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10 of the best books for learning Japanese

Motivation and hard work alone are not enough to learn a language. The proper kinds of language resources -- well written, accurate, effective, level-appropriate -- are also imperative. We have scoured available Japanese resources and listed only the best of the best here. Any of these books is guaranteed to serve you well on your quest to become proficient in Japanese.

Learn Japanese | Bilingual Dictionaries | Learn Japanese grammar | Learn Japanese vocabulary


1 Living Language Ultimate Japanese: Beginner-Intermediate, 528 p. book + 8 audio CDs.

2 Living Language Ultimate Japanese: Advanced, 448 p. book + 8 audio CDs.

This excellent instructional sequence has everything you need to get started on the road to proficiency in Japanese.

Each book consists of 40 clear and well-organized lessons. The lessons each begin with an engaging dialogue, which can be heard on the CDs and can be read in romaji with its English translation, or in the kana or kanji version, if preferred. The conversation is followed by a clear and thorough explanation of grammar and its usage as demonstrated in the dialogue. Practice exercises with answers round out each lesson, so the learner can check comprehension of the lesson's material before moving ahead.

Early chapters also address the proper pronunciation of sounds. Learners are quickly introduced to hiragana, katakana, and kanji. And in addition to recordings of the book dialogs, the CDs contain material for interactive study "on the go." These audio lessons can be used without the book -- in the car, while working out, doing household chores, anywhere you like.

Instruction is evenly paced and keeps the learner progressing toward proficiency. Each dialogue focuses on a different theme. From making introductions, family, weather, and seasons, to renting an apartment, asking for directions, and job hunting, to sports, politics, and education, the learner is exposed to a wide variety of themes and idioms. The second Advanced volume increasingly addresses themes and linguistic issues related to business. Each lesson also contains theme-related cultural notes that connect the language learned in each lesson to the cultural context in which it would be used. In addition to regular recycling of material across lessons, review sections are interspersed throughout the book to allow for the repetition of material that effective language learning requires.

This book/CD package is ideal as a stand-alone self-study course or as a supplement to a formal Japanese language class. The two-part series covers the same material that is typically covered in two years (four semesters) of college level study. With listening, reading, speaking, and writing practice and an introduction to Japanese culture, it is comprehensive. And it closely follows proven methodologies for language learning. This series is highly recommended for anyone who wants to gain a functional knowledge of Japanese that extends far beyond tourist basics.


3 Kodansha's Furigana Japanese Dictionary, 1285 p. (2000).

This Japanese-English / English-Japanese dictionary is hands down one of the best bilingual Japanese dictionaries on the market for beginning to early advanced learners of Japanese. More than just listing word definitions, each headword provides very useful and up-to-date examples of usage. These show the learner how to use new words correctly in context, which is indispensable to learning the language properly. The Japanese-to-English section uses kana script rather than the romaji characteristic of most learner dictionaries. While this may be viewed as a negative by novices, the early reliance on romaji is in fact a crutch which often delays learning among students of Japanese. Because all of the kanjis have kana glosses (called furigana), this dictionary is also a helpful tool for the student learning kanji.

At 30,000 entries, Kodansha's Furigana Japanese Dictionary contains the most frequently used English and Japanese words. Though advanced learners may soon find that this dictionary lacks the range of vocabulary s/he needs, the dictionary is an excellent reference that will guide beginning and intermediate learners to the advanced stage with a full functional ability to use kana and recognize several kanji.

4 The Kanji Learner's Dictionary, by Jack Halpern, ed., 1008 p. (2002).

Students who see the kanji writing system as an obstacle to learning Japanese will appreciate this all-in-one learning-reference tool. With 5 methods of looking up the characters, the first obstacle students face -- finding the kanji characters in a dictionary -- dissipates.

The book includes all 2,230 of the Joyo and Jinmei kanji and it color codes the 1,000 most frequently used kanji in red so learners can prioritize their learning. Each character entry has a stroke order diagram and lists the most commonly used compounds in which that kanji appears. All possible readings of the character are written in romaji, which means that students do not have to first master kana before using this dictionary. Beginner to advanced intermediate students will find this book an invaluable tool in becoming skilled at using the Japanese kanji.


