Learn Japanese with Manga

I am very late to Twitter, but I have found a number of folks/organizations to follow for good information about recommended reading and new publications.

Learn Japanese with Manga @MangaLearn
Updates about YouTube videos where Naoto explains the contents and grammar in particular Japanese manga to help Japanese language learners learn through reading manga. Sample sentences, vocabulary, and grammatical points are provided with English translations. His explanations are provided in closed caption with furigana. He uses manga that are available for online 試し読み. Altogether a useful resource – both for learning Japanese and for selecting manga for the collection. Naoto’s YouTube channel has over 2.45 thousand subscribers, so it is entirely possible that our students are watching these even if we aren’t.
Here is the link to Naoto’s channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC59ZURfw529EQEE1gVUMSlw There is a good series on words and phrases used in Doraemon.

Blame ブラム
Yabai うちのクラスの女子がヤバイ 
Ghost in the Shell 攻殻機動隊
No Guns Life
One Piece

Hunter x Hunter
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure
Demon Slayer
My Hero Academia

I have some shopping to do! Some of these we have but some we don’t. Even if students are using them for tadoku, I think having access to grammatical explanations will be very helpful to them so I will add a sticker with a link to the manga he reviews.

Graded Readers


There really is nothing better for beginning readers (besides their textbook) than graded readers. Graded readers are designed to be read at a 98% comprehension level, using limited vocabulary and grammar. There should be absolutely no reading pain when you are reading a graded reader as long as you choose the right level for your current skill set.

Graded readers for English language learners have been around for a very long time and are now very sophisticated. Graded readers in other languages, especially Asian languages, have been much much slower to arrive. While I am not exactly sure why, I think one reason is that many of us learned our language at university and wanted to read the literature. So instead of reading simple stories, we read difficult texts looking up word after word (and before that character after character so we could use dictionaries). In Japanese, for example, it has taken us quite a while to bridge the gap between textbooks (taught by language instructors) and selections of literature (taught by lit faculty).

Bridging the gap can be done by encouraging students to begin adding graded readers to their language learning practice. Books where there aren’t vocabulary lists or grammatical explanations needed because they know almost every single word already and can guess the few they don’t by context. This way, they gradually build up speed, endurance, and confidence to the point where they can tackle regular publications in a field of interest. The challenge though, has been getting enough graded readers at the very beginning levels to satisfy the needs and interests of students who want to read.

The NPO Tadoku graded readers belong in every library collection or reading room/classroom. These are available in print or as e-books. The print editions were originally issued with audio CDs, but the organization has now made the sound files available through their website because so few people have CD players anymore. The books in this series are popular with my students, and they often comment on the humor in the stories.

One of the benefits of more instructors offering tadoku courses is that they have begun writing their own tadoku books and sharing the books written by their students. Many of these have been gathered together at the NPO Tadoku website, and provide even more resources for L2 Japanese readers. I highly recommend them. So much good stuff out there, and I expect to see more and more of it shared freely.

I am also interested in the Oxford Brookes University Let’s Read Japanese series. This is more like what I would expect to see at a university level, and some of my students who shied away from the simplicity of the NPO Tadoku books were much happier with this series. Especially the upper level students. Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough of them.

My suggestion to students who are at the beginning levels is that they concentrate on graded readers until they are at level 3, then start reading a range of graded readers, manga, picture books, and anthologies. I have added picture books to my tadoku collection but they can be hard for students because of the use of hiragana only, slang and unstated cultural concepts. My suggestion would be to read those with a senpai or instructor. Well, read with me. I would love it.

At level 4 they have enough vocabulary and fluency to read all kinds of things, and by level 5 they are pretty much out of graded readers and should be reading regular materials.

The NPO Tadoku has created a leveled search engine for their graded readers and regular materials that they have set levels for. Many of us have tweaked those levels for our own students, but it is a great search engine and it will help us to narrow down choices for reading.

Chrome extension for Netflix!

This may be a game changer for a number of people who want to learn more Japanese through anime and film.

