How to Learn Japanese from Manga

Manga is a great resource for learners of Japanese. It can help you build your vocabulary and even teach you a thing or two about grammar. I remember the first few failed attempts at reading manga and how dismayed I felt when starting out. In order to help you avoid feeling the same and to help you get the most of it I’m writing this guide for you.

Now, before we begin it’s important to note that this is merely one of the tools you can use for learning Japanese, I would not recommend it as the only tool, you should be using it alongside regular methods such as classes, self-study with a book and so on. Another word of warning, the language used in manga is often very informal and can contain a few odd phrases or words (another reason why you shouldn’t rely on this as your only tool for learning Japanese). Despite this it’s still an excellent resource. The pictures will help clarify the meaning of the words and better still you get to read some cool manga in Japanese! Being interested in what you’re studying gives you free motivation and enjoyment that will boost your learning capabilities.

Let’s get started. There are a few requirements you’ll need to have for this to actually work. Part of the reason I failed to do it in the past was because I tried to run before I could work, in other words I was trying to do something too complicated for my then current level of Japanese. On with the requirements:

  • A Basic/Intermediate Understanding of Japanese Grammar
  • Some Knowledge of Hiragana/Kanatana
  • Sticky Notes
  • A Pen
  • Manga with Furigana
  • A Japanese-English Dictionary

How to Learn Japanese from Manga

I picked up my book from a Book-Off here in Japan. The oddly named Book-Off stores in Japan sell used books. However the books I were looking at were not your typical dog-eared, page torn and stained with who knows what used books. The condition of the books I have seen is so good that I’d have assumed they were new if not told otherwise. Managed to get my book for 350円 instead of it’s original price of 540円. The sticky notes are very slim and just what I was after.

Picking the Right Manga

It should go without saying that you should pick some manga that you’re actually going to enjoy. Since there are hundreds of kinds of manga out there it shouldn’t be too hard to find one to suit your tastes (no matter how bizarre your tastes are might I add). Pick anything you like, even something silly and aimed at children can help you tremendously. The only one limiting factor is this; be sure to pick a book that contains furigana if you want to make things as easy as possible. Furigana is some kind person having gone to the trouble of writing a tiny hiragana reading next to the kanji you are learning which is going to help tremendously when it comes to the time consuming task of looking up the meaning of kanji. Speaking of kana (hiragana/katakana) if you are fluent in both you’ll save even more time, if not reading a single book should help really cement them in your mind!

How to Learn Japanese from Manga
Say hello to furigana, your new best friend.

Looking up Words

Open your book and find the first page (always a good place to start). I’m sure this will go without saying for many people reading this but just incase, Japanese books are read back-to-front from a western perspective so you might find the first page is at the “back” of the book.

Now, try read the first work and we begin our journey along a oft repeating process. There are two outcomes from your attempt at reading the first word, you’ll either know it, in which case you’re off to a great start and can skip to the next word or, you’ll have to look it up. Which may or may not be so easy. Let’s see why with some example taken from Crayon Shin-Chan. I’ll be using the excellent Jisho.org as my dictionary for this example.

How to Learn Japanese from Manga

Excerpt from Crayon Shin-chan

We’ll look up the first word “あっ” in the dictionary and it’s found it (listed in katakana). In this case we were lucky, “ah” isn’t technically a word but a spoken exclamation. Not all such remarks and utterances will be in the dictionary so my advice is to resort to Google from time to time with a search similar to “Meaning of あっ”.

How to Learn Japanese from Manga

On to the next word “ひき”. The dictionary tells us is most likely a counter for small animals. Something about that doesn’t sound right. A counter should be tied to some amount so that can’t be right. There are some other less common suggestions such as Toad, Pull, Influence and Defamation. I’m a bit unhappy with those less common suggestions so for now I’ll move on to the next work.

How to Learn Japanese from Manga

Aha, kanji time. Since I’m reading Crayon Shin-Chan I can illustrate a point. Remember I was telling you to get some manga with furigana earlier? Here’s why, I now have to spend a couple of minutes (sometimes several minutes) looking up the kanji “肉” by stroke order or radicals before I can find it reading and meaning. If it had furigana I could have known it’s reading was “にく” saving an extra step. “にく” goes into the dictionary and we find it means “meat”.

