How to Read Japanese Manga [+ 10 Easy Manga Series for Beginners Learning Japanese]
Is your goal to read Japanese manga in its original language?
For many studying Japanese, our love of anime and manga are big reasons for our interest in the language.
I know for me, as a child, my love of Sailor Moon, CardCaptor Sakura, Dragon Ball Z, Tenchi Muyo, and Hamtaro set me on the path to speaking Japanese and finding my Japanese language exchange partner.
(Call back to the classic Toonami days, amirite?)
But reading in Japanese can seem tricky due to Japan using 3 different writing systems. Where do you even begin?
Well, manga is actually a great way to start learning to read in Japanese, and I’ll explain why here.
Table of contents
- What is Japanese Manga?
- Why Read Manga in Japanese? – With Manga, You Will Like Learning Japanese
- How to Learn Japanese to Read Manga
- Japanese Onomatopoeia: Manga Edition
- 10 Japanese Manga Series to Get Started Reading
- Where to Buy Manga in Japanese and Read Manga Online
- Read On!
This may seem obvious for the otaku (“nerds”) here looking to learn to read manga in Japanese. But for those of you who are looking for an easy way to start reading Japanese, you may need an explainer.
What is Japanese manga? Well, manga is the Japanese term for “comics.” They’re the Japanese version of Marvel, DC, and other comic books we have in English.
And if you think comics are for kids – think again. Manga has some of the greatest storytelling and art around. Just like in English, there are comics aimed at kids and adults in all sorts of genres.
What is Japanese manga called? In Japanese, it’s written as 漫画 (manga) in kanji. Nowadays, manga and anime, which are Japanese terms, are used internationally to talk about comics and cartoons from Japan. Much like ramen or karaoke have been adapted into English as well.
Is Japanese manga in English? Yes – there are tons of Japanese manga in English and many other languages. Most of them you’ll find listed below also have English translations. So if you want to use both to learn, or you’re only interested in reading manga in English, you’ll still have that option.
Reading manga is a possibility sooner than you might expect, and a much better place to start than… say… the Harry Potter novels in Japanese. (As so many language learners use those books for their first novel in a new language!)
So if you’re a relative beginner to Japanese, and looking for an easy introduction to reading in the language, this will be perfect for you.
You may hear people discourage others from learning Japanese with manga and anime. Why?
Because its exaggerated and slangy language isn’t thought to be ideal for students learning to speak realistic Japanese. And because reading in Japanese is automatically labeled as hard.
While that’s true, if you love manga and anime, then it’s a great tool to use.
See, we’re more likely to put in hard work and consistent effort to learning something when we like it. Studying a textbook is a necessary evil sometimes, but if that’s all we do, we never apply the language to the things we love.
If we aren’t using Japanese for the reasons we’re learning the language, then why bother learning it at all?
So don’t worry about the naysayers.
The other reason to read manga is because… it actually has tools to make it easier!
Most manga include what’s called furigana next to the kanji. Furigana are small kana characters written alongside the kanji to let you know how to read it.
So as long as you know how to read hiragana and katakana, the two writing systems that make up kana, then you can read manga.
The second benefit is that manga is essentially like reading a picture book. The visual cues and shorter, easier dialogue make it ideal for beginners learning to read in Japanese.
So let’s talk about strategies for how to read Japanese manga.
Reading manga in Japanese can be a challenge at first, but stick with it! The payoff is worth it.
You can plug away slow and steady at a manga above your level, sure. But that can be tedious, boring, frustrating, and demotivating.
When reading is too slow, it makes it hard to get into the story and enjoy the process. So while it’s tempting to jump into your all-time favorite series right off the bat, take it easy at first.
Pick a Japanese manga series that has a simple narrative on a topic you already kind of know something about. Some good categories to start with might be:
- Slice of life
- School life
- Romance and drama
Often, the first vocab and grammar we learn in Japanese are centered around everyday life routines like these. So picking a manga in line with that will help.
While manga is a great tool for learning Japanese, it’d be hard to learn from just that.
So it’s a good idea to maximize your study time outside of reading manga to get the most out of it when you do.
I recommend starting with the 101 core Japanese words that, besides particles, make up about 50% of all spoken language. From there, you can work up to the most common 1,000 or so – that will help you understand roughly 70% of spoken speech.
So in a Slice of Life manga, you’d understand quite a bit. Less so if you choose something like Full Metal Alchemist or CardCaptor Sakura, which include a lot of alchemy and magical words not typically used in daily life.
That said – if that’s what you love, go for it!
It’s also a good idea to have a basic grasp of Japanese grammar. At least, I recommend knowing:
- Formal and informal verb conjugation in positive present and past tense
- Formal and informal verb conjugation in negative present and past tense
- て-form, the -ing verb form in Japanese
This is enough to get started and learn more as you go. But if you’re interested, I’d check out JTest4U which has nice summaries of grammar patterns by Japanese Language Proficiency Test level.
Another great option is Tae Kim’s Japanese Grammar Guide.
JLPT N5 and N4 are easiest, and mastering those grammar patterns will go a LONG way toward reading comprehension. Once you’ve got that down, working on slang and colloquial grammar would be the next best steps for reading manga.
Other good options:
- Genki I and Genki II for traditional textbook study for N5 and N4 grammar and vocab
- Japanese Uncovered by Olly Richards, a beginner’s Japanese story that’s guided with study materials. This puts emphasis on learning through reading and is a great option if reading manga is your end goal.
