Japanese Books for Upper Beginners Practice Reading with Authentic Native Materials for the Upper Beginner Level

    You've been learning Japanese for a while, and reading example sentences in textbooks or materials intended for Japanese learners, like graded readers, has started feeling a bit boring to you. Now that you have a good foundation of vocabulary and grammar, you are thinking of trying out more authentically Japanese books — ones that a Japanese native speaker would pick up and enjoy reading.

    Sound a bit like you? If so, you've come to the right place.

    One of the common questions I get from Japanese learners is, "What Japanese books would you recommend?" I do have recommendations for books that I enjoy, but this is often a tricky question, especially when a beginner asks. With limited vocabulary and Japanese knowledge, beginners might not enjoy a book as much as I do. As a foreign language learner myself, I know the overwhelming feeling you get when trying to read something too advanced for your level and having to look up almost every word or grammar point.

    So in this article, I will be introducing a few Japanese book series that are easier to read for upper beginner level learners, such as a picture book series, a slice-of-life manga series, and novels for elementary school students. I am hoping this article will inspire those who have started feeling comfortable with basic grammar and vocabulary, and are eager to practice reading authentic materials.

    Who Is This Article For?

    To write this article, we asked fellow Japanese learners what book they would recommend to someone at around the JLPT N4 level and WaniKani level 10-20, in terms of vocabulary and grammar. The books then are more suitable for "upper beginners" rather than "absolute beginners." It's a rough indication as there are different levels and types of challenges/learner-friendliness even within this list. Whether you are outside of the range or are in the range, a sample page is usually available, so take a peek before purchasing and committing to it.

    Also, don't get me wrong when I say "beginner-friendly." Reading these books will likely still be challenging. But, also know that's how it should be! Reading books is a part of your learning journey, and it opens the door for you to meet new expressions and vocabulary. It gives you opportunities to train yourself by reading in context and looking up unknown words or grammar patterns as well. So it's not like you will be able to magically understand everything in the books if you are at or past a certain level. If you have more Japanese knowledge, that's great! Your reading experience will likely be smoother. If you don't, you get to learn more from the book, just as long as you stick with it.

    Online Book Clubs for Japanese Learners

    As one last thing before getting to the actual book recommendations, I would like to express my gratitude to our fellow Japanese learners, members of the WaniKani Community. Our kanji learning app, WaniKani has an amazing community of Japanese learners, and they have book club activities. In order to write this article, I conducted a survey and gathered recommendations from the community, so you will see their comments on each book in this article.

    Not only do book club members support each other by asking/answering questions, but they often have helpful resources such as vocabulary lists and decks for SRS flashcard apps tailored for each book. And these could be a game changer for your reading experience as a learner. They even exchange information about how to/where to get the copies, which is useful if you've never purchased a Japanese book online!

    Most importantly, reading with others will motivate you to read regularly and stick with it. In case you're feeling too shy to join the ongoing clubs, even reading through the finished book club threads is very useful. (And oftentimes, questions are welcome even if the club is no longer active.) In this article, I also included the links to the book clubs, so make sure to check them out as well.

    Japanese Books For Beginners

    Now let's take a look at the book recommendations! Like mentioned earlier, each book has different types of challenges and beginner-friendliness. Make sure to check notes in the "For Japanese Learners" section as well as the sample pages to see if the book is for you.

    Picture Book

    わんにゃん 探偵団たんていだん シリーズ (Doggy Kitty Detectives Series)

    asdf
    Source: Written by 杉山亮
    Illustrations by 廣川沙映子/小松良佳 (偕成社)

    Here is a series of picture books called わんわん探偵団 (Doggy Detectives) and にゃんにゃん探偵団 (Kitty Detectives). Both are mystery-solving stories of amateur detectives with furry sidekicks! 🐶🐱

    The main character of わんわん探偵団, Spitz Kawai, is a dog trainer, who brings stray dogs home and takes care of them. In each chapter, he gets involved in a criminal (or not-so-criminal) case and tries to solve it with his dogs. He also gets help from a different breed of dog in each case, and you get to learn about them too! にゃんにゃん探偵団 is a spin-off series of わんわん探偵団, where Spitz Kawai's crush, Hanae, the owner of a children's book store, solves mysterious incidents that happen in the town with her cat.

