You may already know that I’m a big fan of learning Japanese online.
But sometimes we need a good old fashioned textbook, whether that’s a paper copy or PDF. Maybe your Japanese tutor has suggested you pick a textbook to study from, or maybe you just prefer to study from a book.
Anyway, there is a huge range of Japanese textbooks for self learners out there. Here’s my pick of the best books to learn Japanese!
Japanese books for beginners
If you are a beginner learning Japanese, you should look for a textbook that will cover basic grammar structures, vocabulary, pronunciation and listening.
Ideally it will cover useful phrases you need for day to day life or trips to Japan. It should also teach you basic reading and writing skills (hiragana and katakana are a must to start with, then the book should also introduce basic kanji).
Here are some recommended Japanese textbooks for beginners that hit these points:
Genki is a highly popular series of Japanese books for beginners. The books are easy to use and have cute illustrations. The same characters appear throughout the book, so you can follow their stories.
The books were first designed for university courses, so they cover a lot of situations and vocabulary aimed at students. This might be an advantage or disadvantage, depending on your situation!
Genki was designed for use in classrooms so there are some exercises such as group discussions which can be hard to put into practice if you are a self learner. However, the book is still very easy to use. The grammar, vocabulary and other sections are easy to follow by yourself.
It comes with a CD for listening practice. And there is an optional companion workbook for extra practice.
There are two books in the series. The first is suitable for absolute beginners, and the second will take you up to lower intermediate level.
Best for: a good all-round textbook for those who like traditional ways of learning. Especially good for college age students.
Japanese From Zero
The Japanese From Zero books are fairly new on the Japanese textbook scene, but they’ve already become very popular thanks to their easy to follow style.
Since the books are fairly new, the examples and vocabulary are modern and up-to-date.
There are four books in the series. The first is suitable for absolute beginners.
It is a bit slower paced than other textbooks on this list. The first book in the series only introduces hiragana out of all the Japanese writing systems, and it is introduced slowly, a few characters per chapter throughout the textbook. Katakana and kanji are not introduced until later books. The sample texts in the book mix hiragana characters with romaji (English letters), gradually introducing more and more Japanese.
This could be a plus or minus, depending on how you see it. If you already know some Japanese characters, you may find this book moves too slowly for you. However, if you are a little intimidated by the idea of learning to read and write Japanese and want to take it easy, this is the perfect introduction for you.
Japanese From Zero is also a great Japanese textbook for children or homeschooling.
Best for: younger learners and people who want to go slowly
Minna No Nihongo
This is a very good series of textbooks for serious students of Japanese.
The most remarkable thing about Minna No Nihongo is that it is all written in Japanese! You can buy a companion book in English (actually, it is available in 14 different languages) with the translation and notes.
While this might seem like a pain, it’s actually fantastic if you want to learn Japanese fast. You will be immersed in Japanese from the very beginning, so your reading skills will improve a lot faster than someone using a mostly-English textbook.
You can look at the English companion book any time you need a translation, but because of the extra step, you will try to read it for yourself in Japanese first.
Because of this, Minna No Nihongo is very highly rated among people who want to achieve a high level of Japanese.
Of course, alongside improving your reading skills, this book will teach you grammar, vocabulary, listening and conversation. It is more in-depth and covers more ground than other textbooks on this list.
You should be familiar with hiragana and katakana before starting this book – but don’t worry, they don’t take long to learn (click here for tips).
Don’t forget to purchase the companion (English) book separately.
Best for: those who want to challenge themselves and are willing to put in the work to learn Japanese fast.
Japanese for Busy People
Japanese for Busy People is another popular book to learn Japanese. It is aimed at professionals, so you will learn a lot of vocabulary related to office/business situations!
There are two versions: romaji version and kana version. The romaji version uses all English characters. The kana version uses hiragana and katakana for the Japanese texts. The book doesn’t introduce kanji at all.
The book is suitable for self-study because it has answers to all the quizzes at the back. It contains a CD for listening practice.