Scott Wilson, a UMass Amherst alum who majored in Japanese, reported on the new extension in an article in Sora News 24. He walked through the process of setting up the options and provided screen shots. Being able to read Japanese closed caption with romaji or furigana, option of dictionary lookups, and ability to turn on and off translation is amazing. Scott is right, it is almost too easy:) https://soranews24.com/2020/01/12/free-language-learning-with-netflix-extension-makes-studying-japanese-almost-too-easy

His article is really making the rounds on Facebook and Twitter, garnering all kinds of excitement. Some people just want to watch Terrace House, while others are thinking about the Japanese films that they can watch/read. Keep in mind that there are errors. I was watching one where the text said 酒 and the reading provided for it was shu but the actor said “sake”. Since you can read, listen, and watch all at the same time, if something weird pops up you can pause the video and double-check. I can’t think of a better way for language learners to add in L2 reading during down time.

Once you download the free extension for Chrome (Language Learning with Netflix) you can also click the link to see recommended programs for your target language (in this case Japanese) and your country of residence (in this case United States). There are 82 listed for me, including a number of series/movies that I have watched in the past. A good mix between anime, series, and movies. Plenty to keep me busy and it is nice to have a quick list to look at rather than browsing all the possibilities (although I will do that as well).

The catalog currently includes 82 titles for Japanese drama/anime/movies that work well with LLN, but there are many more than that in Netflix. For the LLN extension to work correctly (for Japanese language learning), Japanese subtitles need to be an option in Netflix for that title. For example, I checked a Japanese anime A Silent Voice. It has the option of English or Japanese audio, and a number of different languages for subtitles but Japanese is not one of them. So, the first thing you need to check is the Netflix audio/subtitle options.

Giri/Haji is an example where the audio is English (original) but a number of the conversations are in Japanese. Set the subtitles to Japanese on the Netflix side. That will give you the Japanese text (with lookup info). But even if you turn on the Translation language and Display Human translation on the LLN side, it doesn’t work. This would be why this title doesn’t come up on the recommended Japanese list in the catalog. But, it does work for my purposes.

As I play with it, I am coming across things I think I should document so I can save time recreating my steps later. If it is a Netflix Japanese original film and the subtitle option is Japanese (cc) sometimes you will need to turn off the LLN option or nothing appears. That means that you won’t get furigana or the pop-up dictionary options. Other times it works – like Terrace House.

One of the tweaks that I made to my own setup for Japanese is that I chose hiragana rather than romaji for furigana and I turned off the English “human translation” so that I wasn’t tempted to cheat and read the English. Depending on the video, I can easily turn it back on.

ムック mooks

A mook is a morph of a magazine+book. Mooks get ISBN but they also sometimes get ISSN as well. It gives librarians the opportunity to add them to their collections as a magazine or do subject analysis on each one like a book.

For readers interested in science, a well known publisher/title is Newton. In addition to Newton magazines, it also publishes a kind of kind of mook, also called a bessatsu 別冊. These have ISBNs, generally around 170 pages and are on particular topics. Within this category is Newton Light Newton ライト.

Newtonライト2.0 is the most recent version – less text, and more images intended to appeal to people who want to spend less time reading but still get the content. There is no furigana included in the text, so readers would need to be reading at a Japanese high school level to read comfortably.

According to Wikipedia in Japan there is a whole category of (ブランドブック) brand mook. Indeed when I did a search I came up with all kinds of them, particularly for fashion brands. These are not cheap but they could be used by someone doing research on a particular company. Not what I would necessarily buy for my collection or recommend to students, except when I have students working on a particular band, comic book or video game. These are often called “fan books” and can be a very useful source of information for a student wanting to do an undergraduate paper on the topic.

I have also added mook that were from food/cooking magazines, not so much for the reading content but who doesn’t love to see pretty pictures of ramen or Japanese pickles. And learning how to make them from the recipes is a bonus.

