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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