Advice on good books to learn japanese by myself
May 17, 2010 7:27 AM   Subscribe

What set of books do you recommend to learn japanese? My options are (at the moment) Minna no nihongo and Genki. I´ve already access to Pimsleur japanese CDs, but I need to have a solid grammar understanding, aside of speaking and understanding.

I´ve been struggling to learn japanese for a long time, but right now I have the resources and some spare time to dedicate to it. I´ve been accumulating software, books, tapes and stuff like that for ages, but now I want to concentrate in one solution that allows me to speak and understand the language in a reasonable fashion (Kanto accent is ok). Of course, written skills are a must (I learned this the hard way when I went to Japan last year with my wife. Very basic japanese phrases help, but if you´re not able to read any signs, you´re kind of lost).

So, my plans are to listen to the Pimsleur CDs and follow a text book regularly until I feel ready to take the Level 4 JPLT. By the way, how long will this take? I plan to dedicate 1 - 1.5 hours daily (weekends included).

A final note: I´ve been playing with the Rosetta Stone software for a while, but many people says that it doesn´t really help in the long run. I´ve been trying to find someone that has actually finished this, but no luck so far. Any opinions would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!
posted by Matrod to Education (25 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I'm using the Japanese for Busy People series (I'm in the UK by the way - don't know if that makes any difference) which is used as the course text for an evening class I'm taking. The books alone concentrates more on writing and reading rather than speaking, but do come with CDs and some listening exercises. I think the books are excellent, but I guess it depends what you're looking for. You can get the first volume in romanji and kana versions, and although I started of using the romanji version, I bought the kana version after a couple of months' learning as I realised that using romanji all the time was not encouraging me to learn the hiragana and katakana. Kanji isn't introduced until the second volume.
I hope this helps.
posted by lizabeth at 7:44 AM on May 17, 2010

I've always thought the Living Language series ("Ultimate Japanese") was good; they go heavy into thematic vocab from day one, and introduce grammar points along the way, although they're a bit slow with the kana.

You should also keep an eye out for NHK Let's Learn Japanese series of videos, which you can probably find online without too much trouble. Probably Youtube.

Pimsleur stuff is good for the accent, but it doesn't get you very far in all those HOURS and HOURS of repeating stuff over and over again.

If you are *especially* motivated, the FSI series (a.k.a. Barron's Mastering Japanese) is very thorough but very dry. It's in the public domain so if you can find it online, feel free to download it. has been the place to go to download the FSI courses and accompanying PDF files, but they got swamped when profiled them a few weeks ago. Hopefully they'll be up again soon.
posted by holterbarbour at 7:44 AM on May 17, 2010

I've gone on again, off again with Minna No Nihongo, and it' not bad for what it is. For learning kanji and vocabulary, I use Read the Kanji, which is a pretty good (though no longer free, one time fee for life, I believe) flashcard site. It's divided by levels of the JLPT, which will help with study. Supposedly they're working on an iPhone app for it, too. You might also want to check out Renshuu. It seems like there's a lot of good there, but I haven't really taken enough time to figure out how to use the site. Seems free, though.

The thing is, I floundered through a couple years of textbook study by myself. I never seriously started picking up the language until I started speaking it in real life situations. If you're serious, you might consider finding a Japanese tutor or teacher, someone who can give you time to practice your conversation. Speaking requires so much more than just writing an answer down from an exercise. With the effort and time you're willing to put into this, you'd serve yourself better by having at least an hour a week with a teacher.

As for the 4-kyu, do you mean the old JLPT lowest level? Or the new test, which is supposedly equivalent to the old 3-kyu? If you're not sure, make sure to check out the websites for the test. The old 4-kyu was pretty simple. Doing both books of Minna no Nihongo were supposed to get you to 3-kyu, but I passed it (barely) having only done the first book.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:45 AM on May 17, 2010

At least one friend of mine liked Kanji Damage, created by another friend of mine, for learning kanji.
posted by brainwane at 7:45 AM on May 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I learned the first 1000 kanji using these books. I love them.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:00 AM on May 17, 2010

Genki and Minna no Nihongo are both very solid options. Between them I think I like Genki a little better, but they'll get you where you're going.

