Feb
8
2010

Genki 1: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese

The Japan Times’ Genki is among the most popular Japanese language courses for older students and adults. It’s also a common recommendation for self-study. The Genki materials include a course book, a workbook and audio CDs. The lessons come in two phases: Genki I and Genki II. You may also purchase the answer key books separately.

Like many modern language courses, Genki takes a conversational approach. You’ll read and listen to dialogues, learn vocabulary, work through grammar in the context of functional language use, and complete practice exercises. The lessons also teach you to read and write hiragana & katakana (“the kana”) and those devious Chinese characters (“the kanji”) – in other words, you’ll head towards a full understanding of Japanese writing.

Since I haven’t gotten time to work through a copy of these books, I haven’t rated them yet. If you wish to recommend the course to others, by all means post your comments below, or send a copy to be reviewed.

Feb
4
2010

Ultimate Japanese Phrasebook by Nagamura & Tsuchiya

Score:
9 / 10
Pros:
great range of phrases for travelers to Japan or Japanese language enthusiasts; audio CD reads phrases aloud to you; clean layout; easy to spot and read each phrase; good organization of topics, chapters & phrases; romaji and Japanese script for every phrase; 1800 phrases, quality print & paper

Cons:
vocabulary index cross-referencing page numbers would have been convenient; certain phrases are very specific, others less useful for non-native speakers


The Ultimate Japanese Phrasebook is a friendly, organized list of 1800 Japanese phrases by theme/topic. The book is accompanied by an audio CD with mp3 readings of the Japanese phrases.

The book starts with an introduction for “newbies”, giving two pages full of short tips on pronunciation, word order and how Japanese particles work. Then, you’ll have the opportunity to browse through any of 20 chapters covering scores of conversation topics. Each topic includes as many as a dozen phrases.

The organization and use of space is commendable. The formatting sets topic headings/titles apart, making them easy to locate. Phrases in each topic are numbered, and set apart by unobtrusive dotted lines. Phrases occupy three lines – first, bold English, second, large font, readable Japanese script with furigana above kanji, and lastly, the romaji (foreigner-friendly transliteration) reading of the Japanese phrase.

The authors choose to include believable phrases that are relevant to each topic (including realistic examples you won’t find in your average phrasebook, like: “Should we pay here or at the register?”; “Could you send me the link?”; “I can never remember how to say that”). They’re neutral with respect to formality and gender. Unfortunately, some are too specific for every reader, but the range of phrases covered should alleviate any sense of irrelevance. MP3 track names from the disc are listed by each topic title, so it’s easy to keep up and listen to Japanese speakers as they pronounce the phrases.

The Ultimate Japanese Phrasebook provides one of the most thorough, organized, comprehensive and interesting phrase book experiences I’ve come across in Japanese. A certain type of traveler will miss the cultural notes of more popular business and travel phrasebooks available, but this one’s hard to overlook, and easy to recommend.

Feb
1
2010

3 Kanji Workbooks: Mastering Japanese Kanji, Kanji Power, First 100 Japanese Kanji

Score:
7 / 10
Pros:
space to practice writing each of 200+ characters; stroke-by-stroke demonstration of how to write kanji; kanji readings & meanings for each character; sample words/phrases using each character; Kanji Power & Mastering the Kanji have extra practice exercises, while First and Second 100 Kanji offer larger, better spaces to practice writing each character

Cons:
these three books each have different features – read below to find which best fits your study; no pacing to break down characters into smaller, manageable chunks; little practice understanding how kanji fit into the broader Japanese writing system, or the written language in general; just workbooks – don’t offer too much hand holding for beginners


This is the first time I’ve taken on multiple books in a single review. These three books actually offer subtle variations on the same theme.

Mastering Japanese Kanji, , and Tuttle’s First and Second 100 Japanese Kanji offer three comparable approaches to picking up your first 200-plus kanji characters. I’ll compare and contrast these workbook/guides, so you can decide which, if any, is ideal for your studies. To learn more about those thousands of kanji characters in the context of learning to write Japanese, read my brief overview of Japanese writing, pronunciation and grammar.

