When I lived in Tokyo, my friend and I would often take long meandering walks adventuring around the city and often ended up in bookstores. While he tended to gravitate toward the educational textbooks, I somehow always ended up in the children's section. Something about the shelves full of picture books just seemed so inviting to me.
I don't care how many kanji you know, it can be daunting to try and read even a novella in Japanese. If there aren't any illustrations, it's just you and the text — there are no other contextual cues to rely on. But with children's books, I didn't feel like reading them would be an overwhelming challenge from the start, and I felt accomplished reading a whole book (no matter how short or how many pictures).
However, just because children's books are for children doesn't mean they're necessarily easy to read for those studying Japanese as a foreign language. In this article, I'll discuss why children's books can be a great resource for Japanese-language learners, as well as some of the inherent challenges to watch out for. I'll also recommend some genres of books that adult learners of Japanese might enjoy and suggest where to find your own books.
- 絵本 (Ehon): Japanese Picture Books
- Why Read Japanese Picture Books?
- Inherent Challenges of Reading Japanese Picture Books
- Japanese Picture Books Genre Recommendations
- Where To Find Japanese Picture Books?
- Ready to Enjoy Some Japanese Picture Books?
絵本 (Ehon): Japanese Picture Books
When you hear "children's books," the first thing that might come to mind is the classic picture book. But there are also easy readers, chapter books, middle grade, young adult, and a ton of other related categories of books aimed toward early readers. For example, The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Harry Potter are both children's books, but they are quite different in terms of level, length, and the amount of pictures.
Ehon are illustrated stories for children in which the text and images are integrated, and generally work together to tell a story.
For this article, however, the focus will be narrowed to picture books, or 絵本 (ehon). So what exactly can be considered ehon? To put it simply, ehon are illustrated stories for children in which the text and images are integrated, and generally work together to tell a story. It might seem obvious, but to consider the previous examples, The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a picture book but Harry Potter is not. I know, I know, but what about the illustrated version of Harry Potter? No, still not a picture book, because the narrative does not rely on images on every page to help further the story and engage the reader — who, in the case of a picture book, is often being read to, not reading the book themselves. But for the sake of the resources I will introduce in this article, any book that is heavily-illustrated, from children's stories to encyclopedia-type specialty books known as 図鑑 (zukan) will be referred to as a "picture book."
Why Read Japanese Picture Books?
There's a reason I gravitated towards the picture books in Japanese bookstores — it was like the candy aisle in the grocery store. Amongst long rows of study guides and harried students, management tomes and surly salarymen, and "easy" cookbooks and the heavy mantle of my own failures, the children's section beckoned like a warm hug. It was a microcosm of bright colors, cozied with charmingly tiny tables and chairs, the shelves stuffed with titles I could actually read — or at least more or less figure out from the cover art.
Beyond the welcoming atmosphere of the children's section, as a Japanese language learner I also enjoy reading children's books because they feel more approachable. If you're still not convinced, here are a few more reasons to try them out.
Pictures Provide Context Clues
Especially for those at a lower level who are still learning to read in Japanese, pictures can be a game changer.
For one, you can't take it for granted that they visually make it more appealing and approachable. Compared to something that's text-only, pictures certainly lower the emotional hurdle of picking up a book and starting to read. Reading children's books doesn't feel like studying, even.
Learning new words from picture books can help you gain a better understanding of their nuance, and provide concrete examples of how and when they're typically used in context.
Pictures can also provide context to not only help you read, but read between the lines as well. In fact, research has shown that the combination of text with graphics like pictures or diagrams facilitates reading comprehension. 1 Images can help you understand words you may not know, and give you additional information about how to interpret the text. This means that pictures can also help you learn new words and phrases without translations. Learning through pictures is a more direct and intuitive approach than, say books with parallel translations. While learning new words through translation is a common approach for language learners (like flashcards), learning new words from picture books can help you gain a better understanding of their nuance, and provide concrete examples of how and when they're typically used in context, which is something direct translations can't always archieve.
