For many fans outside Japan, Japanese popular culture continues to be a central factor in why they are interested in the Japanese language.
When I asked participants of the dokusho book club at the beginning what their goals were for reading in Japanese, some answered that they wanted to read a certain text in the original Japanese – and most of those texts were manga.
But how do you start reading manga in Japanese if you’ve only ever studied standard Japanese from textbooks?
Let’s have a look at:
- Reading Level: How much do I need to study before reading?
- Text selection: Should I start with my favourite manga?
- Reading Advice for Manga
Reading level: How much do I need to study before reading?
In general, you should be able to understand colloquial Japanese for manga, e.g. the dictionary form, word abbreviations and direct forms of address. That’s why I usually recommend reading abilities comparable to those defined in the JLPT N3 level to participants of my book club interested in manga.
However, many manga have furigana, which makes them comfortable to read even for beginners, and often the plot can be followed easily enough through the panels, even if you couldn’t understand everything of what was said. So even if you’re not yet at an N3 level of reading comprehension, manga might be a great entry point for you to start reading in Japanese.
As long as you start with the right text and and keep the basics of Japanese colloquialisms in mind, I actually don’t think whether or not you have passed the recommended JLPT level is useful to gauge your ability to read manga. But having a solid basic knowledge of grammar and vocabulary will of course come in handy.
Text selection: Should I start with my favourite manga?
A good place to start is with manga that you may have already read in your native language, or one where you know the anime. Being highly motivated to read something you are already invested in is obviously a very strong factor in finishing a text. However, there are good reasons for and against starting with a personal favourite that I’d like you to consider.
In favour of your favourite manga as an introductory reading resource is the fact that you already know the plot and can place important contexts. If you have also seen the anime in Japanese, you may even already know some important vocabulary. These two points will make understanding easier.
However, I would advise keeping the genre and the way the characters speak in mind when considering reading a personal favourite in Japanese. Since the Japanese taught in textbooks and language courses is intended to be useful in everyday situations, you will understand much more in slice of life manga, in school manga or even in romance manga than in the genres of fantasy, samurai/ninja or sci-fi, for example.
As for speech patterns, you will find that generally speaking manga for boys and young men use more slang and youth language, while manga for girls are usually closer to standard Japanese. If your favourite manga follows a complicated plot in an unusual setting with many rebellious young men, looking up genre-specific vocabulary and deciphering slang may lead to more frustration than enjoyment.
Therefore, in my opinion, a manga with an everyday setting that uses little slang, has furigana and that you already know the basics about would be ベストチョイス as your first manga in Japanese.
Keeping the main points from the section on text selection in mind, you will be able to choose your own first manga in Japanese. If you would like some further recommendations, in this section I want to introduce a very popular manga targeting young native speakers, a manga aimed at learners and a manga reading practise resource.
The manga「よつばと！」is often recommended for learners of Japanese because it is easy to understand thematically and language-wise. As a manga with furigana and an everyday setting for a young audience (= little to no slang), it definitely falls into the ベストチョイス category of manga for beginners.
Because there are many learners who felt the same, it is quite popular in Japanese learning communities and there are now many resources available for this manga:
- A narrated video for volume 1, chapter 1 let’s you look at the panels and hear Japanese amateur voice acting while reading along.
- Vocabulary lists by order of appearance in JP-EN either through memrise or to download as PDF or for Anki.
- Moderated discussions on vocabulary and plot through the beginners WaniKani book club.
- Free chapters and a character overview by the publisher.
Get the manga here:
This is a manga written with language learners in mind. According to the creators, you will only need 87 words and particles for the first volume. A big plus are definitely also the grammatical explanations and annotations on expressions that are available completely for free for every volume.
While the standard Japanese version is written in simple Japanese, there is also a version in natural Japanese that is still easier than most native language manga. The free kanji guide available for this version supports language learning as well.
Get the manga here:
Japanese in Anime & Manga
This website by the Japan Foundation explains peculiarities of Japanese used in manga and gives you all the tools you need to familiarise yourself with colloquialisms and expressions before venturing into your favourite manga.
I especially liked that I could read up on stereotypical character speech patterns as I often struggle with expressions used by older characters and characters with Ōsaka dialect.
Another really useful tool is being able to learn expressions by genre. There are four easy manga written to introduce stereotypical situations in the manga genres romance, samurai, ninja and school. They are also voiced and have translations, which all makes them an amazing reading practise.
Do you have any more tips for reading your very first manga?
Other manga I saw recommended for beginners were からかい上手の高木さん, しろくまカフェ and 地球のおわりは恋のはじまり. Unfortunately, I haven’t come around to have a look at them, yet. If you read any of these manga, please tell me what you thought of them!
Some general advice on reading manga I can share:
- The first few chapters can be hard. Give yourself time to get used to reading in Japanese. Once you’re over this first hurdle, it gets easier with every page.
- Make notes on character names and important places. They are hard to remember on top of reading in a foreign language in the beginning.
- It’s okay to skip some things. You don’t have to decipher flavour text in the background or even those little handwritten murmurs next to the main speech bubble. As long as you can vaguely follow the plot, you will be fine.
- Don’t look up every word. It interrupts your reading flow and is not always necessary, e.g. in a school setting, what the main characters are being tought about history, math or physics is almost always irrelevant to the story. Do look up words that appear often and that are vital to the plot.
If you have experiences reading manga at that level and would like to share them, I’d be happy to hear it as a comment below or via @dokushoclub on Twitter.