If you are looking for more literary mooks, Bungei Shunju, Taiyō, NHK all have them and I have used a number of them. Again, most come from a magazine and are issued as an extra editon or supplement. Probably the best known is 別冊太陽 Bessatsu Taiyō, which has been published since 1973 as a deluxe version of the Taiyo issues. These really are fabulous for senior theses on a range of topics, from Chibi Maruko-chan to Hiroshige.

Another interesting variation I have seen is from Kadokawa. Kadokawa has lots of brand mook, but there are also tanka nenkan and haiku nenkan. Kwai magazine also publishes mook for special issues of the magazine 怪 (rendered kwai) like this one of interviews.

別冊文藝春秋 Bessatsu Bungei Shunjū is itself a magazine, so it is a bit misleading. Instead the label is 文春ムック bunshun mukku.These mook tend to come from Bunshun magazine rather than Bungei Shunju. Red herring altogether. Never mind.

新書 Shinsho and their value to L2 readers

Shinsho 新書 are an amazing resource for people who are looking to gain a generalist’s knowledge of a particular topic. The regular shinsho are written at a level that a high school graduate can read and understand. The prices of shinsho are entirely reasonable (currently 600-900 yen) and pocket-sized so they are light and convenient to carry around and read at opportune moments. They tend to be about 200 pages long, so while it is a significant commitment of time, it is not overwhelming.

I love shinsho and would highly recommend that grad students look for a shinsho or a nyūmonsho 入門書 on their topic before they turn to scholarly writings. When I visited Japanese university libraries, most had collections of shinsho shelved by their labels (publishers and series) on open browsing shelves. I have always wanted to do the same, but instead I have been carefully choosing shinsho on the topics covered by our faculty and hope that they don’t get lost in the stacks.

Now though, there are junior shinsho ジュニア新書 that are aimed at middle school and high school students. These are really perfect for students who are working towards N2 or building up vocabulary and fluency for N1. I will be adding a number of these to my READ Japanese collection. I just need to do a little more work to figure out what level (in my collection, it would likely be level 6 or 7)

Last summer I visited a special exhibit on shinsho for kids held at the Chiyoda Library. The list of titles exhibited was long and substantial, and I felt like my interest in shinsho was validated.

Here are possibly the two best labels for junior/senior high school shinsho:

Iwanami’s Junior shinsho was probably the first one to appear on the market, starting in 1979. There are now about a thousand volumes, so plenty to choose from to build a small collection of reading materials for upper level Japanese readers who aren’t quite ready for the regular research collection.

Purimā shinsho is a much much newer series, but I saw a lot of titles that I thought would be appealing to students (and myself). In particular, I see books in this series by Yoshimoto Banana and Ogawa Yōko.

This article provides a good overview of why Japanese middle/high school students should try reading shinsho.

Kindle Unlimited’s options for reading Japanese

Once I started on my quest for combining audio with text, I also started to explore Kindle to see if there was much there that would be useful to me or others trying to gain fluency in Japanese.

In a perfect world I would have access to the Kindle Japan store, but I don’t have the Japanese address to allow that. So I am limited to the American Kindle. I found some stuff that I enjoyed reading, and was interested to see how many of the simple books were written either as bilingual books or written in Japanese by non-Japanese. In either case the sentence patterns are simple and straight forward, which makes for easy reading.

I think my favorite is はらまきぱんだ。It is very similar to ゆうたくんちのいばりいぬ。Very simple illustrations (comic-like) and one sentence per page. There is considerable repetition as well, so super easy for a beginning reader to follow. It seems to be a Line Stamp character. I found 2 volumes available through Kindle Unlimited and enjoyed them.

I also read そふとそぼ, which is a comic about a grandfather and grandmother. It is basically a 4-panel comic with a lot of old people humor. Because it is a comic, it has handwriting rather than type font, but still pretty easy to read.

If you are looking for a thoughtful essay, 読書する人生 was about 40 pages. It is written in clear Japanese and would be good for someone who is reading about an N2 level. I used the lookup feature to checking the readings of kanji that I recognized but forgot how to read.

