Best Books for Learning Japanese: Complete Reviews With Comparisons

Learning a foreign language can be a skill that not only helps when you travel but would also look nice on your resume.

Japanese is a beautiful language that over 130 million people speak, mainly in Japan.

If you’re taking the old-school route of learning through books, you’ll need the best books for learning Japanese.

There are many advantages to learning a language through textbooks, as you can learn and practice at your own pace.

Learning Japanese, whether for school, work, or just for fun, is becoming more popular.

As a result, the resources to learn it are growing fast. This post will help you find the best books to learn this beautiful Asian language.

Best Books for Learning Japanese

1. Learning Japanese Hiragana and Katakana: A Workbook for Self-Study, 2nd Edition

The best way to learn any new language is to start at the very bottom, and in Japanese, that’s hiragana and katakana.

Hiragana and katakana are Japanese phonetics that you must learn first and foremost.

This self-learning book, written by Kenneth G. Henshall with Tetsuo Takagaki, is designed for beginners to help master this elementary level requirement.

Product Highlights

Learning Japanese Hiragana and Katakana provides all the information to build a solid base in the language.

It focuses on the two phonetic systems of the language, explaining their history, symbols, pronunciation, and use.

Students need to learn these phonetics before going on to learning kanji, which are Chinese-origin characters.

The self-study workbook also focuses on teaching how to write these characters the correct way. All 92 characters are neatly presented and covered.

You have lots of exercises to practice and self-test what you’ve learned, with all divided into several levels.

Then you also have accompanying audio files online to learn and practice the sounds and pronunciation.

As for the Learning Japanese Hiragana and Katakana textbook's format, it’s available in paperback, spiral-bound, and Kindle.

What We Like

The one thing that stands out in this Japanese learning book is that it’s also geared towards those who may know or speak Romanized Japanese.

That makes it all the more convenient for such students to recognize characters and pronounce sounds correctly quickly.

What We Don’t Like

Although Learning Japanese Hiragana and Katakana is a brilliant book to build your base in Japanese and designed for low-level beginners, it doesn’t take an all-rounder approach to it.

Pros

  • Easy progression of learning
  • Lots of writing and reading quizzes
  • Free online audio files
  • More information on Romanized Japanese characters
  • Useful vocabulary

Cons

  • Best for absolute beginners

2. Japanese from Zero!, 6th Edition

From authors George Trombley and Yukari Takenaka, Japanese from Zero! is one of the newer offerings.

With a reasonable price and quality instruction, it has gained quite a lot of popularity.

Product Highlights

Japanese from Zero! consists of four books, of which this is the first part, made for absolute beginners.

It focuses on hiragana but also introduces learners to basic grammar. As such, you’re able to form basic sentences from the very start.

In total, it features over 800 words and expressions from the hiragana system.

The chapters only focus on a few characters at a time, taking things slow, which can be beneficial for someone very new to Japanese.

Japanese from Zero! has an integrated workbook with all the answers, so you can test yourself as you progress.

All the samples also incorporate Romaji, Romanized Japanese characters, making it easy for English-speaking individuals to learn the right pronunciations, even without an audio aid.

What We Like

The best thing about the Japanese from Zero! is that it features modern vocabulary and up to date information about the hiragana system.

This allows one to learn the latest, modern vocabulary that people actually use in Japan.

Japanese from Zero! also introduces learners to Japan's culture, which helps in understanding the language and the importance of it in their culture. 

What We Don’t Like

Japanese from Zero is designed for young learners, so the book's pace is perhaps deliberately kept slow.

It may be a bit too slow for adults or someone with a little understanding of the Japanese characters and sounds.

Pros

  • Integrated workbook along with answers
  • Focuses on Hiragana
  • Bilingual glossary
  • Modern vocabulary
  • Easy for children

Cons

  • A bit slow pace

3. GENKI I: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese, 2nd Edition

GENKI books for learning Japanese are popular, especially in academic use.

These books are prescribed to students in Japanese language classes at high-school and college levels.

Product Highlights

GENKI I is the elementary level book for learning Japanese that focuses on all aspects of the language: reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

The paperback version comes with an accompanying audio CD, whereas the online Kindle version comes with audio files.

These audio files will help you master the pronunciation of the Japanese characters.

