Thursday, April 30, 2009

How To Begin Learning Japanese With Manga

A couple of weeks ago I posted how reading manga can be good for your Japanese, but I only touched on learning to read from scratch. Thankfully, one of my friends natuskigirl (Lynn) followed through with her comment on that post, and put together two videos on how to start learning Japanese with manga. The videos are excellent in outlining the steps you need to take to start using manga as a learning aide, so I thought I might feature them here and add a few of my own ideas.

Lynn started learning Japanese from manga when she was 13 years old, and has posted lots of cool manga collecting videos on her YouTube channel "tokirocket". She knows what she is talking about, so listen carefully as she outlines a long term study plan for learning how to read Japanese with Manga.

We'll get to the second part of the video soon, but first I just want to summarise some of the points Lynn made about the first steps you need to take.

3 Steps you need to take to begin reading

First: Memorise the kana.

Japanese has three alphabets, hiragana, katakana and kanji. The kana, hiragana and katakana, both have about 50 characters, and can be rote learned in about a fortnight. This is the least interesting part of getting started, it takes commitment and effort. Once you break through however, you'll be able to pick up your first manga and start reading.

Don't worry about kanji so much at this stage, there are more than 2000 used in everyday language in Japan, so it takes years of dedication to learn them. You want to get started as quickly as possible so just concentrate on the kana. Learning the kana will allow you take advantage of furigana, a Japanese reading aide which appears above kanji in some manga. You'll also be able to recognise many loanwords from English and other languages which are normally written in katakana.

Second: Choose the right manga.

Start low, you may be an adult learner but remember your Japanese reading age is low. Steer clear of books with adult themes or highly specific language, you'll need something that matches the vocabulary you have. Doraemon, Chibi Mariko-chan and Sazae-san are titles aimed at the family market that tell stories about suburban Japanese life. Think Peanuts, and not The Dark Knight.

Although they may seem tempting at first, don't use the bilingual editions, they're a crutch. Japanese children learn to read by reading Japanese, and you once learned to read by reading English. Trust your inner child to work things out for you as you have fun with the challenge. You'll read and re-read these comics over and over again so choose something you are interested in, it will make things easier in the long run . There is no point reading about war time pilots if you have no interest in war stories.

Choose something with a long, cohesive storyline. Yonkoma, the kind of strip comics like Dilbert found in newspapers are no good because they rely heavily on puns and topical in-jokes that will be lost on the casual reader. Slightly older Manga like Sailor Moon, Hunter Hunter, and Naruto are good because they are bound in numbered volumes that have characters and a story line that develops over time.

Third: Open the book.

Manga has a few conventions that will become apparent as you flip through the pages. Are you starting from the right end of the book? The reading order is from right to left, even in most translated versions. The pages are read top down, from right to left.

Use the pictures to get an idea of the story line and the scenario, this will help you get an idea of the kind of vocabulary you'll encounter. Don't just look at the pictures though, 'read' them. The story is contained within each cell. Ask yourself these questions, in Japanese if you can. Who? What? Where? When? Why?

Your answers in Japanese will help prime you to deal with the reading. Read what you know first, if you are good with katakana, seek it out on the page and read it to yourself, out loud if you can. Katakana is often used for emphasis, as well as sound effects, think of it as the sound track to your story.

Don't worry about the slang, or words you don't know. Keep moving forward. Read each kana where and when you can.

For kanji don't be intimidated, if your manga has furigana use that, after a while you will become familiar with the most common kanji just through sheer volume. For kanji that you don't see very often or doesn't have any furigana, use a place holder word, like nantoka (something or other).

Read in small sections, stop where the scene changes. Put the book down and review vocabulary or work on your tables again. With a little rest you'll be ready to pick up the manga and start again soon. Repetition is important, don't be discouraged and just keep reading, make sure it's something you enjoy.

You'll need to have some tools by your side as you read. I'll let Lynn
explain the reading technique first and then we'll come back with some
of the tools you'll need to get started after the video.

Five tools you must have to read Manga

Reading manga is preferably something that you are going to do offline, so the tools I list here are decidedly low tech. It's good to find a nice warm spot in the sun and get away from the screen sometimes. You will need to use the internet however to source some of your material, like books and charts, also to make friends with other manga otaku.

