Reviews

Best Japanese Manga For Beginners (2020)

When it comes to picking the best Japanese manga for beginners, there are a couple of objective criteria that should be taken into consideration and a few subjective ones as well.

I’m going to do two main things in this post:

1) I’m going to talk about what makes a manga beginner-friendly so that you can use that information in order to find the right manga for you to use.

2) I’m going to recommend a list of manga that fit the criteria from part-one so that you can just look through the list and then pick the one that interests you the most.

This ought to save you some time and allow you to get started right away since you won’t be looking all around the internet.

Choosing The Right Genre

Manga, also known as Japanese comics, are a huge phenomenon. They are gaining in popularity in the West, but they’ve been massive in Japan for a long time.

Just about everybody reads Manga in Japan because there are so many types. There are the entertainment kinds that you’re probably familiar with, but they are also a lot of instructional and educational ones as well!

Here’s the point I’m getting to: some manga are easier for beginners than others.

One of the most important elements to choose is the right genre of manga. There are two primary things to keep in mind:

  1. Target age group
  2. Story’s setting

For the first part, we want to select manga that is either aimed at kids (sometimes called “kodomo” manga) that are 10-years old or younger, or kids that are just above that age.

There are a couple of reasons for this, one of which will be explored in detail in the following section, but the main reason is so that the material is comprehensible for you.

I once read that the average 10-year old knows 10,000 words in their native language.

That means when you start reading manga aimed at that age, you’re jumping into material that will take about 10,000 words to fully understand.

In other words, there’s plenty of new information to learn!

Most manga is dialog, and if the story is about young children then they will be the main actors in the story. That means the sentences they use will be simple, common, and easy for you to figure out.

As for the section part, I recommend that you pick a setting that is as close to reality as possible. This will help because it will limit the vocabulary of the characters to real world things.

Not that I don’t love manga like Pokemon (I do!) but those stories contain the names of a lot of Pokemon and their various attacks and abilities.

Meaning that you can spend a lot of time looking up words that won’t transfer to other manga or into real life.

In order to get the most bang for your buck, it’s best to choose manga whose setting is a kid in school or a person at work. This could be slice-of-life, sports, comedy, and so on.

Getting Manga With Furigana

Something else that you will benefit from with manga aimed at the younger generation is the liberal use of furigana (see above red arrows).

These are small hiragana characters to the side of (or sometimes above) kanji that show its correct reading.

This is essential because it not only teaches you how to pronounce the words, but it also allows you to easily look up their meaning in a dictionary!

If you choose a manga that is aimed at college-age or above, then it’s likely that there won’t be any furigana and it will take a lot longer to look up new words using stroke count or radical composition.

While I absolutely recommend choosing a manga with furigana, I actually think that you shouldn’t use the furigana unless you need to.

From my own experience, what I’ve found is that my eyes naturally gravitate towards to furigana first (before reading the kanji).

This isn’t ideal, since it doesn’t help you remember the kanji itself.

The trick is to read the dialog normally and ignore the furigana completely, until you get to a kanji and you can’t remember how to say it.

Then look at the furigana on the side and refresh your memory. Of course, you’ll need to look at it the very first time you encounter a new word, but from then on you should only fall back on the furigana as a review process.

When you do this, you are actually training your brain to recall the kanji’s reading similar to the way a flashcard word work!

It might be a little tricky since your peripheral vision can see the furigana on the side, but once you make a habit of focusing on the kanji first, it should become a lot easier.

Finding An Author You Like

The most important part of language learning is your psychology.

What I mean by that is:

  • Are you enjoying the process?
  • Are you motivated to learn?
  • Are you confident you can do it?

To that end, we must always strive to make the language learning process fun! If you enjoy what you’re doing, then you will stick with it until the end.

Earlier I said that choosing a kid manga that wasn’t like “real life” was a bad move, but now I’m going to contradict myself and say that you should choose a manga that you are genuinely interested in reading.

If you love Pokemon, then that’s the right manga for you. If you love cooking, then find one all about being a chef.

Furthermore, I recommend finding a manga author that you like and sticking with their material. This is actually really easy to do with manga since nearly all of it is serialized.

By choosing one manga series, you will begin to learn which words that author likes to use (as well as the genre’s vocabulary).

This will help you make faster progress in getting to the point where you can understand all the material. If you are constantly changing manga series, then you have to keep learning a lot of story specific words and terms which slows everything down.