Both Mastering Japanese Kanji and The First/Second 100 Japanese Kanji start with a generic intro to how kanji work. This rough sketch merely feeds you some ideas; you’ll need practice to get any sort of a handle on kanji. After that, all three books present only one character (or, in Kanji Power, two characters) per page. There’s an enlarged version of the character at the top right of the page. Near that, you’ll find the kanji’s meaning and reading (how to pronounce it, which differs depending on context). Then, the books provide sample words or phrases using only that character, with pronunciation and an English translation. Importantly, you’ll find a left-to-right, stroke-by-stroke demonstration of how to write each kanji.

Below this information, it’s your turn to practice. Rows of empty boxes provide opportunity to write each character over and over until you get it.

Now, onto the differences. Kanji Power expects you to know katakana and hiragana (the two Japanese syllabaries), since it gives pronunciation of characters and examples in the kana. It also offers the least practice writing space of the three, and the smallest stroke-by-stroke character print size, with no hints on where to start or end your pen strokes. But it covers more kanji than the other two, offers good example sentences for each kanji, and gives several opportunities to complete helpful review tests.

Mastering the Kanji takes pride in its visual memory cues. Kanji are laid over a drawing that you may relate to the kanji’s meaning, with associative explanations. Unfortunately, these associations aren’t historically accurate with respect to the character’s etymology. There are more musings and explanations of character meaning here. Readings and examples are given in kana and romaji (foreigner-friendly transliteration). There’s also a sample sentence, well analyzed, and a good stroke count of how to write each kanji. Current strokes are presented in gray, the rest of the character in black. The book includes a modest amount of empty grid box space for writing practice – more than Kanji Power, along with some review exercises.

The First and Second 100 Kanji offer the best introductory explanation of what kanji are. Each page includes a modest amount of info – pronunciation, a handful of words using the character (no full sentences or phrases) and a simple definition with no explanations. Pronunciation readings include both kana and romaji. The biggest difference here is that three quarters of each page is dedicated to practice writing space, taken up by generous grid boxes. Characters are written out large and stroke-by-stroke for you, with arrows showing the pen stroke direction and counting the number of strokes. This is the most purely workbook-like of the three kanji workbooks.

These three resources share a lot of common ground and cover many of the same kanji characters. Their approach is similar – characters, examples and space to practice writing. And, if you’re a beginner with little experience writing Japanese characters, that practice is exactly what you need. But I’ll leave it up to you to decide which features you prefer.

Other resources are out there as well. If you’re looking for an entirely different method, Remembering the Kanji builds on character components rather than asking you to memorize individual character after character.

Jan
28
2010

Zakennayo! by Philip Cunningham

Score:
4 / 10
Pros:
dialogues cover real (but rarely polite), believable social situations; the tone and commentary are often funny and over-the-top; has no shame in its coverage of the dirty, gritty aspects of Japanese; focus on conversation and vocab building; tackles a range of seedy topics; cultural notes explain the shady side of Japanese thought (they’re often worth your time even when the dialogues and vocab lists aren’t); inexpensive and fun read

Cons:
the material is too strong for some readers; romaji only (a negative since this book is better for experienced, intermediate students); too advanced for most beginning learners (although the cultural commentary will be worth a read); no index or vocabulary appendix, only somewhat redeemed by reference-friendly table of contents; this book includes plenty slang words & phrases that are now out of date; there seem to be some errors in the text, so verify before taking their word for it; even those phrases that don’t sound odd or outdated will be hard for a gaijin to pull off in real-life contexts; the author fails to differentiate the gender & register of many phrases, which is an extremely important consideration when using your Japanese slang


Zakennayo!: The Real Japanese You Were Never Taught in School dishes out twelve lessons of everything dirty, sexual and mischievous in the Japanese language and culture. Cunningham and his sketch artist, Brandt, engage students who’ve slogged their way through the typical formal Japanese texts with some in-your-face, real, downright inappropriate Japanese.