Just because there are so many kanji and it seems so intimidating to learn them all, there are a lot of gimmicky books and programs that try to drill all the kanji into you, and there's a tendency among students of Japanese to measure their progress by the number of kanji that they "know." My personal advice is that you should forget about this at least for the first year. Concentrate on getting your grammar skills, speaking/listening skills, and kana reading skills up, and learn how to read the kanji that your textbook presents in context.
posted by Jeanne at 8:01 AM on May 17, 2010

I forgot to say, Japanese for Busy People One has a section that explains the new vocab and grammar introduced in each lesson. In terms of understanding the grammar and remembering how to construct particular types of sentences, the exercises in each lesson are sometimes a little repetitive, but if you persevere with them, things will definitely stick. Because of the repetitive nature of some of the exercises, I'd suggest using the kana version of book 1 so that you get to practise your hiragana and katakana as well.
posted by lizabeth at 8:03 AM on May 17, 2010

I had good results with Japanese for Busy People during the brief learning that I did.

You didn't mention it, but I'd also encourage you to find in-person learning if you possibly can - I found actually learning from a Japanese speaker in person helped so much it's hard to describe how much better it is.
posted by curious_yellow at 8:18 AM on May 17, 2010

I've no experience with Rosetta Stone for Japanese, but I can tell you that the Chinese Mandarin program from Rosetta Stone isn't really much good for anything after you get a very basic understanding of vocab, etc.
posted by jasondbarr at 8:41 AM on May 17, 2010

I also used Japanese For Busy People (1, kana version, and 2) when doing evening classes, and liked them.
posted by fabius at 9:08 AM on May 17, 2010

Rosetta Stone is wonderful for fundamentals, but you will need to supplement it with actual conversation practice with someone who speaks Japanese at an advanced level. As for books, I know it seems like it'll be a little childish, but Japanese for Young People 1-3 are wonderful beginner texts for getting the fundamentals. I like using texts designed for high school students because they tend to focus more on practical/casual conversation (even if the subjects are a little juvenile) than adult texts which often focus on business situations. The Young People series also has a set of accompanying writing workbooks, which start kanji at #2, and I highly recommend these. If you don't already have a grasp of kana, I recommend the Easy Kana Workbook over the Young People's kana book. The Young People series will get through beginner to an easy intermediate level, at which point I would recommend Minna no Nihongo 1 or 2 depending on where you feel comfortable. The Young People series has a very gentle learning curve, though, and it's very picture-oriented which is good for beginners of a language no matter what the age.

However, I didn't use these texts by myself; I was tutored by a Japanese housewife who lived in the area. You really can't get any better than having a human teacher because they are invaluable for clearing up confusion and ambiguity. If you can find someone who speaks Japanese to help you in your studies, I would recommend that over any computer program or specific set of books.

For the record, I've been studying Japanese for about six or seven years now, and I speak it pretty proficiently. I would say that for me at least it's definitely easier to pick up the spoken language than the written language, but if you aren't living in Japan, the only way to really get good at reading and writing is by a LOT of intensive study and practice so you don't lose it. It's been about three years since I was living in Japan and my reading proficiency has definitely decreased since then.
posted by runaway ballista at 9:21 AM on May 17, 2010

I highly recommend "Read Japanese Today". It uses the pictoral origins of the kanji to create a story about each character. It's been 8 years since I've read this book and I still can still recall many of the kanji mentioned in this book.
posted by talkingmuffin at 9:29 AM on May 17, 2010

Check out TextFugu. I haven't used it, as I've known Japanese since before it was around, but I met the guy who started it once, Koichi, and he just made running TextFugu his full-time job, so I think it's been doing pretty well. I think it's aimed at people who are interested in teaching themselves.

There are lots of online resources, so don't limit yourself to buying the perfect book and following that.

Ganbatte ne!
posted by mokudekiru at 9:36 AM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

nthing Japanese for Busy People - very easy to learn (I used the Kana version in an evening class), and uses handy examples so you can start using and speaking right away.
posted by poissonrouge at 12:06 PM on May 17, 2010

Barron's Japanese Grammar is a great tiny book for grammar reference.

Also, it's a website, but Tae Kim's Guide to Japanese is good enough that Japanese teachers supplement their teaching with it. My college teacher, who was native Japanese, recommended it to us and it was way more helpful and straightforward than our textbook.

If you're looking for stuff to avoid too, I recommend avoiding Yookoso, personally. It's the Japanese textbook of choice at some colleges, including the one I went to, but I think its organization is awful and it teaches you a lot of dated and obscure words and such.