Top Ten List Of Beginner Manga

Alright, now we get to the list of beginner manga. I have selected these ten based on a couple of things. The first one is the criteria that I established earlier. The second is my own personal bias.

Please keep that second part in mind because I can really only recommend the beginner manga that I feel are good. I am sure that there are a lot of additional series out there that are also fantastic that I just haven’t read yet.

The most important criteria is to select one that you find interesting and truly want to read.

ドラえもん (Doraemon)

The reason I recommend Doraemon is because pretty much every Japanese kid grew up reading the manga or watching the anime.

This is one of those cultural icons (like Micky Mouse) that gets referenced all the time in Japan, so reading this manga is a good way to improve your cultural knowledge while reading manga.

It follows the story of Doraemon, a robotic cat from the future who comes back in time to help out a kid named Nobita.

Doraemon has a ton of wacky inventions that he brings back with him, so the names of those items will pretty much all be made up Japanese words, but besides that, the dialog is pretty simple and easy to follow as Nobita and Doraemon go on adventures together in Japan.

よつばと! (Yotsuba&!)

This manga follows a young girl named Yotsuba as she moves to a new town with her father. She makes friends with the neighbors and has a ton of adventures from the perspective of a grade school aged kid.

If I may say so myself, this manga is flipping hilarious!

The situations that she gets herself into and her subsequent reactions have actually made me laugh out loud quite a few times.

Since she is a young girl, the words and sentences that she speaks are pretty easy to understand. This manga is probably the one that I hear recommended the most for learners of Japanese.

スクールランブル (School Rumble)

School Rumble is actually my favorite manga. It is a comedy that takes place in high school as the main character Tenma tries to win the affection of her crush Karasuma, a rather eccentric oddball.

The other main character, Harima, is the school’s delinquent and is in love with Tenma, but just can’t seem to bring himself to confess his feelings to her.

This story line sounds pretty simple, and it is, but the pure gold of this anime is in the ridiculousness of the situations that the characters find themselves in and the hair brained ideas they come up with.

If you are a fan of slapstick comedy, then this is one you won’t want to miss.

ドラゴンボール (Dragon Ball)

The Dragon Ball series is one of the most well-known. Pretty much all of my guy friends (and me) grew up watching this one and the later versions (Dragon Ball Z).

This is an action manga that follows Goku as he leaves the seclusion of the countryside and joins forces with Bulma to search the world for the legendary Dragon Balls that will grant one wish to whomever possesses them.

Later on Goku trains under the renowned Master Roshi and learns how to fight and use energy to shoot out destructive beams.

This is very much a guy manga, so if your a girl then you might enjoy this next recommendation more.

美少女戦士セーラームーン (Sailor Moon)

Sailor Moon is a show that follows Usagi Tsukino, a high school aged girl who has a secret: she is the leader of a group of magical girls searching for a lost artifact!

In addition to her “night job” she still has all of the responsibilities and problems of a high school girl so this manga is part normal life, part magical adventure.

I actually watched this show a lot as a kid because back then the only anime that I could get a hold of was it and #4 on this list.

That being said, it’s a beloved manga that people still read to this day, but it is definitely aimed at female readers.

ポケットモンスター (Pokemon)

Pokemon… You know it. You love it. You gotta’ catch ’em all!

All joking aside, the Pokemon games are really fantastic. The anime adaptation that follows ash is okay, but not really the best show I’ve seen.

However, there are some Pokemon manga that are fantastic in both the character development, and also the story telling.

If you want something along the original Red and Blue versions, I recommend checking out Pokemon Special 1 by Kusaka Hidenori.

I mentioned this earlier, but it’s worth repeated here. A lot of Pokemon names and attack moves are words that you won’t really use in real life, but if you are into the games then you will get a lot out of reading the Japanese manga.

しろくまカフェ (Shirokuma Cafe)

I was recommended Shirokuma Cafe by Eric over at LingQ and really got hooked on it right from the beginning.

This is a story about the everyday lives of some animals who own a cafe and their conversations with their friends. Of course, there are also humans in the mix too, so it’s a really lighthearted and funny story.

The language used by the characters is easy to understand, so if you’re still new to learning Japanese then this might be a perfect choice as your first manga.

And if you’re looking to learn the names of animals, then this is a perfect opportunity to do so.