Each chapter starts out with a cultural note about some grittier aspect of urban Japan and the Japanese language. The focus here is street culture – sex, stereotypes, alcohol and cursing. Then, you’ll take a crack at dialogues and vocabulary lists. The vocab lists match key words in the dialogue. These conversations showcase the uncensored tone of this book, and are relevant to the variety of situations and social scenes where people really use language (life’s dark corners, if you will). Stylized cartoon drawings here and there add to Zakennayo‘s flippantly rude, yet silly, attitude.

Unfortunately, a handful of persistent issues keep Zakennayo! from being a cultural and linguistic tour de force. Japanese speakers will find many phrases awkward or outdated, which means you’ll have to be careful using what you learn here. On top of that, the author doesn’t go far enough to explain 1) how phrases will come off once you say them in Japan and 2) who should say this phrase (young men to young women? old men to older men? – this kind of thing makes a big difference in colloquial Japanese).

Also, for all the examples here, it’s a shame that the book only includes romaji (and without vowel length markings!) That problem struck me as particularly acute, since Zakennayo! is aimed at learners with some formal experience studying Japanese. Why no hiragana, katakana and kanji? Why fail to include even long vowels?

If you’ve immersed yourself in formal, polite Japanese, but want to get an over-the-top taste of Japanese slang and seedy conversation, Zakennayo! might suit you. Between the dialogues and notes, you’re sure to learn a few things here. At its best, it delivers an appealing, informative and shocking view of Japan’s street lingo. At worst, it might come off as trite, less than helpful, and outdated, in which case you’ll wish it resigned to the humor section of your local bookstore.

I reviewed Beyond Polite Japanese, a book I recommend before this one if you’re looking to dig into “real” Japanese.

Jan
28
2010

Beyond Polite Japanese by Akihiko Yonekawa

Score:
7 / 10
Pros:
lots of real, spoken Japanese words & phrases; kana, kanji & romaji examples of each phrase; good index lists all slang & colloquial terms covered in the book; terms chosen are great for anyone looking to expand understanding of informal, slang or even naughty Japanese; further explanations of why expressions mean what they mean helps remember terms; literal & colloquial translations of every term bridge the gap between Japanese slang & English slang

Cons:
the specific selection of phrases is hit-or-miss – you might wish to express something that’s not here; best approached as a vocabulary/phrase enhancement guide, not a comprehensive dictionary or lesson course (no pacing or exercises); better appreciated by later beginners, intermediate and early advanced students of the language


Beyond Polite Japanese: A Dictionary of Japanese Slang and Colloquialisms puts a range of common, everyday, street-wise and even inappropriate words an phrases at your fingertips. Like Love, Hate and Everything in Between and similar resources, it acts like a hybrid, partway between a dictionary and a topicalized phrasebook.

The overall organization is approachable and easy for students looking to ditch their “textbookish” formal Japanese and learn to speak the language more realistically. Phrases are divided between sections, and each section handles a certain topic. Topics include “people”, “mind and emotions”, “body and functions”, and “nature and all that”, along with others.

The book lists phrases in bold, giving romaji first, then kana/kanji, then literal English translations in quotes. Parts of speech are abbreviated in a box next to the phrase (like V or N). After that, you’ll find the phrase translation into colloquial, spoken English. For example, the word that literally means “short-of-brains” actually translates to “dimwit” or “numbskull”.

Each phrase is accompanied by a sample Japanese sentence using that expression in context. Each sample sentence is translated into English. Below that, there’s often a small hand icon pointing to tips for remembering or understanding the Japanese phrase.

It’s enjoyable to read through Beyond Polite Japanese and learn some real Japanese slang. This book comes across as well organized, with a good selection of terms, examples of every term in use, and a glossary index. Yet it’s still limited enough that I can’t recommend it as a full-fledged dictionary, nor as a student-friendly language resource for routinely learning to speak colloquial, “impolite” Japanese.