    What makes this series extra fun is that each chapter is divided into two parts — an introduction to the case, then the case-solving part. This way, you get to guess who the culprit could be on your own and enjoy mystery solving! There are more mysteries available in the series when you finish reading your first volume — the crime rate in town is over the woof! 🐾

    For Japanese Learners

    This book series will be the perfect starter if you've only ever read graded readers before. People from the absolute beginner book club on the WaniKani Community seem to enjoy it as well. The volume of text on each page is not overwhelming (it uses a nice, big, and readable font), and each story, as well as the whole book, is relatively short. Every page has cute illustrations, which you can use as visual cues. The sentences tend to be simply structured, and the frequent use of punctuations and spaces makes it easy to distinguish between words (which is hard sometimes, especially in a book with a bunch of kana). Although some words are written in all kana, you still get to practice reading kanji, which all have furigana alongside them.

    Both わんわん探偵団 and にゃんにゃん探偵団 are mainly written in plain form (for example, だ instead of です and いる instead います). The style of each series is slightly different because the storytelling is done from the perspective of the main characters. わんわん探偵団's main character, Spitz Kawai, has a more masculine speaking style, whereas にゃんにゃん探偵団's Hanae's style is more feminine.

    Now, take a look at some sample pages to see what the actual reading experience would be like! Oh also, in case you haven't read any Japanese books before, bear in mind that they read from right to left. (It's the opposite of English books.)

    Comments From Fellow Japanese Learners

    Even though it's a picture book targeted towards children, I enjoyed reading it a lot. It's not too text-dense, but the grammar is still challenging enough for the N4 level, and you can get used to reading longer texts, I think. It is classified as an "Absolute Beginner" book in the Master List of Book Clubs in the forums. However, in my opinion, that's only because of the reading speed/schedule (about one page a day). The cases were interesting enough to keep me reading even though I'm not a child anymore. ;)

    fray

    にゃんにゃん探偵団 was the first book I read in Japanese! I read it shortly after passing the JLPT N4. The book is very lighthearted and cute and features a lot of cats. Even though I knew grammar and vocab up to N4, reading the first episode of this book was mentally draining. The episodes are short, and the content is rather simple and easy, which makes it a good beginner book. With this book, you can get used to reading something completely in Japanese without becoming overwhelmed. During the course of the book, I could tell that I was making progress by each episode becoming easier to read. As I got used to it, I was also able to read more in one sitting without feeling drained. Some cons might be: it's aimed at kids, which is not everyone's cup of tea. The abundance of kana makes it harder as well.

    Belerith

    Manga

    よつばと! (Yotsuba&!)

    よつばと! is an uplifting comedy manga series that follows the daily life of Yotsuba, a five-year-old girl, and the people around her. This story starts when Yotsuba and her dad move to a new town, and meet their next door neighbors, the Ayases — three sisters, their mom, and dad. The main character, Yotsuba, was adopted by her dad in a foreign country and raised by him. There are fifteen volumes available as of March, 2021.

    For Japanese Learners

    If you're interested in learning words and expressions that are used in daily life, よつばと! would be a fine choice for you. But just be aware that most likely because of the influence from her dad, Yotsuba's speech style is unique for a girl at that age and is somewhat vulgar (she frequently uses plain form + か for questions, for example). It comes off as adorable when Yotsuba does it, but there's no guarantee that it would also be the same case if you tried it 😉 Also, being a little child and originally from another country, Yotsuba occasionally mispronounces words or makes grammatical errors. However at the same time, she uses (or tries to use) sophisticated words in the most unexpected manner, which is both cute and funny. Most words used by Yotsuba are written in all hiragana and katakana, and when you see kanji, you also see furigana along with them.

