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What is the Best Japanese Phrasebook? Here’s Your Guide!

If you are brand new to Japanese, you need a good phrasebook. If you’ve been studying Japanese for a while now, you need a good phrasebook. And If you’re visiting Japan for any time at all, you need a good phrasebook. But what is the best Japanese phrasebook?

I’ve got a few criteria for what separates the good Japanese phrasebooks from the bad ones, and I’d like to share those things with you. I’ll also be referring to five of the ones that I own (a crazy amount, I know!), and the pros and cons of each.

If you’ve already got one of your own, you might want to whip it out and compare it to the list of qualities that “makes or breaks it” when it comes to the best Japanese phrasebooks.

Alright, let’s begin!

First of all, it’s gotta have some Rōmaji

Many people hate Rōmaji (ローマ字), and others like it a little too much for their own good. I tend to take the middle ground and use it when it’s useful, but try my best not rely on it all that much.

The reason why a good phrasebook will have it, is because a good phrasebook has to be usable for beginners from day one. If a person who has no training whatsoever picks up a Japanese phrasebook and spends an hour or two working with it, they need to be able to speak several phrases after that initial hard work, if not right off the bat.

Unfortunately, if all that’s written in the book are Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji then it’s going to be pretty useless for the newbies.

The first phrasebook I ever had was an old one from 1985 (older than me!) and all it had was Rōmaji! Which brings us to the flip side of the coin – a phrase book must also have more than just Rōmaji.

If all it has is Rōmaji, then people can start the race, but never finish it as they won’t ever learn the written part of the Japanese language.

That was the biggest drawback of Passport to Japanese (my first).

But even though it wasn’t enough to satiate all of my learning desires, it did do something that a startling amount of classes and courses don’t do – it got me speaking Japanese from day one!

After my very first week of using it, I could actually hold a five-minute conversation entirely in Japanese, believe it or not!

Of course, it was THE SAME conversation every time, but that’s not the point!

Next, it needs a good guide on pronunciation

japanese pronunciation

Japanese is one of the easiest languages for Americans to speak, and also anyone else who’s native tongue is English.

That’s because the Japanese language actually has fewer sounds contained within it than English does. There are only a few things that are a little tricky (like the Japanese “R”), but 95% of it is a piece of cake.

However, having said all of that, you still have to know what’s correct and what’s incorrect. While ideally you would be able to listen to native Japanese people speak and pick up the correct sounds from them, the phrasebook has to be able to stand on its own legs regardless of whether or not the student has access to native speakers.

And a guide on correct pronunciation is a crucial part of that.

A good guide will contain:

  • An explanation on the basic vowel and consonant sounds
  • An explanation on elongated vowels and the pause between double consonants
  • An explanation on when vowels are “silent”
  • An explanation on the equal stress all syllables receive

In addition to all of those, I always want to give some extra credit to the phrasebooks that have an “American pronunciation guide” of sorts so that if you’re new to it all, you can use what you already know to learn something that you don’t know yet. Let me show you what I mean by this in line three of the below excerpt:

Phrase in English: It’s nice weather, isn’t it?
Rōmaji-Japanese: Ii o-tenki, desu-ne?
Sounds like: Ee’ ee o-ten-kee, dess, neh?

This was a lot more common in older phrase books than it is now, and I don’t think it’s 100% needed since the student should be able to remember correct pronunciation from the guide, but it can still be a nice thing to have when you’re on your own.

Of course, there has to be a dictionary included

The great thing about phrase books is that they teach you useful, complete sentences that you can use as soon as you learn them. But what if the phrases that you learned were only about 80% of what you needed to say in a slightly different situation? You want to ask for some milk, not more tea right?

That’s where the dictionary comes into play. You just look up the one or two words that you need, swap them out with the unnecessary words in your phrase, and you’re good to go!

An interesting thing that I’ve found is that the dictionary included in a phrasebook is small (since the entire phrasebook also has to be small) and this provides you with a very useful benefit:

Since phrasebook dictionaries have to be small, they only include the most useful and commonly used words!

You’re not going to learn about kidneys or livers, but you will definitely learn about numbers, food, stores, and so on. This is great since you can focus your time on the things that you will use every single day, and you can leave the obscure or specialized vocabulary until later when you’ve got a good amount of Japanese under your belt.

That being said, make sure that the book you get has both an English to Japanese dictionary, and the reverse, a Japanese to English dictionary. You’d be surprised how many word look ups you do from both sides of the fence when learning Japanese.

Don’t forget about the physical size of it

Keep this baby in your phone!

For the most part, phrasebooks are small enough to fit in your pocket. That’s good as you’ll want to take them with you when you’re hitting up the town in Japan.

But I have seen some that were a lot bigger. The kind that are better left on your bookshelf, rather than in your pocket during a trip to Akihabara.