Jan
28
2010

Say It Right in Japanese: The Fastest Way to Correct Pronunciation by EPLS

Score:
4 / 10
Pros:
a compact phrasebook for business travel or vacation; adequately organized; includes searchable table of contents and index; mentions a few relevant tips for each topic; includes an English-Japanese vocabulary glossary; if you appreciate the way the pronunciation key works, it can help your Japanese phrases sound better (but not better than hearing and imitating an audio CD or cassette)

Cons:
if you don’t enjoy the unique pronunciation symbols, there’s nothing here that isn’t done better in another phrase book; written in foreigner-friendly romaji transliteration only, so it’s missing real Japanese script; the selection of topics isn’t tailored especially for travel to Japan – some categories are missing, others could be left out; merely offers survival phrases


Say It Right in Japanese sets out to accomplish a single goal: to provide a book of basic Japanese words and phrases, and to visually represent pronunciation with modified letters.

The Say It Right series revolves around this pronunciation key, which the author considers unique and effective. Beside each phrase in standard romanized Japanese, you will find a written key that demonstrates how to pronounce the phrase. In that key, vowels are circled, consonants are capitalized and words are broken into syllables with hyphens. The cover of the book gives one example, using the word Konnichi wa (“hello!”).

Besides the pronunciation key, this guide offers nothing that you wouldn’t expect from a run-of-the-mill Japanese phrasebook. You’ll find phrases dealing with a typical selection of topics – hotels, restaurants, sightseeing, business, health, etc. One nice feature is the “phrasemaker” section that recurs throughout the book. It helps you combine the beginning of a phrase (“I want to go…”) with options for finishing the phrase (“to the bank”, “to the hotel”, and so on).

The book ends with a very short English to Japanese “dictionary”, which lists words alongside pronunciation keys. The final page gives a short topical index, and the inside front and back covers double as a guide to the book’s pronunciation system (the consonant and vowel symbols used in their key).

If you can’t handle its telltale pronunciation symbols,Say It Right in Japanese has little to offer you. But, if the pronunciation key is your kind of thing, this is a good, basic survival Japanese phrasebook. In any case, I would recommend another way of learning to imitate a native speaker’s pronunciation – making a Japanese friend, listening to audio CDs, or using another pronunciation system (for instance, IPA is more accurate). I don’t recommend this if you’re really looking for “the fastest way to correct pronunciation”, but it’s not the worst buy if you’re looking to learn some Japanese basic phrases.

Jan
26
2010

Love, Hate and Everything in Between: Expressing Emotions in Japanese

Score:
7 / 10
Pros:
truly covers the range from love to hate; includes both upstanding and gritty expressions; good index and table of contents help you find the emotion you want to express; examples present every expression in context; explanations kept short but focused; romaji alongside traditional kanji and kana script for every phrase & example; solid organization; rarely strays from its premise and goals

Cons:
book’s content is entirely limited to emotional expressions; won’t please anyone looking for a dictionary or a phrasebook, since it straddles the fence between both; extra proverbs struck me as a bit out of place


Love, Hate and Everything in Between introduces you to a range of emotional expressions and phrases in Japanese. This work presents a nonstandard dictionary of expressions arranged by topic.

The book is divided into two main parts. The first covers “uncertainty to love”, with phrases ranging from ambivalent to infatuation and excess. The second runs the other half of the gamut, from derision to sarcasm to anger and betrayal. Along the way, you’ll find colorful phrases for nearly every emotion you’ll want to express.

Each page deals with just a few such expressions. You’ll see Japanese phrases listed in bold romaji, then Japanese script. Then, indented below that, there’s a translation, an explanation, and one or more lengthy, contextualized sample sentences using the expression.

A few pages near the end also list a couple dozen emotion-related proverbs and sayings. The alphabetical index lists Japanese phrases in romaji transliteration and English, along with page numbers. The table of contents also lists the thirty or so general emotional topics for quick reference.

If you’re looking to supplement your studies of the Japanese language with a book that offers easy access to Japanese expressions covering a range of emotions, Love, Hate and Everything in Between is your guide book. That this quasi-dictionary is readable, has relevant examples, explanations and is well organized and indexed is just a plus if you enjoy the content.

