References for Learning Japanese

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Online tutorials are great, but no single source of information can teach you Japanese. You will need to read books, practice on your own, and talk to people if you can. Best of all, you should go to Japan, but barring that, do the other things. On this page, I list some resources that I have used, and comment on their strengths and weaknesses.

Books

Your best source of information for self-study, group study, or reference is, of course, books. Read lots and lots of books. No book can give you everything, and it often works best to contrast several different books' explanations of the same point in order to fully understand it. (You may also find books that contradict each other on some points. That just adds to the joy of figuring out the puzzle that is Japanese :-) ).

Textbooks

Japanese for Busy People, Textbook and Workbook, Volumes I-III.

These books are the perfect example of a Japanese teaching method that breaks the language down into nothing but patterns to memorize. Their idea of a "grammar lesson" is the following: "To understand how to use baai, study the following four example sentences and notice which endings are used in which cases." Not much actual grammar there.

[Note: There is a myth among Japanese that their language actually doesn't have any grammatical structure, and all of that was just "invented" by Westerners who wanted to rationalize it. This is just another example of Japanese exceptionalism ("Oh, but it's different in Japan!"). It's not like English was invented by some committee that sat down and decided on grammatical rules! All languages have an underlying structure-- and it can be pieced together by studying the language, just like the physical laws of the Universe can be pieced together by studying the natural world. So YES, Japanese has grammar!]

In the "Busy People" books, many corners have been cut to present Japanese in a way that "busy people" can grasp. These books are too formulaic and not theoretical enough for a serious student. However, you should be willing cut them some slack: they are exactly what they promise to be-- a quick-and-dirty method for learning practical Japanese if you don't want to bother with any underlying grammatical structure.

And it's not all bad. Actually, these books have some good points. The big plus of this "busy people" series is that it gets you into Japanese right away. From the first lesson, you start learning simple, practical things that you might actually say in real-life situations.

And furthermore, even though corners have been cut, nothing is really wrong with the lessons they present. Once you are aware of some theoretical structure (from reading other books), you will see that a lot of important grammar lessons are buried in the book's examples, but simply not explained. In other words, it's all there, you just have know it in order to see it. Hence, these books are great references to go back to once you've graduated to intermediate Japanese. You will see more in them the second and third times.

I wouldn't rely on this series as an exclusive source of information when trying to learn Japanese-- you really need to read other things (see below, for instance). But overall, the "busy people" series is worth going through if you want to teach yourself some practical vocabulary and basic sentence patterns, or if you need a reference for such things.

A further complaint is that they are a little light on kanji information. It's almost as if the authors are trying not to scare students too much. The kanji is kind of incidental-- there's no theory with it, and it appears sporadically. Get a real kanji book when you're ready for that.

They come with tapes or CDs too, which are worth buying so you can hear how the language is actually spoken.

Kodansha's "Power Japanese" Series

These books are great. It's a whole set-- at least 15 or so books-- dedicated to exploring specific topics of Japanese grammar or usage. Each is authored by a different instructor of Japanese, some of them native speakers. I have seven of them, and have found most of them to be extremely understandable and useful.

Making Sense of Japanese: What the Textbooks Don't Tell You by Jay Rubin (formerly published as Gone Fishin')

I love this book. It's written for students who are learning to read Japanese (as literature students), which makes it pretty much the opposite of the "Busy People" textbooks for businesspeople who want to learn to speak in practical situations.

Rubin writes like Dave Barry. You can understand what he says, even when he's talking about something as obscure as the fine distinction between the two types of the verb "to be" in Japanese (Japanese separates "equals-be" from "exists-be", which we don't do in English). There is tons of humor in this book too. You will thoroughly enjoy reading it, even as you struggle to learn the difficult concepts that he explains. You can learn why watching Johnny Carson's show will help you get a handle on how to use hodo, for instance.

Someone like Rubin is actually the ideal person to teach Japanese to Westerners. We tend to think that a native speaker is the best teacher, but for Japanese, I've come to disagree. The grammar structures are so different that what I really need is someone who understands English grammar intuitively and can help me navigate through the treacheries of Japanese grammar. The person who can do that is a native English speaker who has mastered Japanese as thoroughly as a Westerner ever can. A native Japanese speaker can never explain to me some of the things Rubin covers in his book, because they won't know English grammar well enough to make the analogies he does.

