Ignore the people who say you can’t improve your Japanese by reading manga.
As a level 4 otaku and someone who has spent most of the year blasting through manga at an alarming rate and seeing my Japanese ability soar, I’ve come to the conclusion that…
Manga is an awesome way to improve your Japanese.
It’s my number one tool in my mission to constantly upgrade my Japanese ability. If you’ve been studying Japanese for a while now and you’re desperate to see your ability improve, I highly recommend you swap your textbooks for a big old stack of manga.
The emphasis, however, is on the word ‘improve’.
When people get all angry and say you can’t learn Japanese through manga/anime, I’m pretty sure they mean you can’t learn it solely through those methods.
I don’t know about you but for me (and most people) that’s true.
I didn’t start reading manga until around 2–3 years after I first started learning Japanese.
You need to have a good base first.
You don’t need to wait years like me, but you do need to do some other stuff with the language alongside reading manga.
I would recommend….
- Studying grammar. Actually looking at tables and patterns. Super important. Maybe you can get away with intuitively picking up the grammar for languages like French and Spanish (if you’re an English speaker) but Japanese really requires some dedicated study. It’s very different from basically any other language.
- Talking with a native consistently. You need someone who’s going to tell you what weird Japanese is. For example, my girlfriend (Japanese) pointed out that when Naruto says だってばよ… that’s NOT normal. Once you know what’s normal and what’s not normal, you can filter through the “manga/anime speak” and get all the components that are normal.
- Learning a bunch of kanji. I don’t think you need to sit down and study all the 常用漢字 before tackling manga. But you should get used to a few hundred of the common ones. After that, you can learn kanji as they occur in words as they pop up.
You’ll know when you’ve got a good base.
In my opinion, you don’t even need to be capable of more than caveman speak before you’re ready for reading manga. Speaking ability does not equal comprehension. You’ll be able to understand stuff people say and stuff you read long before you can say that stuff yourself.
Once you’ve got a nice little base, dive right into that manga.
Manga is AWESOME for learning Japanese because….
- It’s addictive. You actually want to stay up all night and find out what happens next because you love the stories and characters. More exposure = more learning Japanese. Let’s be honest, how many of us can get addicted to textbooks?
- It’s not THAT strange. I’ve seen WAY stranger Japanese in textbooks and dictionaries than in many of the manga I enjoy on a daily basis.
- You’ll get loads of exposure to the cultural elements of Japanese. Japanese culture is so different from any other culture. It might take you years of living in the country before you encounter even a fraction of the culture’s wonders. But manga can distill all that and give you a “crash course” in culture.
- Your reading will improve. You’ll get faster and faster. You’ll learn kanji just by seeing them a lot.
- Common words appear a lot.
- The same grammatical principles still apply. Sure, some characters speak weird but we’re grown-ups, aren’t we? We know what characters are standing out for stylistic reasons.
- It gives you instant common ground with loads of Japanese people. Manga is loved all over the country. If you read a bunch of different manga, you’ll be able to have things to talk about with natives.
Now….. Manga recommendations!
I’ve been bingeing recently and here are the ones I recommend:
- Yotsubato: Perfect for beginners. You’ll learn tons about the culture and you can pick up loads of common words. The characters speak pretty normally too (apart from Yotsuba, who speaks like a kid… obviously).
- Berserk: This is for higher levels. There’s a ton of archaic Japanese and loads of uncommon kanji without furigana. It’s a great story though so if you can grab an English translation to read side-by-side, I still recommend it.
- Death Note: You could read this in conjunction to watching the anime and live-action versions and see which one you prefer.
- Nodame Cantabile: Great for music-lovers.
- Naruto: No explanation needed. It’s awesome.
- One Piece: I haven’t read this yet myself but my sister devoured every single issue in about a year and assures me it’s awesome.
- Ajin: Awesome thriller/horror-ish manga, which drags you in and doesn’t let go. Read my review of Ajin here.
- GTO: I watched the drama first and loved it so I bought the manga and it’s equally awesome.
- Bakuman: A manga about manga.
- Gyo: If you like weird horror, this manga is awesome/disturbing. Read my review here.
- Rurouni Kenshin: If you like historical stuff, this is a lot of fun.
- Gintama: Read alongside watching the anime. It’s hilarious. Easily the funniest anime and manga I’ve experienced. Great for people who love Family Guy-type humour.
A few tips for learning Japanese by reading manga:
When I’m reading manga, I like to have a few things by my side:
- Japanese dictionary: The ‘Japanese’ dictionary app and Sanseido. are awesome. I also recommend trying to study with a monolingual dictionary. This works best if you already know tons of words and have an idea about what the word might mean. I recommend
- Grab an English version: Sometimes I’ll have an English version of the manga if it’s super hard. You can get cheaper ones available on Kindle.
- Anki: If I see a phrase I like or encounter a word I didn’t know, it goes straight into my SRS.
- Camera: If I’m out in public like a cafe or a park and I’m reading manga, I often don’t have my computer and SRS available. So what happens if I want to remember a sentence later? No problem. Just snap a picture and then upload the photo to your SRS. You’ll learn the phrase/word/grammar much quicker because it’s in context. My phone is FILLED with manga snapshots.
The best bookstores for buying manga in Tokyo
If you’re lucky enough to actually be in Japan and are currently staying in Tokyo, allow me to share with you my favourite places to hunt for manga.
- Junkudo: This bookstore is located in Ikebukuro and is one of my favourite bookstores of all time. There are NINE FLOORS of books. The manga is located in the basement and has an awesome selection. If you want stuff in English and other languages, check out the top floor. You might see me hanging around there. Don’t be shy. Say ‘hi!’
- Maruzen: Another great option is Maruzen, which is situated right in Tokyo station and next to the Imperial Palace Gardens. Grab a stack of books, then spend the day leafing through them in the park.
- Book Off: If you’re on a budget, I recommend checking out one of the many thousands of Book Offs all across Japan. These are second-hand books and are often in the same condition as when they were first bought. You can often get manga half price at Book Off. It’s my “go-to” whenever I want to buy a big manga haul.
Enjoy reading your manga. Let me know if you find any good ones. I’m always interested in hearing suggestions. Good luck!