The 9 Best Books to Learn Japanese Fast

Kelsey Wetherbee Published on December 5, 2022
Best books to learn Japanese

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こんにちは, kon’nichiwa, hello! If you’re interested in studying Japanese, you might be searching for the right tool to help you become fluent. There are many options available and finding one that fits your learning style can be difficult. If you enjoy learning with books, you’re in the right place! This article shows some of the best books to learn Japanese. No matter what your level is or why you’re learning Japanese, there’s something for you on this list.

Japanese is one of the most spoken languages in the world with over 125 million speakers. It can also be a complicated language to learn because it uses 3 different writing systems. Hiragana and katakana are native to Japan and help show the pronunciation of words, while kanji is taken from Chinese characters. A sentence in Japanese may involve 2 or 3 different writing styles! But no need to fear. The books on this list will not only help you master Japanese writing, but also speaking, listening, reading, and more.

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How We Picked The Best Japanese Books

For any language learning products we’ve tested or researched, we follow a strict testing methodology to make sure our experts make the same considerations. Here are the factors we looked at when testing Japanese learning books specifically:

  • Structure and Topics: We not only considered the layout and organization of the books, but we also examined which topics each book covered and how in-depth and accurate the explanations were.
  • Quality of Content: We read several chapters of each book to gauge the quality of the content, including the example texts, exercises, and explanations. It’s important that each book contains clear and easy-to-understand content.
  • Value for Money: We took the two previous factors and compared them to the price of the book to determine if it offers a good value for the cost. 

Our Top Picks to Improve Your Japanese

In the table below, you’ll find 9 of the best books to learn Japanese. Scroll down to learn more about each option:

Best Overall Japanese BookGenki
Best for BeginnersJapanese for Dummies
Best for Self-StudyJapanese from Zero
Best for Immersive LearningMinna no Nihongo
Best for Writing KanaLearning Japanese Hiragana and Katakana
Best for Learning KanjiBasic Kanji Book
Best for Learning Japanese with AnimeFluent Japanese from Anime and Manga
Best for Reading PracticeJapanese Stories for Language Learners
Best for Japanese Vocabulary2000 Most Common Japanese Words in Context

Genki

Best Overall Japanese Book

Genki is the best Japanese book overall because it’s comprehensive in what it covers and it can improve your communication skills if you read the chapters in order. It provides a decent amount of detail, but I enjoyed it because the details didn’t feel overwhelming. I especially noticed this when it introduced two of the writing systems early on. Genki is used as a textbook in a lot of university courses, which proves how helpful it is. However, it’s also a high-quality choice for self-study because of its audio files and practice exercises.

The main reason I recommend Genki is because it provides just enough detail to help you understand grammar concepts, but it doesn’t bore you or confuse you by going too deep. It’s also packed with a lot of useful vocabulary, like school and university, items around the house, and workplace phrases. The sheer amount of vocabulary you’ll learn is enough to justify the cost of the entire book! It also comes with a free companion app to practice your writing skills. True to Genki’s reputation, I found the app to be well-built and thoroughly helpful. You can find the book here.

Key Benefits

  • Completing the practice exercises can improve all your communication skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking)
  • It discusses grammar in an approachable and straightforward way to help you accurately learn and remember common rules
  • You can build a solid foundation in Japanese before continuing to more advanced resources

Japanese for Dummies

Best for Beginners

Japanese for Dummies is the best choice for complete beginners because it covers the basics of Japanese grammar and vocabulary. I especially like how the book begins because it takes a different approach than most others. While most start with basic words and phrases to memorize, Japanese for Dummies introduces you to the unique and interesting aspects of the language. These include the sounds and scripts, super simple grammar concepts, and a general overview of the language itself. I found that to be really motivating!

The book features real-life phrases that Japanese speakers actually use, and there are a lot of exercises you can complete to practice them yourself. One section I thought was particularly interesting was “The Part of Tens.” This is another section I haven’t seen in other books. It has ten ways to learn Japanese quickly, ten things to never say in Japanese, ten useful Japanese expressions, and ten phrases to sound more fluent. Overall, I recommend this book especially for beginners because it teaches you the language and also helps you stay motivated. You can learn more about the book here.