I'm not sure that there's a great one-source solution out there, though, honestly. I hope you find one because I would be similarly interested.

For what it's worth, the approach my high school Japanese teacher took helped me a ton, and enabled me to skip three and a half years of Japanese in college: she taught us the basic sentence structures, how to do clauses, and verb and adjective conjugation outside the context of any specific vocabulary. That is, she would give us example sentences and everything, but we were basically given an over-arching structure into which we could fit vocabulary words to make any number of sentences. We learned vocabulary at the same time, but memorized it separately from sentences.

A lot of approaches to language just have you memorize phrases and sentences, and, at least in my opinion, the reason so many people fail to learn how to communicate in those languages is because they don't know the underlying grammar of what they're learning and what they can substitute in for other words. I think my teacher realized the value in teaching grammar because she was native Japanese, but had majored in English before moving to the U.S.; in other words, she's very linguistically-minded but for whatever reason, a lot of language-teaching approaches seem to involve route memorization which is actually a lot harder than memorizing just some basic rules and vocabulary. I also learned a lot of technical words about Japanese grammar that other people don't seem to learn in their classes.

The way my teacher organized it was bunkei 1 through 4. ("Bunkei" translates something like "sentence structure.") Bunkei 1 was "desu" sentences -- roughly is/are sentences -- and their conjugation. This is the most basic sentence structure. We also learned subject markers (wa/ga/mo) with this bunkei because you have to start somewhere, possessives ("no," to say things like "my name is" or "my dad is" etc), and the difference between some location markers like de/ni, etc. (Particles/makers/whatever you want to call them are covered very well by the Barron's book I recommended.) Bunkei 2 was iru/aru sentences, which is also is/are but more with the connotation of living somewhere or something existing somewhere. The meanings of de/ni are more pronounced here. Bunkei 3 was adjectives -- or at least roughly speaking, since some things are considered adjectives in Japanese that are verbs in English: "to like" behaves like an adjective in a lot of ways. We learned the two main types of adjectives and how to conjugate them. Bunkei 4 was every other verb, basically. We spent a lot of time in bunkei 4 because there are several little issues within it, like verbs in English that are actually two different verbs in Japanese depending on whether they're passive or active and such, and that's also about the time we got into keigo and honorifics and whatnot.

By the way, Japanese grammar is a LOT easier to learn if you learn it in plain form, not polite form. We learned the conjugations for both, but a lot of Japanese classes don't even teach plain form (!) so people don't know what the hell they're conjugating except to memorize it. Once you know plain form, polite form is a lot easier to conjugate.

We learned how to make clauses out of all those sentence structures too, a bit later. We added on inflections as we went, and had a big packet of common inflections and what sentence structures you can use them with. Well, "inflections" is what my teacher called them, but basically things you can tag onto or weave into the four bunkei that give a more nuanced meaning or more information. So "plan to do [verb]" was an "inflection" as far as my teacher was concerned, because it took the normal bunkei 4 sentence "do [verb]" and gets tacked on with its own conjugation and everything. Sometimes you only conjugate the inflection, sometimes you only conjugate the original verb, sometimes you can do both and each has a different meaning. Tae Kim's site is especially good for these.

We learned writing at the same time, as we went. We learned hiragana, then katakana, and then we'd learn the kanji for whatever cluster of vocabularly we were studying at the moment. Learning the kanji is a lot easier if you learn the meaning of the radicals; not every kanji makes sense when you know what the radicals mean, but enough of them do that it's worthwhile. Sometimes it's easier to remember stuff just because the radicals are so nonsensical it sticks in your head. Sometimes the radicals are kind of comically misogynistic in negatively connotated words, too. The point is, there is often something in the radicals that makes the kanji easy to remember. From the bit that I looked into it, all kanji books are pretty much the same when it comes to learning the meaning of radicals. It's just as easy to simply look up the radical on its own, though, anywhere you can look up kanji.

If you don't already know about it, Anki is a great spaced-repetition flashcard program that has specific support for Japanese and learning kanji; it's like a three-sided flashcard where you can write the kanji, the pronounciation, and the meaning in English. You can also use it for normal two-sided flash cards on anything else. I highly recommend it.