    It's a slice-of-life type manga, so you'll learn a lot of cultural references, as well as casual expressions and slang used in daily life in Japan. While it's a great resource for daily conversation, one of the challenges for beginners is that characters' speech (especially Yotsuba's) often has changes in pronunciation, such as 怖いこわ  (scary) becoming こえー, which you would not be able to find in traditional dictionaries. It's similar to when "kind of" is spelled "kinda," for example. But, don't worry, you would be able to figure it out with support and helpful resources like the vocabulary list, which includes notes on these curveballs, shared on the WaniKani よつばと! Reading Club. Some learners who have read the よつばと! series find the first volume to be the most difficult, so once you get the gist of the general setting of the story, it's a good idea to consider skipping a chapter if you find it too hard. You will be introduced to new characters as you read and sometimes the story carries on over multiple chapters, but since most of the chapters can be enjoyed separately, skipping shouldn't affect your reading experience too much.

    よつばと! has been translated into multiple languages, and those translated editions have been, in fact, used as learning materials for Japanese native speakers who learn foreign languages as well. It might be fun to get the translated version and compare it with the translations as you read, too! Reading よつばと! will make you wish you had a cute little (and silly) neighbor just like Yotsuba, despite all the trouble she might bring to you 💚

    Want to take a peek? Click here and enjoy browsing!

    Comments From Fellow Japanese Learners

    I read the first five volumes when I was about N4 level. Quite enjoyable, and I still remember some of the silly jokes.

    Saida

    I learnt Japanese using this book. I was only at level 1 on WaniKani when I started reading it. I hate textbooks and never want or wanted to use one, so instead I joined the よつばと! book club on the WaniKani Community when it was set up and have been there ever since. I've now read all volumes, and we do a weekly live reading too. Throughout it all, the members of the book club have been really kind and supportive. And all the Japanese I've learnt over the past few years has been from them and this amazing manga.

    michikusa

    ふらいんぐうぃっち (Flying Witch)

    ふらいんぐうぃっち is a modern-day story about a witch, which is a somewhat-similar story to Kiki's Delivery. This manga is about a fifteen-year-old witch named Makoto, who moves to Aomori prefecture, on the northern end of the main island of Japan. She stays at her relatives' typical country side farmer's house, to go to a high school (not a Hogwarts-like school, but a regular school) and also trains as a witch in Aomori, which has an abundance of natural resources. So as you read this manga series, you get to enjoy learning about the slow life of northern Japan too. Despite the unrealistic fictional setting, Makoto being a witch somehow blends into reality very well. The focus of the story is more on the peace and joy of daily events rather than struggles or ups and downs, which makes it a nice and fun read!

    There have been nine volumes made so far, and the next one is coming out later this year. There's also been an anime adaptation for this manga series.

    For Japanese Learners

    The main character, Makoto almost always speaks in the polite form (using です/ます style), so if you are familiar with the polite form, this manga would be more manageable. Overall, just like you see in most manga, you will often see conversational expressions used, from shortening words such as とこ for ところ or sound changes like 居候いそうろう becoming いそーろう, in this manga series as well. The WaniKani Community has a shared vocabulary list that covers expressions like this, so make use of that for your reading expereince.

    The story involves characters with different demographics — for example, Makoto's second cousins, who she lives with, are a girl (elementary school student) and a high school boy. The siblings' dad speaks with the thickest Tsugaru accent. They all speak a little differently, so you get a taste of the different ways people speak in Japanese, even a dialect!

    Want to take a peek? Click here and enjoy browsing!

    Comments From Fellow Japanese Learners

    It's the first manga I ever read, and I managed it entirely on my own (probably without understanding everything perfectly!). Plus, there are really good vocabulary lists available via the WaniKani book club for it ;) Although it's about a witch, the setting is mostly about the everyday, so the vocabulary isn't particularly crazy and any magical words you do encounter get repeated enough for memorisation. The protagonist is very polite, so speaks nice and clearly. It's probably the easiest manga I've come across which wasn't aimed at little kids. And it's just super nice!

