Should I Really Use A Textbook To Study Japanese?

By Donald Ash | Learn Japanese

The Japan Guy's Stack of Japanese Textbooks

These are just some of the Japanese textbooks I have been studying during my time here. I refer to them, reread, re-study, and seek to constantly improve. Textbooks have been EXTREMELY helpful for me.

In a world of apps, gadgets, gizmos, and software, the old, faithful, paper Japanese textbook doesn’t always get the love it deserves. Maybe you’ve even come across people who have nothing good to say about textbooks:

“You can’t learn real Japanese from a book!”
“Japanese people don’t actually speak like that.”
“You’re learning Japanese, huh?
“Oh you’re using THAT textbook.”
“That textbook sucks eggs.”

While I honestly haven’t heard the term “suck eggs” since my Ren and Stimpy, “Happy Happy Joy Joy” days, I do hear people bash Japanese textbooks from time to time.

If you’ve heard any of these, or believe any of these, please pardon the language, but…

That is complete and utter bull hooey!

In short…textbooks work! I am a living, breathing example of that. I won’t even presume to know everything about Japanese; I learn something new every single day, and I’m six years in! But let me tell you…I’ve learned so much Japanese just by cracking open a book and going for it.

I started using textbooks out of necessity. I simply could not find a class in my area (those were my Tsukuba days)! Scheduling was a problem, too, because I was usually working from about noon until nine-thirty at night (my AEON days). While I was having fun working in Japan, living here longterm without learning anything about the language didn’t make sense to me.

Here was the rub…

People didn’t have the time to sit down and teach me, and I didn’t want to pester them, so I just started teaching myself. A textbook won’t have a long day at work, a textbook won’t say “Can we meet up another day?” All you need is right there, ready to go.

5 Reasons Paper Textbooks Are Great For Studying Japanese

1.Japanese Textbooks Are Proven

While there are some wonderful Japanese applications online, I don’t know many college courses or Japanese classes that are completely structured around an app (not yet anyway). People were still learning Japanese effectively prior to computers and they did so through these wonderful stacks of paper called books!

The great thing about living in this era and having companies like Amazon is that you can locate the best textbooks on the planet and have them on your doorstep tomorrow if you like.

2. Old-fashioned, Note-taking

I’ll admit it, I’m old-fashioned. I like studying with a book, a pencil, and a highlighter. I like to write in my margins. I like to mark points where I have questions.

While things like Evernote are amazing, I like the freedom of my pencil or pen in my textbook. For example, when I’m studying bunpou (文法-Japanese grammar) I sometimes like to scribble my own silly sentences underneath the grammar examples:

Book Sentence
Yuubinkyoku ni ikankuchaikenai
I have to go to the post office.

My Sentence
Doragu wo kawanakuchaikenai.
I have to buy drugs.

3. No Internet distractions

Have you ever had a good study going and then all of a sudden you decide to take the dreaded email break?

You open one email and stumble across a link you find interesting (maybe it’s that pair of solid platinum nunchakus you’ve always wanted). You’re browsing and all of a sudden you decide to go on YouTube to find out a little more. Uh oh!

You watch a great product video, but off to the right, that suggested video of Bruce Lee catches your eye. You end up watching Bruce Lee movies clips and movies for a few hours and then you find yourself on Facebook to talking about Bruce Lee for the rest of the night…

Well, there goes that evening. Bye, bye study time.

This is probably the biggest reason I like textbooks. They allow me to get away from the “internet noise.” Just me and my textbook. I get to focus purely on the Japanese. You’d be surprised at how much more you can actually absorb and retain when you aren’t being pounded in the head by instant messages, ads, links, emails, photos, and news feeds.

Unless I absolutely need my Japanese dictionary app, I even turn off my smartphone…GASP!

4. Study Time Control

I took all of about ten free Japanese classes at my local community center before they changed the schedule on me. They changed the class to a time that didn’t work for me. That was years ago, and honestly, that is the extent of my “formal,” Japanese classroom education..

What happens when you’re placed in a town or work a job, where you can’t make it to Japanese classes? Or what if your job pays you in beans and you don’t want to dish out the money?

If Japanese classes don’t fit your schedule or you just can’t be bothered with them, self-study with a solid Japanese book can be a cost-effective alternative. A few months of dedicated study and some targeted TV watching/listening can help you get a better handle on what people are saying.

You can crack that book open anywhere, anytime, no outlet required.

*I don’t discredit the value of classes. They can be really useful, too, especially when trying to verbally hammer out those grammar principles floating around in your head.

5. Kanji Practice!

Learning kanji is one of the biggest challenges to learning Japanese. Again, there are some powerful kanji-learning apps out there, too. These apps help me to see the kanji over and over again at the touch of a button. This is really useful for memorization.

But being able to scratch out kanji stroke order a few times really helps glue the symbol to my brain through a physical action.

Are Japanese Textbooks The Be All End All?

Does everyone learn a language the same way? God, I hope not. That would make studying/learning so dull.

Some people don’t like reading at all. Admittedly there are times when I don’t feel like reading. Other people can listen to a conversation and BANG, they get it. Others need the classroom atmosphere and teacher support. And there’s nothing wrong with any of this as long as you’re learning.