As with most language books, there’s an optional workbook, which learners can use to practice what they just learned.

This is targeted toward students, so it’s written in a very academic fashion.

However, that only makes the content stronger in terms of teaching you what Japanese really is like.

This newer edition also incorporates notes on Japanese culture, which further enhances the knowledge of the language.

All the chapters feature Romaji to help English speakers quickly learn the pronunciation of the words.

That said, you should have good knowledge of English pronunciation keys to grasp those Romaji terms successfully. 

You'll find 300 kanji and 1100 general vocabulary terms and expressions spread across the lessons.

What We Like

GENKI I is simply very well-written, with a smooth flow from one lesson to another.

Combining audio with a textbook can be a bit of a hassle, but it really does help master the sounds.

This is a good option for those who respond well to the traditional teaching method, like how you would learn in class.

What We Don’t Like

Since it’s primarily written for college students, GENKI I features group exercises, which is great for improving speaking.

However, a person who is self-learning at home can’t really benefit from such exercises.

Pros

  • All-rounder approach
  • Lots of vocabulary
  • Featured audios
  • Detailed lessons
  • Easy to understand with Romaji and practice exercises

Cons

  • Very classroom learning-oriented

4. Learning Japanese Kanji Practice Book Volume I, 2nd Edition

Learning Japanese Kanji is written by Eriko Sato, an Associate Professor from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook.

This is yet another academic book geared towards students, so it’s widely used by Japanese Intro course students in college and Advanced Placement students in high-school.

It’s also good for those who already speak elementary or even intermediate level Japanese to polish and refine their skills.

Product Highlights

The Learning Japanese Kanji focuses on kanji characters, which together with kana (hiragana and katakana), form the Japanese alphabets or characters.

Kanji is a bit more advanced, so you should have learned kana before proceeding to Kanji.

It’s great for learning how to write Japanese characters accurately, thanks to the stroke order diagrams.

This book prepares you for level five of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). You have plenty of practice exercises to master kanji characters.

For ease in learning pronunciations, characters, words, and expressions are also presented in Roman characters (Romaji).

The Learning Japanese Kanji also features extra printable grids to practice again and again.

What We Like

The book carefully shows and explains how to write kanji characters, which are the most difficult to master within the Japanese language.

With explanations about how to use kanji, it really builds the base of the language, at least in these characters' context.

What We Don’t Like

Learning Japanese Kanji is not really for absolute beginners and not quite challenging for fluent speakers. 

Pros

  • Very detailed
  • Great for mastering kanji strokes
  • Practice exercises
  • Lots of words and phrases
  • Romaji

Cons

  • No audio

5. Remembering the Kanji 1: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters, 6th Edition

This is yet another great Japanese learning book, especially for learning general-use kanji.

It’s specially designed for people who are not native to Japan, so it builds the foundation of kanji from the very base. 

The author of Remembering the Kanji 1 is James W. Heisig.

Product Highlights

This sixth updated edition of the book comes with 196 Japanese-government approved kanji.

It has a special focus on relating writing with kanji's meaning, which manifests into a stronger learning experience. 

The author uses what he calls imaginative memory for learning the combinations of kanji.

Remembering the Kanji 1 comes in both paperback and Kindle formats. It has more focus on writing.

As such, you learn the pronunciation through reading and writing as well.

This story-based learning is very different from what the common approach is in books for learning Japanese.

It focuses more on remembering the meaning rather than the pronunciation.

What We Like

The unique systematic approach of Remembering the Kanji 1 can help you memorize kanji characters.

That means you’ll be able to write them swiftly.

This book can be used with other kanji and kana books to master writing, reading, and speaking the Japanese language.

What We Don’t Like

Remembering the Kanji 1 is a great book if you want to learn the meaning and write Japanese.

However, it could use a little more elaboration on the pronunciation since no audio aids accompany the book.

 

Pros

  • Systematic, imaginative learning
  • Understanding the meanings of kanji
  • 196 Govt. approved kanji
  • Easy to use

Cons

  • Not much focus on pronunciation or vocabulary

Buyer’s Guide

With so many choices in the market, you’d think getting a textbook to learn Japanese would be easy.

However, there are a few things you need to consider when looking for the best books for learning Japanese.

Skill Level

before deciding which book to buy, you would need to identify which level of learning you need.

