Aside from learning one’s mother tongue, language learning is never an easy undertaking, especially with no formal guidance at the outset and learning Japanese is no different.
While Japanese vocabulary and pronunciation are not necessarily difficult, the written form is another matter altogether.
Unlike English, Japanese does not primarily use the Roman alphabet; instead, it is a blending of it and three additional writing systems and you'll find these used in anything from a comic book to a fiction paperback to a magazine.
Chinese characters used in Japanese are identified as Kanji. The syllabic Hiragana characters are purely Japanese, while Katakana is the Japanese way of transcribing foreign words.
You might notice in your comics that there are also some letters you recognise. This is known as Romaji, and it's the method of writing Japanese words using the Roman alphabet. It's not a translation, but a transliteration.
Are you confused yet? Overwhelmed? Have we effectively frightened you away from learning the language of Japan? Well, don't worry...this guide will hopefully put you more at ease.
There are ways to learn Japanese that are not difficult at all. In fact, they are rather engaging and entertaining!
Manga comics, the wildly popular Japanese cultural export, offers a good way for you to study the Japanese writing system while also understanding more about the pop culture of Japan.
While working through the different comic books in your stock, you can pick up on different grammar constructions – all while providing hours of entertainment. After a while, you'll find yourself waiting for the postage of your next volumes!
Are you interested?
We take this opportunity in this guide to present tips, tricks and techniques you can use in your quest to learn Japanese through manga comics.
Rounding out Your Japanese Lessons with Manga
Some say it can be done but, for the most part, learning Japanese without any tutelage is not easy.
Because the Japanese writing system is so radically different from our version, the best place to start studying is by mastering the various alphabets.
You may try one or a combination of the activities in this list to start :
- take Japanese lessons in school (if they are on offer and if you are a school student)
- sign up for lessons outside of your regular curriculum
- engage a tutor for private lessons in Japanese
- download or buy apps like Duolingo for vocabulary and pronunciation
- register for access to a Japanese learning website
- hit the library to see what books and magazines they have in stock (start small, by memorising characters)
Of course, the method you choose depends on the time you're willing to put into your study, the price of tutors in your location and the availability and price of a comic book, fiction paperback or magazine in your area.
Once you have a fairly good grasp on the characters – especially those that change meaning with context, you may consider it time to pick up your first Japanese fiction paperback book, or look at your first webmagazine.
Obviously, we’re not talking about a story by Nihon Shoki or Kojiki, two of Japan’s oldest examples of literary magnificence, as each author may be a touch too complicated for your fledgeling skills.
However, there is a Japanese art form that is nearly as old as those titles but far more accessible to someone such as yourself, who are just starting to read in Japanese.
Manga comics are a fun and simple way to further your studies in Japanese, that you can share with your friends or people with similar interests.
You might, for instance, use dialogue found in manga books as a way to recognise the ideograms you’ve learned. Perhaps, if you’ve been particularly diligent in your studies, you may try to write out your own translation of the story.
Naturally, all of that depends on whether you actually have access to manga written in Japanese.
But don’t plan your raid on Tokyo bookstores just yet!
As virtually everything is available online, naturally you could easily find manga volumes in their original language or, if you are a fan of the digital version, you may buy, download and read manga online or via e-book.
It would help if you had a physical edition (like a paperback) of the manga you're reading so that you can make notes and highlight characters you don’t know.
Sites like Amazon make this possible, often with free postage, although they might not always have the volumes you're looking for in stock.
If you hate the idea of waiting for postage from Japan and want to start reading your books ASAP, then you could even try to download and print out the digital version.
Now that you have a way to buy and add authentic Japanese manga comics and magazines to your library, you can start to skim through your new treasures, book by book.
What you’re looking for are words that you recognise and context that will help you understand them better.
At the outset, you'll probably need to do a bit of translation; going back and forth between your manga comics and magazines and dictionary.
You can also start making a list of words from the story that you think would be useful to you, or that you like. But don't let your list get too long!
We can usually only retain a certain amount of words every day when studying languages other than English, usually no more than six or seven! Another important consideration is what your list looks like.
If you simply have random words written with the English translation next to them, your list is not going to be all that good for your learning. Try grouping words that are linked to a common theme, for example, words related to hair or clothes.
There are plenty of interesting strategies you can use to memorise basic and more advanced vocabulary!
Whether or not you’re taking Japanese courses, using manga as a good study tool will immerse you in dialogue – something that generally doesn’t happen so often in beginners' classes.
And you'll certainly not learn colloquial words and phrases in class but manga will share them with you, along with proper grammatical constructions and word usage.
That kind of makes manga worth the price all on its own, doesn’t it?
Online Resources: Manga and Books to Learn Japanese
If you are already a manga and anime fan, you might be familiar with One Piece, the fabled treasure that Monkey D. Luffy is in constant search for.
You don’t need to look that hard; your treasure trove is the Internet and there's plenty in stock! Let us be your guide and share what we know...
Like the best of gifts, many of the Internet’s treasures are yours at no cost. For free manga fiction, your best bet would be Manga Z, a site where many a manga author permits fans to download and share their work for free.
Another good site that permits free manga reading in its original language is Raw Senmanga.
The benefit of online books is that you can get the latest edition immediately, without the price of postage or worrying about whether the version you want is in stock.
For those of you who want to buy physical manga volumes, you can look at Honto or Amazon. A paperback can be very useful, as you can add your notes and do some translation as you go.
Other than those freely available and paid-for manga, you may also find learning support sites that add manga into their teaching tools.
Note: you could also study English, Spanish, and Korean with the tools that this site provides.
