Learning Japanese through Manga

With anime convention season almost around the corner, why not brush up on your foreign language skills? In this post we take a look at easy to read Japanese manga that will help boost vocabulary comprehension (kanji, katakana, and hiragana), grammar, and cultural understanding all from the comfort of your own home.

The warm rays of spring are almost upon us in America which means one thing: convention season is almost here!

Whether you’ve been neglecting your studies or have yet begun, this is a post for anyone who would like to study and improve their Japanese using manga. This takes into account that you have already taken formal classes while learning grammatical rules, the three writing systems of hiragana, katakana and kanji, and have the ability to formulate basic sentences.

If anybody is interested, I can make a post on textbooks and supplementary material recommended for beginners at a later date. Just let me know here or via social media (Twitter, Reddit, IG).

So, we’re looking at five books today and although it may seem overwhelming, I’ll show you how they tie into one another.

In one of my first posts on In Asian Spaces, I talked about religiously reading a manga after finishing an anime series I enjoyed. Or vice-versa.

One of my absolute all-time favorite manga series isAku no Hana [惡の華], or The Flowers of Evil by Oshimi Shuuzo. The work explores themes of deviance, isolation and mental illness surrounding a remote mountainous town in Japan. The characters would all eventually like to “go beyond the mountain” and escape the monotonous daily life of being surrounded by judgmental, close-minded individuals.

I first read the manga while it was still ongoing in 2009 – 2014 and then watched the (unjustly poorly rated) rotoscoped anime adaption in 2013.

In current news, there appears to be a live-action film in the works scheduled to premiere this fall that I’ll eventually have to watch.

Anyway, I go to my local Kinokuniya to purchase the manga in Japanese for a re-read with the show fresh in my mind. I’ve found that it’s easier that way since if you do stumble upon an unknown kanji, the context of the situation is still comprehensible.

Luckily, Aku no Hana uses furigana, or kana by kanji to indicate pronunciation. This is the first book we’ll examine.

The primary focus in this work is Kasuga Takao and Nakamura Sawa, both middle school students. Because of this, a high usage of informal, childish speech can be found coupled with advanced words related to school coursework and studies.

When reading a chapter, I like to circle a word in pencil that I do not understand. I continue on, but then come back after finishing to see if it makes sense. If I am still stuck, there are two options: either ignore it and keep going, or look the word up using a service.

Luckily in the digital age it is fairly simple to open the google translate app and snap a picture to find out what the word means. You could then input the word into an online dictionary such as Jisho and discern its meaning, see it used within a sentence and even learn the stroke order to practice writing.

Using a spaced repetition method, write the word down at least five times while saying it aloud along with its meaning. A sheet of notebook paper would be fine for this, but if you’d like to get fancy and are serious about your studies look for something called “Kanji Practice Sheets”. These are used in classroom settings to learn the writing systems or for personal study use.

Googling this phrase, you can find PDFs to download for free or you can even make your own. Simply go to the dollar store and purchase unlined paper, a ruler and bam – you have practice sheets! Or if large graph paper booklets are available in an office supply store near your home, that would be even better.

I don’t know what it is, but I just find the official practice sheets for sale often have inflated prices way beyond their usefulness. But, that’s just me.

Aku no Hana Vol 1 and 600 Basic Japanese Verbs
Aku no Hana Vol 1 and 600 Basic Japanese Verbs

One more option for learning kanji and building vocabulary would be investing in a study aid. I purchased 600 Basic Japanese Verbs almost two years ago in anticipation of the December JLPT. I am a terrible test taker, and since I learned Mandarin before studying Japanese I have a tendency to mix up the meaning of kanji characters.

This book is really useful for learning all forms of a verb to truly grasp its usage in written and spoken common speech.

You’re probably wondering where the other books come in, right?

Aku no Hana Vol 1 and Japanese the Manga Way
Aku no Hana Vol 1 and Japanese the Manga Way

In the photo, Saeki-san’s friend asks:

“ねー奈々子聞いて聞いて!”

「“ねーななこきいてきいて!”」

“ん?”

 “Hey Nanako – did you hear? Did you hear what happened?”

 “Huh?” or “No, not yet” could be her interpreted response.

Japanese the Manga Way is great at filling in the gaps that come with Japan’s honorific/hierarchy system from the perspective of an informed outsider. Males speak differently than females, adults differently than children, etc. This book highlights and focuses on patterns of informal speech that would be used by say, our middle school characters in The Flowers of Evil.

Japanese the Manga Way also explains situational differences and gives examples of when informal usage would be acceptable, or solutions of polite speech to use instead.

This book also acts as a great aid for manga that heavily uses katakana, or the Japanese writing system primarily used for foreign words. Shirokuma Café [しろくまカフェ] or Polar Bear Café takes place in Canada.

Shirokuma Cafe Manga Vol 1
Shirokuma Cafe Manga Vol 1

The story follows a group of talking animals in a world that co-exists peacefully with humans. After watching the 2012 anime adaptation, it was great to revisit the world and learn the corresponding characters for Japanese homonyms and homophones.

It also helps that the characters are simply names of animals, so if you ever go to a Japanese zoo you’d be a wizard traversing the different habitats!

Kirby! Star! Volume 1 Manga
Kirby! Star! Volume 1 Manga

The last manga to mention is Kirby. I’ve never really played the games or seen the anime, but this was recommended to me when I first started reading J-manga. I’ll be honest: all I know about the story is that a pink blobby creature has the power to inhale anything, and eats a lot of food.

(Kirby would also be the last survivor should an apocalypse ever happen, as evidenced by the last Super Smash Bros game storyline.)