Let’s go back to our previous word “ひき”. We now have the options, Toad meat, Pull meat, Influence meat or Defamation meat. As much as I’d love to assume this manga is talking about “Toad meat” I somehow doubt it. Something’s wrong here so it’s time for a little detective work. Often a word is be made up of hiragana an kanji. Often the hiragana comes after the kanji but it can also come before and this is the case here. So let’s try putting “ひきにく” into the dictionary.

How to Learn Japanese from Manga

Great a perfect match for “Minced meat” which already is sounding better than “Toad meat”. We can also see three ways of writing “Minced meat”. The first choice is listed as “common” so why was it not chosen? The Kanji for “ひき”, “挽” is quite complicated. Don’t forget, despite how hard you might find working through your manga there is a good chance you’re reading manga that’s aimed at a younger audience (hopefully!) so in this case they neglected the harder reading.

With that cleared up we should move on to our next word “と”. This is where your basic/intermediate knowledge of Japanese grammar comes into to play. You’ll know instantly (or should) that “と” is a particle which in this case is serving the same function for “and”. I cannot stress enough that a fair knowledge of such grammatical points is a must have requirement for this task. Without it you’ll experience all kinds of troubles not only looking up the word, but understanding the sentence it sits in.

We skip “と” and move onto our next word, “大根”. Why did I not assume the next word was “大”, and the word after that “根”. This can sometimes be the case so my advice would be to string kanji together and search for the word. If nothing can be found remove a kanji and try again. Still nothing? Repeat the process till you find something. The word “大根” returns the match “だいこん” (daikon – large radish) which sounds good to me. “Minced meat and large radish” sounds rather plausible after all.

Time for the another word but a little explanation first. We’re looking for words in the text “買うの”. Straight away our knowledge of grammar has told us “の” is most likely a particle. In this case it’s the passive particle and is equivalent to “to” in this context. That leaves us with  “買う”. As we know, hiragana is often joined onto the end kanji so let’s try looking for  “買う” as one word.

How to Learn Japanese from Manga

Great a perfect match. It means “to buy”. One more word left! We look up “わすれた”  in the dictionary.

How to Learn Japanese from Manga

Interesting, the dictionary we are using has very helpfully told us that it couldn’t find anything for “わすれた” and is trying “わすれる” instead. Now of course, you’re knowledge of Japanese grammar already led you to assume the verb was past-tense right? If not don’t worry as Jisho.org has kindly helped us out here and supplied us with the correct dictionary form “わすれる” (hopefully you know what dictionary form is? If not read no further before finding out!). It should be noted however that Jisho.org can’t always save us and can sometimes suggests the wrong word so be careful! Back on topic now, “わすれる” as we have learned means “to forget” since it’s past tense it means forgotten. So that’s it, all of it pieces of the puzzle fit into place and we can now (finally) understand the first pane.

How to Learn Japanese from Manga

Ah! I’ve forgotten to buy minced meat and daikon.

Stick with it!

So far so good, you should have an understanding of how to go about understanding the somewhat complex Japanese encryption system language used in your manga. You can see that even finding a word to lookup in Japanese isn’t always what it seems and by the time you’ve been frustrated by this fact for the hundredth time you’ll begin to wish you were learning a language that made use of spaces (by the way, if you manage to find manga with spaces in do let me know as I’ll recommend it here!). One last important point, you should by now be wondering what the pen and sticky notes were for. Well since you’re doing such good detective work finding out the meaning of these words you should really make a note of it for the next time you come to re-read your manga. The best place to make a note of new words is in the book.

How to Learn Japanese from Manga

You should end up with something like the image above. As you can see my example page is littered with sticky notes as I have quite a few new words to learn. I find it helpful to draw arrows to point to the word and sometimes write the word in hiragana I’m referring too on the sticky note if it’s not quite clear. For the sake of neatness and aiding readability I tear the sticky notes if they are too long.

Once your manga has gained a few extra kilograms from the mass of sticky notes you’ve hidden inside don’t forget to keep re-reading it. You’ll find you remember words pretty quickly, if you become confident enough you can start to remove those little notes one by one until the you have mastered the book as there are no sticky notes left in sight!

Finding it too hard?

If even after reading this wonderful guide you are finding reading manga too difficult there could be a few reasons for this. You may have picked a book that is too complicated for you. However if you took my advice and picked a book that contains furigana you should be fine. You could always try a different book however, and see if you find it any easier. If possible it’s best to look inside the book before buying.