    Radish8

    Very often, something nice or funny happens, and this gives a very warm and cozy feeling to me. From the Japanese perspective, the text is with full furigana, so the WaniKani level is not an issue. The witch (Makoto) always speaks in polite form, so her speech is very understandable. Of course, the others also use casual language, but it never gets rough or extremely contracted, so I think it is fairly easy to understand. The series is set in Aomori, and occasionally somebody speaks some Tohoku dialect, but Makoto does not understand that (which is quite funny in itself) and needs help from her cousin. This way it is also a good first contact with dialects.

    NicoleRauch

    Novels

    魔女まじょ 宅急便たっきゅうびん (Kiki's Delivery Service)

    Does the title sound familiar? You might know the Studio Ghibli movie with the same title, which is the animated adaptation of this book. The story is about a teen witch named Kiki and her new life after a move, where she tries to stand on her own two feet away from her hometown and family, as all young witches traditionally do. The story follows vaious parts of Kiki's life, from her struggles and growth, to some romance and heartwarming episodes with the people she meets in her new town.

    "I've already watched the movie like hundred times! Is it still worth reading the book?" — Yes, absolutely! Even though the movie and the book share the main storyline and settings, you will definitely find differences and grow to love the book version in its own way. Another bonus for reading the book is that you get to learn the after story. The movie is based on the first book, but there are actually five more books in this series, which continues to follow Kiki's life. Have you ever wondered if Kiki and Tombo live happily ever after? If so, the series will be the perfect reading project for you.

    For Japanese Learners

    Since there are fewer (or close to zero) visual cues compared to the other manga and picture books, it's not a perfect book for complete starters, but it shouldn't be too challenging for upper beginners with a good foundation of basic vocabulary and grammar. Written by Eiko Kadono, who's received multiple awards in children book literature, the writing style is still approachable, vivid, and exciting. The story telling parts are written in the polite form, using the です/ます style, so if you are familiar with that writing style, you have an advantage!

    The series has been published by a couple different Japanese publishers —  福音館書店ふくいんかんしょてん and 角川文庫かどかわぶんこ. The Fukuinkan edition has some furigana and illustrations, and the Kadokawa edition has close to no furigana and no visuals. You might want consider picking the edition that fits your purpose and level. It has the least furigana among all the books from this list, but even if you're at around WaniKani level 10, you'd be surprised by how many kanji you'd recognize throughout the book. If you want to read comfortably and enjoy the story without worrying about vocabulary too much, starting the book when you're around WaniKani level 20 appears to be the sweet spot. Since it was first published in 1985, some of the word choices and expressions feel slightly old-timey, but those are still great things to learn as you'd probably see them in long-selling beloved books like this.

    Want to take a peek? Here's a sample chapter from the Kadokawa edition.

    Comments From Fellow Japanese Learners

    I thought it was a very nice story about a young girl growing up and becoming independent. From the Japanese perspective, the kanji usage is moderate. Therefore it is readable even for lower-level WaniKani users. (There are editions with more and with less furigana, but there is no full-furigana version.) But it also doesn't lean in the direction of all-hiragana-endless-rows-of-characters either. The grammar is also not too hard most of the time. I think if you know N4 content, you will be fine.

    NicoleRauch

    I enjoyed Kiki's Delivery immensely. I recommend it because many Japanese learners are inspired by Studio Ghibli, and it will push beginners to get through their first book.

    eainge

    ふしぎ 駄菓子屋だがしや 銭天堂ぜにてんどう (Fushigi Dagashiya Zenitendō)

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    Source: Written by 廣嶋玲子
    Illustration by jyajya (偕成社)

    ふしぎ駄菓子屋 銭天堂 series is a collection of short stories about a strange candy shop named Zenitendō. This is not a regular shop as it can only be found by "lucky" customers (so don't waste your time trying to find it, they are nowhere to be found on Google Maps, or any maps, really). All the items they sell have some sort of magical power, and somehow customers manage to find the one for them that can fix a particular problem or a concern they have.

