Tips on using raw manga to learn Japanese!

Now, I know my Japanese is very, very far from perfect, and having not passed anything higher than the lowest level of the JLPT, I also know that I am far from qualified. That being said, I think I’ll write this post to help YOU, the reader, figure out what to buy that will get you the most learning experience for your buck. YAY!

(A bit of background: I passed JLPT Level 4 back in 2009 when it was still a 4-level system. Hopefully, I’ll challenge a higher level exam in a few years once I’ve studied up a little bit.)

Having been to the Kinokuniya in Seattle (which I will talk about later), and owning a little bit of Japanese reading material myself, here are a few of my pointers that have personally helped me.

Please note: all of my advice is basically useless if you cannot read hiragana and katakana already. If you can’t, learn and come back once you have. If you don’t know what hiragana and katakana are and want to learn Japanese, go to the Wikipedia article on Japanese language, learn hiragana and katakana, and then come back here.

1. Use things that have furigana in them.

Furigana is a godsend. It is what makes studying Japanese easier, and saves me time spent flipping through my behemoth of a kanji dictionary…not to mention online resources.

Basically, furigana tells you what the reading of the kanji is phonetically. It’s mostly used for children who haven’t learned that much kanji yet, or to give the pronunciation for very obscure/odd readings of words and names. Remember in Bleach when Ichigo pronounced Uryuu’s name as “Ishida Ametatsu”? That was because the pronunciation of the kanji in Uryuu’s name was ambiguous. That’s mostly what furigana is for when you’re an adult, but if you’re a) a child, or b) a language learner, furigana is the best thing ever. Unless you want to spend hours looking up kanji.

2. Make sure that the manga you’re using has furigana in it.
This might seem like a no-brainer, except that some Japanese bookstores I’ve been to have their books individually wrapped in plastic with huge signs all around saying “DO NOT UNWRAP THE BOOKS”. So yeah. Do some research online – finding some raw examples, etc. – to find out if the manga you want has furigana in it or not.

A good rule of thumb is that the genre of the manga tends to determine whether a manga will have furigana or not. Basically, shoujo and shounen manga have furigana, while josei and seinen manga do not. Applying this rule in real life, Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle (shounen) has furigana, while xxxHOLiC (seinen) does not. However, this is not an absolute rule, as I’ve seen NANA (which is supposedly a josei manga) have furigana in some screenshots. So tread carefully.

3. Hana to Yume and other shoujo manga are generally a good resource.

Actually, Takaya-sensei’s manga are very consistent with furigana.

Of most of the Hana to Yume comics I’ve seen, the majority of them have had furigana in them. This also includes manga that were NOT published in Hana to Yume, but have the Hana to Yume banner on the cover of the tankoubon. You can also apply this with other magazines like LaLa, etc. This is just something I’ve noticed after a little bit of perusing bookstores, though. Putting furigana aside, there are practical reasons for using shoujo manga to learn Japanese. For starters, realistic situations = realistic dialogue. Therefore, the phrases and vocabulary you will see will most likely be ones you can apply in real life.

Think about it. “Shinobi” and “shinigami” ARE NOT words you are going to use in everyday conversation with normal Japanese people. Really.

In this regard, I think that shoujo manga in general is more useful for learning Japanese than say, Naruto, among other things. Unless you’re reading something like Kimi no Iru Machi, I guess.

4. If possible, read things that take place in different time periods/places.
This is more of an “enrichment” piece of advice. By reading raw manga that take place in other time periods, you can learn different types of Japanese. Case in point: LoveCom. Although I only watched the anime, I think it was one of the rare times I was exposed to a story where all of the characters speak Kansai ben, which is actually a unique experience. Kansai ben has a very specific kind of sound; the more you’re able to identify differences between standard Japanese and dialects, the better off you’ll be!

In terms of different time periods, reading things like Kaze Hikaru (and perhaps Inuyasha) can also help you learn older Japanese. While this isn’t applicable as much in real life, it’s still really interesting. Plus, you can use what you’ve learned to watch The Seven Samurai with a bit more understanding.

Another manga I recommend for this is actually Kuroshitsuji. While it’s mostly standard Japanese, there are a lot of interesting Japanized words in it, and you can actually improve your vocabulary a lot by reading it. I sure did. 😀

Sebby, I approve. 😀

5. Light novels are not very helpful for beginners.
While this doesn’t really have to do with manga, as anime and manga fans who may or may not like certain series that have light novels associated with them (Toradora!, Suzumiya Haruhi, Kino no Tabi, etc.), I would like to tell you that a beginner buying light novels is a TERRIBLE IDEA. Now, you can buy these things as a collector, but if you’re looking to study Japanese with it, depending on your level, you may not get as much out of your study with it.

Why so difficult, Tanigawa-sensei? ;___;

As an owner of a new light novels, I know this from experience. Furigana is infrequent at best, and there are a lot of complicated words, cultural references and other things that make it very difficult. Based on my own experience, I would discourage you from using light novels to learn Japanese if you’re only a beginner.

This is all of the Japanese reading material I have. Note the Haruhi novels on top, XD.

As for what I do, I still read my Fruits Basket and Kuroshitsuji volumes often, along with the other random books I’ve picked up at second-hand bookshops.
FYI, the foreign section of independent bookshops are great for finding books as well, although they may not have much furigana. Still worth checking out though.

6. Read the manga aloud!
Reading manga (or any text) aloud in Japanese helps in a variety of ways, including your reading speed and fluency, pronunciation (getting those “r”s right) and intonation. While it’s better if you use this as outside practice with real Japanese lessons, it can still help you improve your Japanese quite a bit.

6. Get a dictionary.
By this, I mean don’t be a cheapskate by using the internet and get a dictionary. Or two. Or five.

These are all of my dictionaries. No, really.

It really helps. I have a slightly old electronic dictionary as well, but I don’t use it much now that I have other sources at my disposal. It still has its uses though.

So yeah! Those are my semi-helpful tips, and I hope you enjoyed them! ^_^