Beginner Japanese Immersion Material
Just a list of beginner material to consume, for different degrees of “beginnership”. No further analysis on complexity or language has been done so don’t expect an accurate progression guide for what to read or any kanji frequency lists. Just things that I have read and consider enjoyable and approachable enough (albeit some with considerable effort). These are my personal recommendations and are not meant to be taken as objective truth. Tastes and interests are very subjective so you may or may not like some stuff here, and that’s okay too.
Since the level of difficulty in this list fluctuates a lot, the best judge to know if something is too easy or too hard for you is… yourself! Just give them a try and see where you stand, if something is too complex don’t be afraid to move to simpler things, it will still be here later when you’re ready for it.
NOTE: This list is ever growing. More material is added as I encounter it, so it should not be considered exhaustive at all. The opposite actually.
The Clueless Transfer Student is Assertive / 事情を知らない転校生がグイグイくる。
This is an extremely simple manga to follow for beginners. I’d even go as far as saying it’s probably one of the easiest manga I’ve found that aren’t explicitly targeted towards Japanese learners.
The story is somewhat non-existent, it’s just a collection of everyday activities from a bunch of elementary school students. You don’t need to be able to follow most of the story and chapters are incredibly short (3-4 pages maybe?). If there’s something you don’t understand in one chapter, it probably won’t be relevant in the next chapter anyway so you can just skip it.
There are a few “manga” words like 死神 and 呪い that aren’t really used everyday but for the most part it presents a good list of everyday school language that will be useful to beginners.
This is my
#1 recommendation to get started on manga.
Flying Witch / ふらいんぐうぃっち
This manga is great and very simple to read. It has relatively simple grammar and everyday words. Since it’s a slice of life manga, the style is very relaxed and the story is easy to follow. Even if you miss some parts, there’s not really much progression (as is typical of SoL) so you’ll be just fine.
The only downside is that there’s a few gags and jokes about some characters speaking a very heavy Japanese dialect. The reader is not (usually) supposed to understand any of it, and so is the main character, which is where the comical situations come out of. However, it can throw off some beginners who might get confused because of it.
Bonus points for the anime version being helpful if you watch/read them side by side.
Shinmai Shimai no Futari Gohan / 新米姉妹のふたりごはん
This is not a very well known manga (at least in the west I think?) but it is a great choice for beginners willing to start reading manga.
It is great, it is cute, story is very lighthearted and generally without any real progression so, just like Flying Witch, as a slice of life manga you won’t miss much if you don’t understand some parts.
The real strength of this manga is the fact that it focuses mostly on cooking and food-related words. As a non-native, it is very hard to come across some words for food that we’re used to eat every-day. Most of this manga’s vocabulary relates to the kitchen, the act of eating, or cooking food. It is a real source of useful words for beginners (and there are some delicious recipes too).
The grammar and dialogue is also very simple, so you can’t really go wrong with it.
Yotsubato! / よつばと！
This is the go-to manga to recommend to most beginners, at least according to most of the Japanese-learning Internet.
Personally speaking, I think this is a great manga for a beginner, but not the best for an absolute beginner. There’s often some slangy/dialectal phrases or quirks in the speech of some characters which can throw off people who aren’t used to it. I would recommend Flying Witch or Futari Gohan over it, however.
One thing that makes this manga quite special is that there’s a lot of online resources anddecks which can help a lot in getting through it.
My Girlfriend is the Best! / 僕の彼女は最高です！
Another very simple cute manga. It’s the story of two partners just doing random cute everyday thing with comical relief and usual mishaps.
There’s not really much to it story-wise but the language is relatively simple and the dialogue is very back-and-forth easy to approach.
Girl’s Last Tour / 少女終末旅行
This manga is on a whole other level above the ones mentioned before it. It is definitely not the best way of entry for a beginner, mostly because it has no furigana on it, and because sometimes there’s quite a few high-level words or phrases that are not easy to read.
However, this manga has two great benefits:
- The conversations/dialogues are very sparse and short, meaning the ratio of content/words is very high and you will find yourself making a lot of progress through the story without needing to read everything; and
- The anime for this manga covers the first 4 volumes almost perfectly. This means you can almost follow the anime with the manga out side-by-side and use it as a script/content guide. Off the top of my head there’s only two episodes that actually are two chapters in the inverted order, other than that (and the final episode), it’s almost the same 1:1
Also it’s mad enjoyable (to me at least) and I love the characters. Give it a go even if it seems out of your league, you never know.
Shimeji Simulation / シメジ シミュレーション
From the same author as Girl’s Last Tour. The writing style is almost the exact same, however the story has definitely more dialogues and events happening so it feels a bit harder. Not exactly recommended for a beginner but if you read and enjoyed Girl’s Last Tour you can’t go wrong with this one.
Unfortunately, there’s no anime of this (yet) to assist your reading.
Pokemon Sword/Shield (Nintendo Switch)
In general, the Pokemon series is always recommended for beginners. I only played this one in Japanese so I can’t say much about the rest. The only thing I strongly advise against are the very first Pokemon games (on GameBoy). Those do not use any kanji and the kana is super small due to display size limitations, it’s extremely hard for beginners to recognise where words start and end. You will not have a good time.
This said, Pokemon Sword/Shield are on the other hand excellent and very easy to follow for the most part. Despite being RPGs, the story is very linear and even if you end up not understanding some plot points, you will almost never be “stuck” on a puzzle or not knowing where to go.