The manga is simple to read, utilizes all of the writing systems referenced above and it just has a fun, silly story. It’s a stress-free read if you are just beginning your Japanese language journey.

So using these methods – should we call it the In Asian Spaces method? lol- you now know how to look up a new kanji, learn its stroke order, determine its contextual meaning, and how to learn all of the forms it can take during conjugation.

I may do a post that focuses on Netflix shows with colloquial Japanese and great apps you can download to keep your comprehension up to speed at a later date.

Hopefully someone found this information useful!

How do you learn Japanese with manga? What was your favorite Japanese book to read as a beginner? Do you have any recommendations to add to the list?

Leave your thoughts in the comment section below, I’d love to hear from you! Also be sure to follow us for more language learning strategies and skills!

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Finding Seasonal Sakura Mochi | 花見餅 | 和菓子

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out my first review of Sakura Goromo from Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Sakura Matsuri. I outlined my experience with Japanese wagashi, reviewed the snack and elaborated a bit on my extensive food allergies. Which speaking of those, my pollen-allergy body seems to have just registered that I ate a literal flower. My throat felt a bit tingly and although I don’t think it’s any sort of allergic reaction, I took a Benadryl just in case. I’ve also begun to drink the coffee I had waiting to clear my palate. If you have pollen and seasonal allergies, just a word of caution to those who may also be sensitive to ingesting something like this. I am in the comfort of my home trying these and I often carry allergy medicine, but if you are worried you may have a reaction while out maybe save the snacks (if possible) until later to try.

Now, on to the snack review!

When I’ve had mochi in the past, I’ve usually opted for the lightly powdered varieties that mask the stickiness of the rice. This snack in particular had none such coating. It was delicately encased within a sakura tree leaf. On its top, a dried cherry blossom stuck pressed to its surface. I used to wonder if you should eat the leaves surrounding some mochi, but learned that it is safe to do so.

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The plastic wrapper was easy to pop open and upon this I got an overbearing smell of what I could describe as the forest floor. A pungent blend of leaves, tree bark and the smell of grass on a warm day after it had rained quite a bit. There was the same hint of cinnamon spices into the mix, but much more subdued than the sakura bean cake.

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I put my fingers to the sticky rice and feel its gelatinous texture. I touch the smooth surface of the sakura leaf, which isn’t soggy per say but definitely beginning to deteriorate and intermingle in the mochi. The expiration date is set for April 29th and it is a day later.

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Although, I have found that you can always squeeze out one more day concerning mochi as long as it’s refrigerated and unopened. As per usual with this snack, there was no freshness packet in this. I learned this lesson the hard way after having Sanshoku dango turn on me multiple times after opening the package, eating one stick and then days later thinking I could come back to it and only finding mold and wasted money.

Judging by the earthy smell, I was a bit tepid in my concern to eat this snack.

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I was pleasantly surprised, and enjoyed this wagashi much more than the first one I ate a few minutes earlier. The sakura goromo definitely has a much more pleasing appearance, but for what the mochi lacked in aesthetic – it made up in taste.

Sinking my teeth in, the anko bean paste tasted sweet and mingled with the sticky rice so well. I barely tasted the sakura leaf, which was much less pronounced as the other flavors overpowered it. The cinnamon flavor filled my chest and the sticky rice slightly clung to my teeth.

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Taking a second bite, the flavor palate seems to have changed. I now tasted the saltiness most complain of when eating sakura food items.  I have yet to come to the dried bloom on this snack, so the culprit has to be the leaf. The veins seemed to have broken apart and turned into thin strings fraying along its spine.

The anko paste is definitely the smooth koshian variety that has the bean skins removed during processing.  I allow myself a bigger bite and the profile changes again and all I taste is sticky rice. This is indeed an interesting snack. It seems to change with every bite, although the core amounts of ingredients remain the same.  I am allowing myself a sip of coffee, as the leaf is trying to stick to the inside of my throat. Again, as in my last review, the traditional pairing of tea would have gone swimmingly with this treat.

It’s time to add the cherry blossom into the mix. In my last review, I pulled the blossom off and ate it separately to try to ascertain its natural taste. This time I will eat it together on the snack as is.

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The leaf touches my tongue first and tastes as salty as seaweed. I taste this pocket of sweetness fighting in the meld against the bitter and astringent elements. They combine and marry into a blend of cool, soothing, neutral tastes that leave more leaf particles in my throat.

Differing from the bean cake, there is no aftertaste. No overwhelming churn of cinnamon and reminiscence of Middle Eastern spices. There’s just a taste of sticky rice left in my mouth that is competing for top spot against the leaves.

This snack was much better eaten in small, dainty nibbles rather than shoving it all in for one last bite as I just did. In my experience, it just cancelled all flavor it had and left me wanting more.

 

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I am beginning to feel the effects of taking the Benadryl, so we will leave this review here.

Minamoto Kitchoan has a website. The two snacks I reviewed are not available at the time of writing this, but they have a great assortment to offer nonetheless.

Websites like Amazon and J-List also have a wide selection of wagashi and seasonal cherry blossom snacks. Pururi Sakura candies have soft jelly filled with sake, or an elegant tea that uses real blossoms for its flavor! If you would like to purchase these snacks as well as support the site, please use the links listed below.

What is your favorite type of mochi? Do you enjoy cherry blossom themed snacks? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below, I would love to hear from you! Also if you haven’t already done so, be sure to follow In Asian Spaces on WordPress, Twitter, Reddit and on our new Instagram Page! You can also sign up for direct email updates to see when we post new content using the form on the sidebar! Be sure to tell your friends, we have some awesome stuff planned as we move closer to the summer season!