Resources That Gave Me A Leg Up In Japanese

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As I mentioned before (here and here), learning Japanese can be very frustrating. Here are some resources that I found to be better-than-average at helping me find the next footing. Many of them have unique qualities that made them enormously helpful in some way; but nearly all of them also have major shortcomings.

Essential Japanese by Samuel E. Martin. I can’t even begin to describe how enormously helpful this book is. It taught me more in one, literally pocket-sized, 460-page volume than I had previously understood from 18 years of studying Japanese on-and-off through classes at a Japanese Buddhist church, university courses, and various resources I used for self-teaching.

Unfortunately, it’s also incredibly outdated, and much the vocabulary is specialized for post-World War II military basemen and Christian missionaries, who were the primary target market for this book (probably making up the majority of Americans living in Japan). It’s also out of print; all these things make it somewhat difficult to recommend for general use. It teaches some extremely formal language that has nothing to do with “Essential Japanese” any longer—it’s pretty much only spoken around royalty, and most people aren’t dining with the Emperor’s family. It’s great for understanding super-formal speech in a Samurai movie, maybe, not much else. But on the other hand, you won’t easily find explanations of these speech modes anywhere else, and in addition it explains language that really is crucial to understand in a very straightforward manner, that I hadn’t seen addressed in other textbooks I’d used. It is at the same time the most complete and most concise book on Japanese grammar I’ve had the pleasure to know.

It’s worth noting that it does not use any sort of Japanese writing system other than romaji (latin letters).

Here’s my review of it on Amazon.

Nintendo DS + Dictionary software. The Nintendo DS is, of course, a video game system, but Nintendo and other publishers have actually made available plenty of great software for Japanese language studies on the DS. The dictionary software I use is this one: 漢字そのまま・楽引き辞典 (kanji sono mama/rakubikijiten), which means something like “Kanji As-It’s-Written” Easy-Lookup Dictionary. It’s a Japanese-Japanese and Japanese-English dictionary, intended for Japanese users (the interface is in Japanese), but the great thing about it is that you can just draw in the characters you want to look up. This makes it easy to look up words, even if they’re made up of characters you’ve never seen before! Without a tool like this, it used to take me several minutes just to look up one character; if I was trying to look up a word made up of several characters that weren’t familiar to me, I could spend around 10 minutes on each character (finding the primary radical, and counting the total strokes, perhaps getting the stroke-count wrong, checking the other stroke-count entries…), and then spend a few minutes on the dictionary while I try each of the several pronunciations that character might have to see which one is being used in this case. Looking it in while writing it is just loads easier!

The character-recognition is very forgiving, and frequently recognizes the character I’m trying for, even when I’m writing on a bumpy train or shuttle, and can’t really even recognize the character I wrote myself! If it guesses wrong, it gives you the chance to choose from close alternatives. Occasionally I have trouble making it understand the character I wanted; this is most often due to getting the ordering of strokes wrong (most of the time it forgives this as well, but there are times it doesn’t). In general, though, I spend seconds performing a lookup that could’ve taken me twenty minutes!

Unfortunately, the quality of the Japanese-English dictionary entries themselves leaves much to be desired; often, I’ll use the Nintendo DS to identify the word, and then look up the word in a different dictionary in order to actually gain understanding of it. The Japanese-Japanese entries tend to be better, but of course that can have the tendency of sending me looking up other words from the definition… not ideal. Still, it’s well worth the money I spent; I might leave my paper dictionary at home, but I always have my DS with me if I plan to do any Japanese reading.

Reading Japanese by Eleanor Jorden.

Here’s the text of my review on Amazon:

This is a truly excellent resource for learning written Japanese. Great pains were taken to introduce the characters in such a way that they can be used immediately and repeatedly from that point forward. For instance, when beginning with the Katakana characters, rather than teaching the characters in canonical order, it starts with just the two characters “su” and “mi”, and from those teaches you to write “Sue”, “Smith”, “Miss Sue Smith”, etc. It then quickly builds on these, ensuring at each step that the next small set of characters introduces a large array of new things you can immediately learn to write.

Accusations that the material is out-of-date, are not wrong (this is the reason I must give the book four stars rather than five). The book was published in 1976! Much of the kanji is used a little differently, or has been replaced in certain uses by other characters. Of course, most of it is still applicable, and when no newer resources come even close to being as effective, you learn you must make do with information that may be out-of-date–better to have slightly-dated but solid knowledge of the most common uses of several hundred kanji than to continue to struggle to learn your first hundred or so.