A big downside however, if you are used to the English version of these games or Pokemon in general, is that a lot of Pokemon name and combat moves are significantly different. So you might feel a bit lost when it comes to Pokemon names (and they are always full of puns you might not understand yet).
Be sure to play the game with kanji and not in kana only (there’s different options in the settings). You’ll still get a lot of kana, but at least the kanji will help.
Paper Mario: The Origami King (Nintendo Switch)
Very cute game. The gameplay itself is quite straightforward and not that complex (it is a kids game after all). Some of the battles with bosses become tricky later on and there are explanations/notes on how to solve them, so testing your understanding of the language is actually quite useful.
The game has full furigana support and is relatively easy to follow. There’s a few instances of weird speech (either archaic or some other speech quirks) but for the most part it shouldn’t be too hard. There are a few word puzzles and trivia with wordplays that might get tricky but, again, it’s a good test of understanding.
Snack World: Trejarers Gold (Nintendo Switch / JP Only (?))
I played this game a long time ago. It’s a pretty cute game overall.
The grammar is relatively simple and it’s all with furigana so kanji shouldn’t be an issue. There are a lot of puns about food (mostly) with character and enemy names. The mechanics are very simple in general and if you like dungeon crawling light-hearted action RPGs, I think you will enjoy this.
Marco and the Galaxy Dragon / マルコと銀河竜
I love this VN, I really enjoyed it a lot. It is a (mostly) kinetic novel, and it is dialogues for a good 90-95% of the text, so there is no real expectation of hard descriptions and settings to understand. This makes it naturally easier than similarly-ranked (in complexity) VNs.
This said, it is not really that simple. The main character (and a lot of other side characters) speaks with a language quirk so while the grammar is relatively easy to follow, most sentence endings will not really be standard. But you get used to it.
This VN has a lot of hilarious moments and very high quality animated cutscenes which makes it almost at the same level as an anime at times.
A huge advantage in this game is the ability to enable dual-language (EN/JP). While normally I don’t think one should rely on English subs when immersing in Japanese, as long as you focus mostly on the JP version of the text, the English translation can be a huge help in understanding.
Muv-Luv / マブラヴ
Muv-Luv is a massive VN series. From personal experience, I’ve only played through the first part of the first game (Muv-Luv Extra) so I can’t comment too much on the rest of the series (but I plan to eventually get to it one day).
The language is definitely hard at times, and some characters are much much harder to understand than others (ahem月詠 真那ahem), but in general I susprisingly didn’t find it too bad. Just be ready to have a high tolerance for looking words up in a dictionary (or skipping them altogether).
A good tip, similarly in vein to Marco and the Galaxy Dragon, is that you can switch from English to Japanese back and forth with just the press of a button (G if I remember correctly).
One thing I used to do when reading through this is to just read a whole section/chapter/conversation in Japanese and try to understand it, then swap to English and go over it again using the log/scrollback feature to see what parts of the plot I had missed. You can also do this to test your understanding and see how much you have improved.
Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear / くまクマ熊ベアー
Very cute light novel. The first light novel I actually read from front to back (at least the first volume).
The language is very simple and straightforward when it comes to grammar and pacing. Vocabulary-wise, there are a few words that are very technical/specific to videogames and isekai-style fantasy novels, but once you look them up and add them to yourmining deck, the complexity drops significantly for the rest of the book.
The story is… alright. It’s not the most exciting (at least the first volume), but it gets the job done. There’s a few points in the book where it becomes extremely boring (to me at least) as you get a few chapters where the same story you just read is being told from the point of view of another character, which really destroys the pacing. However, on the positive side, it’s a great way to review what you just read and see how much you understood it.
Overall, this is probably the easiest LN I’ve ever stumbled upon for beginners, it’s a real godsent.
Majo no Tabitabi / 魔女の旅々
魔女の旅々 is a very cute and fun read, it is relatively approachable for a light novel beginner. It is definitely a step up in complexity from Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear, both in vocabulary choice and composition. It definitely feels more like a “real” book in the kind of grammar that is used and how the narrative unfolds. It’s still not particularly complicated as far as books go, but if you struggle with Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear, you’ll have a harder time with this one. Narrative-wise I didn’t find it to be a particularly enthralling story as it’s mostly disconnected chapters with disconnected adventures. It’s basically Gulliver’s Journey but with a cute witch (which is a plus). Some of the chapters in the first volume were really good, some others were quite meh.
Still, it’s a decent read, I’d recommend it if you’re into the genre.
A note on complexity
Generally speaking, manga are easier to read than games, which are easier than visual novels to read, which are easier than light novels to read, which are easier than “actual” books/novels to read.
Obviously, exceptions exist and within all of these mediums, the difficulty levels can really spike and fluctuate a lot. There’s some incredibly complex visual novels, and some incredibly simple games, and vice versa. It is easier to find manga and games targeted toward children than it is to find light novels (usually for young teenagers) or visual novels (ususally for young adults, and often with undertones of pornographical content, unfortunately).
However, exceptions do exist.
My good friend Wareya compiled a list of web/light novels and sorted them by various parameters like kanji, vocabulary, frequency lists, etc. It’s a great resource to find new light novel material to read with accurate complexity estimates. It’s definitely worth a look.
Another interesting project with complexity and frequency lists can be found at jpdb.io. If you’re looking for reading material I recommend paying that site a visit.