Using the search function is really hit or miss – mostly miss. But if you click on Categories and then Foreign Languages, you can drill down to Japanese. There is a lot of porn. But there is also a list of categories you can select from within the Japanese language. 8749 titles in the Childrens ebooks category, including Japanese translations of Harry Potter, Tom Sawyer, Alice in Wonderland and other well known stories. You will also find porn here (someone has tagged photographic collections of girls as children’s ebooks) as well as all kinds of weird stuff. Be aware, books are clearly not identified the way I would like them.

Having said that, I found a lot of books I would enjoy reading. I have started adding them to my list (Kindle Unlimited allows up to 10 books at a time).

Informational picture books

I feel like the genre of informational picture books deserves a great deal more attention. When the Japanese educational system finally started supporting independent research projects as opposed to making students regurgitate facts learned in school textbooks, a new genre developed called 総合学習図書(そうごうがくしゅうとしょ), 調べ学習図書(しらべがくしゅうとしょ),学習絵本(がくしゅうえほん)or even 知識の本(ちしきのほん). The beauty of these books is that they are short like picture books (generally 40-60 pages), fully annotated with furigana, and include photographs or images of primary source materials. I have had a lot of luck recommending them to students working on senior theses or independent projects. Many of them are listed as appropriate for mid-elementary school or higher.

I have collected a number of series that can be used to either supplement readings in Tobira or at a higher level. We have also used them in Japanese literature in translation classes to give students visuals to accompany their readings.

絵で読む日本の古典(全5巻) is leveled at 小学高学年 and includes Taketori monogatari, Genji monogatari, Heike monogatari, Makura no soshi, Tsurezuregusa, and Oku no hosomichi.

調べ学習日本の歴史 is published by Poplar. There are at least 14 volumes in this set. Another set that gets used is

調べ学習に役立つ図解日本の歴史 is an older series published by Akane Shobo that is very useful for providing students with the vocabulary, maps, and images used in Japanese. As I look at the offerings at Akane Shobo, I see that many of the newer titles now have 写真で読み解く(しゃしんでよみとく I see some really good ones including language studies, social conditions, history, etc.

What I am differentiating between is お話絵本 and 知識絵本. Here are some examples of informational picture books that I think could easily be incorporated into 3rd or 4th year classes or independent reading. A number of them are reference books and not something that most people would read like a comic, but for students who are building their vocabulary in a particular field, super effective.

福音館書店 Fukuinkan Shoten published a soft-cover monthly book/magazine called 月間たくさんのふしぎ Gekkan Takusan no fushigi that is science-oriented or nonfiction. The monthly publication doesn’t have an ISBN. Many of the titles are also published in hardcover if they are popular under the series たくさんのふしぎ傑作集 Takusan no fushigi kessakushū. The reading level is listed as 小学中学年 and up, so it really is a perfect reading level for students interesting in reading nonfiction. The category listed is: かがく絵本・図鑑 (science picture books, zukan)

Examples of titles that I have purchased for my collection include: わたしが外人だったころ Watashi ga gaijin datta koro, which is the autobiography of the famous Japanese historian and philosopher Tsurumi Shunsuke, graduate of Harvard who was deported from the United States in 1942 along with a number of other Japanese nationals living in the US at the time.

和菓子のほん Wagashi no hon is a zukan. That means that there can be a lot of informational text to accompany the images. A student could, of course, just look at the pictures, but most are also interested in the text. In the beginning I gave these lower reading levels, but students asked me to reassess and so I have.

Some of my favorite picture book series

I have a few favorites that I would love to see included in all collections that include Japanese picture books.

日本の童話名作選(にほん の どうわ めいさくせん)is advertised as 大人の絵本. It would be easy to misinterpret this as an “adult picture book” but really the series is a collection of really famous stories beautifully illustrated that all Japanese likely read as children either in picture books or in school textbooks.