- Japanese The Manga Way, a textbook which uses actual manga to help you learn grammar and structure
Rather than reading a little, stopping to look up a word, and reading some more, try to read all the way through. Or at least a few pages at a time.
You don’t have to understand every little thing to make progress. Understand what you can on the first pass. Focus on just reading as smoothly as you can.
When you’re done, think about what you read. Did you get the main idea of what was going on? How much did you understand?
If you understood more than 90%, this may be a bit too easy for you. If you understand 60%-80%, this is probably the sweet spot. Less than 60%, you may feel frustrated reading this novel, but if you’re enjoying it, keep going!
Now, go back and highlight the words you didn’t know. You can use sticky notes to annotate and add your new words, grammar, or notes. Or use a journal.
Look up the words and grammar, add them to your flashcard deck, and then reread the passage.
I recommend only adding a few words to your deck at a time (10 or so), that way you can review them without getting overwhelmed, and you’re focused on small, steady progress.
That’s right – read it until it becomes easy and those new words are now ingrained in your head.
Once you can read it smoothly and understand the majority of the content with ease, move on to your next section or book in the series.
The more you read, the easier it’ll get, so you’ll have to do less note-taking and re-reading over time. But stick with it!
I wrote a whole guide to Japanese onomatopoeia and what it is because I think onomatopoeia is SO FUN. And Japanese uses it all the time, in everyday life.
But it’s especially common in manga. So here are some common Japanese onomatopoeia to get you started:
- イヤアー, iya-: scream of terror or surprise
- ガシャーン, gashan: crash
- ドキドキ, dokidoki: heart racing, heart beating
- キラキラ, kirakira: sparkling
- コロコロ, korokoro: rolling
- ジーッ, ji-: stare
- ザーザー, za- za-: pouring rain
- チン, chin: ding
- ニコニコ, nikoniko: smile
- ピピピピ, pipipipi: beep beep beep
You’ll notice that onomatopoeia are often written in katakana. They also often repeat, are drawn out by the ー, and often have a small ッ (tsu) at the end. This ッ isn’t pronounced but is used to either mark the sudden hard ending of a sound, or for emphasis.
So you may be wondering… What’s the most popular Japanese manga to read as a beginner?
I would say most people would recommend Yotsuba&! first, as it’s many Japanese learners’ first venture into reading manga.
But if you’re wondering what is the most popular Japanese manga of all time? It’d probably be One Piece. Which also made it onto this list.
While other popular novels, like Gantz (one of the most popular Japanese horror manga), may entice you – they’re probably above your level right now. So read at your own discretion.
Here are my recommendations based on ease, reading level, interest, and popularity:
Yotsuba&! follows a 5-year-old girl who is spunky and full of energy. This may sound too young, but it’s about her family, too, and it’s one of the most popular and easy-to-read Slice of Life manga.
Also known as “Polar Bear Cafe,” this manga is a Slice of Life story following everyday conversations between a polar bear, a penguin, and a panda. It’s a fun and light read, with some comedy, and highly recommended for beginners.
How could I not mention this one? Dragonball will keep you busy for 42 volumes, and it’s considered one of the greatest manga ever. The story follows Goku from his childhood to his adult life as a Super Saiyan. I mean, come on – you know the story of this legend! “It’s over 9000!”
Doraemon is as beloved as Pikachu, Mario, or Hello Kitty in Japan. The story follows a young boy, named Nobita, and his robot Doraemon from the future. Doraemon has a magical pocket that he pulls gadgets from to help them get out of (and into) all sorts of hijinks.
Exactly as it sounds: the story of a cat who makes ramen! It’s a super cute, fun story that’s very easy to read for beginners.
I don’t feel like this one needs much of an introduction – but maybe you didn’t know there was a manga version of it! There is, and it’s very accessible for beginners, especially if you already know about Pokemon. Although be warned: many characters names are completely different in Japanese – except Pikachu!
Another slice of life manga about a cat, named Chi, and her family. This one is easy to read and follow without getting overwhelmed because the chapters are standalone. It’s also very visual, with simple conversations and lots of onomatopoeia.
My favorite!! Fighting evil by moonlight and winning love by daylight is none other than our heroine Usagi Tsukino, Sailor Moon. While this one does contain more magical elements and planetary aspects, it’s a pretty easy one to follow along with.
A sports manga about a high school kid who decides to play basketball. It’s fast paced, but easy to follow, and one of the most recommended sports manga.
I already told you this was one of the most popular of all time, with endless volumes to keep you occupied. The story follows Luffy and his pirate crew, the Straw Hat Pirates. Luffy’s looking for the greatest treasure, “One Piece,” so he can become the King of the Pirates.
Okay, but now the tough question: Where to read manga in Japanese?
Well, let’s start with where you can buy Japanese manga. These sites are great options:
Even regular Amazon carries many of these manga in Japanese, but they can be a bit more expensive than other sites.
But where to read Japanese manga online? ComicWalker is a free site with manga in English and Japanese. You do have to have some knowledge of Japanese to navigate it, though.
This article from Anime Expo lists more options for reading manga online!
Which manga will you start with? No matter what you choose, reading is a fantastic way to improve your Japanese and have fun while you’re at it. Give it your best!
When you’re ready, here are some other articles to keep improving your Japanese: