Conan
Photo: Shogakukan

6 best manga for learning Japanese

These comics make for an easy and engaging read to boost your Japanese language skills

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Written by
Emma Steen
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It’s one thing to know how to speak Japanese – even basic conversation skills can get you quite far when it comes to making new friends at a busy yokocho. Reading Japanese, on the other hand, is a completely different game. Written Japanese consists of three separate scripts including the complicated kanji characters. Luckily, learning how to read Japanese is far less daunting when you’ve got endless genres of manga suitable for all age groups and interests. 

Beginners are often advised to start off with manga written for children, where the text is heavier on hiragana than tricky kanji. However, you’re just as likely to make progress with manga for more advanced readers, where gripping storylines could become the main motivator to pick up Japanese. Don’t know where to start? Here’s a list of easy-going titles that will help boost your reading abilities as well your confidence.

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Doraemon
Photo: Shogakukan

Doraemon

You can’t have a list of beginner’s manga without including the iconic robot cat Doraemon. This classic manga was created by Fujiko F Fujio in the 1960s. It chronicles the story of Nobita – an endearing if not somewhat hopeless schoolboy – and a robot cat called Doraemon who was sent from the future to help him with school and his friends. 

With each chapter of the manga dedicated to a quirky new invention that Doraemon pulls out of his bottomless pocket, Nobita and his friends find themselves in increasingly amusing predicaments.

Detective Conan
Photo: Shogakukan

Detective Conan

Shinichi Kudo is a high-achieving high school student who is accustomed to helping the local police crack cases and catch criminals in his spare time. Kudo is exceptionally smart for a boy his age, so when a crime syndicate called the Black Organisation get wind of his crime solving talents, they attempt to poison him.

Instead of killing Kudo, however, the substance merely transforms him into the body of an elementary school student, though his memory and quick-thinking brain remain unaffected. The series may be a manga marketed towards children, but its consistent storylines that balance light-hearted comic relief with clever, gripping mysteries will surely delight fans of Sherlock.

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Shirokuma Cafe
Photo: Shirokuma Cafe

Shirokuma Cafe

This adorable slice-of-life manga is centered on a polar bear and his organic café catering to humans and animals alike. The polar bear enjoys serving and chatting to people from all walks of life, but a clumsy panda and a cynical penguin are his most regular customers.

From dealing with heartbreak to trips to the beach, joining in on the misadventures of these charming characters feel as therapeutic as it is entertaining. Because of the manga’s simple characters and short texts, it’s a title suitable for readers who are attempting their very first manga.

Death Note
Photo: Shueisha

Death Note

With its intriguing premise and dark themes, Death Note redefined the thriller genre for manga fans when its first volume was released in Weekly Shonen Jump in 2003. It’s a story that’s been translated into every language from Portuguese to Chinese and adapted into numerous films and TV shows, but the original manga hasn’t lost its appeal nearly two decades after its debut. 

The concept behind ‘Death Note’ is relatively simple – by simply writing down a name on the pages, the owner of the notebook has the ability to control exactly when and how a person will die. The cat-and-mouse chase that ensues however, is a far more challenging and complicated game that will leave readers tearing through the pages at record speed.

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Kiyo in Kyoto
Photo: Kiyo in Kyoto

Kiyo in Kyoto

Written and illustrated by Aiko Koyama, this mouthwatering manga does more than just nourish your appetite – it gives you a rare look at the secret lives of geiko (the preferred term for geisha in Kyoto) and maiko (a geiko in training) in modern-day Kyoto.

The story is centered on teenage Kiyo who has moved to the historical city from Aomori to work as the resident cook. While in town one day, she bumps into her childhood friend Sumire, who tells Kiyo that she is training to be a maiko. As both girls learn to hone their craft, readers gain a deeper understanding of the ancient custom of geiko houses and Kyoto’s culture. You can also watch an anime adaptation of the manga for free online via NHK World On Demand.

Nodame Cantabile
Photo: Kodansha

Nodame Cantabile

Nodame is a talented pianist who’s often described as gifted by many of her music teachers. As a first-year student at one of the top music conservatories in the country, Nodame has a bright future ahead of her. There’s just one problem: she’s a free spirit and seems incapable of taking care of herself.

Nodame’s performance can be inconsistent, which costs her opportunities that are vital to her future. Chiaki Shinichi, on the other hand, is an ambitious no-nonsense twenty-one-year-old with dreams of becoming the world’s greatest conductor. Though he is initially turned off by Nodame, who is the polar opposite of him, Chiaki finds himself involuntarily pulled into her antics.

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