A common reason for finding this too hard and one I mentioned earlier is not knowing enough about Japanese grammar. This is the problem I hit the when I first tried to read manga some years ago. It’s very frustrating but you’ll just have to be patient and learn a little more grammar first. Eventually the book will become easier to read and the words easier to find so don’t disappear, just throw a little more grammar into your study routine.

A final piece of advice, don’t expect too much. It will take a long time to read even a single book. Try to incorporate reading your manga into your study routine. Do a chapter a day, a page a day or even a pane a day depending on how quickly you can move through it and how difficult you’re finding on it. Don’t force yourself to try and read the whole thing otherwise you might end up giving up and having no sense of achievement so set a sensible goal and stick at it.

Good luck!

About Chris

Chris Kempson is the main author of TastyMiso.com and sole developer of JapanBump.com. A twenty something web programmer and self-proclaimed Japanophile currently residing in Chiba and trying desperately to Japanese!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/tatixblack Tatix Black

    Oh thanks, I’m trying to learn japanese, and I couldn’t find any japanese school here… but anyway, the music and anime have helped me to learn some words, but it’s a great method to learn :) thanks for the advice

  • http://twitter.com/dimichan_news Dimichan Scans

    Thank you for the awesome post *-*
    I’ll start with a Nakayoshi’s manga. Also, my japanese course will start in august.

    Thanks again! 

  • http://www.tokyotako.com allie

    This is a great post! Thanks so much :)

  • Nel_race

    i wonder how i could type japanese characters?

  • http://twitter.com/miezeljotschek miezeljotschek

    Thanks a lot for such a detailed post!

    By the way: which other easy do you recommend to read for a beginner? Any interesting and easy titles?

  • JPdude

    thanks :D i was relly looking for this guide, or somthing a like, but here is an thing :) add a link to find the Hiragana signs so you can copy them over Jisho only have kanji signs :O hope its not me who is wrong, but, anyway thx for the AWSOME GUIDE!!!!

  • SINful

    Thank you so much… this is what I needed!

  • sasuke11

    :) thanks

  • BakaNaKami

    This idea sounds awesome! And I think I’m just getting to the right beginner level to be able to use and enjoy this.
    Only problem is – I really don’t have anywhere to get a Japanese Manga from.
    Are there any sites you can order from cheaply (including delivery)? or anything free (and legal) online?
    I would really prefer a hard copy as the using stickies sounds awesome.

    • BakaNaKami

       Finished my first manga volume (in Japanese) ever 2 days ago (未来日記)!
      Thank you so much for this method!
      for anyone looking for a place to buy: I got it from honto.jp with SAL shipment, was 11.7$ including shipment (out of which 7$ are the manga, quite expensive shipment. My next shipment for them is of 2 volumes so it goes a bit lower per volume) and took 10 days to arrive.
      The catch is you need a Japanese address (or at least a fake one, which is what I did) even for international shipments.

  • Amy Gaerlan

    Not sure if you’d be interested in taking a peek at the website I’m working with (has a dictionary as well).  Would love to hear your input – we’ve done our best to make it fun with achievements and points.

    Either way – rock it out.  Love the way you’ve broken this down.  Best  guide I’ve seen someone lay out for manga translation.

  • Techy Japanese student

    A good place to get manga in Japanese for free is J-comi (http://www.j-comi.jp). There are even some in PDF ready to be downloaded (http://www.j-comi.jp/title/index/query:PDF).

    Then, you can use a pdf viewer that supports annotations in place of sticky notes, my suggestion for Windows is PDF-XChange viewer (http://www.tracker-software.com/product/pdf-xchange-viewer), which is free.

    If you want to read a manga that’s not on PDF you’ll have to get the images and build your own PDF. To get them you have two options:
    1. (Easy but ugly) Print the screens.
    2. (Hard but pretty) Use developer tools to get the images themselves. They are not available at the page’s source code, so you’ll need to dig a bit deeper. Chrome’s default developer tools work pretty well for me.

    There are programs that create PDFs from images or you could use a text processor (like MS Word or LibreOffice writer) to make a document with an image on each page and then print it to PDF.

    Hope it helps =D

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  • http://www.japanesetease.net/ Jakob

    Nice way to work through a Japanese Manga. I just started with Dragonball on the weekend and find it very helpful to have a translated version of the manga by your side. So you can check what the basic meaning of the sentence should be if you have absolutely no clue.