Another fun and simple way to let manga help you learn Japanese is to stock yourself with books dedicated to teaching Japanese through manga. Among those titles are:
- Nihonjin no Shiranai Nihongo by Umino Nagiko
- Japanese in Mangaland by Marc Barnabe
- The Kana and Kanji of Manga by Glenn Kardy
- The Japanese of Manga by Shima Kadokura
Besides these, you may consider building up a library of Japanese workbooks, the kind that are given to young children in Japan – in other words, not too complicated.
Because they are printed primarily for Japanese preschool children, subjects such as maths, geography and history are covered in each edition.
You may even find a book dedicated to the history of manga!
They are produced by big names in manga publishing such as Shueisha, the same house that puts out Shonen Jump.
Did you know that some Manga stories have enjoyed amazing longevity?
Easy Manga Series for Beginners
Popular manga makes it possible to sample Japanese culture while learning.
Let’s say you’ve long been a fan of anime series... perhaps that is even what drove you to study Japanese.
When thinking about which manga to learn from, you might be tempted to hunt for Dragon Ball or Naruto, comic stories you are already familiar with. That would be a mistake.
Typical shonen and shojo manga, aimed at adolescent male and female target audiences respectively, will probably already be a bit too tricky for you.
If you are an absolute beginner at learning Japanese, the profound concepts and elevated dialogue in those stories may be way above your current level.
Unlike most American comics and cartooning, Japanese cartoons are not meant exclusively for children so you have to be selective in your choices.
In fact, there are 5 main categories that are popular to read, usually based on the target audience:
- Children's Manga: Usually for school kids ten years and under, this is the best start for any beginner Japanese learner. The vocabulary is simple and you don't need to know much about cultural context or history to understand them.
- Shojo: Shojo is aimed at a teen female audience, in fact, Shojo is literally a romanization of the word for 'young woman'. Popular themes are fiction based on history or science-fiction, usually with a focus on emotional development. They're usually found in a magazine or webmagazine.
- Shonen: One of the more popular categories, Shonen comics are marketed to teen male audiences. They don't often talk about history or science, but usually action, martial arts and comedy. There is many a famous Shonen author, like Buronson, Eiichiro Oda and Masashi Kishimoto. Both Shonen and Shojo are more suitable for intermediate level students.
- Seinen and Josei: These two styles are designed for adult male and female audiences respectively, and can focus on anything from action to politics to history. These are usually a little more realistic and serious than their teen counterparts. These styles are best for students with an upper-intermediate to advanced level.
While these styles of manga are targeted to particular audiences, the readership of each style has evolved through history.
A male reader is perfectly able to relate to the emotional development that features in almost every shojo and josei story and a female student might love martial arts, typically a male-dominated area.
Given all of this, for new students, it would probably be best to start out with Kodomo, the manga series meant for the youngest readers.
Don’t think about it as your ego taking a hit; think about the fact that the youngest Japanese readers have Japanese skills that far exceed yours so, if you are able to make headway with these simply-written books, you're already doing a great job!
Doraemon: simple dialogue and uncomplicated situations make this title an ideal choice. Besides, you'll definitely get your full dose of kawaii – Japanese-style ‘cute’!
Pokemon: if you grew up during the 1990s, you know there was no escaping Pikachu and the rest of the Pokemon gang. Again, ‘cute’ plays a large part in this series but it is a great selection to become familiar with oft-used Japanese ideograms.
Other titles you might know from your own childhood, such as Astro Boy and Captain Tsubasa offer you rather long tales to follow while learning Kanji.
Don’t stop there; learn more about legendary Manga heroes!
Consider also Shojo manga titles like Fruits Basket and anything from Studio Ghibli, such as My Neighbour Totoro.
Anime and Manga: Complementary Learning Companions
We learn less from success than from failure – Japanese proverb
Being able to read the printed word in any language including Japanese is a major aspect of learning.
But, being able to correlate what you hear with what you read is just as important, and a skill that every learner must cultivate.
After all, reading a common phrase is different from hearing its pronunciation when spoken by a native speaker.
If your love of popular Japanese animation is what stoked your desire to learn, we’re certainly not going to tell you to stop watching and only read your latest edition paperback.
In fact, watching anime or anything dealing with Japanese pop culture is a fun and practical way to train your ear to tones and sounds unique to the Japanese language.
Not only does watching such shows help with your listening comprehension skills, but it also helps to improve your pronunciation, as you hear the correct way each word is pronounced.
Pop culture shows can help you add the most up-to-date expressions to your vocabulary, too!
But, here again, we have to take into consideration what you might be ready for. That probably won’t be the convoluted storylines of Death Note... at least, not at first.
Again, we throw school kids’ anime into the mix in this guide...
Of course, you won’t stay at the beginner level for long if you work hard. Soon enough, you’ll be ready for a more advanced manga magazine and more elaborate anime shows.
When that time comes, you might consider titles such as One Punch Man, Berserk or Yu Gi Oh!.
As time goes on and you continue your school or individual studies, your skills grow ever sharper and you’ll have an entirely different category of manga to explore. As we mentioned before, Seinen manga, meant for young adults, might suit your tastes better.
Some titles to consider: Tokyo Ghoul, Fullmetal Alchemist... or superhero manga such as My Hero Academia, if you’re looking for something in the Shonen category.
You don’t have to be male to enjoy fighting anime or female to idolise Mononoke but you do have to be determined to learn Japanese on your own!
And, you have a lucky star on your side! Other languages do not offer such engaging, fun and culturally relevant learning materials as Japanese does; manga volumes literally designed to help you learn.
Could you have a more enticing reason to learn the language?
Well, besides having a fab Superprof tutor who will help you decide which anime to watch and give you assignments based on it...
Find out what else you need to know before you make manga your favourite reading material.
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