In 2007, on a sweltering August day, I visited my new Japanese high school for the first time.
I had just arrived in Asahikawa, Hokkaido for a year-long exchange program, and I was set to start classes the next week.
I felt excited to go to school, but secretly, I wondered how I would survive with my rudimentary Japanese pieced together over one year of tutoring. I armed myself with a mustard-yellow pocket dictionary just in case
A week later, it was my first day in class. I stood up and stuttered out a self-introduction, then went back to my seat. So far, so good.
Then a couple of kind girls in my class came over to say hi. I saw their mouths moving and heard the noise, but it was like mush in my ears. I looked at them with wide eyes, smiled, and shrugged.
Genki had failed me. I needed something more.
Books Save the Day
As a self-proclaimed book nerd, the first place I turned was the bookstore. It was on a middle floor of a big department in “town”—what everyone called the one strip of stores that stretched out from the only train station in the city.
I searched through the stacks until I found the Japanese learning books—the one section I could actually read. I picked several of them (mostly based on the covers) and brought them home.
Over the course of 6 months, I did a little bit each day. I checked off sections in pencil when I finished them. And I used my new words and phrases each day in school.
My breakthrough came at the 6-month mark. I was visiting the Kendo club after school to see if I could join. (It cost $300 for equipment and materials—I did not join.) One of my teachers, who doubled as the Kendo coach, waved me over to chat.
He asked me how I was enjoying my year. What I thought about President Bush and the Iraq War as an American (great conversation starter, by the way). What I liked about Japan.
After about 20 minutes, I suddenly realized we had been speaking Japanese the whole time! I was finally conversationally fluent. It was still awkward and imperfect, but I was actually communicating. And it was fun.
In 2023, my Japanese is much better. It’s been 15 years since that day, and I’ve lived in Japan for over a decade now. But I still credit these books as the #1 resource that bridged the gap between beginner and advanced.
Here Are The Books I Used
To preface this, I started with an introductory textbook called Genki. I finished both volumes with the help of a Japanese teacher. (And I recommend anyone starting out in Japanese to have a teacher at the very beginning.)
Genki isn’t necessarily the best textbook. It’s just the one I used. I don’t think it matters much which textbook you start out with as a beginner, as long as you get the basic concepts.
Once I got a grasp of the basics, here’s what I turned to next:
#1 – Japanese Sentence Patterns for Effective Communication
While this book will never win the Most Exciting Title of the Year Award, it did win a place in my heart as the most useful Japanese-learning resource I’ve ever used.
Inside is a collection of 142 different sentence patterns that make up the bulk of what you would say in any conversation in Japanese.
You learn to say things like “This pen is red and black,” “I’m taller than my sister,” or “I’ve climbed Mt. Fuji before.” Each chapter breaks down the pattern, teaches you how to use it in real life, and then gives you tons of examples and words to practice with.
If you learn 2 patterns a day, you’ll finish everything in 3 months. This book honestly covers everything you would need to say in Japanese at a basic conversational level.
If you get only 1 book to improve your Japanese, make it this one.
#2 – Making Out in Japanese
Okay, I know. Cringe title, cringe cover. But when you get past that, this book is the very best Japanese slang textbook you’ll find on the market today.
In fact, I wouldn’t even call it “slang.” It’s a sprawling collection of real-life phrases that people use, but would never show up in any “proper” textbook.
This book will help you make friends, start a relationship (and end one), and understand the everyday Japanese you hear all around you.
I first bought this book in 2007, and it’s still not old—in fact, I just lent it to a friend last month.
#3 – Common Japanese Collocations
One thing that hangs up most language learners is the idea of collocations (a fancy word for “words that native speakers always use together”).
Getting collocations right is what separates beginner speakers from fluent ones. It’s why it sounds funny when someone says, “I did a mistake.” We only say make a mistake in English.
If you only translate English in your head into Japanese without understanding how native speakers say them, you might be “doing” mistakes without noticing. This book will teach you the phrases that native speakers use, so you can make your Japanese sound more natural.
The book is divided into topics like Home, Daily Life, and School & Work, so you can quickly learn the collocations you need for each facet of your life.
#4 – Nihongo So-Matome JLPT Primers
Once you finish a beginner’s Japanese textbook, it’s not always clear where to go next.
I recommend pivoting to JLPT prep books (whether or not you plan to take the exam). They provide a graded learning path from beginner Japanese (N5) to advanced (N1). (JLPT stands for Japanese Language Proficiency Test, if you’re not familiar yet.)
My favorite series was the Nihongo So-Matome set. I can’t quite remember why, but I did like the cover design, so there’s that.
I found that the books were slightly more difficult than the actual exam, so by studying the books, I knew that I could get a good score on the test.
And I did pass N1 (barely) after using these books, so that provides some proof that they work.
#5 – Colloquial Kansai Japanese
If you’ve ever watched a Japanese TV show or movie, you’ll run into something that trips up a lot of Japanese learners—the existence of Japanese dialects.
Unlike American dialects that differ in pronunciation and some words and phrases, Japanese dialects operate on completely different grammar structures.
You’ll never find these in a standard Japanese textbook, but they are an essential part of life in Japan. For expats, understanding them is key to living and operating in a Japanese environment.
This book taught me how to understand and recognize Osaka and Kyoto dialects, which in turn helped me understand Japanese TV (especially comedy) and conversations with friends from Kansai.
#6 – Remembering the Kanji 1
I include this book knowing full well that it’s a controversial one. People tend to love it or hate it, with very few in between.
Personally, it worked well with my learning style, and it’s the reason why I can now read Japanese more or less without a dictionary.
The book breaks down kanji characters into parts, each with its own meaning. For example, you’ll learn mouth (口), which is a square, and then later learn to combine it with tree (木) into apricot (杏).
To memorize each kanji, you create a vivid story starring each part of the kanji, then memorize the story.
For “apricot” (杏, the tree on top of the mouth) I imagined myself standing at the base of an apricot tree with my mouth wide open, the apricot falling into my mouth, and tasting that flavor (I don’t really like apricot, but that’s beside the point).
It sounds odd, but it’s a powerful memory technique. And if you really apply yourself, you can learn the book’s 2000+ characters in the space of a few months. (But for most people, like me, it takes a couple years.)
Now, you should understand: This is a beast of a book. I stopped and came back to it over 3 years before I finally got through it. But 3 years, in the course of 15 years living in Japan (and more to come), was worth it for me.
Another thing you should know: The book doesn’t teach you the pronunciation of characters, only the meaning. So you’ll learn that 膜 means membrane and you’ll be able to recognize the meaning, but you won’t know how to pronounce it until you learn it in context.
This counter-intuitive structure worked for me. It was easier to learn an English meaning for each kanji, and then learn the pronunciation later when I came across it in other books. I could already write and understand the meaning, so learning the pronunciation was easy.
The book’s main criticism is that some keywords don’t make sense, and some people claim he’s made mistakes in how characters are broken down or written.
If you want a perfect book, this may not be it. But it will teach you to read kanji for life. And if you want an alternative, you can check out Kanji ABC or WaniKani.
I recommend using this book alongside other materials, so you can learn how to read the kanji at the same time.
If you’re a book person like me, these 6 titles could help you make real progress toward your Japanese learning goals.
Have you tried any of these books? What did you think?
What would you add to the list?
Let me know in the comments below!