There are a few things that unite the Japanese people no matter their class, age or background. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Japanese person who has never tried motsu (beef, chicken or pork entrails) or shiokara (paste of fermented seafood and innards) for example.
Likewise, most Japanese follow the same traditions of going back to their hometowns on the New Year’s and obon (Festival of the Dead) holidays or eating gathering together to share a hearty nabe (Japanese hot pot) in the winter.
Japan is filled with unifying cultural traditions. While there are many, one of the most beautiful and most widely indulged in form of Japanese popular culture is, of course, manga (Japanese comics). When you’re on a crowded train and see people with their heads buried into small books or even their smartphones, much of the time they’ll be deeply engrossed in their manga of choice.
Manga is a form of storytelling that is also a great study method for those learning to read and understand the Japanese language.
In the eikaiwa (English conversation school) industry, we encourage reading — especially in our younger students. Not only to promote literacy, but also because seeing the language in written form tends to help students build a stronger understanding of the concepts used.
The same goes for us foreigners who are trying — and struggling — to learn Japanese. If you choose the right books for you, reading manga can be a surprisingly effective and enjoyable way to learn Japanese. To that end, here are five relatively simple and helpful manga for Japanese language learners.
Note: These recommendations are for people who consider themselves intermediate or high-beginner Japanese language learners (around JLPT N5 and above).
One obvious pick for beginner manga is Doraemon.
If you’re currently teaching or plan on teaching Japanese students — or even just conversing with more Japanese people — it’s good to have a basic understanding of their cultural references. One popular anime literally everyone in Japan knows and often references is Doraemon. This long running series is targeted at children and therefore will have fairly simple vocabulary and simple sentence structures. The story of the manga follows a group of elementary school children and their adventures with a magical creature named Doraemon — a robot cat from the future whose mission is to help the main character, Nobita, get through the trials of elementary school and win the love of his crush, Shizuka.
When purchasing Doraemon manga you have two options. The first is to go for the full Japanese version. The advantage of this is that any kanji (Chinese characters) written in the manga’s story will have the furigana translation next to them (hirigana and/or katakana characters for those who can’t read the kanji). The second option is to purchase the full English translation written for Japanese learners of the English language. Obviously, the benefit here is the entire story is written in English with the Japanese translations in the margins. However, the downside to the English learners version is that, well… it’s meant for Japanese people and thus the kanji will not have any hiragana equivalents next to them for you to sound them out.
- Availability: Doraemon is available for purchase on Amazon Japan (English-Japanese version, Japanese version)
Another children’s manga with simple and easy vocabulary and grammar is none other than Pokémon, the worldwide hit video game sensation. Since being adapted into an anime series, it has also been refashioned into a manga — one that is quite easy to read for Japanese learners.
…when choosing the right books, reading manga can be a surprisingly effective study method.
For those that don’t know, Pokémon takes place in a fantasy world where humans live alongside creatures also known as pokémon (pocket monsters). Pokémon have magical powers and abilities corresponding to their element or species. Humans use pokémon for a variety of everyday tasks from chopping wood to nursing patients in hospitals. Additionally, some humans — known as pokémon trainers — use the creatures in battles to strengthen their pokémon and grow alongside them.
Like Doraemon, Pokémon is a series targeted at children and will thus have simpler vocabulary and sentences. While there are numerous Pokémon manga out there, I recommend Pokémon Adventures, which is based on the first original story.
- Availability: Pokémon Adventures is available for purchase on Amazon Japan.
3. Your Name
I know I sound like a broken record always mentioning the romance anime Kimi No Na Wa (“Your Name”), but due to its worldwide popularity — like Doraemon — this is one of the few manga that has an English-Japanese version with translations in the margins.
Set in modern day Tokyo and the rural countryside of Japan, Your Name will be filled with useful vocabulary and modern Japanese language. In general, when choosing a manga to study from it’s best to choose one set in the current day to avoid archaic forms of the language.
Thus, Your Name follows a tale of a boy and a girl, Taki and Mitsuha, who live completely different lives in the present day. Yet, as fate would have it, the two find themselves switching bodies in their sleep. In a race to warn Mitsuha and the villagers of the town of Itomori about an impending comet collision, Taki must travel through space and time to save the girl he loves.
- Availability: Your Name is available for purchase on Amazon Japan (English-Japanese Version, Japanese Version)
4. A Town Where You Live
The romance manga Kimi no Iru Machi, or “A Town Where You Live,” has received high praise for its realism. The story follows Haruto, a high school boy whose life is turned upside down when a girl his own age named Yuzuki moves in with his family and starts attending his high school.
While this manga does include common tropes of the romance genre, it’s rare for a romance manga to follow a couple’s timeline from initial attraction to marriage. There is no time travel, no magical girls from other dimensions or any other fantasy elements in A Town Where You Live. Instead, the manga creates a captivating story from the drama of everyday situations and the struggles and problems of real world couples.
Set in modern day Japan, A Town Where You Live is filled with commonplace Japanese words and phrases used in the home, in the dating scene and in school — all of which can be applied to various situations in your own life here in Japan.
- Availability: A Town Where You Live is available for purchase on Amazon Japan.
5. Sports Manga: Whistle and Slam Dunk
While this isn’t a single title, normally you can’t go wrong when choosing manga from the athletics genre for your studies. Sports manga are almost always set in the present day and usually at high schools or junior high schools. Because of that, the language will be current Japanese and the content will be full of useful everyday phrases and vocabulary.
While virtually any sports manga will comprise good material for your studies, here are two that I strongly recommend:
Whistle is a soccer manga that follows Sho, a junior high school boy who transfers to Sakura Josui Junior High School from Musashinomori School. While his previous school was well-known for having a powerhouse soccer team, Sho unfortunately was too short to be given a chance to play. The story follows Sho`s soccer journey and his struggle to overcome the disadvantages of his short stature.
Availability: Whistle is available on Amazon Japan.
- Slam Dunk
One of the classic sports manga from around the same era as great hits like Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon is Slam Dunk. As the name suggests, Slam Dunk is basketball themed and features a delinquent named Hanamichi who joins his school team just to impress his love interest, Haruko. However, upon joining the team, Hanamichi proves to be a natural athlete and grows to love the sport of basketball — one he once hated.
Availability: Slam Dunk is available on Amazon Japan.
When using manga as a form of study the most important rule is to choose something you like and the second most important rule is to choose something appropriate to your skill level. If you don’t like an item on this list, move on and try another and another until you find the right fit.
Did we miss your favorite manga on this list? Let us know in the comments below.