These books are all listed in the Kaiseisha catalog as 小学校中学年から. There is a lot of text on each page with kanji that has furigana. I often recommend these books to 3rd and 4th year students who want to read Japanese literature and enjoy picture books. They could also read the same text in text-only collections like the Saito Takashi Ikki ni yomeru series.

This series includes a range of authors that you would expect to see in picture books like Miyazawa Kenji 宮沢賢治 and Niimi Nankichi 新美南吉, but also includes Akutagawa Ryunosuke 芥川龍之介 and Lafcadio Hearn 小泉八雲.

Another favorite is the 怪談えほん published by Iwasaki Shoten. There are at least 15 titles in this series now. They are favorites of our students – although the onomatopoeia is a challenge to them.

The popularity of this series has spawned another series that I am looking forward to reading called Ehon Tono monogatari 絵本遠野物語 published by Chobunsha 汐文社.

Fukuinkan has a number of good series. One that is really worth checking out – especially for readers who are not fond of “baby books” is たくさんのふしぎ傑作集. This is a subseries of the 科学絵本 and many of my favorite are tagged as 科学・図鑑(かがく・ずかん). There are lots of wonderful books about Japanese sweets, the history of books, wildlife, etc. Others are history books illustrated by Nishimura Shigeo 西村繁男 like 絵で読む広島の原爆 and his 絵で見る日本の歴史.

I have in my personal collection (that I haven’t yet donated to the library) books published by アリス館 on kabuki and sumo. These are beautiful picture books published as part of 日本の心 series. They are long since out of print, but Alice-kan has several other series that are worth considering.

絵本(えほん)Picture books, their use and challenges in L2 reading

I will start out by saying that I love picture books and that I will buy them for academic collections even if we don’t have a separate juvenile collection. In the field of East Asian studies, research on children’s literature has been very slow to gain any traction and I find it a great pity. It is a particularly rich field to harvest, whether you focus on portrayals of war, social justice, wordplay, or Buddhist traditions, and it is possible for undergraduates to read Japanese picture books and write about them intelligibly in English.

There is now excellent research being done on Japanese picture books by scholars such as Heather Blair at the Indiana University Bloomington who write about Buddhism and Hell in children’s books. Another scholar to keep an eye out for is Mika Endo, currently an independent scholar, who is doing work on 3.11 and how nuclear disasters are portrayed in children’s books. Kathryn Tanaka has also done work on picture books about Hansen’s disease. I look forward to reading or listening to talks about many more topics and hope that there will be regular panels at Japanese studies conferences on children’s literature.

But this blog is about reading and collecting materials specifically for L2 Japanese readers. And that is where it starts to get tricky. In general, Japanese picture books present a number of challenges to L2 readers.
1. Lack of kanji
2. Lots of unknown vocabulary
3. Use of slang/dialects
4. assumes background knowledge/cultural background that we don’t have and often don’t get through university textbooks

All of this is true, and all of it is important. To have a better understanding of current Japanese culture, I think it is really advantageous to have read similar books and to understand the ethos that underpins those works. And so, like someone learning to walk again after a stroke or a major accident, it is possible to go through the motions of learning to walk again and be able to do it much faster than when we were babies.

When people ask me about picture books and tadoku, I suggest that picture books require more support than traditional graded readers. Picture books are best read aloud – by an instructor or a more seasoned reader. It helps to stop and point out images that reflect the words or scene being depicted (like a parent or teacher would with children), so that the readers have a clear image in their minds of the story. Alternatively, the instructor/advanced reader could read the entire book aloud without stopping (this is traditional read aloud technique yomikikase 読み聞かせ). I don’t think this is as effective for L2 readers because they could be missing the key terms in the text and not be able to follow along at all. Then it could be read again, using shadowing techniques where both readers read together at the same time. And finally, the reader could read it alone fluently. This is a pretty standard pedagogical technique for improving reading fluency. It could also be tedious, so it really depends on the reader.

Without a clear understanding of the story, a complete text of hiragana can be frustrating to an L2 reader. Picture books try to compensate for that by using wakachigaki 分かち書き (word division) so that words appear as units rather than a long string that needs to be deconstructed. Students who read picture books tell me that once they know the vocabulary, they are comfortable with hiragana and can read fluently because having the hiragana makes it easier to read aloud.