If you’re an absolute beginner, you need to start with characters and alphabets.

You can’t learn words or grammar before learning the Japanese characters, which requires time and practice, especially for someone not acquainted with Japanese.

Similarly, those who know how to read and write the characters need something more advanced. 

Book Format

Most Japanese language learning textbooks come in both paperback and online formats.

You should choose the one you find most convenient. For instance, if you own a Kindle, it may make sense to get the Kindle version.

If you’re a bit old school and like reading and practicing on paper, go with the paperback version.

For kids, the paperback is more suitable since they can practice in the book.

Audio Accompaniment

You should also consider whether or not you want a book that comes with audio files to learn the sounds.

Audio can make a huge difference because many people struggle with understanding pronunciations, even if they are Romanized (Romaji).

If you think you need audio cues to master listening and speaking, choose a textbook that comes with audio files.

Practice Material

Does the book offer enough tests or quizzes to test what you’ve learned? Those practice tests are significant to learn a language.

Make sure the book you choose also offers practice material in conjunction with the instruction.

best books for learning japanese

Japanese Learning Book FAQs

1. What is the best Japanese textbook?

The best book for learning Japanese, especially for beginners, is thorough enough yet easy to understand.

It should also have plenty of exercises to practice writing and audio files that ca help you gain Japanese language listening and speaking skills.

2. What is the best method to learn Japanese?

With technology, it has become incredibly easier to acquire skills sitting at home.

This also includes learning foreign languages. However, the best way to learn Japanese is to take a course. 

It can be a class or an online course with a structured progression that covers the elementary levels. 

You can take a class at a local college or language institute or do it online completely using textbooks and audiotapes.

3. Is Genki a good book to learn Japanese?

Genki is one of the most common books used to learn Japanese. It’s more popular among academic learners who take courses at the high school and college level.

The book is essentially designed for class instruction. That said, the instructions are simple enough for self-learners to understand.

Genki I and Genki II can help you become an elementary-level Japanese speaker in a short time. 

These books contain many exercises that students can use to perfect their writing, pronunciation, and grammar.

4. Can I learn Japanese by myself?

Learning a language on your own is very much possible, even if it’s very different from your native tongue.

Japanese can be an intimidating language to learn, but it’s possible to learn it independently.

You can use a combination of sources, especially textbooks.

While online language tutorials are growing in popularity, good old textbooks are the most effective way to learn a new language.

You can learn at your own pace and cover the basics even without an instructor.

However, it does depend on the quality of the material you’re using and what you’re focusing on.

5. Where do I start learning Japanese?

To start learning Japanese, you need first to learn the Japanese alphabets or the hiragana and katakana.

These alphabets and characters cover the absolute basics, so any beginner needs to start here.

You can use textbooks to learn how to write, read, and pronounce the hiragana and katakana alphabets.

Then you can proceed to kanji characters, which are a bit more difficult. Writing these the correct way can be challenging. You can use textbooks specifically for learning kanji.

You’ll learn how to draw the characters, pronounce them, and use them in terms and sentences.

6. How can I become fluent in Japanese?

Becoming fluent in Japanese will require a lot more effort than simply reading textbooks, taking tests, or watching YouTube videos.

You only get fluent in a language after speaking, writing, and reading it regularly.

Even if you’re not in Japan or know someone who speaks Japanese, you can become fluent over time by practicing. 

Here are some of the ways you can get fluent in Japanese:

  • Take a class or study by yourself
  • Read Japanese every day from 30 minutes to an hour
  • Watch Japanese TV shows or movies with subtitles if needed
  • Converse in Japanese if you have a friend or family member who speaks Japanese
  • Practice speaking Japanese every day by yourself
  • Visit Japan and speak Japanese with locals

What Is the Best Textbook for Learning Japanese?

This list of best books for learning Japanese covers the basics. You may need to combine different textbooks to learn the different sets of characters and then grammar and pronunciation.

If there’s one book that truly stands out, it’s the GENKI I since it’s an all-rounder great guide to learning basic Japanese.

Absolute beginners and those with a little experience both will enjoy learning from it.

As compared to other books on this list, it takes a cohesive, modern, and effective approach while also allowing students to take their time with it.

As you complete this book, you can simply progress to the next one and learn even more.

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