Posted by: Andreas | February 24, 2009

I’m in Japan, but I can’t speak Japanese!

Right, so you got yourself to Japan. You’ve landed with your plane at some airport and the first thing that greets you is 成田国際空港 and you wonder what it actually says. Don’t worry, it’s happened to us all the very first time we encountered a new language. Now, the question is, how do we remedy it? It’s quite simple actually. If we take a small step back in time, purchase a few items, and spend some 20 minutes each night, you’ll be speaking and reading Japanese in no time.

The first thing I’ve noticed when trying to learn a language is that people want to take the easy way out. They hop onto the highway of learning thinking that the faster they get there the better it’ll be. Well, I don’t want to tell those people they are doing it incorrectly, but I certainly think that taking the slow path might be just as rewarding.

So what is the highway then? Well, to me it’s one or several of the following:

  1. Learning through Internet. Watch a few YouTube clips, search for “learn Japanese for free” at Google and then join some beginners’ Japanese course where the only thing you’ll actually learn is hiragana, a few animal names and a very limited dose of grammar. Because everyone hates grammar right? No need to answer that, it was a rethorical question. I’m a university graduated language teacher and yes, people hate grammar. So to make their website popular amonst the ones who want to learn Japanese, they quickly go through the easy grammar and then that’s that.
  2. Learning through TV. This could either be watching some 80’s show where a lady in a tacky suit and grey hair tries to explain in a painfully slow voice the difference between kore, sore and then ask the viewer to wait with are until later, or where one would desperately trying to pick up as much Japanese as one can from shows like anime or other drama series.

So, what is it that I want to get out of this? Well, it just happens to be that I favour the reading kind of study and I just so happen to have a few suggestions for books that work splendid. Now I know that not everyone learns in the same way. Some might actually pick up Japanese via Internet courses but then there’s the problem that these courses often only go so far. The TV might work for others and I would not object if there were textbooks included, but if there is none, then how will you ever learn how to read and write? Also, you must have quite long episodes to cover something that could fit on one page in a textbook. Making a TV series isn’t just about teaching, you must do it “hip” and fun to learn, and that takes skits, funny excercises and the like. With a real textbook, one can still have short listening exercises via CDs, reading and writing and quick but efficient grammar walkthroughs.

Anyways, now I’ve talked enough about that. I believe it is time to present the textbooks instead. I am going to list them all, with the ISBN number. When searching a bookstore online (or when ringing a bookstore) you can search for the ISBN instead of the title or author, making the search much faster since there might be several publishers in some cases, but if you go by ISBN you’ll get the exact version instantly.

Textbooks beginner level:
Minna no Nihongo 1
ISBN 4-88319-102-8 C0081
Minna no Nihongo 1 Translation & Grammatical Notes
ISBN 4-88319-107-9 C0081

Minna no Nihongo 2
ISBN 4-88319-103-6 C0081
Minna no Nihongo 2 Translation & Grammatical Notes
ISBN 4-88319-108-7 C0081

The Minna no Nihongo books have been published by the 3A Corporation (for English, look to the top-right) and unfortunately the easiest way of getting your hands on these books is by being in Japan. There are however a few online stores that handle the Minna no Nihongo books. You should check out their information page about handling books outside of Japan. Please note that the ISBN that I have supplied are for the Japanese-English versions for the textbooks. There are also German, Spanish, Korean and Chinese versions to my knowledge. There are also CDs available for the listening excercises.

Textbooks intermediate level:
New Approach Japanese Intermediate Course
ISBN 4-931315-15-1 C0081
New Approach Japanese Intermadiate Course Work Book
ISBN 978-4-931315-16-7 C0081

New Approach has been published by 日本語研究社 教材開発室 – Nihongo Kenkyuusha Kyouzai Kaihatsu Shitsu and while I recommend the book I must confess I am having trouble finding out how to get it. The homepage supplied in the textbook does not seem to have been updated since 2005 and the sister site(?) cannot find New Approach when I search for it. If you do get a hold of the New Approach books, there are at least 2 CDs that are included in the deal.

Kanji learning textbooks:
Minna no Nihongo Japanese Kanji Workbook
ISBN 4-88319-291-1 C0081
Minna no Nihongo Kanji 1 (English Edition)
ISBN 4-88319-147-8 C0081

The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary
ISBN 978-4-7700-2855-6

The Kodansha is a dictionary that uses a method of looking up strokes of kanji called SKIP. I have found it to be an extremely useful tool when not only learning kanji but when looking up meanings of several kanji in a row. It is published by Kenkyusha Limited and can be found here for sale.

Grammar studies:
A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar
ISBN 4-7890-0454-6 C3581
A Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar
ISBN 4-7890-0775-8 C3581

These dictionaries have been published by The Japan Times where you can in addition to the two dictionaries I’ve posted, also find the Advanced Japanese Grammar, a newly published one that wasn’t around when I was in Japan and bought my Basic and Intermediate. There are also other sorts of books for learning Japanese at that page, but they are quite expensive.

Ordinary dictionaries:
Japanese-English English-Japanese Dictionary
ISBN 0-345-40548-X

This dictionary is published by Random House and comes in many versions. Mine is from 1996 and it still works great. There are newer versions available though. This dictionary’s strongpoints are that it is fairly small, paperback pocket-sized but still houses more than 50,000 words and expressions. It is more than enough for getting around Japan while still outclassing the travel-dictionaries such as Berlitz’s and the like (in my opinion).



  1. konnichiwa,
    douzo yoroshiku

  2. Japanese is so hard for me. I’ve lived in Japan for 2 years but failed to speak fluently. Now, I’m in China, I’m having an easier time with Mandarin. I wrote a blog post about the difficulties I had learning Japanese over Chinese. TheShanghaiExpat. Please feel free to visit and let me know if you are interested with link exchange.


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