クレヨンしんちゃん (Crayon Shin-chan)

The character is this manga, Shin-chan, is a 5-year-old trouble maker. He annoys his parents, his tutors, and even his dog at time.

He likes playing pranks, but is perhaps more well-known by his word games that he plays. Sometimes he uses the opposite word during certain every day events (liking saying “I’m home” as he walks out the door to leave) and other times he intentionally uses the wrong word due to its sound similarity to the right one.

Because of that, I wouldn’t recommend this book for people who are brand new, but if you’ve got a solid understanding of Japanese, and you pay attention to the context as well as what he says, then you might really get a kick out of his jokes.

ハローキティ (Hello Kitty)

Hello Kitty is huge in Japan. It has got to be one of the cutest, and most popular icons of the country.

The main character, Kitty White, was originally aimed at preteen girls. Due to the massive success and cuteness of this kitten, her appeal has gain a much broader audience over time.

If you’re looking for a lighthearted story which more cuteness that you can handle, then this might be right up your ally.

夏子の酒 (Natsuko no Sake)

The last manga on the list is called “Natsuko’s Sake” and follows a girl named Natsuko on her journey to create the best sake (Japanese rice wine) since it was her late brother’s dream that he was never able to fulfill.

She leaves her city jobs and returns to the country where she begins her search for a special rice seed that is said to produce this amazing drink.

This story follows her challenges as a woman as she encounters obstacles and difficulties from both nature and society. This manga has a lot of useful words and phrases in it, so it’s highly recommended.

Where To Find Them?

As I’ve learned throughout the years, getting your hands on Japanese manga is not the easiest thing to do. One obvious method is to try to find them on Amazon, but in my experience they are usually overpriced.

On the other hand, it’s nearly impossible to find someone who will sell you the digital version unless you’re living in Japan!

But there’s no need to fear.

While there are a lot of options that you can use, I’ve narrowed down two companies that are easy to buy from, and sell the Japanese manga at a low price. I use one of them for physical manga and the other for digital. Check them out in the article below:

How To Buy Japanese Manga

You should be able to get what you need from one of those two places, but if you know of any other good websites to buy from then be sure to let me know.

I recommend copy and pasting the name of the manga you’re interested in checking out from the above list.

And if you have any good recommendations for beginner manga, then share it with a comment down below! Thanks!

8 Comments

  • Austin

    This is really cool. I have never heard of these books before. Is this something that is just in Japanese or do other languages have books like these. I have always been interested in Asian languages and would love to learn Japanese. Do you have a good place to start?

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah the manga series Yotsuba-to is actually really, really popular so it has been translated into many different languages. And even though it was originally written in Japanese, you could potentially learn any language by reading the manga of it, as long as you can get your hands on a good copy.

  • Excelle

    I think learning Japanese is a lot easier with Manga like this one for beginners.

    I enjoyed the your take on how the stories have illustrations that help with understanding Japanese, things like the scenes and body language etc.

    It is definitely a book for both adults and kids so it is family friendly and I’m looking forward to my own copy.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, you know I’ve read quite a bit of Japanese manga, but the average one is really too advanced for the majority of English speaking people who are learning Japanese themselves. It just takes too long to look up all the new words and kanji.

      Yotsuba on the other hand, is kind of like the “Green Eggs and Ham of Japanese” since the words are pretty short, simple, and fairly easy to understand. It’s aimed at kids, but still manages to be entertaining for adults (at least it was for me!)

      Since it’s not a very “deep” book in terms of its message, it’s easy to follow along in the story. I highly recommend it to people if their end goal is to be able to read Japanese manga. 

  • Dave

    Hey Nick,

    I have had so many japanses buddies recommend this book to me but I thought it was just plainly boring.

    After reading your short description I sure am going to get it. It seems very interesting and it sounds like something which will keep me hooked all the while learning this “Greek” lol.

    Thanks a lot.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, I know what you mean. I actually had this copy myself, but didn’t open it up for several months! The impression from the cover makes you think it’s for kids, and there’s probably some truth to that, but anyone who enjoys a good laugh will appreciate this manga. 

      It’s actually really easy to learn new vocabulary in this manga just from reading it. Since Yotsuba is a little girl, she tends to repeat words a lot and point at the thing too. I ran into a few words that I had never seen before, but understood them perfectly just from the context.

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