1. Hiragana and katakana charts

Most small phrase books have these charts on the inside covers, you can also by them separately or as posters to put on your wall. If they fit in your pocket, you'll be more likely to carry them with you every where you go. You'll need to refer to them often when starting out, so have close by when you are reading.

2. A book with with basic vocabulary and grammar points

If you have bought a good phrasebook you may be able learn something about grammar, but I find nothing is ever covered in enough detail. There are plenty of good books that cover grammar structures only, but these are often very dry and technical. Even better if you can find a course book with exercises like minna no nihongo, or Japanese for Busy People.

3. English/Japanese plus Japanese/English dictionaries

Usually these two volumes come in a pair and both are important. I use Kodansha's Furigana Japanese-English and English-Japanese dictionaries, which also come as a single volume hardcover Japanese dictionary.

4. A learners kanji dictionary

It's never too early to start learning how to use one! Understanding radicals and stroke order is central to both understanding how to read kanji, and also how to find them in a dictionary like this. But it would probably take a whole series of videos to explain how this is done. Don't be intimidated by the kanji though, you need to get intimate with them.

5. A kanji study book

When you are ready to tackle Kanji, Lynn suggests you try Remembering the Kanji. I haven't read it, because I took a more native approach and used the Kanji Kentei Gakushu Suteppu (10級漢字学習ステップ) which also allowed to me to practice my writing, just as an elementary school student would in Japan.

More on learning and where to buy Manga

The focus of this post and Lynn's videos has been on reading authentic Japanese manga. There a very few places in Australia that stock Japanese books, I'm not sure about the rest of the world, but if it's anything like here you will have to hunt them down.

I would start first with friends, do you know anyone in Japan? Do have any friends travelling there soon? Make sure you ask them to pick you up a few books on your way back from Japan. Lynn raves about Ebay, and I reckon it's a pretty good place to start if you are going to buy online.

Online bookstores like Amazon, and Amazon Japan are also good. Kinokunia and Book-off are also Japanese chains, so you might a good response from them. Google Japanese book store for stores in your local area, and if your local bookstore doesn't carry any, ask them to get it in for you.

Reading manga can be good for your Japanese, make it easier for yourself by setting up with the right tools.

What manga do you read? How did you get started? Have you been doing this kind of thing online, with scanlations and online dictionaries? Let's hear about it the comments.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Photo retrospective April 2007 Spring Sumo at Ise Jingu

Poster for the Spring Sumo Tournament at Ise Jingu.

Haru no O-Ise Basho
Haru no O-Ise Basho by Rainbowhill LL, on Flickr.

Heavily injured Kotooushu will not be competing today.

Kotooushu by Rainbowhill LL, on Flickr.

About to walk on for the first bout of the day, this rikishi dwarfs the spectator nearest to him.

Limbering up
Limbering up by Rainbowhill LL, on Flickr.

Surrounded by his minders the grand champion, Mongolian Asashoryu makes his way to the ring.

Yokozuna Asashoryu
Yokozuna Asashoryu by Rainbowhill LL, on Flickr.

A champion in waiting, Hakuho watches on as the first bouts take place.

Hakuho by Rainbowhill LL, on Flickr.

"I'm not moving, you step aside!"

Impasse by Rainbowhill LL, on Flickr.

This giant of a man makes his way through a crowd of on-lookers.

Kotomitsuki by Rainbowhill LL, on Flickr.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The classroom chatterer

You are encouraged to talk in class.

One of things good things about teaching at eduFire is that I learn more about teaching/learning languages than at any other time of day. It seems education is a two way street. A lot of what happens in the chat window during class is not directly related to the lesson, and it happens more quickly than I can respond to, but I'm starting to find it a valuable source of feedback about my teaching. Sometimes when I have the time, I go back through the chat transcripts just to work out what was going on.

I think you'll find it valuable as well, as students often ask me to send them the session notes and chat transcripts if they miss a class. I know sometimes they are after vocabulary, sentences and grammar points. Sometimes though it's the exchange of links that generates the most interest. So for your benefit, I'm going to give you a quick breakdown of what we talked about in class last week.

I hope to open this up to you on a more regular basis, kind of a highlight of the things we were talking about in class. Even readers of this blog who don't get into class can benefit from the things we're sharing.

Smart FM

The new Smart.FM came up in the chat and in conversation more than just about any other site, apart from maybe eduFire of course. I must have added about a dozen friends from eduFire to my friends list over there in the last few days alone. People have been raving about about BrainSpeed and I've had a few requests already for Lists (more on that later). I really need to sharpen up my repetitions on iKnow before you lot put me to shame!