Recently I found out that if I watched picture books being read aloud on Youtube, I could turn on the closed caption feature and see the text produced in kanji. There are mistakes though, because the closed captioning is done automatically and slight mispronunciations could generate the wrong kanji or artificial intelligence chooses a different kanji with the same pronunciation. In spite of the few errors, having access to picture books being read aloud in Japanese (and being able to see the text at the same time) is a very powerful tool. I also believe it is a copyright violation and at some time the videos will be taken down, but until they are I will continue to use them privately.

In a perfect world, I would love to see instructors use picture books in classes – maybe at a third year level – so that the students could read and have the opportunity to talk about or write about what they have read. It would be possible to tackle slang/dialects as well as cultural assumptions/portrayals with more nuance this way. Depending on the emphasis of the class, students could read in Japanese and write/discuss in English or any combination. Activities could include reading a book in dialect and rewriting into standard Japanese, or changing a dialogue into a description. So many options!

Picture books tend to be 32, 46 or 64 pages long. The amount of text per page varies widely, but in most cases the books are meant to be read in one sitting. That is very satisfying – particularly to an L2 reader. Picture books are also a really good option for students who are more used to reading manga or using video as part of their studies.

What is interesting about Japanese picture books is that they are not all intended for the very young. There are fabulous picture books written for all ages in Japan. Some stay faithful to the concept of hiragana only – such as the kaidan ehon 怪談えほん series by Iwasaki Shoten. Many of us involved in tadoku have a knee jerk reaction to place these picture books in very low levels (like level 1 or 2) but in fact they often have rich vocabulary and use of onomatopoeia that language learners find quite challenging. In my library I have moved these books up to a higher level based on student feedback.

Levels and Picture Books

How are picture books “leveled” in Japan? I believe there are 2 main considerations (1) interest and (2) kanji used. This image shows the intended reading level for one of the books in the Kaidan ehon series. As you can see, the publisher deemed it appropriate for all reading levels.

It is possible to do an advanced search in many publishing websites (much easier than doing it with the online bookstores) and limit to 絵本 AND 一般 in order to locate picture books that would be of possible interests to adults as well as young children. One excellent source for finding these materials would be using ehonnavi. Since the entire website is focussed on picture books, it is is a simple matter to click on 大人 to get recommended picture books for adults.

If you check the back of the book or the age-appropriate reading guidelines on publisher websites, you will see a phrase like: 読んであげるなら 3才〜 自分で読むなら 小学初級から. If you read to a child, 3 years and older, if they read to themselves, beginning of elementary school.

Generally, picture books are leveled like other books for children with the addition of the very young.
赤ちゃん(あかちゃん) – baby. Often board books. Bright colors. very simple and repetitive. Vocabulary. Feelings.
幼児 (ようじ) – very young. Gomi Taro 五味 太郎 「きんぎょ が にげた」The 「ぐりとぐら」series. One sentence per page in general.
小学低級 小学低学年 – grades 1-2 In the case of picture books is a lot of overlap between 幼児 and 小学低級, because it takes into account adults reading to children and children reading by themselves. The text is all or almost all hiragana, but the books might be longer. The Japanese translation of Frog and Toad is an example, as is Peter Rabbit. This level is the beginning of the transition from 絵本 to 読み物 and might be counted in both groups.
小学中級 小学中学年 – grades 3-4 picture books at this level have a lot more kanji, accompanied by furigana. There are a number of beautiful picture books that are picture book renditions of famous stories/tales that are tagged as appropriate for 小学中級 and up. There are also a lot of informative picture books that are labeled this way.
小学高級 小学高学年 – grades 5-6. At this level, there is less furigana, a lot more text included, and totally appropriate for adult Japanese L2 learners. Most of the picture books that I have seen are 小学中級 and above, not 小学高級 and above. I have to think some more about this.