Unlike Manga, It's Not All Dialogue
But why all this talk about picture books when you could just go and pick up some manga? Based on this criteria, they should be perfect reading material, right? Full of pictures, perhaps a little longish but not too text-heavy, Japanese culture savvy, and of course super fun!
Dialogue tries to replicate how people actually talk, and can be very informal and often colloquial.
Don't get me wrong, I love manga. But manga can be difficult for a few reasons, and some of the big ones are related to the fact that the stories are mainly told through dialogue. Of course, this dialogue tries to replicate how people actually talk, and can be very informal and often colloquial. On top of that, spoken Japanese can require you to pick up on a lot of subtext, since things like subjects are often omitted. All of this together means that manga can generally be difficult for beginner and even intermediate learners to understand.
You'll find some of these challenges also apply to picture books, but because the stories are generally told through narrative text instead of nearly exclusively through dialogue, I find they can be easier to digest. While the stories in manga can also get really complicated really fast, the stories you find in picture books are shorter and not overly-complex — after all, they are geared toward children.
You Can Set Small But Achievable Goals
You can read — and finish — them faster.
As a second-language learner, I often find that trying to tackle a longer book or a novel to be daunting, and the pressure to finish can be deinsentivising. That's why I’m a big proponent of setting smaller, more achievable goals to stay motivated to read. Because picture books are on the shorter side, you can read — and finish — them faster. I always feel a warm sense of accomplishment when I've finished reading a book in Japanese, and it doesn't really matter if it's a novel, a chapter book, or a thirty-page picture book.
Learn About Japanese Culture
Thinking about Japanese culture in a broader sense, many Japanese children's books, either explicitly or implicitly, explain or teach children about Japanese culture and how to be a part of Japanese society.
You can use picture books to learn what Japanese children learn that becomes part of the collective common knowledge.
Think about all the stories you hear and ideas you pick up as a children that go into your understanding of your culture and how to be a part of it: fairy tales and songs, stories about famous people and events, characters that are part of a shared cultural memory, what you can expect to see and do in different places, expectations about how you should act. You can use picture books to learn what Japanese children learn that becomes part of the collective common knowledge — for instance, the song Donguri Korokoro, who Kaguyahime and Urashima Tarō are, what you might do in the springtime, and how to work together with a group.
Picture books can help you learn not only some foundational aspects of Japanese culture, but can also be a kind of backdoor to understanding a Japanese point of view!
And… They're Simply So Much Fun!
Perhaps the best part of reading Japanese picture books is that they are fun. And cute, and bright, and charming, and just plain lovely.
Even if you were never a big fan of reading to begin with, or if you've developed an emotional allergy over the years of trying to read in Japanese, just like Harry Potter inspired non-readers to find the joy in reading, trying out Japanese picture books might be just what you need to jumpstart your journey into reading Japanese (again). So if it sounds like a fun idea, give it a try! It might be just what you need to motivate you to tackle something with less, or even no pictures, eventually.
Inherent Challenges of Reading Japanese Picture Books
Like I mentioned before, the children's book section beckons like the candy aisle of the bookstore. However, unfortunately not every Japanese picture book offers an effortless jaunt through candy land. So, let's quickly talk about some of the challenges so you're not surprised by a sour gummy worm when you're gobbling down on some sweet, sweet gummy bears.
As a second language learner, there are going to be some inherent challenges that come with reading books written for native speakers, even if those native speakers are children.
While the overwhelming majority of Japanese picture books are written for children who are native speakers of Japanese, if you've spent much time around children you'll know that they have a vocabulary that may not be utilized in many contexts for adults or second-language learners.
They have a vocabulary that may not be utilized in many contexts for adults or second-language learners.
For example, one of the most famous English children's stories is Pat the Bunny, but I couldn't tell you the last time I used the word "pat" or read it in a sentence that wasn't in Pat the Bunny. It's such a simple word, just three letters, but it's not even in the top 5000 words recommended for advanced learners of English by Oxford Learner's Dictionaries. 2
The same goes for Japanese picture books. For example, they often use onomatopoeia and other fun-sounding expressions that add good rhythm to the stories. ごっつんこ gottsunko, for instance, is a word used for when something bumps to something else. This is a fairly common expression for Japanese children, and while it may also be used by native-speaking adults, is not necessarily as well-known to second language learners. Learning these types of words can be a joy, but can also be a stumbling block, just like the relatively advanced grammar that might pop up.