Lee and Teyannie suggested some of these Japanese Lists:

Nintendo DS Emulator

I find Nintendo DS really useful for writing practice, the touch pad makes it easy to practice writing anywhere. What if you don't want to fork out for the hardware? Lee provided the single most useful link of the week, to a DS Emulator! The emulator comes zipped with Pokemon Platinum (.rar), but even more useful than that is My Japanese Coach (.rar).

Koichi posted Studying Japanese with a Nintendo DS in December last year, and the are lots of other ideas in the comments to his post. For the record I use Kanken DS (Kanji practice) and Sono Mama Rakubiki Jiken (Electronic Kanji Dictionary).


Last month I wrote about how reading Manga can be good for your Japanese, and it's a popular topic that keeps coming up in class. Everyone wants to know how to get into Manga, without having to know a lot of Kanji. There are no shortcuts to learning Kanji, it takes hours of dedication to both writing and reading. But Manga can help, especially manga with furigana. Furigana is "helper text" usually written in hiragana, so if you know how to read that it's much easier to get through a comic book without reaching for the Kanji dictionary.

If you haven't already got it, download Rikaichan, a fantastic add-on for Firefox. Rikaichan is a dictionary that reads and translates kanji for you on web pages that you visit. Of course that won't help you when you're reading hard copy. I have a few ideas that I'm working on to help you in this area. If you have any suggestions I'd like to hear about them in the comments.

Worksheets and homework

Saj made the suggestion in class that I provide some kind of homework or worksheets to accompany the lessons. Apart from the lesson notes I have on there isn't much for students to work on outside of class.

I am currently working on compiling all of the loose lesson notes, and incorporating your suggestions in to one workbook for each class. They'll be available as a download in PDF format and will include grammar, vocab and exercises to give you a more well-rounded learning experience.

Please visit for class notes in the meantime.

Other blogs and random links

We all love a bit of link love. These three sites came up in conversation, and are fairly representative of the kinds of blogs written by students of Japanese. Hi Chris, Kyle and Håvard!Quinsy came up with this random flash gunner game.

Watching live Japanese TV

Two live TV sites came up; Freshverse which I haven't used, but is highly recommended for anime, and the software my kids watch Japanese children's television on, Key Hole TV. If you have to immerse yourself from a distance, there is nothing better that zoning out to some Studio Ghibli.

Kansai dialect

Kansai-ben is the dialect spoken in West Japan, from Nagoya to Hyogo. Many of the best comedy acts and comedy stars come from the Kansai region, so Kansai-ben has an irreverent colloquial flavour. Michael Downey (@gakuranman on Twitter) recently posted a pub video of himself and a friend using some of the more common Kansai expressions. A while back Harvey (@JapanNewbie on Twitter) rounded up some of the more common Kansai phrases. Kansai-ben is what we speak at home, so sometimes you might hear me slip it into it.

The round-up

I hope you enjoyed that summary of what we talked about in class this week. I want to do this on a more regular basis. Watch this space for Lists on Smart.FM, workbooks for classes and more posts on using manga to improve your reading.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

JapanSoc Poken Contest

It seems you can't turn anywhere on the interwebs without running into one of these social little fellows. I first heard about the Poken following twitter coverage of the Tokyo GCM night hosted by Danny Choo and Andrew Shuttleworth.

JapanSoc is holding a contest to give away one of eleven Poken devices to a lucky winner. The Poken allows you to quickly and effortless share your social profiles with other Poken users when you meet in real life.

I did a quick search on google for Poken users in Brisbane and all I could find were misspellings of spoken, so I guess if I were to win one I would be one of the first. It would probably come in handy at the The Japanese Language and Culture Brisbane Meetup Group I get to sometimes, or even the The Brisbane Anime & Manga Meetup Group that I'm yet to attend. It sure beats beer coasters and the bits of paper that inevitably get lost in the wash.

Friday, April 17, 2009

6 Expat bloggers with a window on Japan

If I had a yen for every time someone mistakenly said "I'd love to live in Japan just like you", I wouldn't be very rich. However, I could probably buy something at the 100yen shop, If I were living in Japan that is. You see, I moved back to Australia last year where I'm now living and working.

