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Selecting a Japanese Textbook

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One of the first questions a potential Japanese student asks is, "What is the best Japanese textbook to get?" After much trial and error and also watching the experiences of others, the answer to this all-important question is: "all of them." Unfortunately, an average search will usually not reveal many of these good books, so the purpose of this guide is as much to bring some of these titles out into the light, as it is act as a reference.
Each textbook meets different goals in differing orders, but the final result for nearly all is a student that can speak Japanese well. It is important to not waste time looking for a better textbook once you've already started. Persevere and study daily and you will be learn Japanese well.
Just as each textbook prioritizes differently the aspects of the learning Japanese, the overall design of the course can differ enough to make the learning experience vary from dry and technical to fun and interesting. Anyone considering buying one of these textbooks should attempt to examine them beforehand to verify the course will be enjoyable.

Best Highlights

To save some trouble this list is for those who want a quick answer.

Best Comprehensive Technical Course:

Genki: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese. This is a 2-book course with a strong following. Each book has an accompanying workbook and audio. It is one of the more expensive courses but worth the money. However, this is not so much better than Nakama that you should ignore a good deal if you find it.

Best non-comprehensive Technical Course:

Elementary Japanese. Also a two book series, it has the advantage of an audio CD that does not need to be ordered separately and has lots of exercises although it does not have an accompanying workbook. Japanese for Everyone is equally good, maybe better, but I rank it lower because it teaches at a faster pace to make up for it's 1 book length and the audio must be purchased separately--and seems difficult to acquire. This faster pace can be too much for many people, although the pace did not seem to be extraordinarily fast. I'm sure many will find the pace perfect.

Best Plain Technical Textbook:

An Introduction to Modern Japanese (Bowring & Laurie). This is an extremely detailed 52 Lesson course that has the stated goal of enabling the student to read--with only a dictionary for reference-- short stories by the half-way point and newspapers by the end. It comes with a workbook, essential for taking full advantage of this course, and emphasizes the subtleties of _written_ Japanese. Thus, making this course is best for the student with the primary goal of Japanese literacy over spoken fluency. It covers more Kanji than any other known course and gives detailed explanations of each grammar point but does not have audio, so it is not appropriate for students with a primary interest in speaking Japanese.
Also worth mentioning, Japanese Step-by-Step also has no audio but it does a great job--better than any other textbook--of teaching Japanese pitch changes by word and phrase. The main problem with this textbook is the extremely fast pace and very large vocabulary lists in many chapters. The best use of this book is as a secondary reference with any other course.

Best Japanese Primer:

Colloquial Japanese. This can be bought as the book alone or the book and audio can be bought together as a package. Great for someone going to Japan in the near future or that wants a good overview of the language before starting a more intensive course. This moves at a fast pace but does not overload the student with vocabulary. Also, the vocabulary builds on each previous chapter very well. Unfortunately, there are a relatively large number of typos throughout the book that the student will need to keep their eyes out for, however, they all seemed rather obvious because the parallel text will not match.

Okay, now that all that has been said, I need to identify the different traits that each type of textbook will focus on so I can point them out later.

Types of Textbooks

Spoken Emphasis

The conversational textbooks focus on speech patterns without much technical explanation. These textbooks are front-loaded so they are the best for students going to Japan in the near future. Conversational texts enable the student speak a wider variety of sentences sooner, for a shallower understanding of the grammar, at least initially.
Technical books explain how the grammar works. These books are rear-loaded and have the student speaking better Japanese in the long run at the cost of weaker Japanese skills initially. Also, the technical explanations can sometimes make learning more confusing not less. In general, all college textbooks fall into the technical category.

Writing Emphasis

Aka, romaji, rômaji, rōmaji and misspelled romanji, is what the Latin alphabet is called when used to write Japanese. Just as the above spellings of imply, there are multiple romanization methods that can lead to confusion. In general, it is always worth spending a week or so learning the kana system and avoiding roumaji altogether. A book that uses roumaji exclusively will get a lower rating than one that does not.
Kana refers to both the hiragana and katakana syllabaries collectively. Technically each kana represents a mora not a syllable.
The Chinese symbols adopted by Japan. Considered intimidating by many, the better systems introduce kanji early. Anyone wishing to become literate will benefit more from books emphasizing kanji. Even those not interested in becoming literate will gain a better understanding of how the language works by learning kanji. Most of the educational textbooks use furigana aka ruby over new kanji, or kanji that the student is not expected to learn for that lesson. Furigana are essentially small kana about 4pt right above the kanji to show the reading used.
Where possible the actual number of different kanji used are listed. If this information is not available a Japanese Language Proficiency Test # will be given as an estimation of the number and difficulty of the kanji used. Remember that JLPT 1 is the hardest not the easiest. Japanese school grade levels will be used in the same way. So instead of a Number or JLPT # there will be a Grade #. Thus, 6 Grade means all, or most, of the Educational Kanji are represented in the text. If a text goes beyond the Educational Kanji list then a Kanji Kentei 漢字検定 # will be used.
Either roumaji is used written alongside the Japanese or it is on a separate page. Integrated will be noted as parallel or seperate. Some texts are progressive, meaning that they may use parallel roumaji or furigana but it is slowly phased out.

Audience Emphasis

Business or Pleasure
The vocabulary and speech patters of the different textbooks are often heavily geared towards a certian audience. For example, Japanese for Busy People is geared almost entirely towards a student of business Japanese which makes it a poor choice for the student that is learning to better understand anime.
If an age is given it is always the youngest. Books that are appropriate for Adults and teenagers will be noted as Teen. Books that seem more appropriate for a particular age group will be noted by school level: Elementary.

