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5 Japanese Textbooks for Absolute Beginners

These five books will teach you the basics from grammar to vocabulary, taking you from the beginner plateau to soaring through intermediate.

By 5 min read

Ultimately, the best textbook for a beginner will depend on their learning style, preferences and goals. Trying out a few options and seeing which works best for you may be helpful. Combining several of these options is also a great way of getting a more multifaceted understanding of Japanese that will further boost your bandwidth to grow.

With these books, you’ll be able to improve your grammar, vocabulary and reading comprehension skills, making you more confident and independent in your life in Japan. Ultimately, the best textbook for a beginner will depend on their learning style, preferences and goals. Trying out a few options and seeing which works best for you may be helpful.

Are you ready to dive into Japanese culture and language? Here’s a list of the top five Japanese language books for beginners, based on my own rankings and experience, that will help you learn at your own pace and minimize any confusion.

1. Genki, Volumes I & II

The essential Japanese textbook.

It’s no surprise this series is so popular among solo learners and in universities. It covers everything you need to get from zero to lower-intermediate level, enabling you to express your opinions and thoughts, independently work your way around a post office or airport and haggle at a market, to name a few.

In collaboration with The Japan Times, this series also unlocks several additional learning materials to bolster your learning experience. The Genki series cuts through the noise by offering you a solid foundation in the language, with natural Japanese language use, challenging your reading, writing, listening and speaking.

They also don’t shy away from basic kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese) wherever necessary, skillfully getting you used to engaging with and using essential kanji from the start.

2. Basic Kanji Book, Volumes 1 & 2

Which kanji are actually used every day?

Many learners find kanji a significant hurdle for people learning Japanese. Still, with this textbook and workbook combination, you’ll be able to breeze through the most frequently used kanji you’ll encounter in tests and daily life in Japan.

Contrary to popular belief, only 2,136 kanji are commonly used among native speakers. You don’t need to know half of them to get by smoothly in Japan. The Basic Kanji Book (BKB) series is a textbook and workbook combination that takes you through the simplest and most frequently used kanji.

The book offers excellent exercises and plenty of repetition to ensure you retain what you learn and can use it correctly. The book also provides a step-by-step stroke order guide to ensure you learn the first time correctly!

3. Nihongo So-Matome Series

An easy way to prepare for the JLPT.

Suppose you want to take your Japanese proficiency to the next level. The Nihongo So-Matome, or the “Japanese Roundup/ Summary” series, is perfect for passing the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) levels. These cute, monochrome animal character-themed books focus solely on passing each JLPT exam.

If you are unfamiliar with the JLPT, it is the official standardized test used by Japanese organizations to determine the language-reading proficiency of an individual. The levels are ranked from beginner, N5, all the way up to advanced, N1. Many Japanese companies and universities expect applicants to have at least an N2 or N1 proficiency. A JLPT certification can open many doors for you in Japan.

Although the focus is taken away from everyday Japanese to focus purely on the exams, having a JLPT is an almost essential exam that will open many doors for you in Japan and enhance your knowledge in tandem with the use of other books. The downside to these books is that each segment (vocabulary, grammar, listening and speaking) often comes separately. However, the two lowest proficiencies now come in a complete guide copy recommended for beginners.

4. Tobira (Beginner’s Version) 1 & 2

Your door to speaking Japanese?

Tobira (meaning “door” or “doorway”) Beginner’s Version is an excellent gateway to the Tobira ecosystem online, which includes several articles, stories, listening practice and more. Once you complete this version, you can move on to the second level, Jyokyu no Tobira, or the door to advanced (Japanese), the author’s all-time favorite textbook.

The editorial design is clean and easy to understand, and the language used is natural and built around the kind of Japanese you will hear in real life. Moreover, the explanations for grammar points are clear and concise. Consequently, making the Tobira for beginners book is a fantastic option for any learner.

5. Japanese from Zero!

A textbook for manga lovers.

Japanese from Zero! offers a slightly different approach, focusing on depth rather than raw content. This book explains grammar in great detail, making it easier to understand and apply. The book is designed with western eyes in mind, offering bite-sized work on every page that optimizes your learning journey. Pairing this book with a vocabulary-heavy book is an ideal way to boost your Japanese skills.

Manga (Japanese comic books) fans might also appreciate the very manga-like illustrations that decorate each page, offering a more visually appealing experience for those who enjoy the otaku (“geeky,” “Japanese pop-culture fan”) aesthetic.

If you’ve already taken steps to learn some foundational Japanese, you may enjoy our article on further leveling up your skills. Know a better book? Let us know in the comments!

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