Like most of my readers and students on eduFire, I know one day I will get (back) to Japan. I have my little Japanese family with me, and our friends around us in Australia, so all is good for now. For news about what is actually happening in Japan, and staying involved, I rely on the much larger J-blogger community.

Today I want to introduce you to a few expat bloggers that have a perspective on Japan that not many people get. You might be surprised at the variety. I deliberately chose friends that have an experience dissimilar to mine. I also wanted to give you, my readers, a broader picture of the kinds of lives you can lead in Japan, whether you are just starting out, or you've been there for a lot longer.

Each of them has something special to offer, I hope you find their perspectives as interesting as I do.

Nick Ramsay

Nick Ramsay
Location: Japan
Web: http://www.japans...
Bio: Founder of, long-term Japan resident, Social Web CMS developer and work-at-home dad.

Nick is the founder of and a developer for the open source social bookmarking platform Social Web CMS which powers Nick started his life in Japan as an English teacher more than ten years ago, and now works from home where he controls his small empire of childhood education websites. You'll find some really helpful stuff from this stay-at-home dad on his personal website

Micaela Braithwaite

Micaela Braithwaite
Location: Fukuoka, Japan
Web: http://www.youtub...

Micaela arrived in Japan just as I was preparing to leave, when I first saw her vlogs on YouTube she reminded me of the wide-eyed way I took in the experience when I landed. She may hope we believe she is small and fragile, but I think she is stronger than she lets on in her livejournal. Most recently Micaela collaborated with fellow YouTuber Alejandro on an entry in the Lotte Fit's Dance contest!

Shane Sakata

Shane Sakata
Location: Chiba, Japan
Web: http://www.nihons...
Bio: An expat living and writing about Japan's great travel destinations, history & culture.

Shane Sakata is the blogging machine behind The Nihon Sun, and also one of the driving forces behind the J-blogging community that is starting to take shape on Shane trains her lens on parts of Japan that sometimes only get a small mention in travel guidebooks, like the recent Sumo at Yasukuni Shrine. I really enjoy her attention to detail which you can see in her post of fashion faux pas in Shibuya and her focus on the cultural aspects of being in Japan. you can see more of Shane's photography in her Flickr pool, or in the newly formed JapanSoc Flickr group.

Chris Gaunt

Chris Gaunt
Location: Tokyo, Japan
Web: http://www.nihong...
Bio: Learning Japanese and helping others to find the motivation to do so at

Chris hasn't been in Japan very long but he is one of the most active bloggers in this little community we have going. He has worked on the new design for and also runs JPop Japan, a place to share your Japanese music news and articles. I like his British sense of humour. He's been soaking it up, and sharing it with his readers, in the hope of inspiring you to learn more about Japanese language and culture. I'm glad he's found work as a programmer, because it means he'll be telling his story from Japan a bit longer.

Joseph Tame

Joseph Tame
Location: Meguro-ku, Tokyo
Web: http://www.tamego...
Bio: The iPhone-Runner, Tokyo-based husband, photographer, apple fan, teacher, podcaster and change enthusiast

Joseph Tame has been been blogging prolifically since 2002 and has been described as Phileas Fogg with an iPhone. Once you start reading though, you'll realise that Joseph's life is one larger than any fiction. He hit the headlines in March this year running the Tokyo Quarter Marathon with a jail-broken iPhone strapped to his forehead. In his video response to critics he announced that wasn't important to see where you were going so long as you followed your heart. Joseph has just completed the first Japan Podshow, expect to see more ground breaking stuff from a man who refuses to be defined or confined.

Neil Duckett

Neil Duckett
Location: Tokyo, Japan
Web: http://www.neildu...
Bio: Australian guy living in Tokyo. Pictures and Stories from Life In Japan, Part time photographer.

If you've ever wondered what a 30 something professional bachelor gets up to in the worlds largest metropolis, then look no further than Neil Duckett. Neil believes in living life to the fullest, his blog testament to fast times, and more recently, fantastic photography . Regular posts include his highly popular J-Babe Of The Week and JR Yamanote Line, a stop by stop expose of the 29 stations that surround the city of Tokyo.

The round up

There are plenty of people I could have mentioned that have a big role to play in the J-blogger community, these guys and girls are just the tip of the iceberg. Head on over to to get involved if you are interested in being part of it!

Who do you follow in Japan? What are the best resources you have for learning about life in Japan? Are you blogging about Japan from Japan, or somewhere else? Let us know in the comments!