Japanese Verbs at a Glance by Naoko Chino

Here you will find the careful explanations of each verb form's underlying implications-- would you say this if you were trying to impress someone? Or if you were frustrated but didn't want to let onto it too much? As noted in other parts of this tutorial, Japanese is exquisitely focused on fine shades of emotional tone, and Westerners are famous for getting the underlying tone wrong, causing endless misunderstandings.

Since Chino is a native speaker, all these details are likely to be accurate. I highly recommend this book. And by the way, another nice feature is that the book uses kanji as well as romaji and English, so you can read it no matter what stage of learning you are at.

Read Real Japanese by Janet Ashby

Ashby has done a great service to intermediate Japanese students in this book. She has compiled actual Japanese essays from magazines and newspapers over the past 10 years, and presented them in a way that makes them comprehensible. Each essay is written in its correct Japanese (vertically, top to bottom, right to left, using kanji), so you can read this directly if you are able. If not, she writes the romanization of the characters in the space below, along with a piece-by-piece translation of what the essay is saying as it goes along. On the facing page, she adds notes like the references to Shakespeare's works, explaining the context of some expressions and adding historical or cultural depth.

It is immensely frustrating to start reading real Japanese when your kanji vocabulary is limited even though your grammatical knowledge is pretty good. It's just enormously slow and painful to pick your way through the characters and try to figure out what each turn of phrase might mean. Ashby's book is an intermediate stepping stone between reading romanizations or phony hiragana-only textbooks and reading full-blown Japanese.

Highly recommended after a year or so of study.

Basic Connections: Making Your Japanese Flow by Kakuko Shoji

This book is similar to Japanese Verbs at a Glance, but focuses on all those annoying connective phrases that are so hard to get right. Just when do you use shoshite versus sorekara? And do you need ni after tame?

I found this book to be enormously helpful in clarifying a lot of the little words which (inevitably) have a lot of emotional overtones that Westerners aren't aware of.

Common Japanese Phrases compiled by Sanseido, translated and adapted by John Brennan

The Japanese love "set phrases." We have them in English too-- things like "Ladies and gentlemen" or "We are gathered here today…"-- but they are even more stylized and common in Japanese. This book tells you some of the most important ones in a variety of situations you might encounter, like asking a favor, thanking someone, asking forgiveness, or offering condolences.

Overall, this is a useful book. Japanese really do judge a person's sophistication by their knowledge of polite set phrases, and if you can say the right thing as a gaijin, you will gain a few badly-needed brownie points. But keep in mind that many of the phrases offered as "common" are actually quite formal and bordering on obsolete in some circles. You might not want to try them in casual situations for fear of sounding a little outmoded. Nonetheless, it's good to have them in your head, especially if you will be in more formal settings, like business.

Love, Hate, and Everything in Between by Mamiko Murakami

This is an entire book devoted to set phrases and idioms that relate to positive and negative feelings. Since love and hate are true art forms in Japan, you will certainly need to know some of these phrases if you hope to gain even modest understanding of the Japanese.

For instance, you can learn the subtle shades of meaning behind various phrases for holding a grudge. You can understand how to use the phrase teijin no sukina aka eboshi ("a husband's beloved red lacquer hat"). And you can learn some fine insults!

Definitely a fun book.

T-Shirt Japanese versus Necktie Japanese: Two Levels of Politeness by Hiroko Fukuda

This book is really useful for someone like me who first learned polite Japanese from textbooks. I found, once I started talking to real Japanese people, that I couldn't understand a word they were saying when they didn't use -masu forms. And I wasn't always clear on how to make a polite phrase casual or vice versa. Sometimes you need to change more than just the ending on the verb.

This book is laid out as a series of scenarios, with the same scene acted out first in "T-shirt" Japanese, then in "Necktie" Japanese. Accompanying each version is an explanation of the vocabulary and phrases used so you can understand which parts need to change when you are changing the level of your speech. This is quite helpful for people who will need to speak in more than one level of Japanese, or will need to understand casual Japanese even if they aren't using it. (As a gaijin, you will probably use a lot of -masu forms and polite phrases).

These seven books are the only ones I have out of the "Power Japanese" series, but some of the others look pretty interesting too.