After one year of this, anyone who wanted to could make some pretty complex sentences. If you have any choice in how you direct your study, I recommend organizing it this way. Good luck!
posted by Nattie at 12:21 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I love my Kodansha's Furigana J-E/E-J Dictionary. It gives all of the Japanese words in kanji with furigana (obviously) and orders the Japanese section by hiragana, rather than by number of strokes or something like that. (this is assuming that you can read hiragana)
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 2:03 AM on May 18, 2010

Honestly you should probably just enroll in a community college Japanese course when you have the time. In terms of value for money, you will get more out of that than any book you buy.

Japanese for Busy People is a very good textbook, as long as you get the kana version. Do not get the romaji version. Just don't ever use romaji for anything. It will screw up your learning process.

Japanese for Busy People is published by Kodansha, who also publish a ton of really great affordable books about grammar and sentence structure and how Japanese is actually spoken in real life. Go to their website and check it out.

My other recommendation is flashcards for learning hiragana and katakana. Don't bother buying an expensive set. Just get some 3x5 cards and make your own. Draw the kana on one side and the sound on the other side. Go through the stack a few times a day for a few weeks. I took an accelerated Japanese course, and with flashcards I memorized all of the hiragana in one week, and all of the katakana the next week. So did everyone else in the class.

Once you have a solid base of kana, you will be able to make good progress through whatever textbook you buy.

In terms of dictionaries:

The Kodansha Kanji Learner's Dictionary seems like a good idea. It has a unique lookup system that is easy to use. The problem is, you will never be able to use any other dictionaries using that method, and that method also has nothing to do with the semantic content of the kanji. Furthermore, that dictionary has less kanji than almost any other kanji dictionary I have seen.

The unquestionable standard of kanji-English dictionaries was the original Nelson dictionary, published in the 1960s. Ask anyone who translates Japanese for a living and they will tell you that. The replacement for the Nelson dictionary is the New Nelson Dictionary, which is revised and updated. The old Nelson lookup method still works for the most part, but the newer version uses a more standard set of radicals. This is actually good, because that is the lookup method that all dictionaries in Japan use.

Buy the compact version of the New Nelson, because the unabridged version is so big that you won't carry it around. Buy the unabridged version when you are advanced enough in your reading to need it.


I have looked at Textfugu and I like it a lot. It is obviously written by someone who understands the shortcomings of most Japanese language textbooks. I haven't paid for it, though, so I haven't seen all of it.

The Tofugu blog is great, and I subscribed to the RSS feed.
posted by twblalock at 4:28 AM on May 18, 2010

FWIW, if you are still reading, Minna no Nihongo is the text used in Japan, followed by Busy People. Burn or delete the Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone stuff, as it is next to useless when you have concrete goals. If it helps you learn to listen, or to visualize basic structure, okay, play with it, but it is just candy.

JLPT 4 is really, really doable. Make sure to get a couple practice tests done to understand the types of questions and feel comfortable with the listening sections.

If I were going to add anything to your study plans, it would be flashcards (like Anki) and some "leisure" study time spent listening to goofy Japanese TV shows (!) or your favorite J-pop artists.

But be realistic, and do keep studying. I have been on the road and without my books and music for about 7 months now, and can feel the characters slipping away...
posted by whatzit at 9:12 AM on May 19, 2010

Thanks to everybody for your insighful answers. It seems that I should start (or continue!) using Minna no Nihongo instead of other tools. TextFugu seems to be a nice option, but I´d really like to "disconnect" from the net when studying (I work as an IT Consultant).

I would like to mention that I have some flashcards software and I´m (trying to) use it regularly: iKana for the iPhone and the Mac, and so far, it has helped me a lot to memorize the kana.

So, to wrap up, I´ll be using Minna from now on, but I´m still doubtful about combining it with "Japanese for Busy People", most of all to avoid getting confused. Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone are going to be left out of the equation, and in the future (3-6 months), I´ll consider the "human teacher" option. (I already located one in my town).

Last but not least, I´ve read good things about the book "Remembering the kanji" by James Heisig. I´ve heard that if you go to a language school in Japan, you´ll need to be ready to memorize 10 to 20 kanji per week! So I think I need to consider this also. Any advice / suggestions would be greatly appreciated!
posted by Matrod at 4:18 AM on May 21, 2010

I highly recommend for flashcard activities. The company is based in Japan so the japanese resources are quite polished (and the site itself is clean and ad free). Many of the flashcards include audio and example sentences which I found extremely helpful when building vocabulary. The key is to use it a little every day (their iphone app helps somewhat, but it's missing much of the functionality of the main site).
posted by lucidprose at 11:04 AM on May 24, 2010

Minna and Busy People have two very different approaches to the same language, and focus on different kinds of conversations. My Japanese teacher uses Minna for grammar and vocabulary principally, and Busy People for the dialogues.