Key Benefits

  • You learn conversational Japanese and expressions that native speakers actually use
  • The practice exercises teach you to navigate everyday situations with ease
  • The audio component improves your listening and speaking skills on top of writing and reading

Japanese from Zero! 1

Best for Self-Study

Japanese from Zero! 1 is the most useful book on this list if you’re studying Japanese by yourself because it’s much more than a book. While you can reach a conversational level with the other books we chose, Japanese from Zero! allows you to completely immerse yourself in Japanese. Through its supplemental resources, you can also connect with other Japanese learners. The supplemental resources include YouTube videos, activities, and quizzes on the book’s website, and a Discord server. But since this article is about the best books to learn Japanese, I’ll focus on the book itself.

The content is organized in a way that’s logical and focuses on the most important skills for beginners like punctuation, syllables vs sounds, and the writing systems. This book is also a bit less formal than ordinary Japanese textbooks, and I think that’s a positive thing. The authors took the time to understand the difficult aspects of Japanese, and this book kind of functions like a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) based on those difficulties. It’s intuitive and genuinely addresses the needs of people learning Japanese. You can see if Japanese from Zero! is right for you here.

Key Benefits

  • The library of resources available lets you practice a lot of Japanese skills to learn quickly
  • The focus on students’ pain points means your questions will be answered in a straightforward way
  • This book also teaches you about the Japanese culture, which helps you communicate naturally and politely with native speakers

Minna No Nihongo

Best for Immersive Learning

Minna No Nihongo is one of the most widely used books for learning Japanese, and in my opinion, it’s the best book for immersion. That’s because the whole book is in Japanese, but you can get an accompanying book of grammar notes in your native language to better understand the explanations. It’s definitely not for complete beginners, but if you know some Japanese already, it can be a valuable resource. This book doesn’t gently ease you in with English translations; it forces you to figure out what you’re reading from the start. This approach may not be for everyone, but for those who truly want to become fluent in Japanese, it’s the most effective one.

I was surprised at how early on this book started using Kanji. Most resources wait until much later to teach Kanji because it’s difficult to learn. Overall, I think early exposure to it makes learning it a smoother process. Based on its price, Minna No Nihongo offers a huge amount of value. It’s one of the only books that teaches through complete immersion. You can learn more about the book here.

Key Benefits

  • Actively and passively learn the Japanese language through immersion
  • Grammar notes available in your native language can support you as you learn
  • The practice exercises increase your fluency quickly

Hiragana and katakana are the two phonetic systems used to write Japanese. Some experts recommend learning these two scripts (collectively called “kana”) before learning the more advanced kanji characters. If that’s what you’re trying to achieve, Learning Japanese Hiragana and Katakana is the best book for it. The book focuses exclusively on the two scripts, and there’s a section dedicated to each one. The chapters cover important topics like voiced and half-voiced sounds, double vowels and consonants, and combined sounds. The book includes creative ways to practice. For example, you review Hiragana by practicing Japanese historical periods and you review Katakana through continent and country names.

This book covers all 92 symbols of the two writing systems and teaches you how to write them in the correct stroke order. There’s also space to practice each one, although you might want to get a blank notebook for additional practice. The final section of the book has DIY Kana charts you can fill in, as well as word searches, quizzes, and practice grids. I recommend Learning Japanese Hiragana and Katakana because it motivates you to master the two scripts. You can order your copy here.

Key Benefits

  • The detailed explanations and abundance of practice activities make writing in Japanese become second nature
  • Helpful lessons on stroke order ensure you learn how to write the characters correctly
  • The practice exercises are fun and motivate you to continue practicing your writing skills

Basic Kanji Book

Best for Learning Kanji

The title of this book, Basic Kanji Book, says it all. It’s a no-frills way to learn and practice 250 of the most common kanji characters. Some other kanji books focus too much on theory and abstract teaching methods, but the Basic Kanji Book is practical and actionable. That’s why I chose it as the best book for learning Kanji. Each chapter teaches 10 different Kanji characters, and there’s a quiz at the end of each section to help you practice using them in different situations. It’s a very visual book and includes a lot of pictures. I find this to be a more effective way to learn (especially Kanji) than memorizing direct translations.