Nowadays you can get a lot of them in digital format, which is pretty awesome! If you decide to do it that way, then you won’t even need the one in your pocket, your phone can do all the work!

The only downside I’ve run into with this is that I personally find it harder (slower) to look up certain sections and words when you’re whipping through your phone, instead of flipping through the pages of a physical book.

Does anyone else have this same problem?

BONUS! Does the phrasebook have any cultural notes or maps of Japan? These are things that are super nice to have and can help you out when you’re in a pinch or when you just want to understand the Japanese people on a deeper level.

Bonus for Japanese Phrasebooks

Finally, the topics are really important

Of course, a phrasebook would be nothing if it didn’t have useful words and phrases contained within it. What you want to look for in this part are situations where you will need to speak Japanese every day.

That means things like shopping, eating out at restaurants, introducing yourself to others and so on. These are the golden topics that you absolutely MUST HAVE included in the Japanese phrasebook that you pick.

But other sections such as “being in an airport,” or even “going to the doctor’s office” aren’t really all that useful. The main reason is because pretty much everyone speaks English at the airport, and when you’re at the doctor, all you have to do it point to the part that hurts and say “itai” for “this hurts.”

Every phrasebook has some sections in common, but each one also does some things the others don’t. Just be sure that the one you pick up has the topics included that you actually plan on doing while you’re in Japan.

The Pros and Cons of Phrasebooks

Some of the great things about phrasebooks are:

  • You learn very useful stuff that you can use in the real world, immediately
  • You learn (implicitly) how Japanese grammar works
  • They are super cheap

But even as great as they are, they can’t really give you a full education when it comes to learning Japanese. Some of the things that I think are drawbacks are:

  • No audio for you to listen to
  • No detailed explanations on grammar (more important at higher levels of skill)
  • Mostly in the polite form, so little exposure to the casual or honorific forms of Japanese words

Having said all of that, how do you actually go about using a phrasebook to study and learn Japanese?

Here’s what I like to do:

Create dialog in your head between two people!

I say “in your head” but you should really be speaking out loud when you do so. Here’s what one of these situations might look like:

Person 1: いいホテルを教えてください。
Person 2: はい、帝国ホテルです。
Person 1: どうやって行くんですか?
Person 2: この道にまっすぐ行ってください。

Person 1: Could you recommend a good hotel?
Person 2: Yes, the Teikoku Hotel is good.
Person 1: How do you go there?
Person 2: Go straight on this road.

By asking and answering questions to yourself like this, you can quickly build up a vocabulary that will allow you to talk with people for a surprising amount of time, regardless of your current skill level.

Let me ask you this: Isn’t it true that you generally have the same conversation with people when you meet them for the first time?

Or when you run into them after a long break?

Or when you order food in a restaurant that you go to, and so on and so on?

These types of “scripts” that you can write for yourself will allow you to prepare mentally (and language-wise) for the real thing to happen to you, in real life. You will not only know what to say to people when you’re in those types of situations, but you will also know what to expect from them as well.

Seeing as how the Japanese language relies heavily on context, knowing what is generally said in these different types of situations is like knowing what all the questions are on the school exam before you even have to take it

Said another way, it only makes sense logically for certain words to be used in conversations between you and your waiter in a restaurant. So if you study those particular ones, then your brain will be ready for them when you encounter them.

It’s really only when you are taken by surprise that your brain starts to stutter and you have a hard time understanding Japanese, even though you’ve been practicing it a lot.

So get yourself a good one

Hopefully you’ve already got a pretty good Japanese phrasebook that you can use and apply this Scripting Technique to.

But if you don’t, then at least now you know what to look for when you do get one. I personally think that the latest versions of Lonely Planet and/or Berlitz are really good and pass the standards I’ve talked about above.

Does it have to be said that you should try to avoid older, outdated phrasebooks? Not that the language changes a lot over time, but people generally become better at presenting the information to students the tenth time, rather than the first time.

I got both of my modern Japanese phrasebooks off of Amazon for super cheap, and you can do so as well if you’d like.

The first one is Lonely Planet:

Lonely Planet Phrasebook Checklist
Modern? Yes!
Rōmaji? Yes!
Pronunciation Guide? Yes!
Dictionary? Yes!
Map? No.
Cultural Notes?​ Yes!
Physical Size? Back Pocket.
Useful Topics? Yes!

The second one is Berlitz:

Berlitz Phrasebook Checklist
Modern? Yes!
Rōmaji? Yes!
Pronunciation Guide? Yes!
Dictionary? Yes!
Map? No.
Cultural Notes?​ Yes!
Physical Size? Back Pocket.
Useful Topics? Yes!

Got any questions or comments to share? What’s the name of the Japanese phrasebook that you currently use? Is it pretty good?

Let me know with a comment below!