Other books

The Complete Japanese Verb Guide, compiled by the Hirou Japanese Center

This is a fabulous list of the complete conjugations of over 600 verbs (although that's a bit of a cheat-- there are really only about 300 distinct verbs; the rest are verbs that combine with the verb suru (to do), such as benkyou suru (to study). These all conjugate the same way suru does).

I used the Verb Guide to teach myself the rules of conjugating long before we got to them in class. Heck, we still haven't learned some of the forms covered in there, but I know how to create them from the verb's dictionary form.

The other really useful thing about the Verb Guide is that it has example sentences with each verb. So there's a Japanese sentence, plus the English translation. I've had a lot of fun challenging myself by covering the Japanese and reading the English sentence, then trying to say it in Japanese. I can check my answer after I make an attempt. This exercise has been very sobering since the example sentences are rather complex ones, and I can't put most of them together successfully. But it has served to highlight just how totally different the grammar in Japanese is! You just don't say sentences the same way at all.

One thing to watch out for, however, is that some of the English translations are falsely written as passive sentences, when they are actually active sentences in Japanese. (See the section called "Action is Done" in the Verbs, Part 2 chapter).

Remembering the Kanji by James Heisig

This presents an intriguing and intuitive method remembering the meaning and writing of Japanese characters. Note that it does not promise to help with pronouncing them, and indeed it does not. Heisig developed a clever way of matching the shapes and strokes involved in writing characters to the meanings they represent. Some are quite whimsical and even funny, which actually helps in remembering them.

I can't really explain the method-- you just have to try it for yourself. Some people rave about it as the best thing they've ever learned relating to Japanese. Others find it silly and not useful. I tried for a while, and saw some value in it, but then got distracted and wasn't able to keep it up, so I'm not sure how it works for me. But that doesn't matter-- all that matters is whether it works for you. I recommend giving it a try!

Dictionaries

You will need dictionaries to deal with reading and writing Japanese. I recommend getting at least two kinds: one that resembles a Western dictionary, where you can look up English or Japanese words you don't know and find out the translation, and one that is a formal kanji dictionary where you can find out the pronunciation and meaning of characters.

Western Dictionaries

The Random House English-Japanese/Japanese-English Dictionary

For your Western-style dictionary, the Japanese section will of course be listed in romaji, so that an alphabetical order can be applied for looking things up. (There is an "alphabetical" order to the kana, too, but it's not really used for dictionaries).

However, I suggest making sure that this dictionary also list the correct kanji for each Japanese word. This is for two reasons. (1) You should start getting used to seeing the word the way it is really written, not just the romanized version, and (2) If you are reading something with hiragana "translations" of kanji (called furigana), you can figure out which meaning of a word is being used. For example, say you come across some kanji that you don't recognize, and the furigana reading is the two characters "ka" and "mi." So you look up "kami" in the romaji section of your dictionary, and you find that it means "paper," "hair," or "god." Which one did you just read? Simple-- look at the original kanji that you couldn't read and match it to the dictionary listing. That's why you need a dictionary that lists kanji as well as romaji.

There are plenty of Japanese-English dictionaries that have this feature. I got the Random House Japanese Dictionary, partly because it's fairly compact so I can (and did!) travel with it. I would call this dictionary adequate, but not great. If you're a literature student, get a heftier one with more words in it. I will probably get around to getting a more serious one in the near future.

Kanji Dictionaries

When you start learning characters, you should take the plunge and get a real kanji dictionary. Even Japanese people use these all the time.

The Original Modern Reader's Japanese-English Character Dictionary by Nelson

Not surprisingly, the Japanese have figured out a way to organize the kanji into something like an "alphabetical" order (to the degree that that makes sense for a bunch of pictures). But it turns out that there are several ways to do this. There is the "traditional" way that was used in Japan for a long time, and then there is a newer way devised by a guy named Nelson who knew a lot about Japanese and decided to invent something more logical than the traditional method. Nelson's system organizes the "radicals" of the characters (basically the key portion of the character) geometrically. You literally look up the character by whether the radical is in the NW, N, NE, E, etc. position within the character.

There are some who claim that Nelson's method is no good or that the traditional way ought to be preserved. Maybe it should. Even Nelson's method was recently revised to meet the traditional method halfway.