One cool feature is that there is an accompanying app so you can study on the go!
Best for: business people who need to learn Japanese for work.
Best intermediate Japanese textbook
While there is a huge choice of books for beginners to learn Japanese, it can be a bit harder to find the right textbook at the intermediate level.
Most of the beginners’ textbooks listed above have at least two books in the series, so you can always continue with the next book in the series if it worked for you.
Also, once you’ve reached the intermediate level you might think about taking your JLPT exams. There are plenty of excellent textbooks designed for passing the JLPT, which we’ll cover down below. But if you’re not interested in taking any exams yet, here are my suggestions:
Minna No Nihongo
Yes, we listed these books in the beginner section, but I’m going to repeat them here because there are four books in the series that do take you up to a genuine intermediate level.
There are two books at the intermediate level: Chukyu 1 and Chukyu 2. Chukyu 1 is lower intermediate and Chukyu 2 takes you up to the level of JLPT N2.
The Minna No Nihongo books are entirely written in Japanese. You can purchase a companion book with translations and notes in English (or any one of 13 other languages, if English is not your native language).
Because of this, it’s a great book for serious students! At the intermediate level, you should already be able to read basic Japanese. Your biggest challenge is probably speed. Due to the amount of Japanese text in this book, your reading skills will improve a lot.
These books also have very thorough grammar explanations and give you a very solid knowledge of Japanese.
Read Real Japanese
At the intermediate level, you will want to improve your reading speed and solidify your knowledge of vocabulary and grammar by reading more in Japanese. The Read Real Japanese books are excellent because they have authentic Japanese texts, written for Japanese people, not students!
One on side of the page, you’ll find the original Japanese text. On the facing page, you’ll find notes in English. Unlike some readers, you don’t get a full translation. This is great because it stops you being lazy!
There are two books in the series: fiction and essays. If you buy both you’ll cover a wide range of different texts.
They also come with CDs for listening practice.
>> Related post: FREE Websites for Japanese Reading Practice
Best Japanese textbooks for the JLPT
The JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) is a series of internationally-recognised Japanese exams run by the Japan Foundation. There are five levels, from N5 (basic) to N1 (fluent).
Passing the highest levels (N2 and N1) can be a requirement to work in Japan or attend a Japanese university. Exams at each level will test your vocabulary, grammar, reading and listening.
There are very specific sets of grammar, vocabulary and kanji you must know in order to pass the JLPT. So if you’re planning to take these exams, it’s worth investing in some specific JLPT textbooks.
Here are my recommendations:
New Kanzen Master
The New Kanzen Master books cover Levels N4 to N1.
There are five books available at each level: grammar, vocabulary, kanji, reading and listening. You can buy all five books as a set, or just purchase the books that you need to work on. (I would say the grammar and vocabulary books are essential, but you can improve your reading and listening skills through other methods if you like.)
These books are very thorough. They cover a lot of material, with lots of practice questions, great explanations and a mock test in the same format as the exams.
They can be a bit dry. No pictures or funny cartoons to keep you entertained!
From N2 upwards all the books are completely in Japanese.
Best for: serious students who want in-depth explanations and fast progress.
Nihongo So-Matome is a fantastic JLPT prep series for every level, from N5 to N1.
From N3 to N1, there are five books in each set: grammar, vocabulary, kanji, reading and listening. N5 is just a single book, and N4 is two books.
One great feature of these books is that they are divided into an eight week study plan for you. Each double-page spread covers one day’s lesson, which introduces new points, and then has some practice exercises. There is new material six days a week, and a review on the seventh day.
They have brief explanatory notes in English, Chinese and Korean (all three languages in one book).
These books are fun and easy to follow, and I like the structure. There are pictures to illustrate the key point on each page.
But they don’t go as deep as New Kanzen Master and you may find yourself turning to other resources for additional explanations and examples.
Best for: those who want an action plan and who are ready to study every day.
What do you think about my textbook recommendations? Have you tried any of these books? What are your favourite textbooks to learn Japanese?