One interesting aspect of this book is that it also differentiates between the Japanese and Chinese characters. In addition to that, it teaches you the origin of the characters, which is useful for improving your pronunciation and helps you remember the meaning more effectively. Despite the book looking like an old-school textbook, its content is far superior to other Kanji books. You can check out the book here.

Key Benefits

  • This straightforward book teaches useful Kanji in a systematic way to help you learn them fast
  • The explanations of the characters and visual aspects of the book are effective for active learning
  • Kanji can be difficult to write, but this book has plenty of practice activities that will commit the characters to your muscle memory

Fluent Japanese from Anime and Manga

Best for Learning Japanese with Anime

To be clear, Fluent Japanese from Anime and Manga is not meant to be a comprehensive textbook. However, I recommend it because it has one of the most interesting approaches to Japanese learning I’ve seen. That’s what this book focuses on – the approach to learning. It doesn’t teach you groups of vocabulary words or contain chapters that explain grammar rules. Instead, it’s a guide that shows you how you can learn Japanese by watching anime, reading manga novels, and enjoying any other content produced in the Japanese language.

It’s a unique concept, as anime and manga are growing in popularity around the world. And those who enjoy watching/reading it can use it to learn a language at the same time. When comparing the quality of this book’s content to its price, it’s a no-brainer to buy it. The strategies you learn, like how to effectively use Anki, are invaluable and will help to in your language learning journey no matter which resources you use in the future. See if this book is right for you here.

Key Benefits

  • The strategies you learn are applicable for learning any language
  • You’ll understand how to use any resource in Japanese, like anime, manga, movies, and more, to improve all of your communication skills
  • The roadmap guides you to learn the language in a way that achieves your personal goals

Japanese Stories for Language Learners

Best for Reading Practice

Japanese Stories for Language Learners is a compilation of 5 short stories that have Japanese and English translations on side-by-side pages. I think it’s the best book for improving your Japanese reading skills because it doesn’t just have random stories that practice vocabulary and grammar. Two of the stories in the book are traditional Japanese folktales and the others are more modern stories from 20th-century authors who are well-known in Japan. After you finish reading the stories, you can go through detailed notes from the translator, vocabulary lists, and practice questions to enhance your comprehension.

This book is more helpful for intermediate and advanced learners, but it can also help ambitious beginners reach an intermediate level. The stories include quite a bit of Kanji, but they also include the Hiragana pronunciation alongside it. One reason I thought this book was particularly useful was the audio it includes. You can hear each story read aloud by a native Japanese speaker, which will improve your own pronunciation. You won’t find detailed explanations because this book is strictly for reading practice, but that’s a good thing. This approach helps you learn words and phrases in a natural context, and you’ll also read popular Japanese stories that you can talk about next time you meet a native speaker. Learn more about Japanese Stories for Language Learners here.

Key Features

  • Absorb the Japanese language and culture through the power of stories
  • The notes, practice questions, and audio help you think in Japanese instead of translating in your head
  • The folktales and stories are well-known in Japan, and you can discuss them with native speakers to improve your communication skills

2000 Most Common Japanese Words in Context

Best for Japanese Vocabulary

As the title explains, 2000 Most Common Japanese Words in Context will help you learn the most frequently used vocabulary words in Japanese. According to the book, understanding these 2,000 words will help you understand 92% of Japanese speech. That fact alone is worth checking out this book. However, the reason I wanted to include it as the best book to learn vocabulary in Japanese is because it goes beyond basic words. It teaches you common interjections (like “wow,” “hmmm,” and “umm”) in Japanese, as well as important cultural words like Hinamatsuri and Koinobori.

I recommend this book for all levels of Japanese learner because of its unique vocabulary. It can help you fill in vocabulary gaps even if you’re an advanced learner. The presentation and organization of the book are simple, which makes it a solid reference guide. Because of the concise explanations and cultural elements, I also suggest this book as a supplemental resource for people studying for the JLPT exam. You can find the book here.