Grammar the Textbooks Don't Teach You
Again, with children's books, the assumption is that the reader is a native speaker. And native speakers learn language in a completely different way compared to second language learners — textbooks have nothing on that spongy baby brain!
You might see more advanced grammatical expressions and verb tenses just casually thrown around.
So, this means that you might see more advanced grammatical expressions and verb tenses just casually thrown around, like the friendly trio causative, passive, and causative-passive. Oftentimes, even if there's some grammar you don't understand you can still get enough of the context to figure out more or less what a sentence means (this is exactly how I read a text written in classical Japanese), so don't get too discouraged!
You might also come across contractions, like 〜てる for 〜ている or 〜ちゃう for 〜てしまう, or some sound changes or other words associated with baby talk, like 〜ちゃま for 〜さま. These colloquialisms may not be in your dictionary, but you can often figure them out with a quick Google search. You can definitely give your dictionary (or at least your brain) a workout with the next challenge: missing kanji.
No Kanji… Can Be A Little Challenging
Many books for very young children — from toddlers to those in the first year of elementary school — often have very few kanji, or none at all. On the one hand, this means you don't need to know any kanji to start reading children's books, and you won't stumble over the meanings or readings of kanji you're not familiar with. Hurray!
On the other hand, I had no idea how much I actually relied on kanji to grasp the meaning of a sentence until my friend's toddler asked me to read him a book with zero kanji. I was pretty confident — certainly I could read Japanese better than a two year old? The answer was yes — but not without some initial hits to my dignity.
Take, for example, this picture book title: 「きょうは なんのひ？」
It's a little tricky, right? You would typically see the title written like 「今日は何の日？」, but with no kanji, it can take a minute to parse where the end of a word is, what's a particle and what's not, what the meaning of a word is… Sentences are broken up into chunks, however, often with spaces after particles, which is a lot of help.
The use of kanji is something you should look into especially when selecting a book.
Like the other challenges, this isn't a huge obstacle that can't be overcome — just something to be aware of. You may not be comfortable reading (almost) all-kana text at first, but you'll get used to it as you read. When you aren't sure, reading out loud might help you recognize a word you actually know.
Not all picture books are devoid of kanji — there are options geared toward older children and more advanced readers which you can use to practice your kanji knowledge. Just keep in mind that the use of kanji is something you should look into especially when selecting a book!
It Can Be Harder To Find A Book At Your Level (Than Graded Readers)
It can be harder to find a picture book that's suitable for your level.
Compared to resources like graded readers for language learners, which are categorized into levels of difficulty, it can be harder to find a picture book that's suitable for your level. Some websites like EhonNavi (which I'll talk about later) allow you to search by age, which can be an indication of difficulty level, but this can be limiting when the reading material is not tailored for language learners, specifically.
NPO Tadoku Supporter's website is a website where you can find graded readers and search for other recommended extensive-reading materials. In their database, you can search for their curated picture books. Each book is given a grade so you can find books that match your reading level. While you are on their website, be sure to check out their original graded readers too, as many are available for free — especially lower-level reads use lots of pictures, so they're like a perfect mix of picture books and graded readers!
Japanese Picture Books Genre Recommendations
After learning about the benefits and challenges of reading picture books, I hope you are up for giving them a shot. Although "Japanese picture books" sounds like a specific category of books, it actually encompasses a wide variety of genres. In case you aren't sure what to look for, or where to start, I put together a few recommendations, focusing on genres that you can learn Japanese culture from, as well as ones that I think adults can enjoy. To find or instill the joy of reading, I think it's important to pick a book about something you love or that you're at least interested in. I hope you can find something on this list that you feel excited about reading!