5 A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar, by Seiichi Makino, Michio Tsutsui, 636 p. (1989).

This book is an introduction to basic through intermediate Japanese grammar and a reference manual on nearly any question a beginner can think of. The book starts with a description of the structure and grammatical features of Japanese. The entries that follow touch upon dozens and dozens of specific grammatical points in detail -- particles, a range of verb formations, polite forms, and more. Each entry starts with a headword or function word, notes its grammatical role, explains and delineates the rules for its usage, provides useful samples sentences, and also references related expressions. Anticipating the errors of beginning Japanese learners, the entries also cite examples of improper usage and explains exactly why they are wrong.

The Japanese examples are written in kana accompanied by their romaji equivalent and an English translation. This book is foundational for basic proficiency in Japanese.

6 A Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar, by S. Makino, M. Tsutsui, 760 p. (1995).

This is the equally well-written sequel to A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar above and it is equally indispensable for the continuing learner of Japanese. Taken together, these two books address the necessary range of linguistic skills needed for proficiency in Japanese.

7 The Handbook of Japanese Verbs, by Taeko Kamiya, 192 p. (2001).

If you are struggling with Japanese verbs, the Handbook of Japanese Verbs is the answer to your prayers. It offers a basic but thorough introduction to the proper use of Japanese verbs not only in nearly all of their forms but also is a practical guide to learning how to use them in practice. Each section is organized in three parts: (1) a basic sentence pattern is introduced, (2) the pattern's usage is demonstrated via several realistic examples, and (3) practice activities test your comprehension of the form. Japanese examples are provided in both kanji and romaji.

Among the book's selling points are its clear explanations, its systematic and easy-to-follow presentation, its realistic examples, and the inclusion of practice drills with answers in the back. Unlike 501 Japanese Verbs, which is nothing more than a series of verb tables, the Handbook actually teaches you how to use the verbs in real conversation. This book clears up any issues you might have in understanding Japanese verb forms and shows you how to flavor your speech with variety. Beginning to intermediate students of Japanese will find this guide indispensable.


8 Japanese Kanji Flashcards, Vol. 1, by Max Hodges & Tomoko Okazaki, 2nd ed. (2005).

OK, this is not exactly a book, but these flashcards are so useful, we just had to include them in this list. The 286 kanji cards were designed especially for the adult learner of Japanese, to ensure the acquisition of most useful kanjis first. The selection also corresponds to the JLPT Levels 3 and 4.

The front of each card has large, easy-to-read kanji, a stroke order diagram demonstrating how to write it, at least 5 relevant examples of the kanji's usage. It also pictures any similar-looking kanji, so you can learn to recognize the differences. The back of each card lists the kanji's various pronunciations in kana and definitions of the sample words, also with kana pronunciations.

The fact that the cards use no romaji advances the learner's Japanese reading skills more quickly. They are also made of durable, high-quality materials to withstand many 100s of hours of use.

9 Modern Japanese Vocabulary. A Guide for 21st Century Students, by Edward Trimnell, 220 p. (2005).

This handy guide allows learners to solidify and expand their range of Japanese vocabulary. Words are listed in both kanji and hiragana/katakana with English translations and the word lists are organized by theme, enabling the learner to prepare for conversations on specific topics.

The book contains groups of commonly used words, such as pronouns, colors, and time expressions, as well as Japanese prefixes and suffixes and transitive-intransitive verb pairs. Even more valuable perhaps are the lists of useful but difficult-to-locate terms from such areas as computing, the Internet, publishing, and the environment. You would be hard-pressed to find these elsewhere in one convenient list.

10 How to Sound Intelligent in Japanese: A Vocabulary Builder, by Charles de Wolf, 160p. (2002).

This book is a true vocabulary-building tool particularly well-suited to the skill level of intermediate to advanced learners. It takes Japanese students far beyond the world of simplistic tourist phrases and gives them the ability to converse and comprehend more complex topics, from science to religion to politics to business. Because the book is organized by theme, users can concentrate on their particular areas of interest. Each section provides contextualized examples of usage that make the learner comfortable enough to know how to use each word correctly.

The vocabulary introduced in this book is a must for anyone who ever intends to use Japanese for professional purposes or who hopes to read real Japanese publications on a broad range of topics.

Learn Japanese | Bilingual Dictionaries | Learn Japanese grammar | Learn Japanese vocabulary

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