A Japan Guy Review: Genki, An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese

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(updating…)Do you want to learn how to speak Japanese? Honestly, I do, too. I remember once I found out that I got the AEON job I started thinking “Oh snap! I can’t speak a freaking lick of Japanese!” So I started researching the best ways to get started. I went straight to Internet…of course…and started Googling Japanese programs for complete beginners. I ran across several different programs, some of which you may be quite familiar with: Japanese for Busy People, Japanese Demystified, Japanese for Dummies, Pimsleur Basic Japanese, Pimsleur Conversational Japanese, Genki, Let’s Learn Hiragana, The Basic Kanji Book, Basic Japanese Grammar, Rosetta Stone, etc. To be frank, just seeing all of the possible courses to try made me feel overwhelemed and made my introduction to Japanese all the more daunting.

I started off with the Pimsleur Basic Course because it was well advertised (or at least I thought so). I tried to be very diligent about acquiring the Japanese basics I would need to get around during my initial months in Japan. I would pick up several new phrases and vocabulary everyday and felt pretty cool. I was learning Japanese…or at least I thought I was. After getting to Japan, I discovered that my Japanese simply wasn’t enough to get by. I learned some cool phrases with Pimsleur, but that’s all they were…phrases. Granted Pimsleur’s system is pretty simple, you can pick up new words and expression very quickly, but the system lacks some important elements (in my opinion anyway). Although you learn what words & phrases mean, you don’t see them written in Hiragana, Katakana, or, you don’t learn grammar rules, and the speakers’ voices aren’t as natural as in some of the other courses I’ve heard. I bought and used Pimsleur personally and thought it was average at best.

I struggled so hard with the language because my studying program was inadequate. I think studying Japanese (or any language) foI asked some of my co-workers who had been here a while what they did to study, and I found out there was a weekly Japanese class for foreigners at the community center near my apartment…SCORE!! I joined that class and committed myself to studying. We used the a thin, cheap, yellow book called 新日本語<あいうえお>. This book cost me about ¥1500, and it was the book our teachers used to teach us basics. The book may have been cheap & simple, but the bonus was that it taught me the basics of Japnese writing (hiragana & katakana) and quite a bit of Japanese vocab. After a while though, I started to feel like I was picking up as much as I could from my community center, Japanese class. I needed more…MUCH MORE…if I was going to improve. I stopped going to class during the last three weeks of the course because I felt that I could pick up a lot more on my own.

I tried several other books including Basic Japanese Grammar (which is an incredible reference book in my opinion…but not so go for learning) and Berlitz Essential Japanese. Up to that point, the Berlitz book was the best combination I had used: it was simple, straightforward, had some truly useful grammar lessons and vocab. It did lack in reading and writing though because everything was in Romaji.

After getting halfway through this book, I still didn’t feel like I was improving all that much, and I was getting SO frustrated because I wanted a course the could really help me to improve all aspects of my Japanese. Despite my frustration and pressed on, researching that “perfect course” to improve. Enter Genki: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese. I learned that this series was used by a number of different universities to teach Japanese. One of my biggest mentors in Japan, Robb Johnston, even recommend it. I bought this book, and was amazed! This book was hands down the best book I had seen to start learning Japanese (and in my opinion…still is).

The Good About the Genki Series

1. Inexpensive-The Genki Texbook cost me 3,000 yen and in my opnion that is a steal
2. Great book-supporting website
3. Genki Workbook
4. Genki Teacher/Student CDs
5. Sense of humor-Some of the pictures and stories in Genki are fascinating and just downright funny.

The Bad Things About the Genki Series

1. Limited Kana & Kanji Practice- When you’re first starting out, writing your kana and kanji as much as possible is really important. I feel like the Genki series lacks in this area.
2. Lacks Colloquial Japanese- The Japanese you’re learning from Genki (at least the 1st book anyway) is more formal. I have had a couple of people tell me that my Japanese is a bit formal. But I guess it’s better to be too formal, than too casual, right?
3. EXPENSIVE CDs- Though I think they’re are totally worth the investment, the Genki 6-CD set ran me 18,900 yen (or about $230 at current exchange rates). Of course you could opt to get only the student CDs, but then you’d be missing some dialogues/listening exercises.