Key Benefits

  • Learn common vocabulary words and see how they’re used naturally in example sentences
  • Understand words specific to Japanese culture and integrate more easily with native speakers
  • Practice how foreign borrowed words are pronounced (these are an essential aspect of daily Japanese life)

Other Japanese Books We Researched

While we tested the Japanese books on this list, we researched a handful more. Here are a few other options I looked at that didn’t quite make the final list:

  • Japanese Kanji Made Easy: While you can learn some essential Kanji with this book, there are some inconsistencies that are a little concerning. The most blatant one being that it teaches some Kanji characters using the Chinese stroke order, not the Japanese stroke order.
  • Japanese Grammar for Beginners: Before I even researched this book, I saw something I didn’t like: Leaving a review is required to access the bonus audio content. The book does have quality content, but it’s not always organized in a useful or efficient way.
  • I’m Learning Japanese: This book teaches Japanese in a fun and light-hearted way (it’s meant mostly for kids, after all), but the vocabulary index has some misspellings that incorrectly teach the words. The content is also a little light, so adults who use the book won’t learn too much.
  • Japanese Picture Dictionary Coloring Book: This book is an excellent resource for visual learners who want to learn more Japanese vocabulary. However, I didn’t include it in the list because spending time coloring in the pictures uses up a lot of study time that could be spent learning how to use the vocabulary words in actual conversation.

Why You Should Use Books To Learn Japanese

Using a book is an effective and detailed way to learn Japanese. Books provide in-depth explanations and many have practice questions that help you check your understanding of the material. Books are also an inexpensive option when compared to other learning methods and are portable so you can learn almost anywhere.

How To Use Books To Learn Japanese

Using a book is one of the best ways to learn Japanese. The most effective way to use a book is to study on a frequent basis. Creating and sticking to a language learning routine is important if you want to see continuous improvement. It’s best to study every day, or at least a few times a week if you want to learn and retain information.

It’s also a good idea to use a book in addition to another Japanese language resource, such as a Japanese language app or a Japanese online course. Books are a useful tool for learning vocabulary and grammar, but an app or course might help you improve your speaking and listening more.

Best Books To Learn Japanese: Final Thoughts

I hope this article has helped you find a book that can help you on your Japanese language learning journey. It’s a difficult language to learn, but it can be a rewarding and fun experience. Finding a book, or another resource, that fits your learning style and budget can make studying a breeze. Before buying a book, be sure to read user reviews to see if it’s a good fit for you. Whichever book you choose from this list, you’re sure to understand Japanese quickly!

Best Books To Learn Japanese: FAQ

What book is best for learning Japanese?

Genki is the best book to learn Japanese because it is comprehensive and teaches all language skills like reading, writing, speaking, and listening. It’s commonly used as a textbook in college-level classrooms. It’s so popular that there’s even the option to rent the book for a semester at a reduced cost. The book includes detailed explanations, practice questions, and an audio CD.

Does it take 1 year to learn Japanese?

To reach a conversational level of Japanese, you will probably need more than one year of study. According to the US Department of State, it takes 88 weeks (or 2200 class hours) to learn Japanese. This number is an estimate. You can learn Japanese faster if you have a natural ability to acquire languages or speak a related language like Korean or Chinese.

To see how long it will take you to learn Japanese, check out this fluency calculator.

What is the best way to learn Japanese for beginners?

The best way to learn Japanese for beginners depends on how you prefer to learn, but using a comprehensive Japanese textbook is an excellent way to begin learning Japanese. Books are useful because they have in-depth explanations and examples that many language apps don’t have. Taking online classes or a course is another effective way for beginners to learn, but often comes at a more expensive price than a book.

Can I learn Japanese by myself?

You definitely can learn Japanese by yourself! While you may not become 100% fluent, you can reach a good level of speaking and understanding through independent practice. You can use one of the books on this list to help you learn basic Japanese grammar and vocabulary. Other popular learning methods include using an app, like Rocket Japanese or Mondly, and taking a comprehensive online course.

Kelsey Wetherbee

Kelsey is the Content Manager and Editor of Langoly. She is a TEFL-certified English teacher with more than eight years of classroom experience in three different countries. She’s an avid language learner with an advanced level of Spanish and is currently studying French. Whenever possible, she loves to travel and enjoys meeting people from all over the world. Connect with Kelsey on LinkedIn.

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