12 Comments

  • Kim

    Do you think that phrasebooks are a good tool for the serious language learner, or are they more for like tourists that are only planning on visiting the country for a week?

    • Nick Hoyt

      Actually I think that they are an incredible tool for learning the language regardless of how far you plan to go with Japanese. This is because it teaches the language in full sentences, and also on topics that you will absolutely need to know.

      If anything, you should almost start learning Japanese with a phrasebook, and then think about taking a course later on to go into depth on things like the writing system and grammar rules.

      That way you can already have a lot of useful Japanese in your memory that you can then analyse and understand when you get into the micro-level details.

      So the answer absolutely! They are a good tool for the serious language learner AND tourists!

  • Eric

    These phrasebooks look like they are great learning tools to anyone who wants to learn Japanese. I think the checklist you’ve provided is a nice snapshot of the highlights, thanks! 

    There is a lot of great information on this site too and I’m learning the language myself, so just know that I’ll be back for more goodness. 

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, I think that most people who are serious about learning Japanese typically go and grab a textbook to start off, but they miss out on just how useful a good phrasebook can be!

      One of the interesting things about learning from a phrasebook is that you learn lots of question and answer phrases. The kinds of things you need when communicating with actual Japanese people (go figure, lol).

      So, if your goal is to read Japanese manga, then this probably isn’t what you’re looking for. But if your goal is to go to Japan, and talk with natives, then it’s a must have resource!

  • Jon

    I’ve meddled with a few languages in the past. One I became fluent in and the others I could hold small conversations with but I never thought about the phrasebook I would use.

    If a phrasebook was frustrating I would actually blame myself for not getting it or if the book was hard too navigate then I would find another but I must admit looking back on some of the failed languages I tried to learn (Japanese being one of them). The phrasebook was garbage and I should have looked into getting a better one.

    Thanks for the guide but my trip to Japan was 16 years ago so maybe it was a little bit late. I will keep it in mind for next time though. I do plan on going back there at some point in the future!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Haha, yeah I think I was in middle school 16 years ago, so it’s been quite a while! 

      I think the quality of phrasebooks, and most languages books, have increased a lot in the last ten years compared with before. One reason is probably because there’s just so many more people learning other languages now, so companies have a real incentive to provide great quality in order to beat their competition.

      Another that is specific to Japanese, is probably because anime and manga have really taken off here in America’s culture. I know that for me at least, I was pretty much raised on watching Dragon Ball Z and Gundam Wing.

      My fellow millennials who also enjoyed those types of shows seem to have a real appreciation for Japan’s culture, and a lot of them are motivated to learn the language too!

  • Ami

    Hi,

    It feels like you have a good grasp on what things a phrasebook should have. Thanks for the recommendations, I will be checking them out on Amazon to see which I like more.

    I have learnt something new by going through your website. That there are lots of ways to learn Japanese!

    Your “Tactics” category offers a good amount of information on how to learn any language, and of Japanese in particular. 

    I did a little reading on them and the flow of information from the articles is easy to get. I especially like the fact that you have covered numerous topics on each of the pages.

    Will be bookmarking this site for sure. 

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Ami, yeah as for the choice between the two recommendations, you really can’t go wrong with either of them as I own and have used them both myself. One of the things I love about them is how cheap they are!

      The are (perhaps) more useful than textbooks on learning Japanese, and only a tenth of the price. 

      Although it doesn’t explain grammar at all, it will get you speaking the language immediately and, dare I say, holding real conversations with Japanese natives.

      Thanks for the complements on the site! The Tactics section is really the heart and soul of the site and I love to write the articles that belong there. Of course there’s much more information that students want to know when learning Japanese, so I felt that other things (culture, tools, etc) were needed to help people out.

      Glad you liked it!

  • Henry

    Hey Nick! I found this post very useful as all the others you have written on your site. I will check this list of qualities with Japanese Phrasebooks from here on when I look for one. Thanks for the modern Japanese phrasebook recommendations too! I will have to check them out also. Could you recommend a phrasebook in digital format? Thank you very much!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Henry, you are very welcome! Thank you for the nice words 🙂 !

      The only Japanese phrasebook that I have in digital format is the Instant Japanese that was pictured above. But if you want to check it out on Amazon’s Kindle store, you can do so by clicking right here.

  • javiera

    Hey! Thank you so much for the information! I think that nowadays learning Japanese is a tool that all of need because Japanese people are the first ones when talking about business and industries. Great post!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, it wasn’t that long ago that Japan was the #2 economy in all of the world, which is really impressive when you consider how small it is. China bumped Japan down to #3, but there’s still 123 Million people over there that could be potential customer’s for a business.

      Especially when you consider how easy it is to access the rest of the world through the internet, a company (or author) could probably boost sales for digital products quite a bit if the items were localized for Japan and then marketed there.

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