Note that the author has written a more recently-published set of books, Japanese: The Written Language: Part 1, Volume 1 (Workbook) (Yale Language Series); I have not examined these but I suspect they may correspond to much of the same material, but perhaps more recently-updated. It might be worthwhile to look into those.

This book, Reading Japanese, is intended to be used in conjunction with a companion grammar book, Beginning Japanese: Part 1 (Yale Language Series) (Pt. 1). However, if you are already familiar with basic Japanese grammar, you will probably find that you can do without the companion.

A note on romanization: you should not be scared off by the fact that it uses “si” instead of “shi”, or “hu” instead of “fu”. Many Japanese will romanize similarly, and a serious student of the language will need to become comfortable with systems such as Kun’rei-shiki in addition to the more popular (at least among English speakers) Hepburn romanization system. Recognizing “si” and “shi” as the same phoneme with the same pronunciation will help the student become stronger in the language.

Weighing in at only 425 kanji, this book will clearly not be enough on its own to give you command of the written language; but it provides a very excellent start. Follow it up with something like A Japanese Reader: Graded Lessons for Mastering the Written Language (Tuttle Language Library) (another somewhat-dated but excellent book), which covers a much fuller set.

Reading Japanese With A Smile

Here’s the text from my review on Amazon:

What I really love about this book is it provides a lot of meat in a very small package. The book is both small enough and complete enough, that you can simply grab it on your way out the door, to work on when you’re standing in line, or on the bus, etc. Each story is less than two small pages, so you get your sense of accomplishment quicker. :)

On the pages opposing the Japanese stories are the english translations; but I don’t find the translations so useful as the sentence-by-sentence destruction (which repeats the Japanese, but with furigana) and commentary that follows after each story. Each sentence is further decomposed almost word-by-word, and includes such things as explanations of common idioms, and even pointing out puns and wordplay.

Since the decompositions provide all the readings for the kanji and explanations of the vocabulary, the book is really all you need to read the passages. You don’t need to grab your kanji and wa-ei dictionaries (though I tend to anyway, in case I want to gain a little more insight).

Because of the furigana, I don’t think strong knowledge of kanji is necessary to enjoy this book (though of course it will make it easier: you may not need to flip to the commentary as often). A working, intermediate knowledge of Japanese grammar, however, is important, as you’re generally assumed to understand various verb forms and sentence patterns.

A Japanese Reader by Roy A. Miller.

You can find this book here on Amazon.

The main drawing feature of this book is that it starts from zero understanding of Japanese writing systems (but not of grammar), and builds up to bring you to a complete repertoire of not only the kana syllabaries, but the full set of the 1,850 tōyō kanji characters (the precursor to the current set of 1,945 jōyō kanji that are required to be considered “literate” in Japanese, which didn’t exist yet when this was originally written).

As you might guess from that last sentence, this book is old. It was first written in 1962, and in fact, some of the earlier lessons are intended to be used alongside Martin’s Essential Japanese book at the top of the list; in fact, I originally bought my copy of Essential Japanese for exactly that reason (I had the Reader first).

I admire the aspirations, and the book has been very useful to me, but I’ll admit I’ve never gotten much beyond lesson 30 (of 75). It is very fast-paced, very demanding, and doesn’t really reiterate often enough in my opinion, so there’s a good chance of losing what you’ve gained.

Kanji ABC

Here’s the text of my review on Amazon; hopefully it will explain what I appreciate about it.

This book is a great help for finding tricks to learn kanji characters more quickly. However, I don’t think it’s sufficient on its own to really complete learning these characters.

The book is divided into two parts; Part I is a repertoire of around 250 “graphemes”, kanji “pieces” that are used to build up actual kanji characters, but may not necessarily form characters of their own. If that sounds like the definition of a “radical”, well good: they’re closely related. However, there are various graphemes that are not officially considered radicals, so you might consider the graphemes to be a superset of the radicals.

Each grapheme is associated with an english word or phrase. The book is fairly careful to use different words for very similar meanings, so that you can manage to keep them separate.

