Japanese the Manga Way

An Illustrated Guide to Grammar and Structure
Reviewed by Brian Hersey

(Winter 2005 Issue)

Learning Japanese is a profoundly rewarding experience. Like seeing the sunrise from atop Mt. Fuji. However, despite the
promises in the marketing blurbs on the backs of textbooks, the process requires a long, hard slog, best done under the
supervision of competent guides. Only the dishonest or deluded claim to make the process “fun” or “easy.” With the right
equipment and reliable instructors, however, the task can be made less arduous.

Wayne P. Lammers has created a remarkably well-crafted and useful tool for the beginning-to-intermediate Japanese
student in his newly published Japanese the Manga Way: An Illustrated Guide to Grammar and Structure.

Old Japan hands will remember the magazine Mangajin that used Japanese comic strips, or manga, to teach Japanese
language and culture from 1990 to 1997. Japanese the Manga Way shares much of Mangajin’s engaging format and
style. One is sort of “tricked” into feeling like one is reading a comic strip rather than a textbook, a feature that makes it an
entertaining means of casual review for advanced learners.   However, The Manga Way works because it succeeds as a
guidebook with well-organized, concise, clear and accurate explanations of Japanese grammar. Without those, all of the
cool manga in the world will not make a useful study tool.

After an introductory explanation of kana and kanji, Mr. Lammers breaks his text into “lessons” that cover key grammatical
points starting with politeness levels and then moving on to questions, particles, desu and masu forms, etc. The lessons
build upon one another, adding complexity as the text progresses. The lessons themselves are divided into grammar
points, each illustrated with one or more of the books 493 frames of manga.  So, for example, in the lesson introducing the
topic marker wa, point one explains the traditional “topic marker” role. The next point explains that the topic can be the
subject. The subsequent point distinguishes wa and ga. The following points explain that the topics can be a direct object,
or a time, or a place and so on.

The Manga Way provides more than accurate and concise explanations of fundamental grammar points. Mr. Lammers
has given a lot of thought to explaining the subtleties of Japanese to English speakers. The implications of politeness and
word choice are parsed out and the nuances clarified; almost to the point of becoming a distraction from the main
grammar point. Mr. Lammers’ numerous tips on subtle distinctions in language use, such as the tendency for Westerners
to overuse pronouns, are right on the money.  The explanations of these subtleties provide the true prize of this text,
something that in ten years of studying Japanese I have rarely seen.
The manga themselves and the book’s overall layout make The Manga Way more accessible, less intimidating, and
visually cooler than its competition. Even the best Japanese grammar guides tend to be dense and confusing. Not so with
The Manga Way. The wide range of well-selected manga used to illustrate the grammar points provide an engaging set of
illustrations. Mr. Lammers has provided a bit of the background for each frame in English so the reader knows a bit about
the characters. As any fan can tell you, manga covers a wide range of topics, from romance, to child rearing, to politics, to
history, to mystery. Thus, the stories keep one more engaged than an average grammar book.

In my experience, using manga to study Japanese, while interesting and authentic, has some inherent limitations. Using
manga necessarily adds complexity because the author must explain unrelated vocabulary, nuances and grammar points
to make the manga comprehensible. This can lead to the “drinking from a firehose” problem, i.e. trying to absorb too much
new information at once. Although Mr. Lammers does an excellent job of making the text more accessible, manga is
written for native speakers. Unlike a course or a traditional textbook, where the student’s vocabulary is systematically
developed as the text progresses, manga necessarily presents the student with lots of new vocabulary at the same time it
teaches new grammar points. Additionally, spoken Japanese and correct Japanese are not always the same (dropping
particles in spoken Japanese, for example) which might add to a student’s confusion.

Who should use this book? And how?
I recommend buying this book to anyone with a limited knowledge of Japanese heading into the JET program.  If you plan
to try to learn Japanese, this is an accessible text and it presents the key grammar points in a systematic, useful way.
One could work through lesson by lesson and would no doubt learn a great deal. However, the text has no exercises or
drills to help students practice using the new grammar patterns. As Mr. Lammers notes in the appendix, the book is no
substitute for a course. He even recommends other resources to help introductory-level students.

If one insists on using this book as an introduction to Japanese, I would suggest focusing exclusively on the central points
of each lesson the first time you go through it. The nuances and subtleties of usage can be skimmed over until later when
they will clarify and deepen the learner’s existing knowledge of the various lessons.

I suspect The Manga Way will most benefit those who have already begun their study of Japanese. While it might be a bit
much for the true beginner, this text would be a fantastic reference and review tool for those in beginning through
intermediate level (defined as the level tested in the 2-kyu exam). Manga, as its many fans note, provide the real-life
examples of actual usage for those seeking to deepen their knowledge of spoken Japanese. The Manga Way will provide
clear, detailed explanations that are not always provided. Furthermore, the format of the text, with the lessons titled by
their main grammar point, permits the learner to refer to any specific grammar issues that arise. Thus, the student
struggling with the difference between wa and ga, for example, could find a clear explanation by looking it up in the index
at the back.

This remarkably well-crafted textbook should prove indispensable to anyone in the first few years of Japanese studay as
well as serve more advanced learners as a painless entertaining means of maintaining one’s language skills.  I
unreservedly recommend it to anyone headed over to live in Japan with limited knowledge of Japanese.  Your $24.95 will
be money well-spent and, with the dollar collapsing, you can afford it.  The Manga Way will also provide ex-JETs with an
engaging way to review and maintain their Japanese.

My only complaint is, “Where was Japanese the Manga Way when I  set out for rural Fukuoka?”

Brian Hersey is a local rock climber and an attorney.

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