    ふしぎ = mysterious
    駄菓子屋 = candy shop

    …Sounds like a sweet kids' book cliché ending? Not so fast. It's not always a happy ending fairy tale. Each candy comes with instructions, and customers are expected to read them very carefully. If they fail to do so…? There is often a twist to the story, and it's sometimes dark humor or bittersweet. Each chapter features a different customer, but not all of them are children. Sometimes an adult customer wanders into the Zenitendō and has a mysterious experience. Those chapters tend to be easier to relate to for readers who aren't children. Since it was first published in 2013, this novel series has been gaining popularity among Japanese children (and often their parents). There has been fourteen books in this series, and it was adapted into an animated movie as well as an anime series in 2020 as well.

    For Japanese Learners

    This series is best suited for upper beginners who already have some reading experience. Absolute beginners might find it a little too challenging. There's no furigana for very basic kanji — kanji at elementary school first and second-grade levels. Other kanji have furigana on their first appearance on each page, and this could be a good reading practice as well as vocabulary building! There are occasional illustrations to give you the gist, but not enough for you to rely on to keep up with what's going on. It's a fairly recent series, some of the word choices such as ちょう or めちゃくちゃ (both meaning "super") are not so traditional and more modern compared to long-selling classics like Kiki's Delivery.

    The storytelling is written in the plain form (that is, not です/ます style), often from the perspective of the main character of each chapter. One thing that might throw you off is that the owner of Zenitendō, Beniko, has a unique speech style. It's especially apparent when she says ござんす at the end of her sentences. Her speech style is very fictional character-y and old-fashioned, like how some people talked back in the Edo era.

    Sounds like a material you'd want to work on? Click here to read a sample chapter!

    Comments From Fellow Japanese Learners

    I had a lot of fun reading this book. It was challenging and definitely above my grammar level, but I managed to understand almost everything (with a little help from the WaniKani reading group). The stories are for kids, but they are not too simplistic. A few of the main characters are adults. There is a lot of repeated vocab throughout the book, so it was cool to see how much easier it got towards the end. Most kanji have furigana first, but they stop using it after the first appearance on each page, so I got really good at recognizing new vocabulary in context.

    lasyat

    I enjoyed the book so much that I actually proceeded to read the following six sequels within a few months! Although I was at level 44 on WaniKani when I first read Zenitendō, it was still my very first adventure into reading native content. I recommend this book because each chapter is self-contained, and the story generally follows the antics of children. These two aspects combined make it very easy to digest. The young characters seldom use hard-to-understand vocabulary, and since each chapter is its own story, you never have to recall events that happened more than roughly twenty pages ago at most. This also allows you to jump around within the book itself. Don't like a chapter? Skip it! Finding it a bit too difficult for you to be able to enjoy? Skip it and come back later! It's a series of thirteen books at present, so if you enjoy the first one, you've got a dozen more to enjoy. (And, they only get better and better after the first book, trust me!)

    Houndstooth

    Happy Reading, Y'all! 📕

    I hope you enjoyed the book recommendations, and found something that you are excited to read now or in the near future! If you couldn't find the one for you here, you can also check out the master thread for WaniKani book clubs to see what fellow Japanese learners enjoy reading!

    If you have a recommendation that was not in this article, please let us know at hello@tofugu.com or on Twitter @tofugu. We might write more articles like this to inspire book lovers like you.

    In case you decide to pick up your first Japanese book, our advice is to look for and take advantage of available resources such as vocabulary lists and discussion boards. If you are slow, it's okay! You don't have to follow the book club's pace, either. Also, especially if it's slice-of-life or a collection of short individual stories, like most of the books from this list, consider skipping a chapter when you find it too hard. The most important thing is to stick around and keep reading — as you read more, reading should become easier.

    Happy reading and try not to tsundoku (too much)! 📚😉