I don’t think textbooks are the only thing you should use to study, especially with so many great tools around. But to recap, contrary to what some may claim, textbooks are not useless. They’re proven resources that give you the freedom to take notes and practice those intimidating kanji all in an environment and a time you can control.

Mixing and matching your study materials will help you find the best resources for you. But while you’re mixing and matching, don’t count out the old-fashioned, paper textbook, it may be exactly what you need to build a solid foundation.

Should you use a textbook to study Japanese? I answer with a resounding “Yes!”

If you’re just starting out, here’s a textbook you’ll find helpful. It worked wonders for me early on in my stay.

How About You?

What books are you guys using to improve your Japanese skills? Any books you absolutely swear by? Please share in the comments section below 😀


About the Author

Donald Ash is an Atlanta, Georgia-born, American expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last eleven years. While in that time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator of blog. Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.

  • BMe says:

    I totally agree with you!! I love using Japanese textbooks!!!

  • zoomingjapan says:

    This is actually a very interesting topic and I think it GREATLY depends on many factors.
    As a beginner it surely makes sense to stick to textbooks, but I’ve noticed the more advanced you get, the less helpful they can be.
    It also depends on how you plan to use the textbooks.

    Personally, at some point I just grabbed “normal” books and entered sentences I wanted to understand / remember into “Anki”. This way I could read what I really wanted to read and got a lot of input of “natural Japanese”.

    Just my 2 yen. 😉

    • thejapanguy says:

      Well said, zoomingjapan! I’ll have to agree with you to an extent. I’m still haven’t hit my advanced levels yet. It would be nice to not need the books eventually.

      Yeah, it’s funny. I do something very similar with anki. I’ll come across a grammar point in a book somewhere and put that structure into anki and try to see it as much as I possibly can.

  • Cesca says:

    I agree that textbooks are a great way to start out, and even get pretty far in your studies. My favorite books are the Genki series we used in my classes in the states, and the Minna no Nihongo series we used in my classes in Japan. 🙂

    • thejapanguy says:

      Hey Cesca! We’re similar. Although Minna no Nihongo isn’t in the pictured stack. It’s lying around here somewhere, because it was the same book I was using during my short stint of Japanese classes.

  • lazuli says:

    I like textbooks too!!! I have too many….almost collecting them lol
    Anyway I think it gets more difficult to find a “good” textbook when you’re learning advanced Japanese. Business Japanese textbooks look find tho.
    I’ve started to learn Japanese with the Minna no Nihongo series. I had a chance to put my eyes through the Genki series textbooks too but too much English there in my opinion^^;;
    I think someone’s must choose the textbook according his/her needs. So I can’t say there is something like a “perfect” textbook lol

  • EAS Student says:

    As zoomingjapan mentions, textbooks are most useful in the beginning, as having a roadmap of what to study and well-written introductions to basic grammar structures is really important. After that, though, I’d say the usefulness of textbooks tends to decline over time (I’m imagining a logarithmic curve here).

    Especially in the advanced stages of language learning (post-JLPT 2 grammar), most of my textbooks are really nothing more than collections of readings and vocabulary lists. For example, in 上級日本語教科書・文化へのまなざし, a textbook I used in my fourth-year Japanese class, most of the students in the class already knew all the grammar points being introduced (which were most like vocab words themselves at this point), and the only remaining thing to study was the unknown vocab found in the textbook’s readings.

    In that case the advanced learner might be better suited just searching out stuff that is interesting to him, rather than be forced to read things in which he may have no interest, potentially causing burnout.

    A decent textbook substitute at that level, then, might be to read a book in Japanese that has an English translation (e.g. Murakami, Harry Potter, Catcher in the Rye, etc) so you’re reading something you picked yourself that is totally in Japanese, but can still get the “answer” in English in case you get stuck at a certain part, or aren’t sure of the meaning of a sentence.

  • Nanami says:

    Sadly I can’t seem to get my hands on any here in S. Korea. :/ My professor stole my Genki I book & workbook lol.

  • loveinjapanese says:

    Thanks for this awesome post!

    These books really helped me and my friends!
    -Shin Nihongo no Kiso I & II
    -An Introduction to Modern Japanese by Osamu Mizutani & Nobuko Mizutani
    -Japanese Demystified by Eriko Sato a self-teaching guide

    These books cover both polite Japanese, which is extremely important to learn in order to speak Japanese effectively and causal Japanese, which is great for everyday conversations.

  • CoCo says:

    Just what I was looking for! Hoping to move to Japan this fall, and as a old fashioned pen and paper girl I’m so happy to find a starting place for my studies. BTW-thank god for your blog! I am now more excited than ever to teach little kiddies ABCs and generally have the most interesting experience of my life 🙂

  • rowskis says:

    What textbooks would you recommend?

  • Joel Stevens says:

    Hi all! I think one of the challenges is finding a good intermediate level textbook once your surpass all the entry-level beginner textbooks. Here is a review I found on my favorite intermediate japanese textbook:

  • >