But frankly, I think you should organize characters however it makes sense. And you should learn to look them up in the dictionary however it makes sense to you. If you like Nelson's method, great. If you already learned the traditional way and don't want to change, that's fine too.

I bought a Nelson dictionary, published by Tuttle. I got the original version from before it was revised to meet the traditional method halfway. I also ended up getting the romaji version, which lists the pronunciation of the characters in Roman letters instead of hiragana and katakana. This was not a direct choice-- the romaji one was in stock and I would have had to special-order the kana one. Is this a cop-out? Well, maybe. But heck, when I look up a kanji character, I just want to know how to pronounce it. Who cares if it's listed in Roman letters or kana?

Note that this dictionary is really best for readers, not writers. It will help you identify characters that you are reading and need help pronouncing, understanding, or both. But it's not so great for writing because there is little given in the way of contextual uses.

But overall, I'm very pleased with it. My sensei showed me how to look things up, which is a lot like a treasure hunt-- you might have to check several places to find exactly the right character. There are an amazing number of characters. The dictionary has about 5,000 characters, along with their more than 10,000 readings and 70,000 compounds in current use.

Manga

Manga are Japanese comics. But in many ways, they more closely resemble American graphic novels or high-end comics than regular American comics or cartoons. They are widely read by both children and adults; I even saw businesspeople reading them on the subway. Manga are an excellent way to learn colloquial Japanese, as well as a bit of Japanese culture. The ones for really little kids have furigana (hiragana readings of the kanji), but even ones for older kids use simple enough kanji that you'll be able to read them fairly quickly.

Basic Japanese through Comics complied by Mangajin, a publisher of Japanese comics (manga).

This is a neat book. Essentially, Mangajin went through all the manga they publish and pulled out panels that illustrate certain grammar/vocabulary/usage patterns. These patterns are combined into a series of "lessons," which really don't have to be read in order. There are actually two volumes of this, and I only have Volume II. I wanted to get Volume I also, but it seems to be out of print, and I haven't bothered to track it down.

This is a great way to learn colloquial Japanese and modern ways of speaking. The translation is incredibly complete: the manga panel of course uses kanji and kana. So the book provides a romaji translation for those who can't read Japanese characters. Then there is a literal English translation, which is often incomprehensible since the grammar structure is so different. Then there is a more natural English translation, saying what they sentence really means to a Japanese person reading it. Following all of that are extra notes on the usage to explain context or other things.

While translation has been discredited as a complete method to learn a foreign language (it disrupts the process of learning to think in that language directly), it is highly effective for these comics, where all you really want is to be able to understand what's been drawn as a Japanese person would read it.

With this as background, you can move on to...

Actual Manga

If you live in a reasonably large American city, especially on the West Coast, there is probably a Japanese bookstore near you. These bookstores will often carry manga along with the Japanese magazines and books. Take a voyage there some weekend and see what they've got. Even if you can't read the whole thing, buy it anyway and work on it slowly. The great thing about manga is that the pictures are really helpful for understanding what's going on.

Better yet, there may be a Japanese video store near you. Renting videos is useful in and of itself, but it is also common for video stores to carry really good manga that they will rent to you just like a video! Go check some out and see how far you can get before the due date :-).

Online/Software Resources

You've already discovered this tutorial-- good for you. There are other computer-related items of interest also for learning Japanese.

Kanji Gold

If you're a poor gaijin like me, who had never studied a language that doesn't use an alphabet until encountering Japanese, you will need lots of help learning the kanji characters. Kanji Gold is a free program that you can download to practice the characters. It won't help you learn to write, but it's pretty good for recognition. I strongly recommend using the feature that shows you compound words formed with the kanji you are studying. It really gives you a picture of how the characters are combined to have new meanings.

Kanji Gold allows you to study characters in four ways: by choosing the correct English meaning for a given character, the correct kana pronunciation for a given character, the correct character for a given English meaning, or the correct character for a given kana pronunciation. And the characters are divided into sets by which grade level they represent, so you can start simple and move up.

NJ Star Japanese Word Processor

If you want to write email or word-processed documents using kana and kanji, you will need a program that can do this. There are several options; I use NJ Star and like it a lot.