There are of course other levels of emphasis, grammar, vocabulary, pattern sentences, but overall they are less important once the above are determined.

Other Terms used

The entire course page count is given even if they include more than 1 textbook. Thus Elementary Japanese is split into volume 1 (385 pages) and volume 2 (450 pages). Although the entire page page count is used for the textbook(s), any workbook page counts are not included.
The oldest copyright date is given if a re-issue was not seriously revised. Re-issues usually have few changes beyond spelling corrections if those, and most students don't want to come out of class sounding like an old man. If a language course was originally published in 1940, rest assured that the 2005 version usually exactly the same.
Books refers to subsequent textbooks it does not include the workbooks, teachers editions, or any other variant. Thus the 3 Books for "Japanese for Busy People" means there are 3 textbooks only. Usually the number of workbooks and textbooks are the same. If this is not the case, the discrepancy is not noted.
Books are ranked Unknown, Weak, Poor, Average, Good, and Great. The ranking is a combination of community response and, when possible, direct comparison with the other books. Poor reviews are not applied to the ranking if they do not account for the books stated, or implied, limitations. Bad reviews from people who were not the target audience are discounted, and raving reviews are mitigated by appropriate context.
The reputation ranking does not only reflect the technical quality of the Japanese textbook, it also includes the more subjective fun factor. A Good or Great reputation is only possible for books that are deemed both fun and accurate.
Books that are too new, rare, or otherwise difficult to obtain will often have an unknown reputation.
It is almost always easier to search or ask for a book by ISBN than by title. Copy and paste the ISBN into your favorite book seller's site, or favorite search engine. This ISBNs are for the first paperback in each series.

List of In-Print Textbooks

This is a list of all the in-print textbooks I know of that have not been added to the main index:

I'm using this section as a stop-gap for now. Eventually when I've referenced each volume then this section will be deleted and any new titles will be added directly.
Interactive Japanese - Summerell, Riley, & Yang (IJ S,R&Y)
Interactive Japanese - Tomoda & May (IJ T&M)
Japanese in Modules (JiM)
Japanese Now (JN)
Japanese Step by Step (JSbS)
Japanese the Spoken Language (JtSL)
Learn Japanese: New College Text (LJ)
Minna no Nihongo (MnN)
Nissan's Business Japanese (NBJ)
90 Days of Japanese Language
Shin Nihongo no Kiso (SNnK)
Speak Japanese (SJ)
Teach Yourself Japanese
Ultimate Japanese (UJ)
Aozora: Intermediate-Advanced Japanese Communication
An Integrated Guide to Intermediate Japanese
Intermediate Technical Japanese
Intermediate Modern Japanese
Japanese for JETs - Intermediate Text
Living in Japan: Intermediate conversational Japanese
Readers Guide to Intermediate Japanese: A Quick Reference to Written Expressions
Shimbun De Manabu Nihongo
Sura-Sura: A Text for Intermediate Japanese
Advanced Japanese Conversation
Advanced Spoken Japanese
Authentic Japanese: Progressing from Intermediate to Advanced

Textbook Feature list

Beginner, Beginner-Intermediate
Title Books © Chapters Pages Kanji Audience Emphasis Writing Emphasis Spoken Emphasis Audio Workbook Reputation ISBN
Adventures in Japanese 4 1998 Unk Unk Unk High School Parallel Technical Yes Yes Unknown 088727420X
Colloquial Japanese 1 2003 15 312 200+ Self-study Integrated Conversational Yes No Average 0415194784
Contemporary Japanese 2 2005 26 496 100+ College Kanji+rubi Technical Yes No Average 080483377X
Elementary Japanese 2 2005 27 835 200+ College Kanji+rubi Technical Yes No Good 0804835047
Genki 2 1999 33 697 303+ College Kanji Technical Yes Yes Great 4789009637
Idiot's Guide to Conversational Japanese 1 2002 25 432 0 Self-study Hepburn Unk Yes No Poor 0028641795
Ima 2 2004 Unk Unk Unk Unk Unk Unk Yes Yes Unknown 1876209151
Introduction to Modern Japanese - Bowring & Laurie 1 2002 52 481 1100+ College Kanji Conversational No Yes Great 052154887X
Introduction to Modern Japanese - Mizutani & Mizutani 1 1977 30 425 Unk Classroom Seperate Conversational Yes No Average 4789000583
Japanese for Busy People 3 1996 UNK 796 200+ Self Kana or Hepburn Business Yes Yes Average Roumaji ED 4770018827

Kana ED 4770019874

Japanese for Dummies 1 2002 20 408 None Self-Study Hepburn Conversational Yes No Poor 0764554298
Japanese for Everyone 1 Unk Unk 384 Unk Self-Study Parallel Conversational No No Great 0870408534
Japanese for Young People 3 1998 45 602 160 Junior-high Kanji+Rubi Conversational Yes Yes Average 477002178X
Intermediate, Intermediate-Advanced
Title Books © Chapters Pages Kanji Audience Emphasis Writing Emphasis Spoken Emphasis Audio Workbook Reputation
Title Books © Chapters Pages Kanji Audience Emphasis Writing Emphasis Spoken Emphasis Audio Workbook Reputation
Advanced Japanese 1 1998 10 211 Many College Kanji Technical Yes Yes Good
Japanese Life Today 現代日本事情 1 1987 12 161 JLPT 3 Self-study Kanji+rubi Conversational None No Good

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