Jan
22
2010

Everyday Japanese by Edward Schwarz & Reiko Ezawa

Score:
6 / 10
Pros:
good range of topics and phrases; language and culture topics structured around travel and life in Japan; plenty of cultural notes linked to words and phrases as you learn them; all phrases written in romaji, kana and kanji versions; good organization of topics; good index; sample dialogs/conversations; decent pronunciation guide

Cons:
many images and notes can clutter the chapters and are rarely all that relevant; lack of even a hint of what’s going on as far as grammar means structure of the language will remain opaque; some the copious notes are scattered and dull; no audio; this hybrid phrase/culture guide may confuse and put off practical travelers


Everyday Japanese: A Basic Introduction to the Japanese Language and Culture is a kind of phrasebook and dialog book for beginning learners and travelers. Including photos, hand-drawn pictures, & cartoons, and explanations about how things work in Japan, this may offer the most robust selection of culturally-relevant vocabulary and phrases you’ll find in a Japanese phrase book.

The overall organization strikes me as straightforward. After a brief introduction to the syllable writing systems and pronunciation of Japanese, the book is divided into three main parts. Part one deals with everyday topics, like eating & drinking or checking in & out of lodging in Japan. Part two presents topics unique to Japan, like the tea ceremony, martial arts, temples & shrines, or visiting a Japanese home. This part contains mostly vocab words and cultural notes rather than dialogues and phrases. Part three tackles topics that arise when living in Japan – repairs, buying/renting an apartment, or dealing with the immigration office. This is the shortest of the three.

In each part, you’ll find sections (chapters), each one of which treats a specific topic. Each topic includes words and phrases, useful expressions, and a short dialog or two. Phrases are numbered, then given in Japanese romaji (transliteration) in bold and English translation in parentheses: ka-i-mo-no (shopping). Below that, the phrase is written in Japanese hiragana/katakana & kanji (in other words, native Japanese script).

Of course, each chapter spends as much time presenting pictures, drawings and explanations as Japanese language expressions. Extensive notes clarify tricky phrases in every section. Additional cultural notes, usually relevant but not always interesting, are spread liberally throughout the book.

There’s a good index in the back, Japanese-English and English-Japanese with reference phage numbers for every term.

For the most part, I enjoy what’s going on here. Everyday Japanese combines Japanese culture topics with relevant expressions to present a uniquely localized phrasebook experience. Personally, in my travels, I prefer something more focused on the language, and easier to reference in a pinch. Maybe a book that’s grittier and more realistic, that teaches me how to build phrases (the structure of the language). Still, I like that this book addresses and emphasizes what makes travel to Japan unique, instead of listing the same old dry Japanese travel phrases or gimmicky naughty words.

Jan
15
2010

Read Japanese Today by Walsh

Score:
8 / 10
Pros:
talks you through simplified stories of how 400 kanji characters developed; gives stand-alone and compound pronunciation for each kanji; makes visual associations with old-to-new characters and real-world concepts behind them; good introduction covers history and composition of kanji; characters printed large but in line with rest of text paragraphs; links between old characters and modern forms great for budding etymologists; if you enjoy it, your only complaint will be that you wish it covered more kanji!

Cons:
novel-like format presents so many kanji one after another (memory overload?); presents no good way to pace yourself through the text; index includes no traditional way to look up kanji; presents extra info which may be burdensome rather than helpful to some students (but keeps this minimal)


Kanji, kanji, kanji. If you’re like many of us learning to read & write Japanese, your mind is full of them. (If not, it will be!)

Read Japanese Today: The Easy Way to Learn 400 Practical Kanji wants to provide you with a unique way to learn 400 “basic” or “common” characters. And I don’t mean supposedly unique – I, as a reviewer, found it a distinct and potentially effective way to tackle your early characters.