(10-20 per week? It is around 10 to 20 per day for full-time students!)
posted by whatzit at 4:48 AM on May 26, 2010

Last but not least, I´ve read good things about the book "Remembering the kanji" by James Heisig. I´ve heard that if you go to a language school in Japan, you´ll need to be ready to memorize 10 to 20 kanji per week! So I think I need to consider this also. Any advice / suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

I've gotten all the way through Heisig's Remembering the Kanji and I'm working on the third book now. Keep in mind that Heisig (in the first book at least) teaches you only writing and meaning--no pronunciations. This is still incredibly useful though, I promise you. His ordering is for the most part very logical and also very helpful.

I'm using a rough approximation of the methodology laid out by this semi-notorious fellow, and it's working pretty well for me. His strategy was learning Heisig first of all and then moving on to kata (which I also learned through Heisig by the way, took me roughly two weeks, highly recommended) and sentences--which is how you get you all the kunyomi and onyomi. He also is a firm believer in not using grammar books in the least, only working from native-language materials, but I can't do that entirely (and I think he's a bit disingenuous when he says this, as he lists a few good grammar books on his site as well and talks about which ones he found useful). I've found Tae Kim's guide (which Nattie mentioned) invaluable, among some others (like All About Particles). I spend a ridiculous amount of time also on the yahoo dictionary site just looking up word after word after word and putting the sentences in my SRS...

Speaking of which, the thing that's made a huge difference for me is using an SRS (Anki, as Nattie also mentioned), and listening and watching to a TON of Japanese media. The thing that seems to be super helpful for me is Japanese TV with Japanese subtitles. Not many of them have it but some do and it's great: if you've gone through Heisig, and know the meanings, and see a Kanji you can't pronounce flash across the screen, then you have context and pronunciation and stuff gets burned in your brain regardless. I've been going through a sappy romantic drama series this past weekend, for example (スローダンス, yes I am a sentimental goofball) and it has Japanese subtitles, and I've been understanding almost every scene...if not every sentence, then enough to grasp what the characters are talking about. I've started actually just WATCHING the show. That's a pretty satisfying feeling when I recall that, at this time last year, I barely had a grasp of basic verb conjugation (polite OR plain form!).

Um, anyways, all of this is just to say that: the Heisig -> sentences + constant media technique seems to be working really, really well for me. It takes a fair amount of dedication at first--it can be painful watching movies where you only get one of every twenty words (although you can understand a LOT more than you think even if you don't know the language based on all the other cues), but like I said, it's paying off now. So, I suggest checking out AJATT's site and consider what he says.

Oh, I should also add, I went all the way through Pimsleur's comprehensive Japanese (all 90 lessons from I, II and III) and at the end I had a pretty meager vocabulary, a very basic grasp of the language, absolutely no reading or writing ability, but a decent pronunciation and comprehension of simple particle functionality. At this point I feel like it may have been a waste of time and I would steer anyone away from it. I don't know if Rosetta Stone is the same but I feel like you might as well skip that stuff (it's all expensive!) and go the SRS route. It works.
posted by dubitable at 8:32 PM on June 4, 2010

Hi again,

I´ve been using with great results to memorize the kana. I´ll tackle the Minna no Nihongo books as soon as I finish the basics (kana), with some help from Mr. Heisig texts as well. I´ll keep you all posted with my results.

Thanks for all your insightful answers!

posted by Matrod at 4:05 PM on July 3, 2010

I also got very good results with James Heisig's books and the flashcard set that is sold separately. The cards are expensive, but well worth it if you are willing to put in the time to use them.
posted by lifeofideas at 2:47 PM on August 9, 2010

Don't memorize the kana before you start with Minna no Nihongo. Memorize them *while* you read Minna no Nihongo. Nothing gets them in your head faster than a combination of reading and flashcards. Flashcards alone won't give you any context or sense of how they sound when they are strung together.
posted by twblalock at 6:56 AM on August 10, 2010

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