むかし話: Traditional Folktales
While classic European fairy tales are popular in Japan as well, Japan has its own traditional folktales, or むかし話 mukashi banashi, which literally translates to "stories of a long time ago." The storylines of some of these famous tales, like Momotarō, Kaguyahime, and Urashimatarō are so well-known they’ve become part of the cultural fabric of Japan — you would have a hard time finding someone that doesn't know them. In fact, it is pretty common to see or hear about the characters and references to these folktales in day-to-day life in Japan. So as a Japanese learner it's not a bad idea to expand your cultural knowledge by reading them yourself!
Just a heads-up, since folktales are stories that were traditionally passed down orally through generations, the writing style and format tend to vary between authors and publishers, even for the same story. Most Japanese folktales also feature elderly characters — ojiichan (grandfather) and/or obaachan (grandmother). Because of this, some books (that respected the authenticity of oral storytelling) might use very colloquial speech patterns characteristic of elderly characters in fiction. This can be challenging to understand for Japanese learners, so you might want to look out for these quirks when selecting a book.
This is actually more of a format than a genre, but 図鑑 (zukan) and 事典 (jiten) refer to encyclopedia-type books.
For children who are learning all about new words and subjects for the first time, these are great vocabulary-builders and can provide deep-knowledge on a subject they find interesting, like bugs or fish. There are zukan and jiten of really anything, so you will probably be able to find one that's all about something you love. You might be thinking,"well, I'm not interested in any of the things children love." Okay, even though you might not be interested in dinosaurs or acorns, seriously, the variety of zukan and jiten is huge. And many have really interesting viewpoints that adults would find interesting and educational.
For example, a book called 絶滅したいきもの図鑑 (zetsumetsu shita ikimono zukan) features animals that went extinct for a kind of silly and ridiculous reason. (Like, did you know a manatee-like animal called Steller's sea cow became extinct because they were too kind!? 🤯) There are also books that feature bird beaks, the cut ends of citrus fruits, and even fish fillets.
What's good about these encyclopedia-type books is that they are formatted to parse information in an easily-digestible format instead of using long, endless paragraphs. Usually, a subject (or a group of subjects) is featured on one page. This chunking makes it easy to read or skip entire pages that might not interest you without feeling like you missed out on something integral to the non-narrative format.
As long as they are intended for children, both zukan and jiten (the terms are used almost interchangeably) are image-heavy. However, note that zukan, as the name includes 図 (which means "picture"), means "visual dictionary," so they tend to have a stronger emphasis on visuals. So, although it really depends on the book, it's not rare for zukan to have more limited text. For instance, some only list a name along the picture of the subject.
There's something special about looking at illustrations of food that scrolling photogenic foodie photos on your social media feed can't touch. Especially if you love Japanese food (washoku), picture books that feature food are a true gem.
There are story books that revolve around food, but there are also more educational books featuring a certain type of food that give you a deep dive into its history, ingredients, and more. I think adult language learners who are into Japanese culinary culture would especially enjoy those books. Some books also feature encyclopedia-style content like zukan, for example seasonal wagashi, or different types and thickness of ramen noodles. These books tend to be aimed at elementary schoolers, and are written in kana and kanji (often with furigana readings), so they could be great materials for learners who want to practice reading kanji. Just make sure to eat some snacks before heading to a library or bookstore — they will surely make you hungry!
Are you a fan of 妖怪 (yokai)? If you’re into horror stories or the occult, picture books about yokai could be your jam. If weren’t already familiar, yokai are supernatural beings and mysterious creatures of Japanese folklore. They can be "haunted" inanimate objects imbibed with spiritual energy, water demons like the kappa — who also featured in a Harry Potter series movie — or the frigid 雪女 (yuki onna) snow woman, who freezes her unsuspecting victims to death.
They might sound like an innately frightening topic, but yokai, despite their folktale origins, are a prominent part of Japanese pop culture, especially for children. Ever heard of a little franchise called Pokemon? Yea, yokai inspired. Yokai's looks and habits can be quirky and hilarious, making them much more than the topic of some scary stories. Since many children love yokai in Japan, there are quite a few children's picture books featuring yokai. You might also see the word おばけ as something in the same vein — it generally refers to mysterious creatures including yokai.