At the end of the day, the person studying matters far more than the book they have in front of them. I have a friend who uses Japanese for busy people, and he just loves it. We came to Japan within a month of each other, and I would say in many respects our Japanese skills are equal.

I am far from being fluent, but I really like the way the Genki series teaches. I feel if I keep practicing with it, I build a strong Japanese foundation that I can build on. So far this series has been my bread and butter course, and I’ve learned a lot from it (I’m still learning a lot from it). If you’re interested in improving your Japanese, I recommend getting Genki by Banno, Ohno, Sakane, and Shinagawa.


I recently finished a full, 2014 updated Genki Review. I think you’ll find it even more helpful and relevant. Wanna check it out? Click right here!

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Donald Ash is an ATLien expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last six years. While in aforesaid time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator, writer, designer, editor, programmer, and occasional bad artist of thejapanguy.com blog (that's just way too many hats, dude). Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.
  • Arron82

    Hello, JapanGuy! During your search for the perfect language book, have you ever come across any “Dick and Jane” style readers? You know… See Spot. See Spot run! Go Spot go! type of stuff. Living in the midwest (US) it’s very hard to find anything Nihongo related other than what’s in stock at Barnes&Noble… which is sparse at best.
    Any info would be greatly appreciated!

    PS – thanks for the words of encouragement on my JRef.com post! (Did you hit a wall?).

    • Donald Ash

      You know it’s weird because I haven’t really come across any like that…not any English ones at least. I know it’s slim pickings for language books in the U.S.. But in my local library, here in Japan, the children’s book section is gold! You may want to try accessing amazon.co.jp (there’s a button to translate into English if you need it) and you may be able to find some pretty cool, authentic children’s books which may use mostly hiragana, and kanji with corresonding furigana at the top. It would be great, simple practice. If I come across any super simple, specific titles, I’ll definitely let you know. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Andrew

    I agree with you on Essential Japanese. If it was written in the kana script, possibly with a few kanji, it would be then best beginners book out there and a great first text for the serious student.

    As for taking things further there is only one text, Japanese for Everyone (JfE) by Gakken. It introduces kana and kanji in the text from lesson one and from lesson six or seven (there are 27 lessons in total) it uses no romanji at all.

    JfE will teach you 2,500 words and about 450 most used kanji, so just short of a JLPT N3 standard. Every page is crammed with information unlike Genki or the Busy People series which seems to prefer lots of white space on the page.

    • Donald Ash

      Thanks for the recommendation, Andrew. I’ll definitely have to look into the Japanese for Everyone book. I have heard of it before, but because I have been studying the Genki series, haven’t taken the time to check it out. It sounds pretty useful. Now is this just one advanced book? Or is it a series, too?

  • Hi Donald,
    Thanks for this post, I just purchased this book and started it this week, I love it already. With your comments, I feel more confident now with this investment.


    • Donald Ash

      Glad to hear it, Char. Isn’t Genki great?! So many people swore by it, so I checked it out and was sold…instantly :)

  • I was introduced to the Genki text in my Uni (UBC). I agree that it’s definitely the best text out there, but I have to admit I’m a bit baffled by your complaint about the lack of Kanji. Book 1 covers 145 basic kanji (in depth), and the companion workbook has a fair chunk of Kanji work. If you can nail book 1 (I’m still working on it), it’ll set you up for the JLPT level 5 exam.

    The Genki book was so good, I purchased the next two books in the series before I left Canada.

    • Donald Ash

      The entire book is great! The kanji, too. I still use it as often as I can. As far as the kanji goes (compared to the other elements in the book, i.e.-grammar, workbook drills…) the practice is more limited. Some of the different readings for on-yomi and kun-yomi are missing. But is it effective? YEAH! Hands down, I do think it’s the most comprehensive book out there and the best way to get grasp on the language…I really think it’s helping me. I haven’t found one that comes close (in my humble opinion). GO GENKI!!

  • Have you tried http://kanjidamage.com/ ?

    • Donald Ash

      No, but I’ll definitely take a look. Thanks, dude!

  • Matt

    FYI, the second edition updates a lot of references to be a bit more modern (but still a bit formal) and the 6 CD’s are now included as one CD of mp3 files for the same price, so it is a mega win!

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