What makes it unique? Before we get to that – the main focus of the book – let’s look at the introduction. This book begins with a helpful 23 page intro to how Japanese kanji writing works, how characters are built, their Chinese origin, their pronunciation and how to write them. It’s mostly in words, but you’ll find large-print kanji in line with the text in most paragraphs.

The sections (chapters) keep this format of paragraphs with kanji characters interspersed in line with the text (so they flow naturally along with the reading, not separated in some box or picture). The real focus here is a mental association between form and meaning. The author will tell you in a paragraph that such and such a character, originally drawn like this __, depicted such and such a thing. Because of that, it means… and is now written ___.

It’s best understood by example. “To form the kanji for a sword the Chinese drew a sword as __ then squared it off to ?… The Chinese started with the sword ? then, onto the blade, added a mark \ to emphasize the meaning blade. They wrote the new kanji in final form like this ?, meaning blade” (p. 43). Note: if boxes or ? marks appear on this site, they are kanji characters in the book.

In other words, Walsh talks you through the basic history of 400 kanji, focusing on their derivations in a way that makes them memorable and recognizable. This is especially great for visual and auditory/explanation-based learners who can grasp these kinds of associations.

The book ends with kana tables, and index of kanji by order of presentation in the text, an alphabetical index of kanji by English meaning. There’s nothing like a radical or stroke index, so you’ll have to know what a kanji means to look it up.

In the end, learning kanji will require lots of rote memorization and practice. You might have to get over crutches like this some time, but Read Japanese Today is a helpful treat at this point that will ease some of the pain. Furthermore, it’s mainly historically accurate and relevant, unlike the memory associations encouraged by resources like Kanji Pict-O-Graphix.

Jan
11
2010

Essential Kanji by P.G. O’Neill

Score:
7 / 10
Pros:
covers all the common use kanji and some proper name characters; includes reference numbers, on/kun, stroke count for each character; lists 2 sample compounds using each character; shows calligraphy, handwritten and variant versions of each kanji; author offers helpful tips in the introduction; three look-up indices; Chinese readings are great for anyone studying comparative-historical linguistics

Cons:
missing helpful stepping stones like stroke-by-stroke illustration of how each character is written; fewer compound examples and usage examples than newer dictionaries; grid table of 8 characters per page gives equal attention to all kanji and won’t jive with some students; no index by radical


O’Neill’s Essential Kanji is a Japanese kanji character dictionary, covering all the basic use characters along with some of the kanji found in proper names. For some perspective on Japanese writing, see my page on learning pronunciation, writing & grammar.

The bulk of the dictionary presents eight characters per page on a grid with three columns and eight rows. In the first column, you’ll find a large, bold, calligraphic version of the character. You’ll also see small stroke numbers next to every stroke of the character. The second column contains a standard pen-written version of the character, along with any variants. The third box holds a bunch of information about the kanji.

In that third column, you’ll find onyomi and kunyomi readings, official kanji index numbers, and original Chinese readings of the character. You’ll also see two compound words written out containing that particular kanji. The compound character examples are also given in romaji with English translations.

The introduction talks at lenght and in heavier, academic language about the characters chosen, the structure of the entries, tips for using the dictionary as a study guide or a test book, and tips on how to practice writing the kanji.

The appendix has a romaji-kanji index (allowing you to look up any character alphabetically, by its pronunciation). There’s an index of radicals by English translation, and an index of all characters by stroke count. This book has no radical index (the classical way to look up kanji), which will alienate purists.

With so many other good beginner kanji dictionaries for sale (I’ve recommended both the Kodansha and Nielson), I will steer you away from Essential Kanji as your primary kanji dictionary, unless you meet certain criteria. Specifically, you must 1) appreciate & prefer the grid-like, tabular presentation of characters; 2) need fewer extra phrases and compound word examples demonstrating each character in use; 3) be content to search for unknown characters only by stroke count or romaji reading; 4) not require a stroke-by-stroke demonstration of how to write characters; 5) care about the etymology of each character. If you meet most of those requirements, and you’re looking for a Japanese kanji dictionary covering the beginning 2,000 characters, this one’s recommended.