Whether you are new to the world of yokai, or an avid fan already, there are many 図鑑 (zukan) / encyclopedia-type books that introduce the different "species" of yokai, and some that even give you tips for how to deal with them if you were ever to encounter these mysterious creatures in real-life.
Yokai manga legend 水木しげる (Mizuki Shigeru), who's best known for the ゲゲゲの鬼太郎 (Ge-Ge-Ge No Kitaro) series, also wrote many picture books about yokai that are well worth checking out.
Where To Find Japanese Picture Books?
Now you might be feeling inspired to start reading Japanese picture books (or at least I hope you are), but left wondering where to pick one up. If you're in Japan, you can just pop into the nearest bookstore and wander over to the children's section like I did. Most bookstores will have at least a small children's section. Kinokuniya, Maruzen, Tsutaya, and Book1st are all good options. Even some 100-yen shops sell inexpensive children’s books. If you'd prefer to buy used books, try BookOff! Don't forget to check out your local library as well.
If you'd prefer to browse or read online, or you aren't in Japan, there are some options for you as well. EhonNavi is a Japanese site dedicated to, what else, ehon. On EhonNavi, not only can you search for books by genre, but you can also search by age, which can be helpful to gauge the reading level of the book. One of the many benefits of shopping their catalog online is that they provide free samples. While it’s a limited feature, you can even preview whole books for free by signing up. With your free account you can access the 全ページためしよみ (all-page preview) of up to three books a month (once per title only). Many books also offer a ちょっとためしよみ ("a little" preview) which lets you take a peek of a few pages and for this, you don't even sign up for an account. EhonNavi also offers a premium, paid membership that allows you to read as many books as you want for about four bucks a month (396 yen, to be exact). You can still only read each book once, but you can access as many books as you want! Previews are only available with the mobile app, but it's worth the hassle to download it. Sadly, although EhonNavi does have an online shop where you can buy physical books, sadly, they do not ship overseas.
If you like free stuff and want to support a community of volunteer creators, check out, 絵本ひろば (Ehon Hiroba). This Japanese site is dedicated to picture books, but all of their books are created by users! You can read stories by amateur ehon artists for free, and there are some wonderful stories with truly impressive art. Sign up for a free account and read these high-quality ehon to your heart's content!
And if you want to get a hold of a physical copy, shipping from Amazon Japan is another option. There are of course lots of children's books to choose from, and Amazon Japan usually ships internationally. For those in the U.S., especially city-dwellers, Kinokuniya might have a brick-and-mortar location near you. They also have an online store, and shipping costs tend to be cheaper than Amazon Japan or other online stores that ship from Japan.
Ready to Enjoy Some Japanese Picture Books?
Lastly, I just want to give you a friendly reminder — make sure to take a peek before purchasing! Especially if you are browsing online, don't forget to take a peek inside before whipping out your wallet and committing your time and money to a purchase. There are many books that provide free previews so be sure to check them out. Again, there is a wide range in picture books, so make sure to choose what you feel is right for your level. Books for toddlers and those intended for school-aged children are vastly different in terms of both language and content, so be sure to look out for things like writing style, vocabulary, the use of kanji, text density, and font.
Most importantly — make sure to pick a book that you think you'll enjoy, and focus on the joy of reading rather than how much you can mine the resources for study material. And of course, don't forget to take some time to admire the illustrations!
I hope this article has given you some new ideas for Japanese books to read. Even though there are some challenges with reading Japanese children's books, because they tend to be shorter and have lots of illustrations, they can be very approachable. They're also, of course, lots of fun. I've gotten a lot of joy out of reading Japanese children's books, and I hope you do, too.
Do You Get the Picture? A Meta-Analysis of the Effect of Graphics on Reading Comprehension by Daibao Guo & Shuai Zhang & Katherine Landau Wright & Erin M. McTigue (2020) ↩
The Oxford 3000 and the Oxford 5000 by Oxford Learner's Dictionaries ↩