanji scripts to show the pronunciation. This dictionary provides over 30,000 entries covering top English and Japanese words.  Grammar information is also included. An important reference tool.  

Possible Problems: The dictionary is written in Japanese characters [so not Latin text like this blog] so you must be able to read hiragana and katakana.  Some readers wanted more entries; for better or worse, it is a “pocket dictionary.” 

Learning Japanese Workbook for Beginners: Hiragana Katakana And Kanji [Expanded Edition] by Just Reality

This workbook provides lessons in all three Japanese writing systems.  Those who complete its lessons should be able to write and use basic Japanese.  

Possible Problems: The workbook format might not provide enough instruction for some beginners.  

Let’s Learn Japanese: First Words for Everyone by Aurora Cacciapuoti  

This is a good book to teach a young child basic Japanese words.  It is a children’s book (for ages 4-8) with colorful illustrations that will engage readers.  

It also can be helpful for adults as well.  The author has written various children’s books including those providing language instruction.  

Possible Problems: Not a Japanese language expert.  

Shadowing: Let’s Speak Japanese! by Hitoshi Saito 

This is a new edition of Shadowing: Let’s Speak Japanese! Beginner to Intermediate Edition.  You can download the audio files from the publisher’s website.  

“Shadowing” is a language learning technique where you follow a voice recording as closely as possible until you are speaking alongside the recording.  This method allows you to practice vocabulary and grammar.

Possible Problems: This learning system can be better for those with some understanding of the language and works better for some people when done with a tutor.  

Bonus: Japanese Vocabulary (Quick Study Academic) by Inc. BarCharts  

This is a helpful vocabulary chart (six pages) that is a good reference to have on hand.  It’s laminated and long-lasting. 

Possible Problems: Too basic for some customers.  If possible, check it out and make sure it has what you need.  It is meant to be a quick, basic research.  Not an in depth vocabulary and grammar guide.  

Once you learn Japanese … we welcome translations of this page!