These programs usually work the same way: the keystrokes on a regular English keyboard are converted to kana on the screen. You literally type "k" then "a" to get the hiragana for "ka" to appear on the screen. (To get katakana, there is some switch you can set. In NJ Star, you get katakana when the caps-lock key is on). Once you have the kana, you can select various groups of them and look up the various kanji that they might represent using a dictionary that comes with the software. You can select the right one from the list presented, and it will be inserted into the text.

You can paste documents from NJ Star into email programs such as Eudora and Outlook, then send them. Recipients can read them directly if they have appropriate email programs, or if not, they can paste the message text (which looks like junk) into NJ Star (or a similar program) on their own machine, and it will reappear as Japanese.

One note: NJ Star can be used for 30 days free, but after that you have to register it. It's worth the money. This is a high-quality program, easy to use, and very stable. Some of the freebie downloads aren't so good. As usual, you get what you pay for.

Hanabi for Palm Pilot

This is a kanji-learning program sort of like Kanji Gold, but it's for your Palm Pilot (or Handspring Visor). You can test your ability to identify either the English meaning or the kana reading of a given character.

Overall, I like this program (you will have to register it, by the way). It's handy for the plane or during boring meetings at work. I only have one complaint: Hanabi gives only one reading and one meaning for each kanji character. In reality, each one has multiple readings and meanings, so it's a little annoying that you get to learn only one. But still, it's handy to have the ability to test yourself at any free moment.

Snoozers

Not all resources are good. Here are a couple of books I didn't like:

Essential Japanese Grammar by Everett Bleiler

This is a short little reference guide that walks through the basics of Japanese grammar. There's actually quite a lot covered in there, but Bleiler's book has a number of fairly serious problems. One is that it is somewhat dated-- published in 1963. Obviously, grammar hasn't significantly shifted in that time. But some of the particulars are wrong-- just like people would look at you a little funny if you spoke English using the vocabulary of 1963. For example, the book routinely uses watakushi for "I." This is rather formal language-- most people say watashi. The book should have noted this so as not to mislead readers.

There is also a more serious problem with its vocabulary. Bleiler wrote the book for businessmen (after all, what woman would need Japanese in 1963?). In Japanese, for better or for worse, there are distinctions between "women's" speech and "men's" speech. Bleiler suggests using boku as a casual word for "I", but in reality, I can't say this word. It is used by boys and by men when they are in groups of mostly other men. Luckily I knew this already, so I won't put my foot in my mouth by calling myself boku.

Overall, I wouldn't bother with this book. Everything in it can be gotten from other sources.

Japanese: Verbs and Essentials of Grammar by Rita Lampkin

This book is far more detailed than Bleiler's book, with more examples. It sets up the grammar more formally, actually defining the six conjugational forms of verbs (which of course we didn't bother to learn explicitly in the "Busy People" series). I have found a lot of really handy sentence patterns in here, and I am far from being able to recognize everything Lampkin covers even when reading.

But I have several problems with this book. One is that she doesn't always give enough contextual information to actually use the forms she describes. I borrowed an example out of the book to use in an email message to a native Japanese speaker, and was informed that my grammar in that case made no sense. Humph. Also, there are really important shades of meaning in some expressions, which Lampkin does not make clear. For instance, using you to mean "it looks like..." is generally done when you have direct experience to make you see the resemblance, while rashii is used more often when hearsay has made you believe what you are saying. You can't get this from Lampkin's sparsely explained lists of usage.

A second major problem is that it's hard to look anything up in the book. The forms are arranged by which verb conjugation they go with. For instance, the pattern to express personal experience is (-ta form of verb) koto ga arimasu, such as sushi o tabeta koto ga arimasu (I have eaten sushi). Naturally, this pattern is listed under the -ta form's category.

But a lot of times, my problem is that I can't remember which verb form I'm supposed to use! I might remember that I'm supposed to say -koto ga arimasu, but be unsure as to whether I should use the -ta form or the dictionary form of the verb. The only way to find out with this book is to start reading through each section until I find it. The index is really lousy too.

The claim on the back cover-- "the one book that does it all!"-- is definitely overblown. Lampkin has indeed compiled a handy reference list of a lot of important sentence patterns, but you must already know most of them to get much out of the book.

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Copyright © Kim Allen 2000-present

Email: kimall (at symbol) mindspring dot com