Part II is a list of two thousand kanji characters, ordered in such a way as to make full use of the graphemes learned. The kanji are ordered so that the characters only use those graphemes that have already been introduced in the associated group from Part I. Each character is listed along with only its very most common readings (kun and on), and a list of the english words representing the graphemes from which it has been built (which appear in an index at the back of the book).

The book is intended to be used in one of two ways: one way (the way I’ve chosen to use it) is to learn all of the graphemes in Part I (or at least a large number), and then use Part II to look up characters you wish to learn, and see which graphemes it is made up of. Of course, in reality, you wouldn’t normally need to look them up to begin with if you know all the graphemes: you’ll recognize them in the characters themselves.

The other way this book is intended to be used, is to systematically learn all the characters of Part II, by learning one group of graphemes, and then studying all the characters from Part II for that same group (which will be ordered appropriately). According to the preface, this is the “ideal” way to use the book. However, I don’t really see that as practically possible, without the use of a more detailed kanji dictionary (such as The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary. Because, for on readings, you can’t really get a feel for a character without seeing in what compounds it appears, and how; and learning kun readings can be very misleading, since often a single adjective (atatakai) or verb (hajimeru) may be written using multiple alternative kanji, depending on the context and subtle differences in meaning that are intended. Thus, Kanji ABC might be adequate by itself to learn to _read_ the most common cases where these characters appear, but is quite inadequate for learning when to _write_ them.

The nice thing about this book is that it provides just the tools you need to help grasp the components of a given kanji character, and little else. It doesn’t bog you down with _why_ these components have been associated with a given meaning. In the end I think this helps you to learn them more quickly. Other books that may focus more on a character’s etymology (such as A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters (Tuttle language library) (Japanese Edition) can be very enlightening, but in the end they tend to just confuse, as the original etymology of the characters can often have little to do with the modern form and meaning. On the other hand, the trade-off is that you often don’t get the “true, original meaning” of a radical or grapheme, just the one that makes it easiest to combine it with other graphemes to learn a kanji.

A Guide to Remembering the Japanese Characters

Here‘s the link on Amazon.

I mentioned this book in the review above for Kanji ABC. Basically, this is the book I used to use to accomplish about the same things for which I now use the tricks from Kanji ABC. That doesn’t mean that Kanji ABC is better; they both have their points. Kanji ABC assigns words/concepts to individual “graphemes” without really explaining them; the Guide will dissect a character into its original ideographic components, referring to historical forms and meanings. But often, it will end up by saying “but its current meaning is totally different”, and all that build-up for grasping its history may well turn out to be for nothing as far as actually finding the keys for remembering the character is concerned.

Kanji ABC is pretty much oriented around learning hundreds of “graphemes” and their associated concepts, which afterward can be recognized in actual characters, and using it in the reverse to look up an arbitrary character and then break it into its individual concepts doesn’t really work as effectively (in my opinion). The Guide works a bit better for that, since you don’t have to go looking up the other components it broke into (apart from components which are themselves other characters), and it provides you a workable mnemonic phrase right there in the entry.

Learning Japanese

(Amazon link.) This is a fairly academic, university student-oriented book. I don’t know how it compares on the whole with other Japanese textbooks, since these are the ones I happened to use in University and in my classes as a teen. However, I will say, the one thing I really, really have come to appreciate about it is that it focuses a lot of its energy and book-space on drills, lots and lots of drills. Reading drills, question/response drills, transformation drills (where you start with a word and build or modify a sentence as it introduces new words to add to your “sentence”), etc. It gives you a firm stepping-stool into that crucial skill of thinking in Japanese, rather than translating to and from English. Although I can’t claim to really be doing that, I’m much closer to it than I would otherwise be, thanks to this book (and I’d probably be much closer if I just went back and went through these drills again).

Japanese books for school-age children.

When I want to get into reading Japanese without straining myself over kanji, it helps to find some Japanese material intended for school-age children (who themselves are still learning kanji). I’ve picked up a few books from the Kinokuniya bookstore I’m fortunate to have nearby in San Jose from the series, イッキによめる! (ikki ni yomeru! “Read in one go!” Amazon.co.jp link), which are collections of Japanese folk tales, with one book for each year of grade school. One nice thing about this is that these stories tend, more than most other books I’ve read, to use a lot of colloquialisms, which is a great way to learn some areas of Japanese you might not otherwise be familiar with.